Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mees Observatory

Last Friday, I enlisted some loyal comrades in a trip to the Mees Observatory, about forty minutes south from me in the Bristol Hills. It's run by the University of Rochester, but they don't use it for much anymore, having moved on to bigger and better things like looking at space . . . from space. (How novel!) They give free tours most summer weekends, from eight o'clock onward until the end of time, if the enthusiasm of our tour guide is any indication.

The Mees Observatory was built on land originally owned by Frank Gannett, of Gannett Newspapers. I would have gone there just for the grounds, which were beautiful and very well-maintained. If we'd gotten there maybe two hours earlier and it had been clearer, I would have taken a lovely picture of the view of what must have been either Honeoye Lake or Canandaigua Lake . . . but we didn't and it wasn't and my picture is terrible. You will have to go and see it for yourself. It's very nice. If they had tea parties on that patio, I'd pay to go.

The Gannett Lodge (a name I just made up) is strange. It's as if a charming rural cabin collided with a 1960s astronomy department storage room, which I think is almost exactly what happened.

I want to film something here very badly.
And then they threw in a piano and some trees because why not?

You have to put the piano in a room by itself or it interferes with Science.
It's a very odd little place, but it has a pleasant atmosphere. There was a talk that went on for perhaps an hour or so about what's in the sky, what's in our sky, and what's in our sky tonight (the list gets progressively smaller). By that time it was getting fairly dark, so we trekked up to the observatory in our cars, and waited a bit while they fiddled with the telescope. That's when we stood around and took pictures of the incredibly old equipment that controls it.

Anna: "Is that a ZIP DRIVE?!"

Adam: "This chair is so . . . SCIENCE!"

Me, in an unrelated conversation with myself: "That is a great-looking phone."
Then we went up and saw the telescope. Now, I have to admit that my favorite part of this whole adventure was simply stargazing on the balcony around the observatory, because it is rarely dark enough to see anything where I live. Out there I could pick out the Little Dipper, which was exciting, because I can never remember where it is. We also learned about Arcturus and the Summer Triangle (made up of Vega, Deneb, and Altair), and space junk. Space junk is impressively fast. There are eight thousand pieces of space junk floating in our sky. I find this depressing, because like, must we pollute even space? But space junk is also cool, because like, we have been to space, man. Mixed feelings.

Anyway. The observatory looks like this, photo courtesy of Matt, who has a much better camera than I do and has kindly donated his skills to Simon & Ivan:

Stranger: "Guys, when you drove up, did this place remind you of the hatch from Lost?"
The moon was rather bright, which interfered a little, but it was also very pretty. The top part of the observatory turns by remote control, which impressed us all very much. Some of us might have been more impressed by that than by the vastness of space, not pointing fingers. The telescope inside looks like this (photo by Matt):

The red lights are to keep your eyes from readjusting to bright light between views.
I should have written down what we saw, because now I've forgotten. One was the moon, I know that much. It is obviously very recognizable. Then we looked at Saturn. Then we looked at two stars, one of which was yellow and one of which was blue, but they were very very very small. Then we looked at a star cluster of some kind. It had 300 million stars in it. It looked like a patch of mist. And thennnnnnn . . . there was something else. Once someone referred to it as schmutz ("I can't see it . . . wait, is it this schmutz? I thought that was stuff on the lens"), we all started calling it that, and I forgot its real name. It was almost impossible to see.

What made me want to go here, aside from the fact that it's just cool, is that I had been reading about William and Caroline Herschel in Richard Holmes's amazingly fascinating and marvelous book Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (It is honestly one of the best books I have ever read; if I haven't recommended it to you in person, which I probably have, I am recommending it now.) I may do a whole post on the Herschel siblings another time, but I bring them up now because what impressed me is that this telescope we looked through on Friday was a modern piece of equipment, professionally manufactured, and pretty large as things go. And it was so difficult to see anything with it that we were reduced to calling quite marvelous astronomical objects "schmutz." More than two hundred years ago, William Herschel built a forty foot telescope by hand -- imagine making a mirror by hand, I didn't even know it was possible -- and managed to see things like the polar ice caps on Mars, a new moon of Saturn, and various star clusters very far away. Granted, Herschel also thought there was a civilization living on the moon, but still: now that I know how difficult it is to see through modern equipment, I am doubly impressed by all the things Herschel discovered with equipment he built himself. Not to mention the fact that he built something forty feet long when a whole university didn't spring for anything longer than ten. And I'm pretty sure they didn't make it themselves.

William made another telescope for his sister Caroline, much smaller than his -- smaller even than the one at Mees -- and with it she discovered eight comets, a whole galaxy that's so far away it's expressed in numbers and letters that don't make sense to me, and 560 stars the astronomers before her had not seen. Had she been given a forty-footer of her own, goodness knows what she might have seen. She was also a very talented singer, the first woman to receive a professional salary from the king of England, the recipient of two medals, and an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, which, as you can imagine, was not accustomed to including women in any of their doings. When she was young, her parents thought she should be their uneducated servant for the rest of their earthly lives. That did not work out for them.

But I've gotten sidetracked. Caroline Herschel fascinates me. The point is, the Mees Observatory is really cool, and getting to see the moon up close was amazing, and you should all go and donate five dollars, because they really want to clean their lenses.


Anonymous said...

You find the most interesting places to visit!

Simon said...

In all fairness, I can't take credit for this one. It came directly to my inbox. Otherwise I never would have known.

Anonymous said...

It must be something about science facilities.... When I worked at the U of R, we had --exactly-- the same kind of lab stools and green upholstered rolling chairs. Maybe they are the same ones and have just migrated to the south.

Simon said...

It is entirely possible you sat in these very chairs. I think this place is the graveyard of all old UR lab furniture.