Tuesday, February 7, 2017

At Cranbrook Observatory

Cindy, Alexis and I explore the world together
My sister Cindy, niece Alexis and I visited the Cranbrook Institute of Science a few Saturdays back. Part of the extensive Cranbrook Educational Community located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the Institute is an old-school science museum with actual galleries and exhibits full of real, honest-to-goodness artifacts and samples with very few computer game-type displays.  I'm a big fan of this approach, which I think actually inspires visitors to study and think about the world around us rather than simply watching videos, which one can do far more easily at home.

In any case, I found the Institute fascinating, from "Black Beauty" the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to the extensive collection of mineral samples sorted by place-of-origin. I think Cindy was especially interested in the mineralogical treasures to be examined, Alexis enjoyed the exhibit "The Story Of Us", and I gravitated toward the beautiful, intricate working Orrery in the center of the Astronomy exhibit.  But of course!

A splendid Orrery!
So much to see...but avid readers of this Blog will know where my heart truly lies.  Yes, we were there to visit the Observatory around which the current Cranbrook Institute came to grow in the 1930s. Unfortunately, we were informed, the dome is closed to the public during the day--but it would be open for visitors that very night.

The observatory dome on a January day
Thankfully, my dear family is quite used to my obsessions, and frequently go well out of their various ways to support me in my pursuits (does this make them "enablers", or simply terrific people? I vote the latter, but then I am somewhat biased)...after dinner we did indeed bundle back into the cars and make the trek back to Cranbrook! The good news is that our tickets from the afternoon visit were still valid. Of course, there is bad news as well...overcast skies and snow flurries do NOT make for good stargazing conditions.  Still, within minutes we were re-tracing our steps through the museum to the flight of steps leading up to the Observatory dome.

At this point I would like to note that my pulse-rate always peaks out in the moment where I can first see the instruments that make up the centerpiece of an astronomical observatory.  In that instant I hold my breath; an almost reverential hush seems to fall as I catch that initial glimpse...and then the clockwork gearing of the world takes up the slack and time moves onward again.

But I do love that moment of stillness, the anticipation of "astronomical" discovery!

When Cranbrook Observatory was first established ninety years ago it's primary instrument was a 6-inch diameter refractor telescope.  A telescope's telescope, if you will; what most people (including myself) think of when they hear the word.  If that wonderful instrument had still been "there" in the center of the great dome that evening, I'd not have been unhappy.  The old "long eyes" evoke an earlier era for me, a time when astronomy, and science in general, were enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, well before the era of "big" science was begun. I'm including a photo of this former occupant of the Observatory for comparison with the modern equipage (bottom of post).

Toys in the attic
Still, there IS something to be said for modern instrumentation!  The 6-Inch refractor is gone, replaced by a modern optical machine--well, three of them, actually! Atop the central pedestal at the center of the dome stood a 20-inch diameter Catadioptric CDK (Corrected Dall-Kirkham) reflector (black mass with latticework tube) flanked by the dynamic duo of two big, modern refractors; a 6-inch Takahashi (white tube) and Lunt solar telescope (white tube with red cap).  For those who might be mystified by telescopic technobable, please accept the following translation: the Cranbrook Observatory has an exceptional set of telescopes providing a wide range of observing options--in other words, a very choice bit of kit!
The Astronomer and his telescope(s)...Dr. Michael Foerster and Carl the Bear
Manning the dome that snowy night: Astronomer Michael Foerster, an expat Kiwi now living in the Frozen North.  Friendly and talkative, Michael explained the equipment in the dome and some of its history (mis-quoted above), and soon he and I were discussing the trials and tribulations of being an urban astronomer; eg. light pollution and winter weather!  So well did he and I get along that Cindy later commented that we seemed to have a "bonding" moment there.  I think that bond was there already...from the nights where Michael and I respectively fell in love with the stars!

Well, I could have sat up in the dome talking stars and optics for the rest of the evening, but I wasn't alone--I couldn't very well keep my sister and niece prisoner in the tower, could I?  After about half-an-hour, therefore, we said our goodbyes and returned to the mundane, snowy world beyond the Dome. I think I'll be going back there, though--in better weather--to exchange stargazing stories and--perhaps--to observe under clear skies next time.

Of course, there are several other observatories in the Detroit area...I'll need to visit them as well.  Guess I'd better start making plans for my next trip to Michigan!

The Observatory's former occupant, the 6-inch refractor telescope


  1. Tom - if its old telescopes that intrigue you, continue a little further west, to Lake Geneva Wisconsin, to visit the Yerkes Observatory, home of the largest refractor telescope in the world. http://astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes/

    1. I plan to eventually. This was on a weekend visit with family in Michigan, and now I'm home in Virginia again. Next time I head out Yerkes' way I'll be sure to stop by!

  2. Astronomy is a huge passion of mine, and this observatory is a must visit. The Orrery looks so intricate, it shouldn't work, so I would love to see this in action. The photos do this observatory justice. There is something special about the stars, and I already have so much equipment. There is always something new to see with astronomy!

    Refugia Stein @ Container Domes