Three birthdays to note

By Phil Plait | April 13, 2010 2:08 pm

I read Noisy Astronomer’s blog every day — she’s a grad student at the University of Virginia, and of course known the world around as Nicole Hasenpfeffer.

Reading her blog today I found out it’s the birthday of the McCormick Observatory! This venerable observatory houses a 26 inch ‘scope that I used many times in my career at UVa, and I have many fond memories of it (and some not-so-fond, usually involving long cold nights at the eyepiece).

She also mentions that it’s Thomas Jefferson’s birthday too. I think I’ll celebrate by reading the Declaration of Independence. That’s seriously one of the finest examples of writing in the English language.

And oh, the third one? My brother, of course. Happy birthday Merril!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Miscellaneous

Comments (17)

  1. I thought it was Nicole Googly Moogly! [runs & hides]
    I called it the Sasquatchquicentennial celebration the other day…
    Quasquicentennial is just so, well, ordinary…

    The Leander McCormick Observatory website.
    Any of you BA Blogees who find yourselves in Charlottesville on a 1st or 3rd Friday of the month go on up! These are Public Nights at McCormick. It’s open to the public and if it’s clear, you can have a look through the scope!

  2. Fond memory: showing Saturn on public nights!

    Not-so-fond memory: speckle interferometry lab… no eyepiece, but VIDEO. Ugh…

    Thanks, Phil. And happy b-day to your bro!

  3. Chris

    Mine, too! Happy birthday to your brother as well!

  4. Maratanos

    It also, in case you’re interested, is the birthday of Peter Davison, known among other things for being the fifth Doctor on Doctor Who.

  5. MadScientist

    26 inch – reminiscent of the Yale-Columbia telescope that used to be at Mt. Stromlo Observatory until it was destroyed by fire a few years ago. I can’t help thinking of all those Sid Harris cartoons whenever I see one of these large refractors. The largest refractor I had worked with was a 10″ for solar observations. It even had a very good multielement primary though such a high quality lens was not necessary since the telescope was always used with monochromatic filters. Unfortunately the observatory wouldn’t give me the lens when the telescope was decommissioned. (The same observatory also refused to give me a master ruled grating created by Dr. Wood – and some idiot manager threw it out with scrap metal – a piece of spectroscopic history in mint condition destroyed by an imbecile.)

    Oh, and is that really Hasenpfeffer or is that a pseudonym? I can’t imagine anyone named after items on a menu.

  6. Kimpatsu

    Thomas Jefferson also shares his birthday with Christopher Hitchens.
    Many happy returns to them all!

  7. I would hasten to add that the Declaration of Independence is one of the best examples of enlightenment literature ever.

  8. AJ

    While at UVA myself, I did a research project on Jefferson — among many things, he considered himself an astronomer (of that time period) and was just fascinated with the astronomical sciences. ‘Tis a true story that he had plans laid out to turn the ceiling of the Rotunda into a movable sky map! He had many telescopes and astronomical contraptions and was very inspired by European astronomers. There’s an old site on campus where he had a ramshackle observatory…and he even designed plans for a very large observatory sitting atop one of the hills as seen from Monticello.

  9. George Martin

    MadScientist @5 mentions the late 26 inch Yale Columbia telescope of Mt. Stromlo Observatory. I’m pretty sure that that telescope was constructed after the McCormick 26 inch. The Yale Columbia telescope was originally sited in South Africa but was moved to Mt. Stromlo in the 1950’s (?) when Bart Bok was the director at Mt. Stromlo.

    I am one of the very few people who have taken plates with both the McCormick and the Yale Columbia telescopes. I know for certain of two others. I worked as an observer in the McCormick parallax program from roughly the fall of 1972 to the fall of 1979. (So I have spent many more cold winter nights in the McCormick dome than Phil has.) I was sent to Mt. Stromlo in both 1976 and 1977 to take plates for the Southern parallax program of Phil Ianna, at UVA at that time.

    It was a very bad day for me when I heard about the fire at Mt. Stromlo.

    When Phil mentioned “long cold nights at the eyepiece”, that, while thinking about my observing, triggered a very scary memory at the eyepiece for me. It was a December or January night. I had just located a program star in the finder eyepiece. When I started looking through the 26 inch to position the program star for the plates I would take, I noticed that the stars looked weird through the 26 inch, but not through the finder. After thinking for a bit, I “flipped” the telescope, something we did not like to do, so I could look at the objective. When I saw the objective, I could see that there was some water in between the two lens elements. On a cold winter’s night, that is scary!

    I called the director, Larry Fredrick, and he called our instrument maker. They both came to the dome and the solution for the night was to shine some hot bright lights on the objective and wrap things in blankets for insulation. The next day the objective was disassembled and cleaned.


  10. Reverend J

    The most important birthday is MINE! :)

  11. mike bukhart

    You know some times I envy profesnal astronomers they get to use high power telescopes .Thomas Jefferson had an insterst in astronomy I visited Montachello when I was a kid and Jefferson had a telescope in his study . The Decloration of Independence was very important but also so was the Constitution of the United States .

  12. @George Martin: One of our UVa profs was one of the last off Mt. Stromolo before the fire came. The astronomer who was giving us a “behind the scenes” tour of McCormick last night observed there for 3 yrs while a grad student, so he also spoke of it very fondly.

    I LOVE hearing McCormick stories! Also, Larry Fredrick is still in the dept (retired, though.). He was introduced last night as the 4th and final director of the observatory, because subsequent department chairs didn’t want their portraits on the wall!

    @MadScientist: Mt. Stromlo’s refractor was indeed the “sister scope” to McCormick!

  13. Steve Layman

    Love the new look of the observatory – chocolate cake with white frosting – no more silver dome.

  14. George Martin:
    Glad to hear your story! I was in the Parallax Program in the winter of ’81/’82. I bought a “moon suit” expressly for those cold nights and was toasty the whole time! I probably have only a couple dozen plates in the plate vault, so I’m probably the LEAST productive observer on the program! ūüėÜ

    I still fondly remember struggling to find the target stars from the 3×4 cards in the little wooden box we had to work from. Nowadays I have my Mac with Starry Night Pro to hand and have an advantage. Rob Capon (who graciously has funded much of the Observatory’s restoration) and I determined a couple years ago that the dec readings were off by 10′ of arc to the South. This is probably why I had such a devil of a time finding the targets in the finder years ago.

    These days I make presentations to Girl Scouts and other groups at McCormick and have found that that is about as much fun as one can have (in addition to showing them things through the Clark refractor and my own scope) and not get arrested! There’s something just soooo cool about hand slewing that scope, I just can’t describe it! I’ve never flipped the tube over & looked at the objective. I understand that there are bubbles in the glass… Great catch, great story!

    Hopefully the whole declination situation will be resolved this summer as digital encoders & a readout are to be installed. This’ll make the operation so easy a caveman could do it!

    I hope that scope remains in use for another few hundred years!
    Long live LMO!

  15. MadScientist

    @Richard: I would be absolutely shocked to see a piece of glass that size without bubbles and striae. Come to think of it, inspection of modern high quality glasses of even much smaller sizes will invariably reveal such defects (but you really have to use the right tools to find them).

    So why is the declination ring off by 10′? Is that just an error in ruling the ring or has the foundation shifted? (Or other reasons – like it was never put on right to begin with.)

  16. MadScientist

    For those who worked with the Yale-Columbia telescope, it has been largely reincarnated as a sculpture called “The Astronomer” and the hour circle and declination circle are prominent features. I think you may agree that it bears little resemblance to the original …

    There is another sculpture made of shattered glass which I haven’t been able to track down (largely because I didn’t put in much effort). I get the impression that the volume of glass requires something much larger than the 26″ lens, so that sculpture may be from one of the large reflecting telescopes.

  17. Dunno why it’s dec is off. I’m sure the foundation of the pier is fine, though.
    Come to think of it, if I’m only off a little on my 125th birthday, I’ll be thrilled!
    What the heck is that “Astronomer” wearing? Weird…


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