A round room at the end of the day.

Tonight, after “tending bar” (occasionally pouring wine for people) at the reception of the Midwest Junto of the History of Science Society (which our department is hosting this year), I went with a couple of other attendees on a little tour of the Washburn Observatory given by my fellow grad student Peter.
There’s something wonderful about expansive, stark rooms built for a single purpose, housing a single piece of machinery. You enter the observing room through a small door at the top of a narrow flight of stairs, and your gaze is immediately drawn upward by the tall instrument at its center. To the right is a wide but rickety set of movable steps for low-angle observation. Above is the dome, huge, white, ridged, shuttered. At the top of the walls are large gearworks, teeth. The focusing knobs are dark and wooden, worn smooth by the hands for which they were made. The telescope is perfectly balanced, and its mass can be angled almost effortlessly. The sensation of moving it is deeply satisfying: a slight push, and the enormous metal cylinder is set in slow, perfect motion.
Opposite the entrance is another small door, which leads out onto a narrow iron balcony, curved to the shape of the building. Stepping out, you are struck by the recursion: a doorway to a capacious room brings you to yet another doorway, to yet another, greater room, like moving outward in a ring of concentric circles. Immediately you allow whatever view you thought was the best view on campus to relinquish its place: this, this is the one. You grasp the cool railing in the Mendota breeze. Lights shimmer on the opposite shore; the dark lake sparkles subtly.


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