Director’s Letter June 2022

Chasing Dragons: From the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to an Outhouse in Gothic

This spring my family visited London, taking one last family trip after opportunities lost to covid before our oldest son leaves for college. A highlight was visiting the Old Royal Observatory. Stepping off a ferry on the Thames, we grabbed a coffee in Greenwich Village, walked past the National Maritime Museum (“Dad, how can you spend so much time looking at old things??”), through the park to see an early “field site”; the observatory was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II. Appointed royal astronomer John Flamsteed and his family stayed rent free. But charged with tracking the motions of heavens, he kept odd hours.

Astronomy was important because of longitude. For better and worse, ships were pouring out of the Thames mapping the world, “chasing the dragons away.”  A look at the Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510, reveals “Hic sunt dracones,” or “Here be dragons.” Dragons existed, but since nobody knew where, they had to be in regions unexplored. As mapmakers filled in blank spots, the dragons fled.

Not all ships returned. However, if captains knew where they were relative to reefs and shorelines, they would be more likely to bring their crews back alive. Using a sextant to measure the angle of the noon sun for latitude (north/south) was easy. Knowing longitude (east/west), however, involved tracking noon in Greenwich. Clocks of the time did not hold up to humidity and the rocking of the ships. Hence astronomy.

Time is an important theme at RMBL. RMBL’s drones and sensors depend critically upon time to make precise measurements. Another example: Dr. Colin Pittendrigh, father of the biological clock, grew fly larvae varying light (Gothic outhouse), temperature (East River), and pressure (pressure cooker), finding an internal clock (think jet lag). In a small way this led to a Nobel Prize in Physiology awarded for elucidating the molecular mechanisms of the biological clock.

One of the last places dragons called home was the Gunnison Basin. In 1873 the Hayden Survey used the law of cosines to map Gothic, Teocalli, and other local mountains. That same year Lieutenant EH Ruffner mapped local peaks, naming them after scientists, including Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog” and Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Local historian Brian Levine calls these the philosopher peaks. With few opportunities to be professional scientists, many were doctors, clergy, and carpenters, often referring to themselves “natural philosophers.”

Dr. Henry Estess became my ideal of a natural philosopher. An obstetrician/gynecologist from Dallas who loved science, and, passionate about the environment, for decades Henry wandered the wildflower meadows and streams around Crested Butte. He “loved fishing but not catching.” He and his wife Sandra would drop in for a RMBL seminar, lunch, or tour. We all have our time, and he passed in 2018. His family remains connected to RMBL; Henry and Sandra’s daughter Elizabeth Estess Hughes is a RMBL trustee.

This spring the Estess Family announced a $2 million pledge to RMBL to purchase property in Mt. Crested Butte, see the adjoining article. While there are many details to resolve before construction, this gift will ensure that natural philosophy thrives in the Gunnison Basin. As prices skyrocket, the property will provide housing for scientists and staff as well as year-round science and outreach facilities. Most importantly, while the dragons are long gone, in partnership with the Estess Family future generations of scientists and students will continue on pathways of discovery that will change how they see themselves and how everyone sees the world. Through philanthropy, and the work they put in, the Estess family have done wonderful things for the communities they touch. We are grateful and humbled to work with you. Thank you!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL