From the August 2019 issue

Astronomy backstage pass: Chicago

This behind-the-scenes tour of cool astro stuff in the Windy City includes Adler Planetarium’s priceless artifacts, incredible meteorites in the Field Museum, neutrino detectors at Fermilab, and the rich history of Yerkes Observatory.
By | Published: August 27, 2019 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Astronomy magazine
Have you ever been on the main floor of a museum, observatory, or planetarium and thought, “I wonder what goes on behind those doors?” Well, with the new Astronomy Backstage Pass: Chicago DVD, you can finally get your own private tour through four of the finest scientific facilities that the Chicago area has to offer. And, perhaps most importantly, you can do it all from the comfort of your own couch.

In Astronomy Backstage Pass: Chicago, you’ll tag along with Astronomy magazine editors Dave Eicher and Michael Bakich as they guide you on your own three-hour, behind-the-scenes tour through: Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum of Natural History, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), and, of course, the historic Yerkes Observatory.

At each location, your knowledgeable tour guides will introduce you to the passionate scientists, lecturers, and curators that form the backbones of these amazing establishments. During your virtual journey, you’ll also peruse equipment, books, and artifacts that are not accessible to the general public, providing you with unique insights into the past (and future) of each historic institution.

Adler Planetarium

At Adler Planetarium, you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about the first planetarium built in the Western Hemisphere. Within Adler’s Art Deco halls, you’ll meet Michelle Nichols, the planetarium’s director of public observing, who will personally help you explore the Mission Moon Gallery, as well as the Atwood Celestial Sphere — a 15-foot-wide, 500-pound sheet-metal ball with nearly 700 holes drilled into it that once served as a primitive planetarium.

Adler Planetarium
Additionally, Mike Smail, the manager of Adler’s three impressive theatres, will provide you with a personalized tour of the Grainger Sky Theater, the Definiti Space Theater, and the Johnson Family Star Theater — each of which was built with a specific public outreach goal in mind. Finally, you’ll meet Pedro Raposo, the curator of Adler’s extensive collection of astronomical artifacts, which range from ancient astrolabes and antique telescopes to an impressive lineup of rare books, including those signed by Johannes Kepler and William Herschel.
The Field Museum of Natural History

At the Field Museum, you’ll meet Philipp Heck, the Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies, who will present you with one of the finest meteorite, rock, and gem collections found anywhere on the planet. While exploring this out-of-this-world collection, you’ll see a wide range of celestial samples that have made their way to Earth inside of meteorites. The assemblage includes over 20 pounds each of the famous Murchinson meteorite, found in Australia, and the Allende meteorite, found in Mexico.

The Field Museum
Ancheta Wis (Wikipedia)
To further quench your meteoritic thirst, you’ll meet with the engaging Jim Holstein, collections manager of physical geology at The Field Museum. Holstein will take you on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s more than 30 million specimens — including more than 12,000 meteorites of varying shapes, sizes, and compositions, plus a few diamonds to boot.
Wilson Hall
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

At Fermilab, you’ll discover the incredible science that goes on underground within miles of tunnels packed with advanced neutrino detectors, which are continually probing the properties of elementary particles and dark matter. Kicking off the tour is Marcela Carena, the head of the theoretical physics group at Fermilab and a professor at the University of Chicago. Marcela will provide you with a fascinating introduction to Fermilab’s 40-year history, astonishing technological capabilities, and current cutting-edge research.

Furthermore, you’ll meet Beau Harrison, who will walk you through the incredibly demanding (yet rewarding) life of an accelerator operator, and Dan Hooper, a senior scientist at Fermilab. Dan, who is one of the world’s leading experts on dark matter, will explain our current understanding of the elusive and undetectable substance, as well as describe how we are currently trying to investigate it.

Yerkes Observatory

Last, but surely not least, you’ll travel to Williams Bay, Wisconsin, home of the historic Yerkes Observatory, which was built in the late 1890s. Your visit to Yerkes will fittingly begin with a tour of the largest refracting telescope ever built: the world-famous Yerkes 40-Inch Refractor. During the tour, Dan Koehler, the director of tours and special programs, will go into great detail concerning the instrument’s design, abilities, and storied past. After a brief but informative stop at Yerkes’ lesser-known 24-inch reflector, Dan will also give you a private tour of one of Yerkes’ most beautiful rooms, the former office of Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Yerkes Observatory
munford (Wikipedia)
Finally, your adventure through the best science sites the Midwest has to offer will conclude with a stunning tour through the Yerkes Observatory Plate Vault, led by Wayne “Ozzy” Osborn (no relation).  While there, you’ll peruse the over 170,000 astronomical photographic plates housed within the vault, as well as explore many artifacts from astronomers such as George Hale and Edward E. Barnard.
No matter which institution piques your interest the most, if you are a fan of astronomy, you will absolutely love all three hours of this informative and informal trip through the best scientific facilities Chicagoland has to offer. Don’t delay, get your backstage pass today!