You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Chicago’ tag.

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth.  The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific.  On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin.  Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years.  Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.

The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers.  On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.


The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering.   When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth.  The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in).  No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.


The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth.  In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions.  To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere.  These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics.  The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:

The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe).   Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe.  Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands.  If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.


The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack.  The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).



George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate.  At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career).  In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun.  He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.

Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes.  His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions.  Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena.  In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope.  This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding.   Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar.  Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision.  The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.

 The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting.  Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes.  He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology.  Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life.  His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe.  However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems.  He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch.  Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression.  Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation.  He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life.  Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery.  Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together.  Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.


Two weeks ago I was back at my Alma Mater, the University of Chicago.  As a special treat I got to go on a tour of the nearly finished Mansueto Library book depository, which is being built as an addition to the Regenstein library. The Mansueto depository is housed in a lovely oval dome made of glass, but the real heart of the library is five stories underground, where a huge steel rack holds thousands of uniformly sized metal boxes.  These boxes are indexed in a computer database.  When the depository is finished, these boxes will be filled with books and periodicals of the same size (to create maximum efficiency).  Once a reader requests a book, huge robot cranes mounted on metal rails (in the fashion of trains) will zip to the correct box and route it to an industrial elevator up to the surface world. The Mansueto depository will hold 3.5 million books.

A Cross Section Diagram of the Mansueto Book Repository

The Regenstein library, a huge brutalist limestone building on 57th street, already houses 4.4 million books.  A large part of the library’s charm is the easy- to-browse stacks: if you wish to look up 8th century Byzantine emperors you can find an entire shelf of books about them. Scholars and students appreciate the unexpected discoveries and ideas which spring from such an arrangement (although I spent far too much time in the Regenstein browsing increasingly off-topic books which called out to my fancy). The librarians in charge of the Mansueto project did not wish to sacrifice this aspect of the stacks, so the Mansueto will largely house periodicals and academic journals (which aren’t easy to browse without an index anyway).  Books about related subjects will continue to be grouped together in a fashion visible to library patrons.

The Mansueto Depository takes shape beside the Regenstein Library

My tour group was one of the last groups of people allowed down into the Mansueto depository. Once the staff starts moving books into it, the cranes will be active and the space will become dangerous.  Then only technicians and service professionals will be allowed down into the temperature and humidity controlled space. Before seeing the apparatus, I kind of imagined the library as being like a computer browser: one types in a title and the relevant information magically appears. But the tour revealed how naïve such thinking was.  The robot workings of the huge depository were amazing to behold and their scale was unnerving. Serious and remarkable engineering went in to the building of the complex–which reminded me less of a library and more of the modernized steel foundry which I visited many years ago.  Like that foundry, the underground compound had the unearthly feeling of a place humans aren’t really meant to be in.  The scale of everything was wrong. The shelves were inhumanly large whereas the walkways were too small to be comfortable.  The dry cold air smelled of steel and electronics.  Yellow warning signs were inscribed all around the huge motionless robot librarians and it was easy to imagine them springing to life and going on a crushing rampage.

A Robotic Crane in the Mansueto Depository

Here is a colleague beside the metal shelves to give you a sense of scale

When the Mansueto is full, the Regenstein will be the largest collection of books under the same roof in North America. It may be one of the last edifices of its kind. Digital information is supplanting traditional printed books and magazines everywhere, and I feel a bit as though I am describing the scroll repositories of the library of Alexandria (even if I’m actually describing a state-of-the-art triumph of robotics). I hope the digital revolution does not undo printing and libraries to the extent that has been forecast.  Standing in the beautiful dome and looking out at the gothic campus I felt like I was visiting a future built around books rather than a dreary future without them.

The Gothic Buildings of the University of Chicago Quads seen from the Mansueto reading room

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2017
« Mar