Editor’s Note: The stars in my eyes

A night at Washburn Observatory left me with a newfound appreciation for the starry sky above.
timelapse photograph
Photo by Jamie Seidel

When our creative director, Tim Burton, suggested a cover story about stargazing, he got an immediate “yes” from everyone.

Just the thought of tilting our heads up to the sky — and tucking our phones away — triggered an immediate sigh of contentment at our meeting.

I was personally excited, too, because I couldn’t remember ever stargazing. I had never looked through the eyepiece of a telescope, and couldn’t recall ever recognizing the connections of a constellation.

Which is why I couldn’t wait for my interview and tour at Washburn Observatory. Climbing the steps of Observatory Hill, I met my guide and interview subject, Jim Lattis. He had a tidy white mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, a woven fedora on his head and Birkenstocks on his feet. Three bags were slung over his shoulder, one a Shakespeare and Co. canvas tote, the others black travel cases for telescope equipment. As he started explaining the history of the location and its structures, he spoke like I would expect of a historian of science. He kept adding more qualifying sentences and bits of information to make his statements more true. Every detail led to another, and another, in his quest to give me the most accurate answers. He was as excited to tell me about this place as I was to hear it.

We walked into the observatory’s library, which Lattis says is one of the few spots in the building that looks the way it originally did in 1881. Restorations over the years have even matched what’s thought to be the original paint color of the room. Tall bookcases stretch from door frame to door frame, just as they did when installed. Vertical slots on the lowest shelf were made to hold big maps and star charts. “He designed these cases to his exact specifications,” Lattis says about the observatory’s second director, Edward Holden. This launched Lattis into the observatory’s history of directors, but he soon cut himself off, realizing the sun was falling quickly and there was still more to see on the tour. He decided to grab the book he co-authored on Wisconsin Astronomy from the other room, setting his fedora down on the edge of the couch next to a bronze bust of former Wisconsin Gov. Cadwallader Washburn, who funded and founded the observatory. He sent me home with the book, which has all the details he wanted to cover.

Once we made it up to the dome, the sky peeking through the retracting door quickly turned from deep blue to black. Lattis directed me out onto the dome’s wrought iron balcony. As I tilted my head and allowed my eyes to adjust, I was overcome with a familiar feeling and then a series of snapshot memories: Looking up at the stars as a middle schooler during a drive-in movie with my family in the Dells. Feeling mesmerized by a bright orange moon on a cold, snowy drive home from my first newspaper job. Lying on the trampoline in the backyard and trying to hold stars like lightning bugs between my fingers.

I realized in that moment that stargazing is an activity that doesn’t have to be taught — it comes with being human. I’ve been a stargazer my whole life.

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