Yerkes observatory site to become spa resort, a victim of light pollution?

Yerkes Pillar

The photo is of my nephew in front of Yerkes, an observatory which houses the world's largest refracting telescope. This pillar appears to be decorated with creatures of the zodiac. While on our eclipse trip, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland told us that this beautiful observatory near my family's Wisconsin home was up for sale. Today I learned that the University of Chicago has decided to sell Yerkes observatory and the surrounding land to a developer. The developer plans to build resort and spa on part of the land.

I don't know what will become of the telescope, but if you find yourself in southeastern Wisconsin and Yerkes is still open to the public, it is worth a visit. Our Scottish astronomer friend called it the Taj Mahal of astronomy. Albert Einstein once said that he would rather visit Yerkes than Niagara falls. The two main dome buildings sit on a grassy hill which is surrounded by woods and overlooks Lake Geneva, a small deep blue glacial lake. During one cloudy November leonid meteor storm watch, we were taken inside for a semi-private tour. The enormous refractor fits the stereotype of what a telescope should look like. Yerkes observatory is approximately the same age as Lick observatory, but Yerkes seems to be much more ornate. I'm reminded of Jules Vernes or H.G. Wells' vision of Victorian technological art. The enormous wooden floor under the dome of the 40 inch refractor rises so smoothly that it feels as though you are standing still and the building is shrinking. But when the dome rotates, it feels like you and the telescope are rotating.

I certainly hope the developers are able to maintain the buildings as a public science education resource. Unfortunately, the location for this observatory is now severly affected by light pollution and air pollution from Chicago and other large nearby cities. If it's true that exburbs, including those adjacent to Yerkes, are approaching the peak of a real-estate bubble, perhaps in 10-15 years a science organization can buy the observatory buildings back for an inflation-adjusted million or less. In the meantime, I hope the University of Chicago wisely uses the $8 million generated from the sale.

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