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Buy your own lab

Anyone can buy naming rights to a star, but Gary and Linda Dower are hoping to pick up their very own observatory.

By | November 7, 2005

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Anyone can buy naming rights to a star, but Gary and Linda Dower are hoping to pick up their very own observatory. The couple, who own the deluxe Mirbeau Inn & Spa in New York's Finger Lakes region, have offered $10 million to the University of Chicago for the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. – one of the nation's most historically important, if no longer scientifically advanced, observatories.

The observatory, on the shores of Geneva Lake, was named for Charles Tyson Yerkes, the Chicago streetcar baron whose money built the facility in the late 1890s under the guidance of George Ellery Hale. The gem of the site: a 40-inch refracting telescope, the largest of its kind in the world, and one of five major research telescopes in the facility. It was at Yerkes that astronomer William Morgan discovered the Milky Way's spiral arms. Morgan also laid keystones of future astrophysical research, establishing a system for classifying stellar spectra and deriving distances to stars.

But for decades the observatory has been something of a museum piece – one on which the University of Chicago no longer wants to lavish money and attention. The Dowers have pledged to preserve the 31-acre observatory site while developing an additional 47 acres surrounding the facility, building about 100 upscale bungalows and a spa to match their nouveau chateau-style resort on Lake Skaneateles. They have proposed that Williams Bay use taxes from the spa and homes to offset the cost of preserving Yerkes. Mary Claire Lanser, a Milwaukee publicist representing the Dowers, said it would take about $400,000 a year to maintain the observatory's physical plant.

The private plan has ruffled some friends of the observatory, who claim the facility would be better served by an academic protectorate. What's more, they argue, the developers do not offer a steady stream of income, only promises, to support the observatory's upkeep.

The Mirbeau plan recommends that Aurora University administer the observatory and oversee education programs there. Aurora, however, has publicly distanced itself from the developers and has submitted its own preservation proposal. "I don't think there is much of anyone this side of the state line who favors Mirbeau over Aurora," said Yerkes director Kyle Cudworth, a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago.

Building a spa and scores of houses, with all their ambient light, so close to the observatory would be "disastrous" for its education programs, added Cudworth. The Dowers counter by saying they would examine the latest in light-reducing technologies to mitigate such interference.

Both sides of the debate agree on one thing: Yerkes has a powerful mystique. "It is your image of what an observatory and telescope look like. It gives you a real emotional impact about the universe and astronomy and the potential of science," said Gary Dower, an engineer-turned-lawyer.

Stephen P. Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, said his group had no official position on the Yerkes issue. However, Maran added, saving the observatory from the black hole of science history was a worthy goal. "I think it is a serious, not only historical but architectural, icon that needs to be preserved. It has gargoyles on it."

Several observatories have changed hands in recent years, including venerable Mount Wilson in California, which now belongs to the Mount Wilson Institute, a nonprofit group. And the Kitt Peak National Observatory, in Arizona, is being sold in shares to universities. "We're building bigger and better and you can't afford everything," said Virginia Trimble, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.

Neither Mount Wilson nor Yerkes make significant contributions to astronomy any longer, Trimble said, but other "privatized" observatories could. Wayne Rosing, an amateur astronomer and former Google executive, used some of his stock option wealth to start a foundation dedicated to promoting astronomical research. Rosing has already purchased two existing two-meter instruments and plans to build several more. These telescopes are ideal for measuring how light bends around super novae and curves after gamma ray bursts, for example, as well as detecting small planets orbiting nearby stars, said Trimble, who sits on the foundation's scientific advisory board.

Howard Garrison, a spokesman for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Md., said he could not recall similar takeovers in the biological sciences. Neglect of labs may be more likely. Garrison pointed to the apparent fate of the renowned Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), created during the Civil War. A Congressional committee recently recommended shuttering AFIP, along with its parent facility, Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Although AFIP's enormous tissue bank will likely be sent elsewhere, the labs themselves could vanish.

What's in the stars for Yerkes? The University of Chicago announced no formal timeline for deciding which, if any, plan to accept, but it has suggested it will make its decision by "early winter," Cudworth said. "I don't know whether dollar signs will rule or whether assuring a good future for the observatory will win out. I just don't care to predict."

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