While my mother was in town, J took us up to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin
to see the lab he works in up there. The Observatory is no longer used for research, but the labs are functional (they use telescopes in other parts of the world).
Yerkes is home to the world's largest refracting telescope.
John is standing near the base to give you an idea of the scale. The white tube-like thing is the telescope. Only half of it is in the picture. The red wheels are part of the mechanism that moves the telescope up and down. The floor that J is standing on moves up and down so that you can actually reach the eyepiece.
After dinner, we waited for the skies to clear (it had rained), and headed back to Yerkes at 10:45 pm. This was the start of the most exciting part of the trip. Although we were not able to use the telescope pictured above (only the director is qualified to use it), we got to use another one of the telescopes and did some honest-to-goodness observing! We saw several nebulae and Jupiter. Jupiter looked something like this (images taken with a telescope at Yerkes--click on the first image). We also saw the four largest moons. I swear to God, it looked just like a picture out of a textbook. There were some high school teachers there using the scope--they had been there for a week-long workshop--but we just jumped right in ("step aside, real astrophysicist with his wife and mother-in-law here"). They were a little confused because they didn't know who John was, but we just shared the scope and everything worked out okay. The floor also moved up and down in this dome (the scope, while not nearly as big as the one pictured above, was still quite big and depending on what you had it pointed at and where the floor was, the eyepiece might be several feet over your head, or at your knees). I even got to put the coordinates in to move the scope (accompanied by a lot of warning to not let it hit my head) and I moved the floor and everything! Mom was absolutely thrilled, too, and we had a fabulous time.
We went to the hotel around 12:30 am and hit the hay and didn't get up until after 9 am (my mother normally goes to bed around 8pm and gets up at either 2am or 4 am, depending on whether she has to work overtime; so this was pretty crazy scheduling for her). Then, we headed back to Chicago. It was beyond worth it to go up there. Yerkes is a very famous observatory, so it was worth it historically, plus we got to use the scope which is probably a once in a lifetime experience, and to top it off, the University has just sold Yerkes and the land around it to a developer. While the observatory will remain on the site, if the sale actually goes through (and there's no guarantee about that because the town may block it) the University will no longer have control over the observatory and we wouldn't know someone who could just let us go in and fiddle around with the thing.
This whole experience has made me want to buy a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, a decent, but affordable telescope, and do some casual observing as a hobby with J (okay, so it may be a little weird for an astrophysicist to have astronomy as a hobby, but really, he doesn't get much of a chance to just point a scope at cool things in the sky and look at them). Maybe someday.....