Ad astra

On the fourth Tuesday in May, the staff at Yerkes Observatory observed its noontime ritual: a stand-up meeting on the building’s ground floor—just down the hall from the machine shop. Announcements are typically quick and to the point: who’ll be where when, a mid-afternoon birthday break, and reminders of upcoming events—including a June meeting when residents of the Williams Bay, Wisconsin, community will get a progress report from the Yerkes Study Group.

The study group has been meeting since early this year. Convened after locals vetoed a University proposal to sell 45 acres of the observatory’s land to a New York developer, its nine members are charged with figuring out the best way to transform the 110-year-old observatory into a regional center for science education and outreach.

Although its glory days as an astronomical-research leader are over, the new use seems to fit. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could walk through its wedding cake of an entrance rotunda, up the marble stairs, and into the dome that houses what was once the world’s largest telescope without getting starstruck—and without envying the researchers, engineers, machinists, and administrators for whom a day at Yerkes is still just another day at work.


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Photos (left to right): The grounds of Yerkes Observatory, seen from the south lawn, were landscaped by the Olmstead Brothers; Jim Gee, MBA’81, director of the University’s Engineering Center and Yerkes’s manager, leads the noontime meeting; research engineer Jessie Wirth adds liquid hydrogen to an imagining camera, being built for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Yerkes director Kyle Cudworth has used the 40-inch refracting telescope to compare recent celestial photos to those taken with the same instrument 100 years ago; Vivian L. Hoette organizes education and outreach programs at the observatory; Jim Gee’s office has a distinguished lineage: it was Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s office when he was based at Yerkes during the 1940s.

Photos by Dan Dry.

June 1, 2007