In order to give my mind and body a break from all this stress I decided to swallow my tears for a while and head up to campus yesterday evening for the weekly open house at the Dearborn Observatory...something I'd been looking forward to since before I got here. The ivy-covered domed building houses a beautiful old 18 1/2 inch refracting telescope. Its lenses, the largest in the world at the time it was built, were made prior to 1861 originally for the University of Mississippi, but with the onset of the civil war these plans were scrapped and the giant lenses sat idle until purchased by the Chicago Astronomical Society in 1863.
The finished telescope began its life in the midwest on the University of Chicago campus, but after the great Chicago fire and later the bankruptcy of the university, it was moved to Northwestern. In 1939 the entire observatory...all 2700 tons of it...was moved a final 644 feet to its present location in order to make room for NU's new Technological Institute building. In a pamphlet about the observatory I picked up in the lobby it says:
"Twenty-six men using jacks moved it for three months at a top speed of 20 inches per minute. It was in motion for a total of seven hours."
WOW! What a job to imagine!
The weather all day had been as clear and glorious as you could possibly imagine...one of those idyllic late-summer days of blue skies cooly lit by golden sunshine and freshened by the merest hint of a breeze. When twilight began however, thin splotchy clouds rolled in and eliminated any real chance of having a star party. Still, the observatory is opened every friday rain or shine for tours so I decided to go anyway if only to scope out the building and see if I could get any information about the possibilities for working with the telescope.
When I arrived there were a few others in the dome listening to a student worker talk about the telescope and its observing history. The dome was open and the room was bathed in red light (red lights are used during observing sessions to help preserve dark-adapted vision), but it must have just been for effect because, as you can see in the following photos, the sky was still blanketed with clouds. Still the sight of the giant refractor reaching towards a small slit of exposed sky was utterly arresting and I found myself almost praying that there'd be some way I might involve myself with its operation someday.
Though the scope in its lifetime has made significant contributions to the early study of Jupiter, the discovery of hundreds of new double stars (including the first observation of Sirius B in 1862--the first ever observation of a white dwarf), and the proper motion and parallax of stars, it is now used primarily for public outreach events and, indeed, anyone in the NU community with an interest is welcome to train to work there! The student giving the tour last night was a chemical engineering major and he said that there are people from all over campus involved "even a couple art majors." I believe that, as with most student jobs on campus, employment is conditioned upon one's eligibility for work study (which I didn't qualify for this year...damn savings!), so I may have to wait for my chance till next year...we'll see.
The tour guide moved the scope around a couple of times just to illustrate its operation. It was obviously built waaay before computers had even been dreamed of and at one time moved using a complicated system of pullys and cranks, but today all that old equipment is gone and the thing swivels around with the flick of a remote control switch...a little bit of a disappointment in some ways... how fun it would have been to see the thing work using all the old mechanisms! It was also quite different to imagine spending a night observing with only a small portion of sky visible at any one time. I'm so used to being outside underneath an enormous ceiling of stars and picking objects to view on a whim using readily visible constellations and other star patterns to zoom in on a distant object.
Still my mouth was watering at the thought of seeing Jupiter through such a large refractor!...the detail that must be visible...even polluted by so much glare from the city. While walking back to my car in fact I did get a glimpse of the planet peeking furtively through the clouds and haze and almost turned around to see if they'd be able to pick it up in the scope, but sadly it still looked a bit low in the sky to even be viewable above the high walls of the observatory and would likely still be behind some trees anyway. I'm sure I'll be back soon enough on a better night.