Thursday, July 10, 2008

Trouble At Yerkes Observatory

Oh, Trouble, set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much, too much for me

Oh, Trouble, can’t you see
You’re eating my heart away
And there’s nothing much left of me

    I’ve drunk your wine
    You have made your world mine
    So won’t you be fair
    So won’t you be fair

    I don’t want no more of you
    So won’t you be kind to me
    Just let me go where
    I’ll have to go there

Oh, Trouble, move away
I have seen your face
And it’s too much for me today

Oh, Trouble, can’t you see
You have made me a wreck
Now won’t you leave me in my misery . . .

Not too long ago I described myself as something like a supervillain without a supervillain’s fortune. I still suspect this is a pretty accurate description of me, but trouble these days is a widespread thing.

Yerkes observatory is having quite a lot of trouble, too. This is intriguing to me because Yerkes would make a great supervillain’s lair.

Yerkes observatory is more than just an observatory. Yerkes was the first modern observatory ever built, the first observatory designed from the ground-up to be not just a shelter for a telescope but rather a complete center for astrophysics research. It isn’t just a dome, the observatory complex includes lab spaces, technical workshops, living quarters and other facilities. (A complete and entertaining—big science is funded by rich people and rich people bring not just money to their patronage, but oddball politics and social maneuvering—history of Yerkes is: Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution)

Almost from the start, however, astronomers and physicists didn’t much like Wisconsin winters. And, compared to mountain-top locations, Wisconsin skies are not the best for serious observing.

Yerkes set the style for future observatories—big glass and wide-ranging support facilities. But the dynamics of observing quickly shifted the world of astronomy west to locations of high elevation that delivered steady seeing and hundreds of clear nights per year.

The University of Chicago has tried to sell Yerkes over the last decade or so. Every deal has fallen through because developers simply cannot run Yerkes as a research institution and every deal has included re-development plans for the land surrounding the observatory which Wisconsin residents are unhappy with. I believe UIC currently is hoping to continue to run Yerkes as a kind of science ‘out-reach’ facility, doing tours and tourist stuff, classes and photo-ops.

But I suspect, sooner rather than later, as has happened, sadly, to a great many lesser observatories, Yerkes will be sold and ‘de-constructed’—I don’t imagine the main dome and telescope will be discarded (although a great many observatories and telescopes have been destroyed over the years). I imagine the land around the main building will be turned into housing developments and the main building and telescope will become simply a tourist attraction.


But if I were to acquire—through supervillain guile or whatever—a supervillain fortune, I have resolved to save not just myself, but also Yerkes observatory.

I will preserve and subsidize the facilities as originally designed, as an astrophysics research center. A great deal of astrophysics nowadays is built around computers and scientists can sit at computer screens as comfortably in Wisconsin as anywhere else. (Well, given an appropriate heating budget and an appropriate support staff they can.)

Just as Yerkes re-defined astronomy as astrophysics more than a century ago, with proper funding I think Yerkes could re-define contemporary astrophysics by bringing it into line with Wolfram’s “new kind of science” approach to research.

And, while the scientists are working away in their laboratories, I will be in my office somewhere deep in the heart of the complex plotting away at my supervillain schemes. And sometimes late at night I will take my supervillain-type beautiful sidekick into the main dome and raise the floor to the big refractor’s eyepiece and dazzle her with big glass views of the heavens.

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