California, Here I Come!

It has been a ridiculously long time since I’ve written, and I still have so much to tell you about my sabbatical, which itself is now ridiculously long ago. Closing in on two years. That’s … ridiculous. Nevertheless, I now find myself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, and as I have been out of the house three times in eight weeks, my heart and mind are turning to thoughts of travel. So let’s get back to that epic journey of yesteryear!

When last we met, I was on my way out of Arizona and heading for Los Angeles. The train from Tucson to LA was about 10 hours overnight, as I recall. (There was a great deal that happened on this leg of the trip – LA, that is – that I never recorded in my journal, so I am hoping to rebuild as many memories as accurately as possible here now.)

Assistance from an Old Friend

I had been in touch with my dear friend and seminary roommate Steve Craig, who is pastor of the >St. John’s Presbyterian Church< in Los Angeles. Steve and I hadn’t seen each other for about 30 years – again, ridiculous – but had been in touch on and off through social media and such.

Looking just like we did in 1988. More or less.

Steve graciously offered to pick me up at the train station and get me to my rental car to start my Cali adventure. I was eager to see him after all these years. The train arrived at about 6:30-something, and I was on the street just after 7:00 a.m. Sure enough, there was Steve, waiting for me, God bless him. He honestly has barely aged a day. Just like me! And still the kind, gentle, funny, friendly, and faithful guy I knew so long ago. He took me to breakfast … somewhere.. I have no idea where we were, but it was a fun place with great food and coffee. Then off to LAX neighborhood to get my car, which we accomplished without too much trouble.

Never having been in LA for any length of time and never having driven there, I was a little anxious about getting around on my own. I also had no place to be until mid-afternoon when my AirBnB place would be ready. Steve was kind enough to take some extra time to help me get oriented. I wanted to see his church, too, so we made our way there in separate cars, me following him. In this way, I quickly learned that driving in LA is pretty much like driving anywhere and better than I imagined.

We got to St. John’s, and Steve gave me the tour. He’d been there for 17 years at that point, a good long run. The buildings are in the modern-just-slightly-postmodern style from the 1960s or 70s. Steve told me of the congregation’s life and struggles and strivings, a story like many Presbyterian churches of our day. They are doing some good work with Steve at the helm. No surprise.

I can’t overstate how this time with Steve helped me. At this point, I had been a month on the road with no direct contact with anyone I know. Sure, I’d talked with Molly on the phone, and I’d made some friends at the Siena Center. But here was a familiar face in the flesh! I don’t think I realized at the time how much I was missing that. And while I could certainly have managed to pick up my car and get across town on my own, as I had done in several cities already, it was just a relief to have that help from someone local who happened to be a good friend. I’m not sure why I was so anxious about getting around Los Angeles. I’ve driven in Washington, DC, and New York City. Well, any way, spending a couple hours with Steve really helped me get settled and ready for the week.

Going Solo for Some Science

The other thing Steve did for me was to suggest a way to kill some time until I could check in to my apartment. The California Science Center was not far away and was right up my alley. It turns out to be right next to the LA Coliseum, although I didn’t know that until I was leaving. Any way, that puts it about 10 miles from St. John’s, and not quite as far from where I would be staying, but that isn’t important right now. Point is, I found it without much difficulty, thanks to modern GPS technology.

California Science Center

The CSC is a great museum with lots and lots of science (as you’d hope) – space and aeronautics, physics and mechanics, physiology and psychology, biology and ecology, to name a few. There are a couple advanced-for-their-day-and-still-not-too-shabby aircraft outside on your way in, like the A-12 trainer for the SR-71 Blackbird. It makes sense they’d have such a thing, but I’d never heard of it. It’s like a short, two-seater Blackbird. Pretty cool way to start. Inside I spent a lot of time with the space artifacts, including a Mercury capsule, an Apollo command module, and mockups of the great space telescopes, like Hubble and Spitzer. (They’re just mockups, so I didn’t count them on my list of observatories I visited, but it’s still cool to have a selfie with the Hubble!) The CSC is also home to Endeavor, the last space shuttle to enter service as a replacement for Challenger. Before I got anywhere near it, there is a display telling some of its history and a mockup of the STS mission control room. There’s a video running with all the STS launches simultaneously, which is cool, until the Challenger explosion, and when that comes up, all the rest start to click off, so that’s the only one running. I about wept right there in front of God and everyone. It’s an important part of the shuttle story, of course, and it’s the reason Endeavor got built, so they have to tell it.

Simulator

Also in that gallery, there is a simulator with a 3 minute shuttle mission from launch to landing. I don’t usually go in for the extra expense, but I figured, I’m in LA on sabbatical. It’s six bucks. DO IT! So I did. And the video was misaligned, so half of it was offscreen! I mentioned it to the staff when I and the other two patrons on the ride got out. They offered to refund my money, and I accepted. The other guys blew it off, but I took the refund, and they also gave me a ticket for one of the other simulators in the museum. Sure! Let’s do it! That one turned out to be an air race with motion control in three dimensions. Turns out I’m a terrible pilot, and I spent half the time upside down! Fortunately, they have you put all the stuff in your pockets in a locker before you get in. Man, I was so bad at flying that thing, but I had a ball any way.

Psych

Among the other displays and galleries at the museum there is a sizable exhibit on psychology. I’ve been to quite a few science museums in my day, and this is the first time I recall seeing such an extensive coverage of the topic. Some displays were about perception and memory (if I recall correctly). Another was about crowd interactions. The one that really caught my attention was about fear and anxiety. It seemed a little intense for young museum goers, but then, it was presented in a format that might not hold their attention – a retro style TV with a couple of couches, and a video talking about how and why we experience different kinds of anxiety. It’s a topic that doesn’t get a lot of play in polite conversation, so upon reflection, I think it was one of the most interesting and potentially helpful exhibits in the place.

Endeavor

Eventually I made my way to the hangar where the space shuttle Endeavor resides. As you walk in you face the starboard nose of the ship, which towers over one’s head. The ship is suspended high enough that its belly is out of reach, but close enough that you can make out the ID numbers printed on the heat shield tiles.

The good ship Endeavor, last created of the U.S. space shuttle fleet

It’s hard to get a sense of how big these craft are from tv coverage or on your laptop, but standing underneath one, it’s pretty impressive! It takes quite a while to walk around Endeavor, especially if you read the interesting interpretive material under and around her. Also in the hangar is the SpaceHab, a laboratory that flew inside the shuttle cargo bay. It’s both bigger and smaller than I would have imagined. I found the display on the RS-25 engines to be of particular interest. This is the third space shuttle I’ve seen on display, the others being Enterprise and Discovery (having seen both of them at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA.). Enterprise had no engines as a prototype, but I was always drawn to Discovery‘s engines. When I studied aerospace engineering, we never really got into propulsion systems, and I was more interested in the structures and materials side. But just imagining those engines blazing is a bit of a thrill. Ironically, it turns out that Endeavor currently has no engines! According to one display board, its RS-25s were removed to be used in the Space Launch System (SLS), the giant rocket that will hopefully some day take NASA back to deep space. The nozzles that appear are just nozzles with no plumbing, one of which flew in space and the other two of which were used for test firings. Hmm. Oh well.

Once around the back and returning to the front on the port side, there is a model of the planned new exhibit hall for Endeavor that will display the ship mounted to an external fuel tank and standing upright as if ready for launch. The CSC has on display the last existing external fuel tank, which is just outside the shuttle hangar, and which I saw on my way out. These tanks were considered expendable and were dropped into the ocean when emptied during flight. This certainly contributed to the high cost of each launch. Had these tanks been recovered and reused (don’t know if that would even be possible) it would have been a huge savings. At the time, though, it was entirely impractical. Any way, the CSC has one, and so the planned new display. The model shows that there will be a gantry, which is presumably how visitors will be able to see and inspect the craft and its tank. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I like being able to walk around the shuttle and see its underside. As I said, just being next to it gives it a sense of grandeur. Upright, it will lose some intimacy, I think, but perhaps gain in scale and grandeur. It will certainly be better for the tank than having it sitting on the back lot, as it were. Well, they didn’t ask me, and that’s fine. I hope I get to see it one day when it’s done so I can compare the experiences.

Plan to put Endeavor into launch position. Could be cool.

There were many other things that I saw and took in at the museum, but these are the highlights. It was a satisfying way to spend the day. You can see my pictures >HERE<.

Heading for “Home”

About mid-afternoon I headed out in hope of missing rush hour traffic on my way to my home for the week, an AirBnB apartment on the north side, somewhere between Dodgers Stadium and Glendale. I was unsuccessful in my hope, or perhaps it’s just always like that. I followed my GPS directions, which were a bit this way and that, avoiding the heaviest traffic and accidents, and going pretty much through downtown LA. It took about 45 minutes to go 8 miles, but I wasn’t on a schedule, so who cares, and I got to see some interesting neighborhoods at low speed. Eventually, the high rises gave way to urban residential, close set houses with small yards on narrow cross streets. I had explored the area as best as I could virtually on Google maps, so I thought I had a pretty good idea where I was going. That turned out to be mostly true until I got right to the place. My target was an apartment in a building at the back of a larger lot with several other apartments on a common driveway. The problems that appeared when I got there: (1) There were a couple such setups on the street (2) none of the street numbers visible matched what I was looking for (3) the apartments I was looking for had been painted a different color between the G-maps street view picture and my arrival.

This is my AirBnB apartment complex. Mine is the one at the far end of the driveway. When I did my research on the internet, all these were painted tan.

Missed it by >| |< that much

Now, I tend to be a pretty intuitive person. That’s my Myers-Briggs score, and that’s how I generally operate. Unfortunately, my intuition is often wrong. Rather than use the nearest street number as a guide, I went with the nearest color compared to what I was expecting. This led me to pull into a driveway that ran up past a house to a structure in the back. Sounds sort of right…. The structure turned out to be more a garage or shed, though, than apartment. There were several cars parked in the driveway, and several people standing out in the front yard of the house having a beer who had watched me as I pulled in with a sort of “Now, what’s that guy think he’s doing?” look. I got out of the car and walked back to … what, check in? … with these folks. As I approached one of the men asked, “Can I help you?” in a sort of “You obviously need some help, and I’m not sure I’m gonna be the one that gives it” kind of way. I said I was looking for an AirBnB. They all looked at each other and said it wasn’t here. I apologized and asked if they knew where it might be. They did not. I apologized again and made my back to the car, turned it around, and slowly drove out under their sort of “On your way, you dumb tourist” kind of glare.

That’ll do

I sat at the curb across the street wondering what to do next – try another random driveway or try to contact the host or what. I checked the numbers again, tried to recall what the pictures had looked like, and decided to try again on the next driveway down. This turned out to be correct. I had an assigned parking place, which was made for efficient packing, because there was barely room to squeeze in my rented Hyundai. Walk up a long flight of steep stairs to a duplex apartment. You enter at the kitchen with washer/dryer behind the door. The kitchen is open to the living room with a small balcony patio. Down the hall is the bathroom and one good-sized bedroom with a queen bed and large window looking out on the back lawn. Very adequate! All nicely appointed. The kitchen has a full size fridge, dishwasher, and gas stove. The view from the balcony is very pleasant, looking to the Verdugo Mountains to the north. The neighborhood has a definite working class vibe that reminded me of our neighborhood in Dayton.

View from my balcony on my first evening in LA.

Spending Time in LA

My adventures in LA were mostly astronomical. Other than my observatory trips I didn’t venture out too much. I went to the Super A Market to get groceries, and I went to Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers for some local flavor. Even then, I chickened out and ordered my meal to go and ate at the apartment. This was in part because Patra’s tables were a mess of grease, to be honest. And there was hardly anyone else there, so I wouldn’t be gaining any local experience from people watching and would end up with grease stains on my clothes. The burger I got there, though, was FANTASTIC! So it was well worth the trip, even if it was shorter than I’d planned. So I cooked most of my own meals again and spent a lot of time planning my observatory outings and the next leg of the journey after LA. I did watch the worship service at >Catoctin Presbyterian< that Sunday, which included communion. I participated with bagel and coffee. Does that count? Molly and I also produced an episode of our podcast, >More Than Hearing.< It was a challenge we hadn’t tried together while I’d been on the road. I think our bicoastal episode turned out pretty well, all things considered.

So that was a pretty eventful first day in the big city. Watch for my coming write ups of my three observatory tours from that week – Griffith Observatory, Palomar Observatory, and Mt. Wilson Observatory – the latter two of which were among those that I was most anticipating on the Grand Tour.

Observatory 11 – Lowell

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, was oddly not originally on my list of places to go. I’m not sure how I had missed it, but when I was preparing for the sabbatical, one of my support team, Paul, noticed it wasn’t listed. Since he had been there, he asked about it and insisted that I go there. I’m really glad he did, because Lowell is one of my favorite observatories now!

Because it is sort off by itself in north-central Arizona and not very near to the other Arizona sites I was planning on, it became somewhat problematic figuring out how I could get there. Flagstaff is on an Amtrak line, but there is no line connecting Flagstaff and Tucson, my primary base in the state. What I had figured to do was spend the week in Tucson (see previous entries), go on to California for a week, then stop in Flagstaff on the way back to Albuquerque, NM. The problem there was that the train arrived once a day in Flagstaff at 4:00 a.m. So I’d have to get off then and kill six hours until the observatory opened at 10 a.m., hang around until it closed at 10 p.m., and kill another six hours before catching the train again at 4 a.m. the next day. This did not sound like a good plan, but I couldn’t quite figure another way.

And this is the way things went through the entire trip. I spent a lot of time sorting out how I was going to get from here to there and where to stay and all, but in the end things just fell together. So here’s what happened. After making my trips to Kitt Peak and Mount Graham, I was planning on the following Monday to go south from Tucson to the Fred Lawrence Whipple VERITAS Gamma Ray Observatory. I was pretty psyched about it, as it was one of the few non-optical observatories on my list, plus my wife’s maiden name is Whipple. So just to be sure, I called the visitor center to see about tour details and such, and I learned that they were closed for the week because of road construction. It’s a pretty remote site in the mountains about an hour or more south of Tucson, so if the road needs some work, there aren’t a lot of options. Well, that put the kibosh on gamma rays. So I had a couple empty days to kill in Tucson. Eventually, it hit me that I could drive to Flagstaff to see Lowell Observatory and back and easily make my train to California on Tuesday night. Then I wouldn’t have to do the convoluted nonsense stop I had imagined! It was like a dream come true, except without any gamma rays.

Driving to Flagstaff

I made a hotel reservation for Monday night in Flagstaff and got in touch with my friend Jelena from Kitt Peak who works at Lowell to tell her I was coming up and would be there Monday afternoon. She said she’d meet me when I got there. Tours run all day, and they also have observing every clear night. This was going to be great!

I set out relatively early in the morning Monday for the 4+ hour drive. From Tucson to Phoenix was pretty easy with little traffic and wide open vistas. Phoenix is an impressive, sprawling city in the desert to drive around. Eventually, it gives way to the open vistas again. I stopped at a rest stop about an hour from Phoenix and from Flagstaff, and it was one of the most picturesque views at a rest stop I’ve ever seen. Took a bunch of pictures, but they don’t do it any justice. Rolled into Flagstaff around noon and grabbed a quick lunch at Wendy’s. Not great, but it was the first thing I saw that I recognized.

Sunset Point Rest Stop on I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff

The Lowell Observatory

Flagstaff is a pretty town, at least what I saw of it, with a cool college-town vibe (University of Northern Arizona is there), plus it has the observatory where Pluto was discovered, which pushes the cool factor to 11. It’s also got some ski resort vibe, although probably less of that in August when I was there. Still, pine trees on jutting and rolling hills – it’s nice!

And the observatory campus is beautiful! You wind up a hill (Mars Hill, I think) through treelined neighborhoods, and then you come to this place that looks like summer camp. The visitor center is a modern building with lots of lecture rooms and exhibit space and gift shop (of course!). It serves as the gateway to the rest of the campus, which has a variety of old and new buildings, observatory domes, offices, labs, and lecture halls, with long, broad, winding pathways and trees and flowers everywhere. This is a space designed for people to enjoy, not just a utilitarian scientific site. Many of the buildings are made of stone and several of the historic domes are made of local pine, shaped like an upside-down stave bucket. It turns out the strength characteristics of the soft pine wood doesn’t allow for making a traditional dome. It’s okay. The bucket shapes are unique, functional, and fit the campus. On the inside they are homey and rustic, which I really liked.

The Pluto Finder Dome

Tours

I started in the museum lecture room where our docent Liza (“Lisa with a Z”) was talking about Percival Lowell, his quest to find Planet X, and his study of Mars. The museum includes several of Lowell’s notebooks with sketches of Mars. You can see how he believed he was seeing alien structures – canals – on the surface. It was probably a feedback loop where the way he interpreted what he was seeing affected what he was seeing that supported his interpretation. We know now, of course, that there are no canals on Mars, but at the turn of the 20th century Lowell had some of the best views of the planet available, and nobody knew any better.

Lowell’s sketches from the 24″ Clark refractor, c. 1905

Pluto Finder

Docent Liza wrangling the Pluto Finder

After the introductory lecture, we made our way the Pluto Finder dome. This is where Clyde Tombaugh did the grunt work observing to find Planet X. Along the path to get there are markers for the planets of the solar system at scale distances so you get an idea of how far Pluto really is from us. (Spoiler: REALLY FAR!) The dome is two stories with a wee museum downstairs, which we did not investigate, and the telescope up a narrow staircase running along the curved wall. The scope is a 16″ refractor astrograph, that is a telescope specifically designed for astrophotography and not optical observing, designed by Alvan Clark. Tombaugh would take photos on glass plates of small sections of the sky and develop them. Then after several days or weeks he would take more pictures of the same sections and develop those. Then he would compare the two plates, which were about a foot square, side by side, inch by inch, with magnifying lenses and a “blinker.” With the two plates side by side, the blinker had a lever or switch that would close off the view of one plate, and then with a flip of the lever it would block the other plate, so the viewer could compare the two. It was painstaking work! Eventually, he happened to notice one small dot that moved between two plates. That was Pluto! According to Liza, Tombaugh was looking at that piece of sky because some mathematical calculations suggested that an object in that region could account for a discrepancy found in the orbit of Neptune. It turns out that (1) the calculated discrepancy was an error and didn’t really exist, (2) Pluto has no significant effect on Neptune’s orbit, and (3) Pluto just happened to be in that part of the sky. It was lucky happenstance that it was found.

Clark 24″ Refractor

By now if you’ve been following my blog you should be familiar with the name Clark. Alvan Clark was the premier telescope maker in America in the late 19th century. After his 7″ refractor at Williams College, his 40″ refractor at Yerkes, and the refigured Fitz refractor at Allegheny, the Pluto Finder and the 24″ refractor at Lowell were the fourth and fifth Clark telescopes that I got my hands on. That’s pretty cool!

The 24″ refractor is pretty much what you would expect at this point, then: a big, beautiful, well-balanced scientific instrument that has been in use for about 125 years. Lowell used it, as noted above, for his observations of Mars, but it was also used for early observations that led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe. Like the Yerkes scope, it has been modified with various electronics and such, but most of the equipment attached is original. The multi-ton assembly is balanced so well that Liza (probably every bit of 100 lbs.) was able to slew it around without difficulty. Again, the pine dome, walls, and floor give the observatory a cozy feel. I like my science to be homey. Nowadays the 24″ is used primarily for public outreach. While Flagstaff’s light pollution isn’t as bad as a lot of places because it is the world’s first International Dark Sky Place, there is a highway and a train track that point headlights right at the Clark dome, which is enough to trash a lot of science. Plus, the instrument is not really up to leading edge science in an age of giant reflecting telescopes. (The Lowell Observatory owns and operates several large research telescopes, including the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel telescope which live on other campuses.) I mean, I’d take it to do some science, but they aren’t selling.

The Afternoon

The rest of the afternoon was less structured. I spent some time just walking around the campus, which as I’ve mentioned, I found to be just a beautiful place. The weather was perfect, so that helped, but the lodge pole pine trees smell really good, and the wind makes a lovely sound blowing through them. I took a video to catch that sound, but now I can’t find it. I also took in a presentation on Mars exploration, its history, present, and future plans, that was good. I was pretty familiar with most of the material, as I recall, but it was still fun and informative. Mars was in the public eye at that point because it was just past its close approach and it was undergoing a global dust storm. This combination was very frustrating to most astrogeeks! It was one of the closest approaches since 2003, which promised better viewing opportunities than usual, but the dust storm obliterated all detail visible from Earth. For the average non-astrogeek citizen, the fuss about Mars was probably more about whether or not it would be the size of a full moon. (Spoiler: It was not.) After the presentation, I spent some time watching a few movie loops and shopping in the gift store. It being about suppertime, I went in to town to find some food. I happened upon the Beaver Street Brewery, where I had a nice brown ale and a roasted garlic pizza. Very nice.

The Evening Program

Every clear night the Lowell Observatory opens to the public for sky viewing. This was very pleasant on a very pleasant evening! The sky was clear, temperature was warm, and there was waning moon. Several local volunteers bring their equipment for people to look through, and staff members are available to run some of the official scopes, give informative presentations, and answer questions. For example, one fellow was telling star lore from some of the ancient cultures, mostly Greek and some Native American, about the characters that ended up as constellations. He was really hamming it up, but it was interesting and fun.

A woman had her 20×80 binoculars set on M7, an open cluster. A man had his classic orange Celestron 8″ SCT lined up on Jupiter and later on Mars. The aforementioned Martian dust storm was beginning to subside, and I was able to make out a little bit of detail on the planet, with some patience. Another fellow had a 16″ Dobsonian pointed at globular cluster M13, which was beautiful. The official Lowell scopes were a 16″ Cassegrain reflector (The McAllister telescope) through which I saw open cluster M11, and of course, the 24″ Clark refractor.

The Clark was trained on Saturn, and there was a line to take a look. The sky was clear but seeing was wavy. The magnification was 175x, which is about what I use at home on a bumpy night. So you could see the Cassini division and some color on the disk, and a bit of ring shadow and shadow on the rings (it was close to opposition). Not bad, but of course it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Again. I asked the docent what magnification the Clark could take, and he said, “It might start to break a sweat at 1250x on a good night!” Wow! That would be something to see. Maybe someday I’ll get to one of these places on a good night. As it was, 175x would have to do, and it did well enough that I got back in line for a second go.

Load out

The program went until maybe 9:30 p.m. It having been a full day, I made my way across town to my hotel for the night. I kind of took my time leaving in the morning and made the four hour drive back to Tucson. Somehow I got confused about time in this unexpected side trip. I got back to the apartment at midday and thought I had plenty of time to get to the train station by 6:00 p.m., but what I forgot was that I was supposed to have checked out of the apartment at 11:00 a.m.! I was just about to get into the shower when there was a knock at the door. It was the cleaning crew! I threw some clothes on and went out to tell them I’d be out in just a few minutes. Took a super-fast shower and packed all my stuff and was out the door in about 15 minutes! I left a bigger tip than I would have otherwise and apologized to the guys on my way out.

Now I had several hours to kill and no place to be. I went to the Himmel Park Library, where I had spent some time before going to the UA mirror lab a week before. Killed those hours, took my car back to the airport, got Lyft to the train station, waited the extra hours the train was late (of course), and set out for California.


If you’d like to see my full set of photos from Lowell Observatory, click here.

Observatory 8, 9, and 10 – Mt. Graham International Observatories

It’s been over a year since I was in Arizona and made my way to Mt. Graham. That’s just ridiculous. I don’t understand how it’s possible. So, I guess I better get back to the work of recording my experiences before my memories have entirely evaporated. I’m hoping it’s not too late already. Fortunately, you can find some of what I did with my pictures and comments over >here<.

You have to make a reservation to visit the >Mt. Graham International Observatories< through the East Arizona College Discovery Park, and the tours are infrequent. Well, they are supposed to be regularly on the weekends, but they had the Fry forest fire in June 2017 that had made it a bit dicey to go up the mountain for some time. In fact, they didn’t do any tours for about a year. I was able to make a reservation for Saturday, August 25, two days after my trip to >Kitt Peak<. It is on the order of two hours to the east of Tucson near Safford, and the tour was at 9:30 a.m. So I was up and at ’em at an uncharacteristically early 6:30. I got one of the worst meals of my trip, a fast food breakfast on the way out of town, and down the road I went. It was actually a very pleasant drive through some beautiful country, mountains giving way to plateaus.

Started from the bottom…

The Discovery Park is a small campus of about 4 buildings of various sizes housing, among other things, a small observatory and the museum where we met for the tour. If I remember, the tour was $40, which included the gas to get up the mountain, lunch, probably some permits, and a bit to keep the program going. Permits, because there is an endangered red squirrel on the mountain that is protected, so not just anyone can go gallivanting about on Mt. Graham. In fact, after a brief introduction, anyone going on the tour has to sign a form promising not to harass the squirrels under pain of federal penalties. Okay, MtG red squirrels, be cool; do your thing. (As it turned out we didn’t see a one of them.)

The three observatories on the tour are the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT, and yes, that Vatican, the Vatican), and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). The latter is by some reckoning the largest optical telescope in the world at the moment, but more on that later.

Movin’ on up…

There were about a dozen people there for the tour, enough for two vans. The trip up the mountain takes an hour and a half to go a linear 27 miles. However, that 27 miles includes a 5600-foot vertical ascent and 109 switchbacks. Our two docents were very knowledgeable about the environment on the mountain, and the gentleman driving, whose name escapes me, gave a running description of the different zones to the three or four of us in our van. There are five distinct climate zones as you ascend from the plain to the summit, and oddly, these are the only bits I wrote about in my journals for the entire trip to Mt. Graham. (That whole journal thing didn’t work out quite the way I imagined, but then, what does?) For those who like to keep score my notes record something like this:

  1. Lower Sonoran desert at the base, 3400′ elevation, 3-12″ annual rainfall; ocotillo (a spiky, alien-looking succulent shrub) grows here
  2. Upper Sonoran at 5000′; manzanita, juniper, oak
    • highest density of black bears in the southwest on the mountain
  3. at 6000′ – ash, walnut, pine; 10-20″ rain;
    • Heliograph Point used in the 1800s to transmit messages by mirror from NM to CA
  4. Transition zone from 6500′-8000′; Douglas fir, ash, sycamore, black walnut; 18-28″ rain
    • One of the switchbacks is called Cadillac Curve – an old couple drove off the cliff at a switchback because they were confused by the arrow signs above and below point in to the vertex of the curve. A tree stopped the car, and no one was injured. The signage was changed so you could only see one or the other at one time. Also, they were driving a Lincoln and not a Cadillac.
    • the mountain in national forest land; some cabins, no power grid
  5. Canadian zone from 8000′-9500′; Douglas fir, white and ponderosa pine, aspen; wild flowers, columbine, Indian paint brush
    • Arrow tree – there’s a tree along the road that hunters shoot at; if they hit it, it’s good luck for the hunt! So the poor old tree is spiky with arrows.
    • Naturally, clouds started settling in as we ascended.
    • We ran out of pavement 7 miles from our destination
    • They used to get 200″ snow pack up here, but lately it’s been more like 50″
    • Lots of fresh washouts and alluvia from monsoon rains and fire-cleared mud
    • Our guide said over management of the forest has allowed dense growth of trees that naturally would be about 100′ apart but now grow right beside each other, allowing for easy spread of fire and disease
  6. Hudsonian zone from 9500′-11,500′; 10-12′ of snow

They brought the mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope, each 8.5 meters in diameter, up this same road with all its switchbacks. It took them three days to drive the 29 miles.

Now we here…

We stopped at a national parks area with restrooms (yay!) and a picnic shelter where we had lunch – a Subway combo meal. As you may see in my pictures, my chips had puffed up to ridiculous proportions with the change in altitude and fairly exploded when I tried to open them. It was really loud! Several of us were becoming aware of the altitude, too, as we walked around, sensing a distinct lack of air pressure. Not dizzy or anything, just feeling the need from time to time to gulp what air there was.

After lunch we piled back in the vans and headed to the MGIO site proper. The three observatories stand side by side by side, maybe 100 meters from each other. The VATT to the left, the LBT to the right and the Submillimeter in the middle. There was ample evidence of the recent forest fire, which as it turns out came within a few dozen meters of the Submillimeter observatory. This came to light when someone asked, “Why is the observatory all streaked pink like that?” It turns out that when they were fighting the fire, they airdropped slurry on the site and actually hit the observatory. They were successful in saving all three observatories, thank goodness.

Okay, so I notice I’m starting to repeat the things I wrote as comments in my photo album, and that seems a little silly. So please take the time to click over there to see the pics and read what I wrote there, and I’ll see if I can give some other different impressions here.

The three facilities were similar in some ways and unique in others. They all have control rooms that are pretty much a series of computer stations. They all have a certain industrialism to them, by which I mean there is at least some area that is like a machine shop with lots of tools, instruments, wires, spare parts, and a smell of oil and solvents in the air. The Vatican observatory, while it has such things, felt more balanced with the residential area we saw, which includes thick carpet, comfy chairs, and bookshelves. It felt homier. I suppose that’s not really so, but that was my impression. The LBT is the most industrial because it is an enormous machine with hundreds of smaller mechanical subsystems. All three have a hand in some revolutionary technology. The VATT and LBT are among the first to have spin cast, honeycomb mirrors from the UA Caris Mirror Lab. The Submillimeter dish, as I added to my photo comments, is part of the Event Horizon Telescope, a virtual radio array the size of the earth that is taking pictures of black hole environments.

I was disappointed with the interpretation we got from the docent leading the tour, especially at the Submillimeter dish. I think it was maybe her first time giving the tour, but she really had no idea how radio astronomy works. I knew because I had just been at the Green Bank Observatory a couple weeks before. It’s a fascinating field of astronomy that not a lot of people are familiar with, and while she gave it the old college try, as they used to say, but jeez. Here’s an example. With radio astronomy they cool the receivers and electronics because otherwise they produce radio frequency noise that interferes with the signals they are trying to detect. Our docent, though, said something like, “they cool the receivers to freeze the radio signals coming in so they can read them.” I mean, come on.

The Different Scopes

The Hertz Submillimeter

The 10-meter radio dish was cool and all, but it wasn’t jaw dropping since I had climbed up the GBT and had used the GBO 20-meter dish for fun. They have very different missions, of course, with the Submillimeter dish doing high-energy radio astronomy, while the Green Bank dishes are more relaxed energy, so to speak. I would have liked to see the shutters open and the dish in action, but the monsoon was in effect.

Speaking of the monsoon, as we made our way from the radio observatory to the VATT the clouds were moving in, fast and hard. I took some pictures and vids where you can see how fast. The sky was half clouded when we went in the VATT facility, and by the time we came out, maybe 45 minutes later, we were socked in. By the time we were done at the LBT, the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees and the wind was whipping through. Later still, when we got back to the Discovery Center the sky was just mostly cloudy with patches of blue. Very dynamic weather that time of year.

The VATT

Back to the telescopes, the VATT was, again, pretty cool for being the first of its kind, with the 1.8-meter (6 foot) prototype spin casting mirror. It’s a fast, open cage, Cassegrain-style reflector on a fork mount. In that regard, it is not unlike the 2.1-meter scope at Kitt Peak. It does some work in infrared, which is pretty uncommon and made it somewhat unique on my list. And I mean, if someone gave me a 1.8m scope, I’d be delighted, but otherwise, in many ways it was just another reflector. So I found that one thing with a pilgrimage like this is that not everything is going to blow your socks off, because you’ve seen something like it already.

The LBT

I had not, however, and would not for the rest of the pilgrimage, see anything quite like the Large Binocular Telescope. This is a truly impressive piece of equipment. There was a fellow who worked there who took over the tour guide duties (thankfully!) and did a great job. The first thing we got to see was the vacuum chamber that is used to re-aluminize the mirrors. This in itself was enormous. Next we got to see the wheel mechanisms that rotate the part of the building that serves as the azimuth bearing for the telescope. The steel wheels rest on a steel track, sort of like train wheels, and are close to three feet in diameter. Several of these wheels are in each of four “bogies” that include the motors that drive them and various electronics systems to coordinate their movement together and safety systems, etc. These bogies are about 8 feet tall and 20 feet long. We also got to see the control room, which is pretty much like the other control rooms, only more so, with about a dozen computer stations.

Finally, we made it under the dome, as it were (except that it’s actually more of a box), to see the instrument, which is colossal. An 8.5-meter mirror is the size of a swimming pool. (Remember those mirrors they were making at the >U of A mirror lab<, polished smooth to a millionth of an inch?) Surround that with a rigid cell to hold it and the detectors you’ll use. Then add the cage and supporting structure to hold the secondary mirror or other detectors at the right distance to get your focus. Then double all that. Then add enough supporting structure to hold both sets rigidly so there is no relative displacement between them to thousands of an inch tolerance. Then put it all on a mount so you can tip it up and down and turn it in any direction, and smoothly enough not to disturb the alignment of the two systems.

Okay, this one is jaw dropping! In fact, I was so impressed by it that I forgot to take a selfie with it. Imagine!

Odds and Ends

I haven’t written much about the people I met on my travels. This is unfortunate, as I didn’t write about many of them in my journal, either, and they are starting to vanish from my memory. I do remember meeting a family of four from the U.K. at the LBT. The parents were maybe in their 40s with two teenagers. I don’t remember their whole story, but they were on a nerd tour, sort of like mine, although, if I recall correctly it was maybe space stuff and outdoor stuff in the southwest U.S. Ugh, I wish I’d written it down, because it was pretty cool.

After we got back down, I drove through the nearby town of Safford to see if there was anywhere interesting to eat or shop. As seems to be typical of small western towns, the streets are wide and few. There were several places that might have been interesting, but for whatever reason (maybe I just wasn’t that hungry yet), I decided not to stop. I headed back to Tucson, about a two-hour drive. When I got there, I was faced with essentially the same problem of where to eat. My apartment was not well equipped, so eating out was the norm. I wanted something local, southwestern, not fancy, quick, and still open. After a few passes up and down the main drags, I settled on La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill. This turned out to be a fast order burrito place with counter service, which was a little less than I hoped for, but I was really tired, and it was getting late. As you can see in the pictures, I ordered something called La Grande and had the nerve to be surprised that it was big! No sides except some chips. They had a salsa bar, so I tried a couple. I don’t remember much about them. The food was good enough that I ate it all, in spite of my not being especially hungry. I remember the manager being helpful when I came in and when I ordered. There were several other patrons, well after normal dinner time. All this notwithstanding, apparently the place has gone under and been replaced by Famous Dave’s BBQ. Too bad. I liked the idea of a salsa bar.

It was a long, long day with lots of astro-adventure and fresh air. I made it back to the apartment and was done.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 2

This post is about the evening program at the Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory. For my post about the 3-tour daytime program, look >here<.

As I mentioned in that article, I signed up for both the daytime and nighttime programs for less than $100 total. They have several night programs, but the ones being offered that night were the Parade of Planets and Night of the Marvelous Moon. The former would enjoy the favorable alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with, I think, a 20″ reflector in the dome at the visitor center, while the latter would probe our faithful sky companion, the moon, with a 16″ Ritchey–Chrétien reflector in one of the roll-off observatories up the path. I chose the Marvelous Moon based on the poor performance of planetary observing I’d had from the big scopes so far and on the forecast for a “mostly cloudy” evening due to the monsoon season. I figured if we were going to get to see much of anything, it would have to be big and bright.

The evening began before sundown with introductions and supper in the visitors center. Supper was a box lunch with a sandwich, chips, and a cookie (as I recall these several months later). There were about 16 people there for the programs, and it turned out that only two of us had signed up for the moon. The sky, which had been vacillating wildly all day between sun and storm, was still patchy, so there was hope. That made me feel a little bummed, though, because if there was hope, then there might be cool views of the planets, which I was going to miss. I had to discipline myself to enjoy the program I had chosen.

Sunset

Our first observing of the evening would be of the occultation of a nearby star behind the limb of a local planet, also known as “sunset.” (A little astrogeek humor there. Okay, very little.) We walked up the path to the rim of the mountain with a spectacular view across the valley to the west. The clouds were still hanging out but had broken up some, and as the sun got lower, they lit up spectacularly. Lots of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and purples. There were places where I could see patches of rain falling miles away, even while the sun glinted off lakes and such in other parts. I experienced a good bit of it through my phone camera, I’ll admit, although I did stop a number of times to drink it all in directly with my own eyes. The good news is that you can share the experience since I was so digitally consumed. Click on >over here< to see my sunset pictures.

Marvelous Moon

Now that it was starting to get dark, we split into the two groups, going to our respective observatories, to respectively hope the clouds would respect us and dissipate. As we began our program on our Marvelous Moon, we had introductions, which was quick since there were three of us altogether. I have forgotten our instructor’s name, but my fellow participant was Jelena. It turned out that she works at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff as an event coordinator, and she was spying out what they could learn from Kitt Peak. Meanwhile, there was some lecture about our target that was clearly intended for astro-novices, so Jelena and I aced all the questions. I think Instructor was a bit new at that presentation, as he kept checking his notes and didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his patter, but he did a good job, nonetheless.

After our classtime to prepare us for looking at the moon, we went up to the scope, opened the roof, and …. well, crud. It was totally socked in. Of course. The clouds weren’t so dense that you couldn’t tell where the moon was, but they were dense enough that you could only make out the glow. We talked a bit about the telescope, its specs and mount and software and such. And we talked about some other stuff, stalling to see if maybe the sky meant to clear up after all.

It didn’t.

Plan B

Well, the various instructors and leaders were chattering away on walkie-talkies and arranging a rendezvous and a plan. It turns out the other group was also under cloudy skies and couldn’t see anything. Imagine that 😉 . So we all stood around on the patio by the visitor center for a while. When the leaders were firmly convinced we had no chance to observe anything beyond our planet, they revealed the backup plan. They had arranged a special opportunity for us. We would get to tour the 3.5 meter WIYN Telescope, which is usually not open to the public!

Of course, if you read Part 1, you know that this also ended up as the Plan B for my afternoon tour, so I had already had the rare chance to tour the WIYN. If you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend that you do, because I’m not going to repeat my description here, as it looked pretty much the same as it had a few hours before.

Epilogue

After the tour of WIYN, we returned to the visitor center and chatted a bit. I told Jelena about my pilgrimage and that I was planning to hit Lowell in a week or so. She gave me her card and told me to let her know when I was going to be there, and she’d show me around the joint. Cool!

Then came the part where we all would be driving down the mountain together with our headlights off, because, you know, astronomy was going on! Except it was socked in, so there wasn’t any astronomy going on. So we didn’t have to do that after all, but we still had to go down the mountain in the dark. That was still pretty exciting! And when you get down to the bottom, it’s open range, so you have to be careful, or a cow might jump out into the road in front of you! But none did this time. I made it back to Tucson in about an hour and a half, having had to stop for border patrol check point. I can’t find my journal at the moment, so I don’t know if I wrote it down, but it seems to me now that the skies over Tucson were clear.

So all in all, the night program at Kitt Peak was fun and enjoyable and even useful for making a contact or two, but ultimately, in terms of its intended outcome, it was a bust. But I can say I spent a night observing on Kitt Peak, and not very many people can. And I can say I’ve seen the WIYN Telescope – twice! And not very many people can say that, either. So, take that, very many people! I’m an astro-nerd!

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.

Observatory 4 – Allegheny

To begin with, here is the link to my pictures from the Allegheny Observatory over at the Googles, taken on my trip there Friday, July 27, 2018. There is some commentary there that will likely overlap with this entry, the core of which was itself written on August 4, 2018, on the train to Chicago at the beginning of the Grand Tour. Here we go.


It has been a wild week or two. I went to Pittsburgh last week for Dad’s birthday and went with Meredith to the Allegheny Observatory. That all came together suddenly, of course. I arranged to go to a Pirates (baseball) game with Dad and Meredith, and in communicating that to Dad, he sent me a note reminding me about the tour schedule at the observatory – Thursdays and Fridays only. Well, the ballgame was on Saturday, so…. I called and left a message Thursday hoping for room in the Friday tour. How popular can this be? I thought to myself.

An Unexpected Journey

Went hiking with Ken K. in Harpers Ferry on Friday morning and heard from the observatory at 1:30 that there was no room on the tour that night. Huh. Not expecting that, but oh, well, okay. I lallygagged around the house a bit, thinking there was no urgency to get to the Burgh. Then I got a call from the observatory at 4:30 that there was a cancellation, and they had spaces available at 8:00! Well, it’s a four hour drive, but yes, of course I’ll take 2 please!

I threw myself and my stuff in the car and drove like crazy to get there. I called M. to have her meet me there. When I hit the turnpike I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. This will end up being a recurring theme, as I had the same problem finding the Holmdel Horn, you may recall. I didn’t have an active smartphone, just my flippy, and I didn’t even have a GPS box in the car. Turns out I didn’t have a PA map in the car, either, let alone a Pittsburgh map. So I stopped at one of the rest areas along the way and set about to buy a map. By the time I found one, about 6 or 8 people had lined up at the counter ahead of me. Ugh! I don’t have time for this! So I opened the map and took a couple pictures of the area around the Allegheny Observatory, and hit the road. Not really proud of that, but it got me there. Except for the part where I missed a turn and ended up going over the Fort Pitt Bridge and through the tunnels toward the airport instead toward the Northside. A little looping around, back across the Westend Bridge, and I was back on track with minimal panic. I arrived about 8:20 p.m., so Whoohoo! Don’t do the math; I was driving fast. Even so, I missed all the introductory lecture and history. The group was just starting on the tour of the building, and M. saw me at the door and let me in.

The Observatory

The large dome of the Allegheny Observatory in sunset and clouds.

The building is a mix of Art Deco, Greek revival, and 20th century scientific lab. We saw some of the museum pieces and labs and such before seeing the two big refractors, which were both very cool: the 30-inch Thaw refractor, which is f/18.8 with a 47-foot long optical tube (!) having been designed and built by Brashear Optical in 1912 (according to the website), and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor. This latter was originally designed and built by Henry Fitz Optical of New York in the 1860s. There is a fascinating story of how the objective lens was stolen and held for ransom, but the director wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was eventually returned, but it was ruined in the process. The observatory hired Alvan Clark to refigure it, which he did, making it a greatly improved instrument. Hence, it is the Fitz-Clark. The tour was quite interesting. Our docent was knowledgeable, having worked or volunteered at the observatory for something like 25 years. He did have an odd verbal tic of sighing dejectedly in the middle of most of his sentences, but otherwise, he was quite good. We got to see how the Thaw scope slews and how the floor is actually an elevator to line you up with the instrument so as to avoid ladders and falls and broken bones. This was fascinating and some brilliant engineering, considering everything was designed to be run without electricity!

The Observing

We got to take turns looking through the Fitz-Clark at Jupiter, as Jupiter was the only thing peeking through the clouds. [Clouds will also become a recurring theme.] Beautiful view, nevertheless. Some detail on the disk, and Ganymede was just on the limb about to disappear. There were about 40 people on the tour, so there wasn’t much chance to hog the scope, unfortunately. Any way, it was very fun to be there with Meredith, and she enjoyed it, too.

My sketch, ex post facto, of Jupiter and Ganymede as seen through the Fitz-Clark refractor.

Epilogue

Just a couple weeks ago Jacob and I watched a documentary about the Allegheny Observatory and some of its key figures on Netf… a movie streaming service. It’s called Undaunted: Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory. It was fascinating! It made up much of the knowledge I might have gained in the lecture if I had lived an hour closer to Pittsburgh, or if I had better planning skills.

Observatory 3: The Holmdel Horn Antenna

Just to get this off the table up front, this isn’t really an observatory. The Holmdel Horn Antenna (HHA) is a single piece of equipment that is sitting out in a maintenance yard behind a laboratory in New Jersey, even though it is a national historic landmark. What gets it on my list to visit is that it is the piece of equipment that provided evidence for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, thus revolutionizing the field of cosmology.

I had read about the Holmdel Horn Antenna somewhere some years ago and heard about it a number of times in stories and podcasts about cosmology. When I started putting my Grand Tour together I looked it up and found an entry in the >Atlas Obscura< website, describing it and its location. For some reason, I thought having read this some months earlier would be adequate for me to find the thing without notes, maps, or GPS. Lesson learned. Little in life is that simple. Now, however, as a result of my naiveté, I have an interesting story.

Setting Out

I started the day at Williams College at the Hopkins Observatory with Dr. Jay Pasachoff showing me the 7″ Clarke refractor, as you may recall from this entry. I figured I had about four hours from northern Massachusetts to Holmdel, New Jersey, and it was before noon, so I expected to be there mid-to-late afternoon and on to Princeton in time for supper. Here’s why I’m not an engineer: I failed to take into account that I was driving into the greater New York City metropolitan area on a Friday afternoon, and that I did not have an exact address for my destination. These are pretty basic considerations for travel estimates probably, so my four hour estimate easily turned into more than 5 hours. Well, I knew I was going to Holmdel Road, but I had lost track of the Atlas Obscura article that has both the address and the coordinates, I did not yet have a smart phone with a data plan, and in my searches from Williamstown, Google was not precise about the location.

Mike

I got to Holmdel Road and went up and down it a few times, looking for a sign or historical marker or something to no avail. I was running low on gas, so stopped at a gas station. Full service only in New Jersey, of course, so as I was getting a fill up, I asked the fellow pumping my gas if he knew where the Horn Antenna was. He looked at me a bit and asked, “You a HAM operator?” “No, amateur astronomer,” I said. Turns out Mike (the guy’s name is Mike) is HAM who got his start looking at Saturn in a telescope at the family lake house upstate when he was a kid. Now he lives close to NYC, so Venus is about all he can see. BUT he is a HAM and has talked with the ISS as it passed over. How cool is that?! And yes, he did know where to find the Horn. Go down Holmdel to thus and such, turn left, go about a mile to the Bell Labs facility. It’s out in the yard around back, you can’t miss it. They’ll never move that thing, he said, because it’s a national landmark and it’s huge.

Okay, off I went, following Mike’s directions. I knew the turn he mentioned pretty well, as I had used it a couple times already. But his 1-mile estimate was as good as my time estimate, as it turned out to be about 3 miles to Bell Labs. I drove onto the campus and drove all around the loop, all around the extensive building. No horn. I drove around a couple times. No horn. So I went to the front door and in to find someone who could direct me, which I eventually did. This guy says “Horn antenna? Is that what they call it? I didn’t know that. But yeah, you just go out of the parking lot and turn right, and it’s right there. Can’t miss it.” Okay. Out I go, turn right. No horn. There is something there, though. It’s a small memorial to Karl Jansky that looks like two old steam heat radiators. I recognized it as essentially a stylized version of the replica they had Green Bank. Cool, but not the HHA.

Getting Late

Back I went to the building. By now it’s well after 5:30, and there is almost no one around. I went to a security/information desk and asked another fellow if he could tell me where the HHA was. Nope, no idea. “Can you look it up on that computer you’ve got there?” I asked. Nope, the internet was down, or he didn’t have the login, something, I don’t remember what, but no, he couldn’t look it up. “Is there anyone else here who might know?” Yeah, maybe. So, God bless him, he leads me off across this enormous lobby, half way across the building, and we find a guy who ought to know. “This guy is looking for the Horn Antenna,” says my guy. The other guy says, “Oh, they moved that years ago!” Oh really? That’s not what Mike told me, I said to myself. “Yeah, they moved over to the Nokia Labs over on Holmdel Road.” Well, I had been past that several times, so I knew exactly where it was. Thanking them both profusely, I headed out.

Got to the Nokia Labs site and found a sign: “Horn Antenna – ESCORTED ONLY.” Ugh. So I went to the building to see if there was anyone that at 6:15 p.m. on a Friday who could escort me. LOL no. Well, I hemmed and hawed for quite a while, even pulling out my laptop to see if I could wardrive their WIFI to find that article I’d seen. Finally, I decided just to take my chances with whatever security they may have (which turned out to be none), and up the hill I went. I mean, after all, it is a National Historic Landmark.

Ah, There You Are

Finally, driving into what is basically a maintenance yard with trucks and tractors and sheds and garages here and there, I found the Holmdel Horn Antenna National Historic Landmark. As I write this now, I can objectively compare this antenna to the GBT, to the Sub-millimeter antenna, and to the VLA, and say the HHA is not very big. But in the moment, after such a long search, as I stood near it the thing seemed huge! I guess I wasn’t expecting something 20 feet across the front, 40 feet high, and maybe 80 feet long. As you can see from my pictures, the front edge is curved like a scallop shell or maybe more like a nautilus, as there is an opening and a membrane over the back of the dish forming a funnel or … a horn! It is designed to rotate in altitude and azimuth to point anywhere in the sky, but they keep it pointing at the ground so it doesn’t fill up with precipitation or trash.

It was originally used to track early satellites and such in the 1950s and 60s. Then in 1964 two Bell scientists, while working on some other project, found this low level noise wherever they pointed the antenna. As they eliminated a wide variety of possible sources, they came to realize they may have found a kind of background radiation in the universe. It took some others getting involved, too, if I recall correctly, before all the pieces came together to show that what they had found was the predicted leftover light from the Big Bang that had stretched and shifted across the billions of years of the universe’s expansion from visible light wavelengths of hundreds of nanometers to microwaves with millimeter wavelengths, about 10,000 times longer.

Serendipitous cosmological science machine

I spent about 6 1/2 hours getting to the Horn that day and then spent about 10 minutes actually looking at it. I’m so glad I found it, though, and those 10 minutes were totally worth it. I was fascinated by this piece of industrial science, with its motors and gears and girders and bolts and all, that by chance detected one of the most sublime forms of radiation in the universe.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 1

Okay, right off the bat, you can see my annotated pictures of Kitt Peak >here.<

I am now writing this in March, so –– Good Lord, it’s more than six months since I was there??!!! I didn’t write much in my journal at the time, or here. Fortunately, I did add some commentary to the pictures linked above. Well, let’s see how much I remember.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak is about an hour’s drive and change west of Tucson. They run three tours through the day most days: the solar observatory, the 2.1 meter, and the 4 meter. They open at 9:00 a.m. and tours start at 10:00. It was my intention to get there for the tours, because that was sort of the point of being in Arizona, so I was up and out by about 8, which is pretty good for me. Had breakfast from McD’s in the car, which was about the worst food I had on the whole trip — except for breakfast on the Capital Limited. After driving about an hour on that beautiful morning, I was starting to see some mountainous terrain pop up, and not much later started thinking I was seeing a shiny white or silver dot on top of one of the mountains. As I got closer I became convinced it was a dome. Sure enough, I soon came upon the turn off to Kitt Peak! I was very excited. The road up the mountain was quite a drive, a bit of a white-knuckler in places with some pretty serious switchbacks and sheer drop offs. Nevertheless, I made it safely to the top.

One of the first things I noticed when I got out of the car in the parking lot was that it was very, very quiet, except for some wind in the trees. I liked that. Which is good, because I spent all day and a good bit of the night there. Well, about twelve hours or so. I made my way to the visitors center, which is a small brick building with a beautiful mural, a fair sized patio with some tables and benches and sciency things, and an observatory dome on the roof of the building. Inside, it is filled with sciency displays in about 2/3 of the space and a gift shop in the remaining 1/3. Went to the counter and paid for the three tours ($15 for the lot) and for the evening observing program ($75). There were two choices for observing, a general objects and deep sky program and “Our Marvelous Moon.” It still being the monsoon season, I had reserved a spot for the moon program as I figured you can see the moon pretty well even in pretty bad conditions, but you can’t see all the faint fuzzies unless it’s pretty good.

Tour #1

The first tour was led by docent Katy, who is a professional astronomer, retired with 50 years experience. She was very knowledgeable as you might expect, and very engaging, as you might not expect. About 15 people had appeared for the tour, which began in the center with a little history about how the site was chosen, negotiated with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and developed as the National Observatory. The object of the tour was the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which had been retired earlier in the year. It is fascinating design and an exceedingly large instrument. As you can see in the pictures, there is a large vertical column connecting with a diagonal structure that extends underground. This diagonal column is north >polar aligned<, that is, it is aimed at the north celestial pole, the point to which the earth’s rotational axis points in the northern sky, like an equatorial telescope mount. Because it is, sort of. Turns out there is a rotating flat mirror at the top of the structure on the diagonal axis, and it tracks the sun. The sunlight reflects off the mirror and down the axis through a 500 foot optical tunnel to a concave secondary mirror, then back half way up the tunnel to any or all of three more mirrors. These mirrors reflect the light down into a variety of spectrograph instruments in a subterranean laboratory (which sounds more evil than it is). We got to look in from an observation room about half way down the optical tube, which looks kind of like a subway station. We also got to go down to the lab, although since it is closed now we could only look in. They did 5 or 6 decades of groundbreaking solar science there, but now it is considered obsolete. So we’re back to the question of what do you do with giant, historic, obsolete astronomy equipment? Oh, fun fact. While we were walking around the solar observatory, half the sky was clear blue and the other half was entirely socked in and producing lightning and thunder, so that was kind of exciting. What happened to that beautiful morning I drove in on?

Tour #2

We made our way back to the visitor center to see if there was anyone new going on the next tour. I don’t remember now if there was or not, actually. Katy led the second tour, too, which was to the creatively named >2.1 Meter Telescope< (that’s about 84″ or 7 feet). It is a large Cassegrain-style reflector on a large, equatorial fork mount. That it is equatorially mounted means the base is at a 32º angle from vertical. As the mirror alone weighs a ton and a half, having this enormously heavy yet super-sensitive piece of equipment standing at NOT perpendicular to its base felt a bit unsettling, like something was not right. Like the angles! (See what I did there?) Any way, this telescope has done lots of groundbreaking science and is particularly notable for being the first scope to use >adaptive optics<. At this point, several months after the fact, I don’t remember why, but I felt oddly bored with this telescope. Maybe it was that Katy spent a good bit of time explaining adaptive optics, with which I was already familiar. I remember being grumpy about that guy in the group who thought he knew more than the PhD astronomer, so maybe I converted my anger to boredom. Maybe I was hungry. I don’t know. Looking back, it’s an impressive instrument that I’d love to have in my back yard.

Break

We returned to the visitor center, and those of us who were staying on (pretty much everyone) could have lunch if we’d brought it, which it says to do in the literature for the tours. There is no food service for visitors. So I had brought some leftovers from dinner the night before at Za’atar, a mediterranean restaurant in Tucson. The weather was stable and pleasant at that point, so we ate out on the plaza. There are a couple of tables and benches, along with a couple cool sundials that have no practical application to lunch. I sat with the woman who manages the gift shop and schedules people for tours and night programs. She was very interesting to talk with. She is a member of the Tohono Nation and active in her church. She told me that she loves the quiet and the peacefulness at the top of the mountain (me, too!), and that people in her church ask her to pray for them while she is at work because she will be closer to God. We were both a little disappointed in their theology, but she prays for them nevertheless. She told me about her family and some of their struggles, so through the rest of my travels I prayed for her. 

Meanwhile the weather began to deteriorate, with clouds and fog moving in across the valley and across the mountain, too. Great. Made for some interesting photos, any way.

Tour #3a

The third tour was to the Mayall 4.1 meter telescope, the largest on the mountain. This part was led by a different docent, named Dave if I remember correctly. We began with some background and history at the visitor center, then moved to the parking lot. Two reasons for that: first, we were driving to the Mayall dome, and second, in the parking lot is a large cement donut with a mural painted on it. I had noticed it on my way in but not really looked at it. It turns out that the donut is a slug the same size and weight as the mirror for the 4.1 meter telescope that was used to balance the scope during construction. Once everything was finished and nothing was likely to fall, then they put in the actual mirror. Once that was done, they had to figure out what to do with a giant cement donut. Rather than roll it down the mountain, they invited a Tohono O’odham artist to do a mural on it, and it was put on display in the parking lot as you walk toward the visitor center. It’s pretty cool on all counts. Dave pointed out that a 160″ disk of glass weighs a couple tons, or at least this one does. What is remarkable is that the aluminum coating on the glass disk that makes astronomy possible is equivalent to about two paper clips, just a few molecules thick. Amazing!

We all loaded in a big white van to head up to the Mayall dome. We hadn’t gotten a quarter mile down the road when someone raced up, flagged us down, and told us we couldn’t go, because it was a hardhat day. They were renovating the dome and moving stuff with cranes, so it was declared unsafe for visitors. Well, that made for a short tour. We ended up back on the patio, and Dave continued his lecture valiantly. Shortly, though, Katy showed up, talked with Dave for a minute, and then excitedly told us they had arranged to let us see one of the other telescopes, the WIYN 3.5 meter.

Tour #3b

WIYN stands for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Yale Universities, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, i.e. Kitt Peak). The WIYN scope, a large (obviously) alt-az-mounted Cassegrain reflector, is generally not open for public tours, but it was also down for maintenance, so we got lucky. It is about 20 years newer than the 4.1, and consequently it is vastly lighter and more compact and housed in a much more efficient box with shutters instead of a classic dome. Because the mirror was spin cast and honeycombed, it weighs about 1/8 of what the 4.1 meter mirror does. This means the mount can be correspondingly smaller and lighter, and the whole thing is just a lot easier to deal with. It has capacity for detector instruments in three different places at once that can be switched between easily by, well, I guess throwing a switch to move the tertiary mirror. There are dozens and dozens of actuators on the back of the primary mirror, which are not so much for adaptive optics as to correct for stresses when the mirror is tipped at different angles. Engineer Emily gave us the tour. She has been working on this scope since she was an undergrad, and now she’s the managing engineer for it and probably not yet 30 years old.

That concluded the daytime program, three and a half telescope tours for $15. Not a bad deal. I spent quite a while browsing the swag in the gift shop and exploring the displays in the visitor center before the next part of the adventure began.

Sabbatical 2018: The Movie

Here’s a video summary of my sabbatical travels touring U.S. astronomical observatories. It is entirely inadequate to capture the depth and richness of the experience, but it will give you a taste with some pretty pictures and peppy music (from http://www.bensound.com).

The review presentation

I presented this with a review of the whole experience, or bits and pieces of the whole experience, for the congregation after worship on Sunday, December 9, 2018. We also video recorded that presentation, including this. It’s under an hour long, and you can see that here:

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.