WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The universe captured on glass plates, with the earliest images dating over a century ago -- from photographs of Halley’s comet to the Andromeda galaxy -- have added layers of data to research for astronomers like Wayne Osborn. An extensive collection of these plates can be found at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, where Osborn has been making it his job to ensure their preservation.
Born in Los Angeles, Osborn and his family crisscrossed California while he was growing up. He moved across the country during his graduate studies, ending up with a doctorate degree in astronomy at Yale University.
He was hired to help build a South American observatory, spent 31 years as a professor and administrator at Central Michigan University, published numerous papers on astronomy and even worked on a couple of Hubble Space Telescope projects.
“When I retired, since we had grandkids in the Chicago suburbs, we moved here,” said Osborn, who is nicknamed “Ozzie” by colleagues and friends. “My wife said I could play with the observatory and she could play with the grandkids, and so we’ve been here in Delavan about nine years.”
Gaze into this Slice of Life with Wayne Osborn:
At home at Yerkes
Astronomers don’t retire, so I’m still doing astronomical research, but not high-level, cutting-edge research. Part of my research involves using the old photographs (dating) back to the 1890s. When I wanted to find some photographs for my research, they told me they were in the plate hall. I had to go through and find them and I ended up doing an inventory. Now we’re trying to prepare catalogs or finding aids for them. We get about three requests a year from people who want to go back and look at records of things in the past, so that’s sort of my second job.
I also work here at Yerkes, filling in to give guided tours, including some night observing sessions. Just this year, they started using the telescopes for people who want to pay to come and look at the sky. For about 10 years the big telescope here was more of a museum piece. People came in and looked at it, but it wasn’t used. Now it is.
Drawn into astronomy
My father read “The Mutiny on the Bounty,” and he decided he would like to sail a boat to the South Seas. We started building a boat, but in World War II in California, there were restrictions (on boats) in the harbor, so he decided to study navigation. It was, “You use this star to do this and that star to do that.” So he transformed his interest to astronomy. Instead of building a boat, he built a telescope. While I was growing up that was sort of a family project. I got drawn into astronomy through some of the things that he had learned and then I developed an interest.
Getting in on the ground level
(In the 1950s) Venezuela had a dictator, Marco Perez Jimenez. One of his cohorts decided they should have a national observatory. Jimenez sent this guy to Europe to poke around and find out what sort of observatory Venezuela should build. This guy said, “Let’s build exactly what Hamburg has, only bigger.” So he put down an order for four telescopes and all sorts of things, but by the time everything showed up, Jimenez had been thrown out. They gave all this equipment to the navy, which preserved it, but didn’t do anything with it. And after 10 years, the Venezuelan congress said, “Hey, we spent $12 million on buying this stuff, and it’s sitting down there in a navy yard.” So then there was a big project to get this telescope erected. And they hired a person that had been involved with the U.S. National Observatory Southern Station in Chile to come and manage it. And he hired me as an assistant.
It was a very interesting experience starting something from the ground up in an area where they did not have much scientific infrastructure. We established a research library. There was some groundwork that you don’t normally get involved in.
Checking out photos
The photographic plates in the old days were a little bit like library books. You would go to an observatory, take your photographs and then you could borrow those. They are technically the property of the observatory. An astronomer would get to Yerkes and then move, thinking, “I’ll work on these for my research.” He probably did some, but a lot of them you never get to. And so a year and a half ago, we knew there were a lot of photographs in Arizona, so we went out and brought them back because like library books, they should go back to the home library.
Records of the universe
These plates are historic records of the sky and you cannot go back and re-photograph them. If something new is discovered in astronomy, and you want to see what was happening with that object in the past, then you want to go back to the old photograph. You sometimes need the historical context.
Someone, I think it was an amateur, observed that a particular star dropped in brightness and went back up. This is typically what you have when a star eclipses another star. It makes the light drop down when one star goes in front of another. Now the interesting thing about this is that it took a couple of years for one star to pass in front of another. That’s very slow -- most of these things do it in a day. Astronomers went back and looked at the old observation at Harvard and they found it did it in 1940. So these are the records from Harvard, that were historic records, (and without them) they never would have found this eclipse, and found that this is the longest time for a star to go around while eclipsing -- every 69 years.
(Edwin) Hubble of the Hubble Space Telescope fame was a graduate student at Yerkes and took a bunch of photos here. The most famous astronomer of the late 1800s and early 1900s was a guy named E.E. Barnard. When this observatory was being built, they lured him here from California. Just as the observatory was established, they had the most famous astronomer in the country. And he was an expert, not only with a very keen eye -- he discovered things with his naked eye without a telescope -- but he also was an expert on photography, and his records are here.
Many people get interested in astronomy because they’re fascinated by the sky or they hear about the Hubble space missions, those sorts of things. When they go to ... school, they want to study astronomy and they like learning about the general things. Universities tend to have two different types of astronomy courses: a general knowledge course and one for people who actually want to be astronomers. The general knowledge one will have somewhere between 50 and 300 to 400 people in it. And the astronomer specialty will have three or four.
Many people lose their interest when they find out what astronomy is really like. It’s not looking through a telescope at the beautiful sky; it’s doing calculations, trying to understand things. But many of those people with their early interest go on to become amateur astronomers. And amateurs actually have as much fun or more than the professionals now because with modern cameras and telescopes they can study the objects that before only the professionals could do. So now, lots of contributions are being made by amateurs.
Help from the public
There are also opportunities. Astronomy has been the leader in what they call public science or community science. Galaxy Zoo was one of the first to put public science out for people to basically do scientific work of a routine nature. They took a large number of (space) photographs and then put them out over the internet and asked the general public, “Take a look at this picture and tell us what you see. Do you see any spiral arms? Do you see any classified galaxies?” One of the ones they started with was looking at the craters on Mars. If you do a count of the numbers of craters of different sizes -- there are lots of little ones, there are not as many big ones -- and if you know how many you have of each size, that’s related to how many meteors have hit the surface and how old the surface is. There is a person who I think did a doctorate thesis on this. Scientists put it out to the general public and they got better data in about six months from just having people look at them and measure.
Future of astronomy
Astronomy has evolved into a much more of a corporate model. Through the late 1800s up until about 1970-’75, astronomy was primarily an individual effort. An astronomer would have an idea and go to the telescope -- maybe with two colleagues or a couple of graduate students -- take a few photographs or make observations, then go back to the office, work up those things and publish a paper. Now because the technology has become so much more sophisticated, most cutting-edge astronomy is a team of perhaps 100 to 200 people. And you have people that make the observations, and computer programmers to write the code, and people who are experts at statistics to interpret.
We’re starting to gather information at such a rapid rate, they’re going to have robotic telescopes scan the sky for very faint -- fainter than we could observe even say 10 years ago -- (light), and these telescopes are going to look for changes -- things that move or things that change in brightness. And one of the problems being discussed right now in astronomy is what data do you keep? With photographs, you keep them forever and if something happens to that star that you didn’t know, you can go back and look. But there’s so much data coming in that they’re going to throw away anything that’s not changing because they can’t afford to keep it.
The corporate model is a much different way of looking at astronomy. You need a large number of people as backup support to actually make your observations. It requires a much more complex team to do it, but the discoveries that are being made are then perhaps much more fundamental and interesting than anything that could be done in the past. They’re searching for planets now. They’re trying very hard to image these planets, to find things out about them: their sizes, do they have atmospheres, what their atmospheres are -- that’s complicated. And to get the instrumentation to do that is complex. And it’s very expensive.