Sunday, August 30, 2009

Love and the Observatory

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,—
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

-- by Emily Dickinson. More likely than not, that is. Most of it.

This fortieth summer after Woodstock has been a time for nostalgic tales involving youthful love by many of us boomers. By far the best of these that I have seen thus far is this one by Mike Peterson; below is my contribution to the genre.

During the summer of 1968, I worked closely with one I would fall deeply in love with, and whom I would ultimately lose in a terrible accident, but not before having forsaken her for another. I was a callow cad, and she was 120 years old.

She was a telescope.

Approach to the major dome, Amherst College Observatory ("Wilder Observatory"), August 1968.

But she wasn't just any telescope; she was the 7 1/4 inch refractor of the Amherst College Observatory. In the summer of '68, between my junior and senior years at the College, I was preparing for my Senior honors' thesis work. My first plan was to refurbish the old telescope -- unused for many many years -- and to use it to further some research it had been used for earlier in that century, the determination of asteroids' rotation periods by monitoring periodic fluctuations in their brightnesses.

7 1/4 inch telescope, Amherst College Observatory, August 1968. It was 120 years old when this photo was taken.

The old telescope had a very, very high-class pedigree. It was one of the first instruments manufactured for sale by the legendary firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, acquired by Amherst in 1848 for installation in its first observatory. The instrument had already been used by the Clarks to discover the binary nature of several stars, and was sold to the College for the staggering sum of $1800. With its 7 1/4 inch aperture and more than 100-inch focal length, it was considered to be a large telescope for its time. The Clark firm would eventually produce the largest working refractors ever built, even to this day: the 36" telescope of Lick Observatory (1888) and Yerkes Observatory's 40" instrument in 1897. (A vastly larger telescope of a radically different design also went into operation in 1848, though: Lord Rosse's 72" Leviathan of Parsonstown.)

The first Amherst College Observatory with the original tower built for the 7 1/4 inch Clark refractor. Called "The Octagon," this building is still a fixture of Amherst's historic campus, but no longer as an observatory or geology museum ("cabinet").
Photo from the Amherst College library's online archive, credited thusly: "Photo by Lovell, Amherst -- from Wood 1884 Class Album".

By the time I arrived at Amherst for my freshman year in 1965, Amherst had acquired another, much larger telescope from the Clark firm, and both had been installed in the "new" observatory (Wilder Observatory) on a hill south of campus in 1903.

The College, by 1965, had also pretty much lost interest in both of them. There was no astronomer on the faculty then (one was hired by my sophomore year), the offices and workshops of the observatory had been vacant for several years, and the larger telescope was used only once in a great while for simple star- and planet-gazing. The smaller one, the 7 1/4 inch, had not been used in so long that the axles in its mounting structure had welded themselves into immobility by corrosion.

The 7 1/4 inch's "new" home: its dome at the East end of the Wilder Observatory, constructed in 1903. I took this photo in August, 1968.

But its optics apprared to be in fine shape, at least by visual inspection of the lenses themselves (it couldn't be pointed at anything to test them directly), as did the optics in the wonderful box riding piggyback on it:

The 7 1/4 inch and its symbiont, the Ross Camera, August 1968.

That box is a "Ross Camera," the lens-type predecessor to the later and and better-known Schmidt cameras. These cameras were used to record large areas of the sky for surveys, rather than to zero in on intimate details. When in operation, the elegant old main telescope would be used as a guide telescope while the Ross Camera recorded its wide view on a large glass photographic plate at its rear.

During the spring of 1968, I talked with Dr. William Plummer, a young, savvy member of the Astronomy faculty at the University of Massachusetts (the big U at the other end of town from little Amherst College, another of the "colleges" in the Five College Astronomy Department of the time) about whether the old telescope mount could be renovated.

It could, and we did.

At each step along the way, as we carefully disassembled the telescope's mount, sometimes using power drills to dislodge corrosion's welds, I carefully recorded the various pieces' relationships to one another by photos like these:

I mug in the "studio" Tom set up for the parts photos, August 1968.

That documentation was done with expert help, too. My friend Tom, the only other honors-track Astronomy major in my time at Amherst, was one year behind me, and was a highly-accomplished professional photographer before he entered college. He taught me just about everything I ever learned about black-and-white photographic processing. Above is a photo of me with our "parts studio;" below Tom is letting me know that the current batch of prints has only about one minute left in the wash cycle.

Tom is now over 60, a longtime highly-respected faculty member in astronomy at a major American state university. I'm not giving his last name here because I don't want any of his students to stumble across this photo of him by way of a search engine!

The resulting parts photos, along with diagrams and a long narrative, were bound in several copies of a manuscript against the time when something like that project would have to be done again.

The project was a great success by mid-summer; the mount worked smoothly and the telescope could once again be pointed in any direction with ease. However, once we could look through the telescope, it was obvious that the optics needed cleaning and perhaps anti-reflection coating as well. We would have proceeded with that had not something else happened: a remarkable piece of equipment became available that might be adapted to the bigger, 18" telescope in the observatory in time for use in a completely different thesis project.

I switched topics and telescopes in mid-stream then, abandoning the ancient instrument for another that was merely old. Exactly what the new project was is beside the point here; the point is that we didn't clean the 7 1/4 inch lenses.

Somebody else tried to do that a few years later, though. And dropped the lens assembly. And shattered the 125-year-old glass.

Without its heart, the telescope was useless. Without the telescope, the dome was useless. Both were removed; this image from the current Google Earth database shows only a square roof at the East end of the observatory building, looking like a healed-over amputation stump to me; it saddens my heart deeply:

Current Google Earth image of Amherst College's Wilder Observatory. There is no dome on the right.

That wasn't the first time an instrument was removed from the Wilder Observatory, though. The old photo below, not credited in my source, Wolfgang Steinicke's webpages, shows two characteristic roof-slots for "transit telescopes" between the two domes. Transit telescopes, which monitor a site's meridian, are used to calibrate time and position with great precision, and historically were used to regulate clocks and measure wobbles of Earth's axis of rotation. By the time I arrived at Amherst, no trace of these transit instruments remained.

Wilder Observatory, probably circa 1910. Between the two domes, on the roof, are two sets of what look like walkway railings. They are actually supports for hinged parts of the roof between each pair of railings; those hinged parts of the roof would open for use of the two transit telescopes.

But looking for pictures of them led me to this remarkable snapshot from 1910 in Yale University's online archives:

Eben Jenks Loomis visits the observatory with his daughter and son-in-law in 1911, the year before his death. (Eben was born in Upstate New York close in time and space to where the notorious outlaw family "the Loomis Gang" held sway in Nine Mile Swamp. I have not been able to establish any connection, but that's never kept a blog from innuendo-mongering, has it?)

The white-haired gentleman at left is Eben Jenks Loomis, a longtime astronomer of little note with the United States Naval Observatory in Washington DC. The other two are his daughter, Mabel, and Mabel's husband, David Peck Todd. Todd was Amherst's astronomer from 1881 until his retirement in 1917, and was something of an astronomical celebrity from the 1890's onward.

David was lured back to Amherst, his undergraduate alma mater, for a faculty position by the College's Treasurer, W. Austin Dickinson. Dickinson's family was a prominent one in the town of Amherst, and his father had served as a U.S. Congressman. (The older of Dickinson's two younger sisters, Emily, was a reclusive eccentric who lived in their parents' home.)

[NOTE ADDED TWO DAYS AFTER THIS WAS FIRST POSTED: some of the information below is incomplete. Please make sure to read this update.]

Before coming back to Amherst and his new faculty position, Todd worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, and fell in love with and married Eben Loomis's daughter in 1875, when she was only 18 (and he was all of 20.) When they arrived in Amherst, her beauty was luminous and her style was unmistakably modern.

David and Mabel's engagement portrait by Bowdoin's Gallery, Washington DC, 1878. Public domain photo from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

1883 portrait of Mabel taken by the Lovell Studio, Amherst. Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Copyright unknown.

Along with great beauty, Mabel had great... well... enthusiasm. Within a year of arrival in Amherst, she was having an affair with the son of her husband's sponsor, Austin Dickinson, an affair which she quickly ended in favor of one with Austin himself. That affair continued, almost flagrantly, until Austin died in 1895. Her behavior at Austin's funeral is reported to have been scandalous, and the rift in Amherst society between her supporters and Austin's widow, Susan's, was deep and lasting.

Meanwhile, Austin's reclusive sister, Emily, passed away in 1886, leaving behind her famous hundreds of poems written on scraps of paper and bundled into "fascicles" in her room. Emily's sister, Lavinia, invited Mabel Todd to help her sort through them, and Mabel (along with Atlantic Monthly editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson) edited the poems to a point they deemed publishable.

Whether they actually improved Emily's work or not will never be known, since the full extent of editing is not known. Mabel fancied herself to be an author and poet, too (her novel, Footprints, had been published in 1883), she said matter-of-factly that she "corrected" some of what she found, and it is said that she did much of her editing with scissors. So, when you read a poem by Emily Dickinson, there is a chance that part of what you're reading is actually Mabel Loomis Todd's work.

The whole era of love, lust, romance, and poetry is nicely encapsulated for me by this photograph from the Yale University Archives:

"The Shutesbury School of Philosophy," 1882, public domain photograph, Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Shutesbury is a very small town in the western Massachusetts hills near Amherst. I don't know why this gang called themselves by that name.

Taken in 1882, it is titled "Shutesbury School of Philosophy," and shows ten young adults in the prime of their energy and vigor. The central figure, dressed in white, is without doubt Mabel Loomis Todd, dominating the tableau as her personality would demand. The archive photo description notes that the people in the picture include "Mrs. William Austin Dickinson [Susan], Mrs. David Peck Todd [Mabel Todd], David Peck Todd, Edward Dickinson, Bradford Hitchcock, Miss Mattie Dickinson, Miss Allie Mather, Mr. Will Mather, Miss Bessie Marvin, William B. Clark, and Gilbert Dickinson." Notice that W. Austin Dickinson is not among those mentioned; it is possible that he took the picture, although it's pretty clearly a studio shot.

While it's not clear from the archives' description which one is Susan, I'm pretty sure it's the young lady at upper-left. Not only is she the first one mentioned (which might imply that position), but, when you look closely at her...

Susan and Mabel.

... she's got a revolver pointed at Mabel.

Anyone who uses this article as the basis for any part of a term paper or the like is a complete idiot.
Serious references available upon serious request.
Uncredited photos by S. Harrington.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oh, My Poor Son, He Has...

... very odd people on both sides of his family tree. Entertaining, but odd.

His uncle, Bob Kroeger, probably fits both adjectives. Bob is one of the most interesting people I have met in my life, and I met him a long time ago. Bob is the youngest brother of Adam's late mom, Mary, and I taught him his first guitar chords in his family's basement in 1965 or thereabouts.

After that, Bob went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music and to a career in... oh, gosh, lots of stuff. He is the only professional croquet player I know, for example, and his audio and visual creations are not famous only because we (as a civilization) haven't come up with neat verbal tags within which to categorize them.

Which leads to this blog entry: three collaborations between Bob and two of his nephews, Adam and Bill (Bill is the older son of Bob's late brother, the eldest of the Kroeger siblings, Dick.) Adam provides some of the voiceovers, Bill works guitar, and Bob provides absolutely everything -- concept, music composition, and sense of disconnect from every frame of reference we ordinary people depend on.

WARNING: These videos are completely safe for work in the traditional sense: no pr0n. On the other hand, they may be NSFW if anybody looking over your shoulder thinks that your sanity is suspect.

ADDITIONAL WARNING: Not everybody "gets" this stuff. If you don't get it -- if you think it's just precious self-congratulatory vapidity -- well, okay. You're probably not alone.

But I'm not with you. Or maybe I will be as soon as I stop giggling. In about 2039 or so.

Movie Trailer
Concept: Bob Kroeger
Music: Bob Kroeger
Guitar: Bill Kroeger
Voices: Adam Harrington, Bob Kroeger

Tank Farms
Concept: Bob Kroeger
Voice: Adam Harrington

Pumps on Spools
Concept: Bob Kroeger
Voices: Bob Kroeger, Adam Harrington

Bob Kroeger, Christmas 1966, with his very, very young nephew, Doug. Amherst, Massachusetts.

Bob Practicing his Craft:


Sunday, August 23, 2009

200 Days On

I had some vanilla ice cream last night. I actually got to eat it all, but didn't get to hear the purr.
Not a trade I would make voluntarily, all things considered.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oh, for the Luvva Pete, I Don't Believe They Did This...

... again!

funny pictures of dogs with captions

And to think, as I was going to bed last night, I was griping about the smell of wood smoke in the air from the nearby wildfire.

As the above frame from "Ihasa Hot Dog" gives away, we had a skunk incident last night here at Ft. Harrington. Mrs. Fort let the dogs out to do some business, as they requested, at about 2am. Kelsey then lit out into the darkness like a bolt toward the chicken run, with his faithful lieutenant Jax close behind him, and rotund Emma waddling along as quickly as she can behind them. Shortly thereafter, yelps from the dark. Shortly after that, the stench of skunk, mildly reminiscent of burning tires but orders of magnitude more revolting.

Kelsey, first to trouble as always, got a face and chest full, butt-blank ("point blank" just doesn't work in this context.) Jax got a little all over, and Emma was blessed with just a coy hint of an emetic perfume.

Since this has happened before -- at least four times before -- we were prepared, and all three got an immediate sponge bath of our current best remedy. It's a no-particular-ratio mixture of water, white vinegar, and baking soda that cuts the stench a lot, though not entirely. The mixture has advantages over other remedies: it's cheaper than commercial enzyme-based deskunkers, and it's made of stuff we always have on hand anyway, unlike our veterinarian's skunk bath of choice: Massengill douche. Contrary to legend, tomato juice doesn't work at all, and just leaves you with something else that you ultimately have to clean off your dog.

More effective than tomato juice.

Our vet, by the way, isn't shy about recommending over-the-counter human personal hygiene products in place of prescription veterinary remedies. At her suggestion, for example, we always have some Vagisil in stock to treat Emma's frequent ear-canal yeast infections.

As I say, this has happened before. The first time was three years ago, when skunks first moved into the hollow to take advantage of one of our neighbors' habit of leaving food outside for his cats. Unfortunately, the people who had to deal with that first episode were not Diane and me, but her sister Carolyn and brother-in-law Mel, who were doing us the huge favor of caring for Ft. Harrington while we were in Ireland. Lovely.

Carolyn still has a fondness for Kelsey, albeit from a distance (they live in Oregon), which may make it easier. She read here recently about Kelsey's favorite park, and sent this along the intertubes (the three pictures in it were taken nine days ago) :

Kelsey in the Park
verse by C. J. Meeks, photos by S. Harrington

Was there ever a dog so full of his doggieness as Kelsey in the park?
With plenty of room for a dog to run and jump and bark.

There are other dogs here in Kelsey's park.
So just so they know that Kelsey's been there he leaves his doggy mark.

The look on his face pleadingly begs, "Please, can't we stay until dark?"
"If not, please, won't there be another day in the park?"

That's really sweet, Carolyn. Thank you.

Mel and Carolyn with Kelsey when he was very, very young. Ft. Harrington, October, 2000.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Firetime Again

Today is the second full day of a serious wildfire in our vicinity, the coastal redwood forests of the northern part of Santa Cruz County, California. The fire is large, and largely uncontained at this point, but so far has not taken any lives or structures. Also, while only about four miles from us, geography (it's on the other side of a steep mountain) and prevailing winds are keeping our San Lorenzo Valley from danger.

This time.

Above: a panorama of smoke from the fire, made from five frames. This view is from a vista point along California Highway 9 about halfway along my workaday commute from Boulder Creek to Cupertino. Ft. Harrington is located just a little bit left of the center of the panorama; Monterey Bay and the more distant mountains of Big Sur are at left. If you click on this to see it larger (and I urge that you do!), it will take you to a 2500-pixel wide version that you can scroll around for good detail.

The fire is called the "Lockheed" fire because it is suspected to have started somewhere near a research facility that Lockheed-Martin has atop Ben Lomond Mountain. There is no current suspicion that the facility had anything to do with the fire (and the campus is not in danger from the flames at present), but the folks at Lockheed are probably not happy with the name.

The research facility is near the location of two of my favorite photos:

October, 2005

March, 2006, with a rare dusting of snow

I hope this lovely home of horses has been spared.

[Click here for a short time-lapse movie of smoke billowing over the top of Ben Lomond Mountain.]


Tuesday, August 11, 2009


What do these items have in common?

Feel free to leave your guess in comments. The answer will appear there in two days (unless someone gets it right before then.)