Observatory 14: Mount Wilson


September 2, 2018, was a cloudy Sunday morning in Los Angeles. I was really tired. I had been on the road for close to five weeks, a personal record, and it was taking a toll. As an introvert I might expect to have been energized by so much time alone, but that isn’t really how it always works. In particular, I had never been away from my wife for so long, and I missed her terribly. I had seen none of the folks I usually engage with for all that time, too, and I was kind of lonely. I was on a great adventure to see some of the greatest American observatories ever, but I got up thinking, “If I have to go look at another damn telescope today, I’m gonna scream.”

That wasn’t anything I had expected for this trip. It was a sabbatical, after all, and it was supposed to be rejuvenating and energizing and whatnot. The trip was designed around my favorite hobby, one that I regularly turn to when I want to experience a sense of awe, and for the most part it was delivering that. At the same time, I was really feeling homesick and overstimulated. So I gave serious thought to skipping my scheduled trip to Mount Wilson.

This is how I recorded it in my journal a few days later:

I actually gave thought to blowing off Mt. Wilson. I’ve seen a LOT of telescopes and I was tired and whelmed. But this is what I had come so far to see and do! So I went, and glad I did.

My journal, September 5, 2018

One of the things that helped me get over the hump, as it were, was watching the worship service from Catoctin Presbyterian Church, the congregation I serve as pastor. We had been doing a live stream for about a year before I went on sabbatical, and that continued a little sporadically while I was away (as I was the primary tech driver for the project). This particular Sunday, they did have a broadcast. Being the first Sunday of the month, there was communion, and my wonderful wife and colleague Molly was the preacher and celebrant (the minister leading the sacrament). It’s hard to remember that we haven’t always been savvy with videoconferencing, but watching the service was about the first time I’d seen Molly since I’d been traveling, and it did my heart good. So, too, to see and hear my church family. When it came to the sacrament, I recorded in my journal:

I dipped my bagel in my coffee as they did communion.

My journal, September 5, 2018

Again, at the time virtual communion was entirely unknown and to some extent unthinkable, so I didn’t count it as fully communing, but it was the next best thing, and it made me feel connected again. This, I think, as much as anything, gave me the stillness of soul and clarity of purpose to make the trip to Mount Wilson that day.

Up the Hill

I was surprised when I mapped the drive up to Mount Wilson from my flat in Glendale, as it’s about 10 miles as the crow flies, but 27 miles driving and, according to Google Maps, 48 minutes travel time. You might think that after ascending so many mountains I would have figured out that it isn’t quick or easy, but I guess I’m stubborn that way. As I set off, with plenty of time to get to the top before the 1:00 p.m. tour times, it was still pretty overcast. The driving was easy on the broad highways of Los Angeles, until the turnoff to head up into the hills of national forest land, then it was two lanes and switchbacks the rest of the way. Hence, 48 minutes for 10 miles. About two thirds the way up, the weather broke suddenly for the better as the clouds fell away. No, seriously, I drove up out of the clouds and could look over the top of them! It was spectacular.

Not long after, I reached the summit parking area, which is surrounded by antennae of various types. It was not clearly marked where one ought to park for scientific geekiness as opposed to mountain biking or hiking, so I took first available. It was a short walk to the Cosmic Cafe where you buy your parking pass (if you haven’t already done so in the lowlands), regardless of your purpose on the mountain, and also tour passes for the observatory (to say nothing of food). Both passes were pretty reasonably priced. Standing around in the pavilion of the cafe, there were posters declaring the 150th anniversary of George Ellery Hale’s birth, 1868-2018, a point I had not realized in all my preparations and learning. How cool!

Eventually a group of about a dozen other nerds gathered for the 1pm tour, and we set out. Our docent was a retired engineer whose name is now far gone from my memory, but he was very personable and knowledgeable, as you would want in a docent. The campus is very pretty and quite a natural setting, bustling with evergreens and wide views of the valley below. It isn’t as carefully crafted as Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, which seems to have been designed for visitors, but it is more like walking in a national park that happens to be home to a world class science outpost, which is what it is, of course.

Some of the first knowledge imparted was about how Hale selected the site, and how they built it up, and how they brought the equipment and instruments up the mountain with mules and carts. Not even kidding. The project started in 1904, so cars and trucks weren’t much of a thing yet, and this was pretty remote territory at that point. So naturally it took years before Hale and Co. could get any science done. This really isn’t unusual in the realm of astronomy, the long haul of time and materials in remote places to build a bigger telescope. It’s still happening in the Atacama Desert of Chile and the Australian Outback. There’s even talk of building a telescope on the far side of the moon, which would take the pattern to a whole new level. But I digress.

Starting with the Sun

The 150-foot solar observatory tower

There are several observatories on the Mount Wilson campus, actually. The first we saw were the 60-foot and 150-foot solar observatories, the white heads of which both towered above the trees. Hale was himself a solar observer of some renown, so it isn’t surprising that he set up a sun tower at the new site. (If you haven’t been following along, and after two and a half years, there’s no reason for me to expect you would, the old site was the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, where Hale had organized the construction of the world’s largest telescope of 1897, the 40″ refractor. Before that he had a home observatory outside Chicago. The sky conditions in both places were regularly pretty poor, so this California mountain was a huge upgrade.)

The way the solar towers work is there is a little dome at the top with a mirror and clockwork that tracks the sun. The light is reflected down a central shaft into a control room/laboratory where the image is projected and can be measured and recorded and whatnot. Astronomers could and can take spectra by sending the light through a prism or diffraction grating to spread it out. That gives you data to figure out what elements are present in the sun, among other things.

So we went to the lab of the 150-foot tower (actually the third solar telescope on the mountain) and met Sam, a solar astronomer who works there. They still do science there, recording and measuring sunspots and spectra and such. It’s not real cutting edge work these days, but this lab has some of the longest continuous records of solar observations at a single site in existence, and the early work done there really was groundbreaking. You can read more about it on the Mount Wilson website. It’s worth a read. I just learned some things I had missed or forgotten that raised Mr. Hale some more in my estimation, which was already pretty high.

There is a small museum near the 150-foot tower that we stopped to see. We didn’t spend very long there, though. They have a variety of documents, letters, photos, and a diorama of the observatory campus. It would have been interesting to spend some time there, but we had other fish to fry.

The Big Hooker

Most of the Hooker optical tube and some of its closed yoke mount.

The centerpiece that I was most eager to see is the 100″ Hooker Reflector Telescope. This was the third “World’s Largest Telescope” that Hale was responsible for bringing into existence and the one that produced some of the most shocking discoveries in modern astronomy. Gaining first light in late 1917, the Hooker Telescope was at the same time a remarkable technological achievement and a remarkably flawed instrument. The closed yoke mount looks like a tank or a battleship (your preference), and the cage of the optical tube is impressively large. Coming as it did early in the industrial age when steam and mules were still major power sources, the mass and precision of the instrument is considerable.

The 100″ primary mirror is its greatest technological advance and also its greatest technological hindrance. No one had ever cast such a large piece of glass successfully, and it took quite a few attempts and several different contractors to actually do it. That they managed it at all was no small feat, but they only just barely managed. The glass is terrible quality, riddled with bubbles. We actually got to see a small section of it, and it’s stunningly bad! Bubbles in your mirror make it extremely difficult to get a smooth polished surface without pits and divots. Bubbles also mean the thermal and strength properties of the mirror are inconsistent, which leads to inconsistent expansion and contraction from warming or cooling, which causes distortions in the surface, which causes distortions in the image. Inconsistent stresses can also lead to things like cracking or shattering, which you don’t generally want for your mirror. Amazingly, the technicians were able to figure and polish the mirror smooth enough to do its job (within a millionth of an inch!), and it hasn’t cracked yet.

The 100″ primary mirror (the green part) is a frothy mess, full of bubbles! Skilled technicians made it work, though.

So they got it to work, and it turned out to be pretty good. Hale did start making plans immediately for a bigger and better telescope (the 200″ at Palomar), but the 100″ didn’t go to waste. This is the telescope used by Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason to discover, first, that the universe is bigger than just our galaxy, that there are in fact many galaxies, and second, that this much-larger-than-imagined universe is expanding. These were both radically revolutionary ideas in the 1930s. Other sites cover this much more thoroughly and intelligently than I can here, so I encourage you to learn about it if you aren’t familiar. My own connection to this is that when my dad passed on to me my grandfather’s homemade 6″ telescope, he told me how Grandpa would observe the Great Andromeda Nebula as a favorite target. This “nebula,” as it was known before Hubble, is now known as the Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy and bigger neighbor to the Milky Way. It’s the same galaxy that Hubble and Humason observed, discovering it was over 2 million lightyears away, when everything else being observed was on the order of tens of thousands of lightyears distant. So Andromeda is a favorite of mine, too.

Anyway, our docent was telling us about Hubble and the telescope and all while we were under the dome, which was open, and it was awesome. Meanwhile, I want to tell you about three things going on besides the telescope and the lesson, just because I think they were unusual. First, while we were there, they closed the shutters in the dome. This was pretty cool, and I got video of it. It’s faster and quieter than you might imagine. They closed the shutters because the sun was starting to shine on the telescope, which you never want, and the sun was warming up the inside of the dome. Both were unwanted because of item of interest #2, they were preparing to have a soiree in the dome later that evening. There would be jazz music, and guests (donors?) would get to look through the Hooker. So they wanted the dome to be cool and the telescope to be in thermal equilibrium for a good viewing experience. I had never thought of having a jazz party in an observatory dome, but I can’t think of anything much cooler than that. (Nerd!) This was so exciting it must be what led to item of interest #3. While the docent was telling us about Hubble, I looked around a bit. There is a visitors’ gallery half a floor down from the observing floor where we were, with large glass windows so guests can watch what is happening on the observing floor without getting close enough to mess anything up. In a reverse of that, I noticed down in the gallery there was a woman sitting on a man’s lap, and they were making out like crazy. Astronomy is so hot! Definitely not something I expected to see in the hallowed science halls.

We got to mill around in the dome for a while and even to touch the mighty Hooker. The docent showed us the bad mirror glass, leading to the picture above. I took many a selfie in front of this important instrument. Then we made our way outside heading toward the next tour stop. On that way there’s a spot where a famous picture was taken of Albert Einstein when he came to visit Mount Wilson and see (and use?) the great 100″ reflector. So naturally, we all took selfies on the spot. Einstein wasn’t keen on the idea of an expanding universe, and for many years dragged his feet in accepting it as true, although he eventually caved. He would have flipped completely at the discovery in 1997 that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. At any rate, it was kind of exciting to stand where your heroes have trod. It’s part of what made this a pilgrimage for me as opposed to just a big sightseeing trip.

4, 3, 2, …

Our last stop was to see the 60″ reflector. This telescope also was once the “world’s largest,” but now it is more like a forgotten middle child. It doesn’t even have a cool benefactor name, just “the 60-inch.” It was the successor to the Yerkes 40″ refractor and was itself succeeded by the 100″ Hooker. It was also cutting edge technology in its day and is still a formidable instrument for most people on the planet. I, for one, would love to spend a clear night with it. But these days public outreach is its main job as opposed to significant science.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

George E. Hale was responsible for the largest telescope in the world four times in a row, and now I’ve seen them all. Two of them are on Mount Wilson. They run Yerkes 40″, Mt. Wilson 60″, Mt. Wilson 100″, Palomar 200″. I saw them Yerkes-Palomar-MW100-Mw60. Consequently, by the time I got to the 60″ – five feet in diameter, mind you – it looked tiny! But the docent was very good and all the scopes in their context are quite impressive.

My journal, September 5, 2018
The venerable but nameless 60″ reflector. It may be obsolete, but I wouldn’t kick it out of bed.

Indeed, the docent acknowledged that seeing the 60″ after the 100″ does a disservice to the smaller scope, which was and is, as I mentioned, a remarkable instrument. We got to see the mirror glass on this one, too, and it is beautiful and clear, as it should have been. One fascinating part of the mounting system for this scope is that it rests in a pool of mercury that holds about 95% of its weight! This is a clever and very stable engineering solution except for the part about mercury being poisonous, which was apparently not well understood at the time. The optical tube for the scope is like steel girders, like an oversized Erector Set, for those old enough to remember such.

When I think of the dome for this one-time champion instrument, it seems kind of homey and rustic, like a cabin in the woods where you might spend a weekend. This is odd, because when I just looked at my photos I see that it is actually a metal framework and not the wood that I was imagining. Still, there was something cozy about the dome, especially after the lofty grandeur of Palomar and Hooker. I imagine that the guys that built it and used the 60″ didn’t think of it in those terms. I suppose for them it was a cutting edge outpost in the wilderness of science and the wilderness of California.


That brought the tour to an end. It was a little anticlimactic, but I was satisfied. It had turned out to be a beautiful warm day, and after a few hours of science and fresh air I was tuckered out. I was also pretty hungry, as that bagel was the last thing I’d eaten. So I made my way back to the Cosmic Cafe and got a lovely pastrami panini and a cup of coffee, if I recall, which were very good and not too expensive. They had no swag at all, which was very disappointing. When I got home I ordered a t-shirt of my own design with my own picture (see top of the post) from Cafe Press, and that sufficed.

I am so very glad I dragged myself out that morning. I have seen the four great Hale telescopes and more, and I overcame the lethargy that would have led to regret. In my journal, I wrote this:

I began to realize that I was having an experience like what I would expect had I done the Camino in Spain. Long and far and alone and awesome and exhausting.

My journal, September 5, 2018

Pilgrimage is a challenging road, filled with long slogs, many hardships, and in the best cases moments of brilliance. It is in persevering through the slogs and hardships that we put ourselves in a position to receive the brilliant. Whether it comes or not, we will be stronger and richer for the experience. That’s the theory, and it seems to have paid off this time.

I had a couple other smaller adventures before the end of my time in L.A. I had lunch in Pasadena with a church friend from Catoctin who was on extended stay in the area. I went to visit the headquarters of the Planetary Society, also in Pasadena. And I got to spend some more time with friend Steve Craig who bookmarked my sojourn by getting me back to the train station. Maybe I’ll tell you about those before I’m done with all this. Also, remind me to tell you about the guy at the gas station near LAX. But I was looking forward to the next leg of the sabbatical with great anticipation. Molly was coming to join me in Albuquerque, NM! Stay tuned.

The Grand Tour

If you have been following this journey of mine at all you know it started with a few short loop trips and then culminated in a coast-to-coast-and-top-to-bottom train trip that I refer to as the Grand Tour. You may have seen my map, my photo dumps, and other summary material by now. I’d like to tell you how it came together, more or less.

Y’all ready for this? Um, no.

One of the odd things to me about the Grand Tour is how elusive it was, how resistant to prediction and preparation. Now, if you have read any of this blog, you know that exact preparation is not really my strong suit any way, but I am capable of it from time to time. But the Grand Tour defied my best efforts in many regards. In the months leading up to my sabbatical I had to come up with enough of a plan to secure approval from the session (the congregation’s ruling board) and the presbytery (regional governing body), as well as procuring funding. In this I was successful, plotting the many observatories I wanted to visit, considering location, historical significance, scientific significance, and diversity of electromagnetic wavelengths being studied, as well as several Christian retreat centers adjacent to some of the scientific sites. I was able to imagine well enough a tour where I could travel by train to these various sites in windows that would allow me to catch their often very limited public tours. In fact, I had more than one plan for reaching most of my desired destinations. Further, I was able to construct a reasonable budget for the whole business. I put together a package comprehensive enough that it won the necessary approvals and members of the church made offerings of about 160% of my budget! So I can plan stuff, see.

Nevertheless, whenever I tried to get more specific about the tour, to really nail down where I was going to be when, the complexity of it was overwhelming. Perhaps it’s just the way my mind and spirit work, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the thing to settle down to a single equilibrium state, as it were. So, while I continued trying to do, other milestones started popping up, and I just had to roll with it. The last session meeting before sabbatical came, and no Grand Tour plan. Sabbatical began, and no Grand Tour plan. The Green Bank Star Quest came, and no Grand Tour plan. So I went on that first leg, knowing I still had time. Then I went on the second leg to NY-MA-NJ, knowing there was still time.

Here, let’s pick up from my journal entry for August 4, 2018, which begins with a description of my trip to the Allegheny Observatory and visit with my dad for his birthday at the end of July. Let’s listen in…

Had started arranging the Grand Tour earlier that week [July 23 or so], including a retreat at the Siena Center in Racine, WI, for Aug. 5-11 and the night program at Yerkes Observatory on Aug. 13 – looking through the 40″ Clark refractor. Got home Monday [July 30] and Molly said, when is your retreat? I said August 5. “Oh, Sunday,” she said. “What? No!” I said. “Oh yes, Sunday is August 5,” she said. “#@¶*!,” I said. As things had started to come together, you see, they had changed from “go to Yerkes and come home” to “go to Yerkes and keep going!” That meant I had 4 days to get ready for a six-week trip!

This is madness! This. Is. SABBATICAL!! (Kicks your settled ass down the pit.)

So here I am on a train to Chicago!

On the Capital Limited from Harpers Ferry to Chicago. In coach.

Pilgrimage is like that

And so it went. Chicago was the hub before getting to Racine for a week’s retreat. After the retreat, I spent another several days in Racine, much of which was spent making travel arrangements to get to New Orleans, get a place to stay, get a car, etc. While I was in New Orleans, I spent a lot of time arranging my travel to Arizona. While I was in Arizona I planned my trip to L.A., and while in L.A. I planned my travel to New Mexico. It was madness in some ways, and it took a lot of time and energy that I would have expected to be spending on reading the writings of the mystics and such, or praying, or seeing the less geeky sites, or just resting, or what have you. I do regret that a bit. But the funny thing is that everything fell into place just when it needed to. Particularly, I found nice places to stay at reasonable prices in usually expensive markets and in interesting residential, non-touristy neighborhoods. I had plenty of time for my observatory tours and got to most of the ones I wanted to see. I was able to stay pretty close to my budget. The other funny thing is how ironic it is that I had to do so very much planning the whole time when I always insist that I am no good at details and planning and that sort of thing. I don’t know, is that ironic or just a life lesson?

Let me wrap this up with some more from my journal from later that same day. Having reflected on my experiences and lack thereof in prayer during the sabbatical so far, I went on to record…

… So I prayed before bed Thursday night [8/2]. Again, [as during prayer at Miller Chapel in Princeton,] gratitude upon gratitude! Awareness of the rarity of this opportunity and experience, and its sacredness. I prayed, thankful for the privilege (with all that word carries these days); for protection for me and my family while we are apart; for providence while I’m on the road, that things will continue to fall into place; and for a pilgrim’s heart – that I not fall prey to tourism, but make this a truly sacred journey for the glory of God. This last became a powerful theme and led me at last to pray for great peace of heart, that I may be open to all who are around me and to opportunities to glorify God at every turn.

Last night I prayed with Molly before bed, and prayed much the same way. I feel like it really helped me in reframing this departure. I am a pilgrim now.

At the same time, I will be away from home for longer than I ever have been. I’lll be away from Molly for longer than I ever have been. I’d be lying if I said I’m not anxious about that. But why? Not any fear about our relationship. Just being away from home and heart for so long. Having things so unsettled for so long. Being out with strangers in strange lands for so long.

But then, isn’t that exactly what pilgrimage is about? Perhaps facing this, more than all else, is a lesson worth carrying back to the Church. Well, let’s maybe see how it turns out before we write that sermon, but yeah, keep it in the hopper for sure.

I did preach that when I got back. Might be time to revisit that theme of leaving the comfort of home for the wilds of the next destination where God is leading us. If for no other reason than I need to remind myself how good that can be.

Enjoy the ride.

10/21 – Making Sense of Things

I’ve been reading headlines and social media the last couple days. I don’t claim to be well informed about all the big topics, but between the big topics and the small topics, I find it very difficult to comprehend what people are thinking, or more to the point, why they are thinking it. I concluded this morning that I understand quantum physics better than what is going on in the world these days. No need to go into details, but nothing seems to make sense.

I also have been reading daily devotional emails from Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular contemplative Christian writer. The contemplative Christian tradition is also challenging to understand at times, especially for the Western thinker. We have been raised to think in categories, to separate things into “this” or “that,” and then to define our terms of “thisness” and “thatness.” We organize things and classify things and make decisions about whether a thing goes here or there. And that’s key, the word “or.” It’s a binary decision, “either/or.” But the contemplatives and mystics write about “and,” and about wholeness, and connection, and transcending “either/or” to find “both/and.” They seek after and often experience unity with God that radically changes their perception of everything around them, so that they seek and experience unity with them, too. They are not afraid to say that God lives in light and in darkness, and that we do, too. They are not afraid of brokenness, because they understand that God fills that space. They don’t have a compulsion to make everything right, because they know that God is in the midst of every situation. Things, situations, relationships, humans all become both earthy and heavenly, both broken and sacred, both sinful and redeemed, both material and spiritual, both mundane and holy.

A third stream in my consciousness comes from a book I read on my Grand Tour called Stars Beneath Us: Seeking God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace, a physics professor who is also an ordained pastor. He writes about his own spiritual journey that started with a deep Christian faith that fell apart in the face of experience and science because it didn’t match reality as he perceived it. He went through years of agnosticism and not quite atheism, and then back to faith through the same reality and science that had challenge the faith of his youth. But when he came back to faith it was quite a different shape than that of his traditional upbringing. Any way, in the book, he points to Job as a model – the book, not just the man. Job lived a righteous and prosperous life, but God allowed Satan to test Job by destroying just about everything he had or was. Job writhed in his suffering trying to make sense of it and demanded an audience with God to get justice, or at least understanding. In the end, God shows up but never answers Job’s questions about the meaning of it all. God just leads Job on a journey, showing him all the corners of the cosmos where Job had never been, never considered, and never dared to go. And in all those place, God was there, and God delighted in what was there. God even loves the Leviathan, the mythical chaos monster of the deep! In the end, Job is satisfied, not because of logical answers, but because he realized that God is God, and “it’s not all about you.” Wallace offers, among other things, that we need to go on such a journey, too.

So as I am trying to make sense of this world, where people do absurd things for money, power, fame, rebellion, or spite, I turn to the cosmos. I think about the wonders of the universe, the really beautiful and really weird things going on in spacetime. I think about how we have come to know so much and still know so little. I have long had hopes that we would become a spacefaring species, colonizing worlds and systems and galaxies. Now I have less hope that we will achieve it and more doubts about whether we should inflict ourselves on the cosmos. I wish that more people would have a sense of the cosmos, like what Job got to see and what I think I have seen. Whether or not we ever get to Mars, God is there, delighting in its ice and dust. We may never know if there is life in the subsurface oceans of half a dozen worlds in our solar system, but in each of those oceans, God is there, rejoicing in the richness of the environment. Even if most people never know about what happens when two neutron stars collide, God is there, using dead stars to create worlds’ worth of gold, silver, platinum, and all manner of heavy elements, just to have them blown into space. We can’t see the primordial chaos right after the Big Bang from which all that we can see and experience was brought to birth, but God is there, maybe dancing and singing our universe into existence.

We are living in chaotic times, but God lives in chaos and brings forth new kinds of order. We live in a day when human affection seems to have run cold, but God promises to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh once more. We struggle with one another about what is just, what is fair, what is right, what is kind, but God sends the sun and the rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and God will hold those with means and status and privilege to account for how they treat the poor, the outcast, and the bereft.

Humility before the cosmos and humility before the Creator and humility before our fellow creatures are common threads I find in my (admittedly scant) study of both science and contemplative theology. Faithfulness is another; faithfulness to the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of our species in science, and faithfulness to experiencing and expressing the absolute love of God for all creatures among the mystics. So I think these will be my guideposts for navigating these days. I will try to be humble, to learn, to be faithful, to love. I will try to work for change.


A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.


Not Quite an Observatory: The University of Arizona Mirror Lab

My first tour in Arizona was the >University of Arizona Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab<, and you can see my pictures and comments at >this link.<

By this point I was becoming aware of the number of places I was visiting that pushed the limits of technology, knowledge, and skill for the sake of science. The Yerkes 40″ is the physical limit for refracting telescopes. LIGO is the most precise measuring instrument ever built. At this lab they craft mirrors that are smooth to one one-millionth of an inch. Such things are staggering to contemplate, at least for me.

While this isn’t an observatory, this lab is making observatories possible. They are making mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope being built in Chile, and they made the mirrors for the two optical telescopes on Mount Graham, which we will get to in a couple posts. >Here is a link< to a time lapse video, taken from inside the kiln, of the glass melting in the making of one of the mirrors. As far as I know, this is the only place doing work like this. There are other mirror labs, but nothing making mirrors this big.

This is also about the time I brought to consciousness a thought I’d had when I was in college working in a wind tunnel lab. Science smells like oil. We tend to think of science as being clean and pristine and airtight, or at least I do, but when you go to these facilities, the labs and the observatories, they smell industrial and oily. Big science in the real world, not your classroom stuff, is much more earthy than we see in the movies, with lubrication, and metalwork, and miles of wire, and countless boxes and drawers of spare parts. It’s not all theory and math and formulas. You need those, of course, but then you have to make them work in physical space.

That’s part of why I think we should focus much more on science, and space science especially, as a national economic priority. Science needs all manner of workers to make it happen. You need theorists, sure, but also technicians and skilled labor to put the parts together; fabricators, tool and die makers, welders and builders making the parts and things that hold the parts; construction workers building the work places and labs; plumbers, electricians, and painters to make the spaces workable; maintenance crews to keep it all in shape; administrators and clerical workers to organize it all; then you have to feed all those folks and provide housing and retail for them. Every big science project should mean work for hundreds or thousands of people with all manner of skills and all for the betterment of humanity. Decent work for decent wages should mean better opportunity and improved economic justice in communities. Better work and pay should mean decreased crime and need for social services. I know I’m an idealist, but am I missing something here?

But I digress. Here they make mirrors the size of swimming pools so we can see the farthest stars.


This is tough

Just a quick note to let you know I’m still alive and well and on the trail. It’s August 27, and I’m in Tucson, AZ. Since my last post I have seen:

  • LIGO, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatory, in Livingston, LA
  • The University of Arizona Steward Observatory Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, where they cast, form, and polish the largest telescope mirrors in the world
  • Kitt Peak, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, southwest of Tucson
  • the Heinrich Hertz Sub-millimeter Radio Telescope on Mt. Graham, Sufford, AZ
  • the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (yes, THAT Vatican) on Mt. Graham
  • the Large Binocular Telescope, also on Mt. Graham.

Today I’m driving to Flagstaff, AZ, to tour the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered, among other things. I’ll return to Tucson tomorrow to catch the train to Los Angeles.

It’s a lot of travel, a lot of telescopes, a lot to take in, a lot to arrange, and a lot to write about. Guess which of those things I haven’t spent much time on? I promise to give you full coverage of all the events, complete with pictures – eventually. I may have more time on the train to catch up a bit, and maybe in L.A. and on from there. I can see the end of pilgrimage on the horizon, and I’ll definitely be able to do more writing once I get home. If I remember where that is.

Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 1 – The Tour

[Ed. note – Yes, I know I missed writeups for Observatory 3: Holmdel and Observatory 4: Allegheny. They appear in my post >Picture this…<, and I will try to give them the full treatment eventually. For now, enjoy Yerkes!]


Written at the Green Grocer deli in Williams Bay, WI, on Monday, August 13

So I’ve just come from the >Yerkes Observatory< tour. Wow! What a beautiful place. I made the 12:30 tour, which starts with the history and the architecture o the observatory by a fellow named Robert who is writing a book on the subject. The 1895 building has a number of stylistic elements that remind me of Stewart Hall at PTS (c.1893?). It also has very many quirky symbols, faces, and pseudo-gargoyles to keep your interest for days. From there it was up to the main dome (of 3) to see the 40” Clark refractor. The setting is very similar to the Allegheny 30”. Similarly massive pier and mount and scope, similar elevator floor and dome track and such. Yerkes host Richard didn’t activate anything as Kevin (?) did at Allegheny, though. But, I’ll be back tonight to see it all in action! So excited! And even though I have no room for such, I bought 2 t-shirts. Because SO EXCITED! I’ll use a couple to wrap my icon to ship home tomorrow.

It is tragic that Yerkes is facing closure w/o funding. I don’t know how you find $20M to buy such a facility or the $500k/year to keep it up and open. I mean, that’s a lot of change, but to let such a resource for public science outreach languish seems unjustifiable. The location is too cloudy and light polluted for actual science, and the scopes are too small for cutting edge, or even dull edge science I suppose. It is 120 year old tech, after all, from the steam era. But photons don’t care. There must be some way to use the equipment for good. Then again, nothing lasts but the earth, and that one for another 4B years. You can’t keep everything. Where would you put it? But if you can make a museum out of a singer’s house in Memphis or even Winchester, VA, can’t we preserve such an important scientific site?

Meanwhile, I met another interesting person yesterday at the Meli Diner and Pancake House beside the Comfort Inn where I am staying. He was in the next booth and saw me writing in my journal. As I got up to leave, he asked if I were a journalist. Well, I mean, I was journaling, but I said no. A podcaster, yes, journalist, no. He asked about the podcast, so I told him it was religious stuff…. Pastor… sabbatical… blah blah. Well he was interested in it all, at least for the moment. Then I said, “I assume that you are a journalist?” Yes. He is working on a book about people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. Apparently, WI is a good place to find such. Also, being Paul Ryan’s districted added extra interest. So we talked politics a little. He gave me his card – Ben G_______ / New York / Beirut. Beirut? Yeah, he was there for 8 or 12 years. He says he thinks US is more interesting these days, though. Wow, okay! I rooted around and found my last business card and gave to him. [He said if he’s ever in the area he’ll stop by.] I’ll watch for his book.

>Click here for my collection of pictures from Yerkes.<

Observatory 1: Green Bank

I spent four days and nights at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in Green Bank, WV, July 11-15. A local astronomy club has hosted the Green Bank Star Quest there for fifteen years. It is a very well run event, and I had a ball.

Now some star parties are just camping at a dark site, observing the sky at night and (as I’m told) either sleeping or drinking during the day. Not at GBSQ! First, there’s a bunk house and cafeteria, so no camping required, although you can if you want. Second, they had tours, speakers, and workshops lined up from 9am to 8pm every day, so no reason to be bored. These were really good, too! I learned so much about radio astronomy, “multiple messenger” astronomical discoveries (finding things out through various lines of inquiry), and even astronomy history! The evening keynote speakers were all very enthusiastic, interesting, and engaging on their various topics. I met some new friends as well as spending time with a college bud of mine. In fact, when I registered I was told I am now part of the Star Quest family!

There is more to write about this week’s experiences than I can manage tonight, but I want to get one thought out there. The principle scientist at GBO, Dr. Jay Lockman, was the keynote speaker for Thursday night. He spoke about his experience in developing one of the Great Courses for The Teaching Company on radio astronomy. He told us about the rather grueling process of writing, editing, and filming the course, about some of the history of radio astronomy that he learned himself in developing the class, and about his own radio research, which ironically ended up on the cutting room floor, all of which was quite interesting. His recent research is on the enormous bubbles of gas and dust that have been found to be expanding from the center of the Milky Way above and below the central core, and how, by tracking neutral hydrogen in those areas, some theories as to their nature and flow have been developed. This led my friend Bruce to ask in the Q&A, “As fascinating as this is, how do you answer those who say (and always there are those who say), ‘What is the point of all this? What difference does any of this make? How does this help anyone, or me in particular?'” Dr. Lockman asked Bruce what his answer is first, to which Bruce said, “My answer is, ‘What is the point of a baby?'” which I thought was insightful.

Dr. Lockman, acknowledged Bruce’s idea but went on to say, <paraphrase> “Of course we who do such things know about the intrinsic value of science and of any sort of knowledge, and we can talk about that and about how we may someday find practical applications to all these discoveries. Further, we can talk about the relatively tiny financial investment that we make in science and the vast returns we receive on that investment. But frankly, I am tired of trying to convince people of that. If it isn’t obvious, it is very difficult to get someone to understand it. What I have come to use as an answer instead is that people are interested in these things. I spend a great deal of my time telling conferences full of people like yourselves about this, and they are excited by it. We have 50,000 visitors a year that come through this facility, because they care about science and want to learn things. So it makes a difference because there are people who care about it.” </paraphrase>

This blew me away, and it continues to provide thought fodder for me. It is a great prophetic statement in its justification of something precious and its repudiation of the inherent repudiation in the question. Let’s look at other cases. We might ask, what is the point of professional sports? What good does it do anyone? What is the point of popular music? What is the point of photography, or sculpture, or quilting? What is the point of fishing, or hiking, or boating? What is the point of collecting antiques or beer cans or paperweights or dolls? None of these things has any practical justification, either, but people pour large amounts of time, money, and energy into all of them and more. People make careers around most if not all of these things, too. Why should science, which produces so much more value to the world than, say, football, be held up for scorn as a waste of time and money? And, if the value of science is found in that humans like it and find meaning and pleasure in it, then so, too, the value of all those other things as well, at least to the extent to which they are not harmful to human wellbeing.

Humans do what humans do. Some of us love science. Let’s give thanks for that.

The Journey Begins


Thanks for joining me!

“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” — Izaak Walton

The above was actually a default starter post, but I’m using it anyway, because I like the picture and I like the quote. 

Welcome to “A Pilgrim of Earth and Heavens!” I’m going to attempt to journal my 2018 sabbatical and probably other things along the way. My sabbatical will be a pilgrimage of sorts. If you know me, you know I am a Presbyterian pastor serving the Catoctin Presbyterian Church in Waterford, Virginia, and an amateur astronomer who loves spending time under a clear night sky. After fourteen years at CPC, I’m on my second sabbatical, which runs from July 2 – October 8, 2018. (You can find accounts of my 2010 sabbatical here.) When I was starting to plan this time, many of my colleagues had been going to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, and several encouraged me to do the same. I thought, “Meh. Not really my thing.” Then a friend suggested that I should do an astronomical pilgrimage instead. Ah! Now that’s something I could get behind!

So this sabbatical will be a pilgrimage to many of the great observatories in the United States, mixed in with periods of reflection at Christian retreat centers. The observatories will include very old and very new, small and large, and covering wide bits of the electromagnetic spectrum. Because I find a sense of awe in my study and practice of astronomy that leads me to worship God, awe will be a recurring theme, as I will be reading some writings of Christian mystics or other spiritual writers. I also hope to interview people working in astronomy and other fellow travelers I may meet to ask them about how they experience awe and wonder in their life and work. I hope that part will be as interesting as I imagine it.

You are welcome to join me on the journey through my writings here. Some of the posts will be about my own astronomical observing. Some will be theological reflections. Some will be accounts of travel or encounters with humans. Whatever it is, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.