The Old Domes @ PSU

This story has been percolating in my own dome for about a year now. The picture above shows two old, small brick buildings with observatory domes on top of them. These are located between Eisenhower Parking Deck (#49) and the MBNA Career Services Building (#110) on this map. Oh yeah, and in the real world, on Penn State's University Park campus. The parking deck and the MBNA building are both fairly tall, so there is noan obstructed view of the sky from the location of these domes.

Since I am often found on the rare clear Friday nights in this town stargazing on the roof of Davey Lab, I have been asked many times when the old domes were built, if there are telescopes inside them, and why they are in such a strange location. My answer in the past: I have no idea. It is fairly obvious that the domes are old, and since no one that I know has ever been inside them, I assume that the last time they were used to house telescopes was probably decades ago. Since they have been mothballed so long, tall buildings grew up around them, and they lost their view of the sky. Of course, the next mystery is then, why leave them there and not tear them down?

During the summer of 2005, the answer to all of these questions dropped by the roof to do some stargazing for himself. A gentleman told me that his grandfather used to teach telescope making at Penn State, and the domes were a pet project of his during the 1930s. It turns out that Richard is an avid genealogist when he is not otherwised occupied trying to suss out the origin of hot subdwarfs, and knowing only the name of the visitor to the roof, we tracked down his grandfather -- Dr. Henry L. Yeagley of the Department of Physics.

The Penn State Libraries have put up a searchable archive of the historical issues of the Collegian, and there are a number of articles about Dr. Yeagley's plan to put nine domes in a semi-circle, each filled with a ten-inch reflector built in his class. I don't think the other seven were ever built.

At the bottom of this post are a few clips (I would have provided links, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to get a static link to the individual newspapers). I also couldn't figure out a nicer way to format this post.

Two more points, and then I'll wrap this up.

The articles give clues to the answer to my question -- why weren't they torn down at some point? The class gifts of the 1930s include both the 10 inch telescope that was apparently on top of Botany (although the table here says Buckhout), and the domes. Presumably, one does not tear down class gifts.

Lastly, it is very interesting to note that astronomy and telescope making were being taught in the 1930s, because from what I've been told, the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics was only formed in the 1970s, and very little information about the teaching of astronomy at Penn State prior to the 1970s is known among the current members of the department (or at least, if they know, they don't often share this knowledge).

I'd love to know what happened to Dr. Yeagley's telescopes...

Update:I poked around a bit and found some additional articles about Dr. Yeagley, and I turned up some more interesting information about his role in Penn State history. In his obituary in the PSU Science Journal, they mention that he founded the Department of Astronomy at Penn State. Given that he retired in 1958, this seems to indicate the department has been around longer than believed by most of us currently employed there. Moreover, in the Historical Collegian, it says that Dr. Yeagley had a planetarium in room 216 Osmond as early as the early 1950s. We have a planetarium now and we all believe that it is ~1960s technology, but maybe it is Dr. Yeagley's projector? Again, this would indicate it is older than any of us believe. After retiring from Penn State, Dr. Yeagley went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, and this page indicates he designed the planetarium that they refer to on this page as the Bonisteel-Yeagley planetarium.

Although this has nothing to do with astronomy, telescopes, domes, or planetaria, as a last note it is interesting to me that what seems to be his greatest research accomplishment was the study of the physics behind bird navigation. There are several articles in the historical Collegian archives about him raising ducks on the roof of Osmond Lab.


My Last American Idol post

I know this is my first American Idol post, but really, I hope it is my last.

First off, let me say, I get blogging now. I already have a backlog of stuff I want to post about (old domes at PSU, anyone?), but when something interesting hits me, I want to run to my computer and get it down.

So, now, my take on reality TV: I hate it. I have never voluntarily sat through an episode of Survivor. I have never watched a reality show of any sort for a whole season. I have voluntarily watched some of the first season of ESPN's "Dream Job", but even that lost me after about a week -- really, I tuned in for Tony Kornheiser and LaVar Arrington, two of the judges.

So, now, my wife's take on reality TV: she loves it. Those of you who were with us in OBX last summer know that Rockstar: INXS was required viewing. That is probably the reality show I have seen the most of, and it is because Shannon absolutely loved it.

You probably see my dilemma. In the evening, my choices often consist of (1) be in the same room with Shannon while a show I have no interest in is on, or (2) be in a different room than Shannon. Since I very much prefer to be in the same room as Shannon (and only partly because that is often the same room that includes Chloe, Roux, and Mosby), I wind up seeing more reality TV than I would otherwise watch. Tonight, this meant American Idol, a show I absolutely hate. The good news is that I got some chores done, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.

Anyway -- on to the reason for the post. The judges praised one of the contestants up and down for taking a classic Johnny Cash song, Walk the Line, and "making it his own". However, I heard "his" version of the song, and something triggered in my head. I know I had heard it before, and I'm not much of a Johnny Cash fan. I am a fan of the band "Live", though, and it took me about five minutes to remember they covered the same song on their greatest hits album. If you are a fan of American Idol (and really, the two of you that kindly link to my blog but probably never read it must be, right?), go listen to Live's version of Walk the Line at the iTunes Music Store and tell me if it sounds any different than the Idol's version.

My feeling is that the contestant knew this, but for some reason having to do with the band or label's permission, he wasn't allowed to say anything about Live. However, if he really thinks that his version of the song was unique in any way, I beg to differ.


A small favor

In less than 12 hours, Roux will be in the hands of the veterinary opthalmologist. Roux really wants to close that eye again and not have to deal with us squirting ointment in her eye any more.

So, when you hit your knees tonight, if you could say a few words on her behalf, all of us here would appreciate it.

Happy Vernal Equinox

I'm going to get to the old domes at PSU, but I have to cover this topic today -- two very different articles having to do with the Sun appeared in PA newspapers this week, and I thought it would be fun to mention them here.

First off, today was the vernal equinox. Most people associate this with the best day to balance eggs on end, but I'll leave fellow UVa astronomy alum Phil Plait to debunk this at Bad Astronomy. I have been given the unofficial duty of responding to most astronomical inquiries at Penn State, and recently, reporter Tom Avril from the Philadelphia Inquirer called me to talk about the equinox. We talked for about an hour, and we discussed another misconception about the equinox. The popular lore is that on the two equinoxes the length of daylight and nighttime are exactly equal, at 12 hours each. It turns out this isn't true; today in State College, we had about 12 hours 8.5 minutes of daylight. Read Tom's article in the Inquirer to find out why daylight was longer than nighttime, even though it is the equinox. It's funny to see about an hour worth of discussion condensed into what, 50 words(?), but still, as Ronak points out, at least for one day there was more of a balance between astronomy & astrology in one of the biggest PA newspapers.

Anyway, more fun comes from this letter to the editor in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. This was clipped and sent to me by an older gentleman who lives in that area, and he asked me to comment. I had fun with this. I have no idea how long the link at the Sun-Gazette will stay alive, so let me give a brief quote of the good bit:

Using extremely complicated mathematical formulas, which are too complicated to explain, I have determined that the earth is now tipped 35 degrees toward the sun, instead of 23.5 degrees, which it was tipped.

The rest of his letter details how to build a duplicate of his measuring device that he used to make this startling discovery. I have no idea the intent of the letter writer, but I really wonder if it is a mischievous science teacher trying to get everyone to go outside and observe the Sun and try to prove him wrong. I don't know why I find this so funny, but I really hope it is obvious to more than me that this letter should have been laughed at by the editors. Because of the Earth's tilt of 23.5 degrees, during the recently ended Northern hemisphere winter, anyone above 66.5 degrees north latitude experienced six months of night and didn't see the Sun until today. If the Earth had really slipped by 11.5 more degrees, suddenly, everyone living north of 55 degrees latitude would have been plunged into days of all darkness with no daylight. This includes just about everyone in Alaska, Sweden, Finland, and Greenland. Just curious -- think they might have noticed?


Composure for cats

Shannon and I have three cats (and a fourth who is still with us in pictures).

two tort cats

Chloe & Mosby -- the brindle (or is it brindled?) torts. Mosby (left) is four, and is crazy. Chloe (right) is fourteen, and she's old, fat, and lazy. Mosby gets in these moods during the day where she hisses and screams at Chloe, but then five minutes later, they look like this photo. We can't figure her out. More on this later. Chloe is sweet, calm, and pretty much what you would expect an old cat to be like.

tabby cat

Roux -- the tabby. Roux is thirteen, and in this recent photo you can tell that her left eye is not quite open all the way. She's our medical mystery. The skin around her eye is very swollen. We're taking her to a veterinary opthalmologist on Tuesday. We've got our fingers crossed that he can give us some more information. Our local vet (who is fantastic) has been able to at least keep her eye stable, but has run out of ideas for actually getting her cured (if that is even possible). She's happy, eating well, and playful, so it's not affecting her mood, but I'm sure she would like to be able to close that eye again some day.

grey cat

Arizona -- the Grey Ghost. Arizona passed away two days before Mosby entered our lives. In fact, Mosby's name is a tribute to Arizona. I always called her "The Grey Ghost", because of the way she would silently enter a room. One minute, no cats, the next, she was there, and you had no idea where she came from. Arizona lived with us during our time in Virginia, and that was when we learned more Civil War history at social events than we had during our K-12 and undergraduate education. I learned that John Singleton Mosby, aka the Gray Ghost, was a Colonel in the Confederate Army, hence in tribute to our Grey Ghost, I named Mosby Mosby Shannon suggested we name Mosby Mosby, and I agreed.

Anyway, the reason for this post is that at this time all of our cats are being medicated. If you have ever had to pill a cat or otherwise medicate a cat, you should realize what a joy it is to have to medicate 3 cats. Chloe is back on medication for her liver -- routine bloodwork found a raised liver enzyme, and our vet suggested we re-check it at her annual visit, and found it was elevated again. Chloe may be on a maintenance drug the rest of her days. Thankfully, the vet thinks there may be many more for Chloe, as the medication should keep this in check. Roux is on a steroid pill twice daily, since her swollen eye seems to respond to that, and we have to put ointment in her eye 2-3 times daily. Since she can't close her eye, without the ointment her eye is likely to ulcerate. Imagine her joy getting 2 pills and goop in her eye every day.

Finally, we come to Mosby. She hisses at Chloe one minute, snuggles up to her in bed the next. She chews on wood. She chews on plastic grocery bags. She has hissed after a vaccination as she felt the serum being absorbed. For the most part, she is a great cat who is really fond of people and attention, she's just a little wacky. Well, our new vet (did I mention how good this guy is?) told us that he is really recommending to all his clients with cats and dogs that are a bit wacky a liquid vitamin supplement called Composure. Apparently research shows that the vitamin Thiamin reduces stress in animals. This sounds a little strange, but I think it is working. She still takes a swing at Roux or Chloe every once in a while, and we have seen her chew on a bag once and a TV tray another time, but I really think her craziness has subsided without any sedative or personality change otherwise. It seems strange to be giving a cat vitamins for her nerves, but I'm sure Chloe appreciates her quieter life.


The Old Standby

There are some very cleverly named blogs out there. Spankly Freaking is in my opinion the best named. So, my feeling was that I shouldn't start blogging until I created a suitable name. In the end, I went with the old standby "Diffraction Spikes", because it can refer to a beautiful image of the Pleiades or a volleyball team, although the last time I used that name for a team was probably 1999, and the last time I was on a Lee Carkner-helmed team of the same name was probably 1994.

Anyway, at some point I will get around to real posts, including:

  • Composure for cats and Mosby

  • The old domes at PSU

  • The PSUWVBC newsletter

  • Oh yeah, and do things that are long past their expiration date, like "four things"