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I Use an Awesome 19th Century Telescope

October 6, 2008 at 2:36 pm
By Collin Hazlett

(In which I... well... use an awesome 19th Century Telescope!)

As I explained in my previous post, I am a great lover of Carleton architecture. My dorm, Nourse, is possibly the most lovable building I have ever set foot in. The reason I say "possibly" and not "definitely" is because there's Goodsell Observatory. Goodsell might just beat Nourse.

From what I hear, Goodsell used to be the home of the clock which officially kept track of US Central Time. It is definitely the home of a huge 8" refractor telescope, a really huge 16" refractor telescope, the meteorite collection donated in payment of tuition for Margaret Ann Nininger in the class of 1946, and the Linguistics Department. Usually the domed telescope rooms are not open to the public or to the general student body, but last week Goodsell held two open houses during which students could use the 16" (really huge) telescope to look at celestial objects.

I went to the first, less publicized open house with some friends from my floor.

One enters Goodsell through a round stone doorway, walks around the shiny meteors in their display cases, and then goes up a flight of curvy wooden stairs. The journey upstairs is cool in itself. It is nothing compared to the splendor of the main dome.

Did you ever play the computer game MYST? If you didn't, it was a puzzle/adventure type game where you explore strange worlds and solve logic puzzles and try to figure out the tangled, mysterious plot. The best part of MYST, in my opinion, was the machines that you needed to use to solve the puzzles- they all looked like they were built in the 1800's, with elegant levers and gears and dials and counterweights and such, but they did advanced things, like project holograms and fly.

The interior of the big dome of Goodsell Observatory, and the telescope inside, reminded me a lot of MYST. The telescope pivoted on three huge protractor-like wheels, whose edges were marked off with dashes and numbers indicating the coordinates of the place the telescope was pointing. It was turned by cables, and raised and lowered by turning a wheel at the base of the telescope that looked like a ship's steering wheel. Near the lens were two sets of black dials- three dials for making adjustments to the image, and two for locking the telescope into place. A ratchet-winded, counterweight-powered spinny thing in the base made sure the rotation of the Earth didn't throw off the image. And best of all, the dome's entire ceiling rotated on tracks. And I got to rotate the ceiling, which was one of the most oddly satisfying experiences of my life. I really was impressed by all of this. It kind of felt like being inside a giant pocketwatch.

The whole apparatus had a charmingly antiquated feel to it (which made sense because it was over 100 years old), and yet it was so impressively huge that it invoked wonder rather than quaintness. I'm pretty sure I spent more time staring in awe at the telescope than at the stars.

Once we got the coordinates right with respect to our current star time, I got to see the Hercules Cluster, which looked like a whole lot of stars bunched together. Then our physics-major guide, Avi, asked us if we wanted to see the Ring Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy. I asked him which one he would recommend.

"Well..." he said, "Andromeda is a galaxy. The Ring Nebula is just a nebula." Andromeda it was.

From Goodsell's biggest telescope, Andromeda looks like a faint, blurry star, with a fainter, blurrier oval of light around it. Of course, this image is made a great deal more impressive by the knowledge that the faint star is actually a galactic core, and the hazy oval is a truly huge number of solar systems with a truly huge number of planets spinning within them. I was impressed.

So anyway, my Goodsell adventure was a good homework break. So was seeing Wall-E at midnight on Friday in SUMO Theater (which is free!). So was buying a banana smoothie at the Goodbye Blue Monday coffee shop last week and then buying another one two days later. And so will be the Intramural Ultimate Frisbee match our floor team has against 2nd Myers at 6:00 today. Wish us luck!


  • October 15 2008 at 4:45 pm

    This is so steampunk. I want to live in the observatory dome.

  • December 9 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Myst? You know about myst?

    Im sold. This is the college of my dreams.