[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]
A few years ago, I visited Yerkes Observatory while driving across the country to gather material for a book that never came to fruition. It’s a marvelous relic of astronomy on the cusp of modernity, so when I heard it was closing its doors, I knew I had to write about it. Thankfully, Astronomy Magazine let me use some of my research from my book, including a few photographs. The following is a story of robber barons, huge telescopes, and an early unrecognized discovery of Pluto.
Once state of the art, this Gilded Age observatory has been left behind by progress. Now astronomers wonder what will happen to this piece of history.For Astronomy Magazine:
A piece of astronomical history is closing its doors this year: Yerkes Observatory, which opened in 1897, will cease operations on October 1, 2018.
In many ways, this closure isn’t surprising. Yerkes is very much a relic of a past era, not the type of observatory that is used for major discoveries in the modern day. The University of Chicago, which owns and operates the facility, has decided the observatory is not worth the expense of maintaining it. However, we can hope someone will take over the operations and keep the building open to the public, because it’s truly one of the great pieces of scientific history and architecture. Yerkes Observatory is an impressive late-19th-century structure, housing what is still the largest refracting (lens-based) telescope in the world. The primary lens in the main Yerkes telescope is 40 inches (102 centimeters) in diameter. The observatory was named for the impressively mustached railroad tycoon Charles Yerkes, who bankrolled it in Gilded Age style. (The name is pronounced “YER-keys,” and the less said about how Yerkes ran his businesses, the better. “Yerkes was jerky” is a good mnemonic.)
The observatory stands on the shore of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, just across the border from Illinois. The land is sits on is parklike, and the building itself is a marvel of astronomical architecture and engineering from the dawn of the modern era of big science.