Thursday, May 29, 2008

The starry-eyed visitor

In a scientific love story, the world's top telescope historian fulfills a lifelong dream to see the world's largest refracting telescope

Rolf Riekher, 86, a former German optical lens engineer, fulfilled a lifelong dream to see the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory 40" diameter telescope in Williams Bay, Wis., April 23, 2008. MORE PHOTOS>>> (Chicago Tribune photo by David Trotman-Wilkins / April 23, 2008)

WILLIAMS BAY, WIS.—Late one sunny afternoon in April, Kyle M. Cudworth, director of Yerkes Observatory complex, opened up the door leading into the main observatory.

Shuffling behind Cudworth, 86-year-old Rolf Riekher, a small, slightly stooped, white-haired man, smiled with unalloyed delight. His eyes darted around the circular room, a vast space—and then they fixed on the massive, dark metal pier at the room's center. Looking up, he saw it: a slender, gracefully canted 63-foot-long white tube.

Built in 1897, at the apex of the Victorian age, this mighty telescope was the international space station of its time. It remains the world's biggest refracting telescope.

It was an amalgam of the age's finest technologies—clockworks, electric motors, precision gears, cameras and perfectly ground lenses—exploring the universe more deeply than ever before. Still in use 111 years later, it remains awe-inspiring.

"I know it very well from pictures, but it is absolutely different to be here in its actual presence. It is incredibly impressive," said Riekher, the world's pre-eminent historian of telescopes.

Finally getting to see it fulfilled a lifelong dream.

What delayed the prominent telescope expert from seeing the important telescope was Riekher's unusual, isolated life and career in Germany under the Nazi and East German communist regimes.

In 1938, Riekher, at 16, left school and formal education behind in his hometown of Schwerin in Northern Germany. He apprenticed as a clerk in an optician's shop, where he learned the science of spectacles, binoculars and cameras that he sold.

Too sickly for military duty, at the end of World War II in 1945 he was still in Schwerin, a citizen of devastated communist East Germany. To survive, he built his own machines and began grinding spectacle lenses. He was so proficient that in 1951 the East German Academy of Science hired him as an optical engineer. For 36 years he led teams that won the world's first patents for transitional [no-line] bifocals, did early laser research and built Soviet satellite optics.

An amateur astronomer, as a labor of love Riekher wrote a history of telescopes, "Telescopes and Their Masters," published in 1957 in East Berlin. Never translated from German, copies of the book and its 1990 second edition eventually seeped outside East Germany, coming to be regarded as the best book on the subject ever written.

"It is the definitive volume on the subject. No one in the field of the history of astronomy could function without it," said Adler Planetarium technology historian Marvin Bolt, 45.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope. The anniversary spurred Bolt and Skokie-born Michael Korey, 42, a museum conservator in Germany, to try to find a publisher for an English translation of "Telescopes and Their Masters." As part of that still-pending venture, they brought Riekher to Chicago.

That is how he, Bolt and Korey found themselves under Yerke's 90-foot domed observatory in April, getting the cook's tour of the place from Cudworth, a University of Chicago astronomer who still uses the telescope.

The place has the aura of a scene from a Jules Verne science fiction novel, a feeling reinforced when an aide to Cudworth climbed a stairway to the base of the dome to hit a button, and the dome viewing slit began to open with an unworldly creak. Below, at a control panel on the floor, Cudworth threw a switch and the dome itself chattered noisily as it revolved until the slit was in line with the telescope.

From its perch on the massive metal pier in the middle of the room, the telescope hung out of reach a good 25 feet above Cudworth and the others. The wooden floor they stood on, 75 feet across, is built like a doughnut around but not touching the pier.

Cudworth threw another switch and the entire 30,000-pound floor slowly rose until it was just 5 feet below the telescope eyepiece.

"It's still the biggest elevator in the world," Cudworth said of the floor. He reached for the telescope, easily pivoting the 12,000-pound tube into any position he wanted by hand, a show of remarkable 19th Century craftsmanship.

Long familiar with the telescope and its history, Riekher was transfixed, nonetheless.

"The technical construction of telescopes is what fascinates me," he said. "I always like to note how people tackled certain problems."

Two hours into the tour, Cudworth excused himself to go home for dinner, promising to return at 10 p.m. to assist Riekher in viewing the night sky with the telescope.

After Cudworth left, Riekher nimbly stepped through railings of a spiral stairway winding up one side of the pier and began climbing around.

"Don't you two follow me up here," Riekher admonished Korey and Bolt. "I've been on a lot of these things. ... You might get hurt."

He then spent an hour nimbly negotiating the tower.

Astronomers quit building big refracting telescopes once they reached the size of Yerkes', when they found they could more easily and cheaply build even bigger, more powerful reflecting telescopes using mirrors.

The Yerkes refractor continues to work perfectly, but its viewing in recent decades has been weakened by electric lights of surrounding towns.

The old historian didn't seem to mind. He saw, he said, what he came to see, "the culmination of a great era of technological development."

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