In Search of Grote Reber

(This post contains material that may eventually appear in my book Back Roads, Dark Skies: A Cosmological Journey. While it’s unlikely it will survive to the published version without extensive edits, I just want y’all to know.)

Grote Reber, courtesy of the NRAO archives.

Unlike most sites where the business of cosmology is done, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory—known colloquially as Fermilab—isn’t in a remote spot. The facility is in Batavia, Illinois, part of the sprawling metroplex of Chicago, and it’s just a short drive from two major tollways. The Standard Model describes a plethora of particles, but it has nothing on the number of fast-food joints and auto shops within ten minutes’ drive of the Fermilab gates. My friend hosting me during my stay in Illinois wasn’t even aware of the lab’s location, despite having friends living close by—the area around it is that dense.

One suburb neighboring Batavia is Wheaton, which may be best known today as the home of Wheaton College, the very conservative Christian school whose alumni include evangelist Billy Graham and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Although the attitude of the college appears to be changing, in the past the faculty were forced to reject biological evolution, and the teaching of evolution is still considered controversial by many students and alumni. As recently as 2004, one professor was forced out for converting to Roman Catholicism. Ironically, the college also possesses the personal papers of the famous writers J.R.R. Tolkien (a Catholic) and C.S. Lewis (whose lifestyle may have made him unsuitable for the faculty, even if many of his religious views would be considered OK).

But I didn’t come to Wheaton for the college or the controversy, or even the famous mammoth skeleton to be found on the college campus. I came in search of Grote Reber.

Astronomy, Suburban Illinois Style

I arrived in the vast sprawl of humanity known generally as Chicago in the middle of the day. Thanks to the presence of a big NATO conference (including the President and a number of other world leaders), I never actually set foot or car wheel in Chicago proper, to avoid being trampled by security or protestors. However, I was bound for Fermilab the next day, and my host lives in a suburb north of Batavia, so I was in the neighborhood, so to speak.

Thanks to my usual habit of arriving early, I had lot of time to kill before my friend was to arrive home from work. When faced with a situation like that, I pull out my road maps—the paper kind, since computer-based maps are still not quite up to par when it comes to spontaneous route changes. In this case, I found myself very close to Wheaton, and decided to take a quick detour. The day was unusually hot for the Midwest in May, but I was happy to get out of the car and stretch my legs. Thanks to free internet at a coffee shop, I had an address and directions, but little else to guide me to one of the most eccentric figures in 20th century American astronomy.

Actually, two prominent astronomers came of age in Wheaton: Grote Reber and Edwin Hubble. Hubble is very well known, both within the scientific community and the general public. Along with Vesto Slipher, Hubble and janitor-turned-astronomer Milton Humason measured the expansion rate of the Universe for the first time, via the motion of galaxies. Earlier, Hubble established the distance to Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M31), using the method of variable stars established by Henrietta Swan Leavitt. However, Hubble seemed reluctant to claim his American Midwestern heritage—though he was born in Marshfield, Missouri and graduated high school from Wheaton, where his family moved when he was 10 years old, he often pretended to be British. He had the odd habit of feigning an English accent and dressing in an exaggerated style he associated with dons at Oxford. Since he left Wheaton to attend university and never returned, I didn’t expect to see much of Hubble’s presence in the town, and I was correct in that expectation—though disappointed.

Grote Reber, on the other hand, was a true native son of Wheaton. He was born there on December 22, 1911; his mother, née Harriet Grote, taught Hubble in school, and encouraged Grote’s scientific pursuits. He continued to live in Wheaton in his mother’s house well into adulthood, though my research hasn’t revealed exactly when he left. However, in 1951 he relocated to Hawaii, and permanently moved to Tasmania in 1954. Wheaton is where he achieved his scientific triumph, though, and why I hoped to find traces of his existence.

Radio engineer Karl Jansky discovered radio waves from the Milky Way in 1932 using a huge antenna on a turntable. However, his employer, Bell Labs, didn’t support his scientific endeavor, despite the immediate scientific and media attention Jansky’s results garnered. The design of the antenna and the frequency at which he observed limited his ability to do much, though he did the strongest source of radio waves lay at the center of the galaxy. Jansky is rightly recognized today as the founder of radio astronomy; the measurement of radio energy deposited over the area of a telescope is named for him.

Grote Reber’s radio telescope, now at NRAO in Green Bank, West Virginia. He built the instrument in the lot his mother owned in Wheaton, Illinois.

Grote Reber read Jansky’s papers and set himself to designing a radio dish, which is the same basic pattern most modern radio telescopes follow. Over a period of four months in the summer of  1937, he built the first true radio telescope in the world, in the vacant lot adjoining his widowed mother’s house. He used $4,000 of his own money, and constructed it himself, with the help of his younger brother Schuyler (an accountant, according to the 1940 U.S. Census form), a man named John Varley, and workers at Frank Holstein’s Machine Shop in Wheaton. They used scrap lumber and metal, and built in a sheet metal overhang to keep the local children from using it as a jungle gym. The telescope consisted of a dish 8 meters in diameter—a huge structure that would probably not be allowed by zoning law in Wheaton or most towns today.

Reber replicated Jansky’s work, but thanks to the better design of his instrument, was able to map the entire galaxy in radio waves in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. Particularly, he measured synchrotron light: the light emitted when electrons are accelerated along a curved path by galactic magnetic fields. He published his work in the Astrophysical Journal, then as now one of the premier scientific publications for astronomy, but he turned down offers to do research professionally until 1951.

A Small Memorial for a Large Memory

I knew the telescope was gone—I’ve visited it in its current home at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory site in Green Bank, West Virginia, where it was moved in 1994. However, I had the address of Harriet Grote Reber’s house: 212 West Seminary Road. From the National Park Service website, I learned the house was also gone (a claim that turned out to be wrong), but I hoped there would at least be some plaque or other indication that the telescope once stood there.

The historical marker for Grote Reber’s telescope, corresponding roughly to where it stood. The telescope is now in West Virginia, the house was moved to another neighborhood, and the street itself doesn’t exist under the same name.

In fact, thanks to the construction of a public park and bandshell, there is no longer a 200 block of West Seminary Road in Wheaton, which I found out only after walking around the town asking random passersby. There is a 100 block and a 300 block, but the street split to encompass the park. However, after a bit of search, I found a commemorative plaque in honor of the telescope that had stood roughly on that site. The marker was put in place in 1999, at the back of a parking lot for a store.

Now pause a moment to consider that. Reber built the telescope in 1937, published his first groundbreaking paper in 1940, mapped the entire Milky Way in synchrotron light by 1944…and finally got a monument in his hometown in 1999, which you have to know where to look to even find it. Sure, I know the telescope—the obvious object to commemorate—is gone, and the house itself isn’t architecturally interesting. However, it still feels like a major scientific achievement should be honored with more than this, and so I went to the Wheaton Public Library and asked at the reference desk what they could tell me about Grote Reber.

As you might expect, he is included in the local histories, along with Hubble…but more space is devoted to Billy Graham (who lived in Wheaton for a shorter period of time than either astronomer) and many local figures who are unknown to me as an outsider. Perhaps it’s a case of prophets failing to find honor in their hometowns; perhaps it’s uncertainty about how to honor someone whose work wasn’t civic, philanthropic, or even taught in ordinary science courses. (I forgot to ask if children learn about him or Hubble in school.) Reber wasn’t a war hero; while he was an inventor, most of us don’t use his inventions (except in the sense that satellite dishes for television resemble his telescope). I’m sure it doesn’t help that he was a deeply strange man, according to a number of people I’ve spoken to who met him, with many eccentric views. For example, he never accepted the Big Bang, ironically since radio astronomy has provided some of the best evidence in support of that theory. He doesn’t play well with others, metaphorically speaking, but I don’t think that’s the reason there is no substantial monument in his honor in Wheaton, important as he is in the history of 20th century science.

Interestingly, his mother’s house does still exist: it was moved to another neighborhood when the streets were reconfigured. The reference librarian at the Wheaton Public Library gave me the address, so on my way out of town, I drove past it. The building really is nothing special: a kind of plain, ugly block of a house. There’s no marker on it, and people live in it, so obviously I wasn’t going to stare very long. (Einstein’s house in Princeton similarly has nothing much to recommend it as a landmark; I walked past it several times when I lived in New Jersey before I identified which house it actually was.) Harriet Grote Reber’s former house isn’t really a monument to her son’s achievement anyway; nor should it be. I do hope, however, that we in the United States can begin honoring our scientific innovators as much as we honor inventors, war heroes, politicians, bank robbers, and robber barons. I can’t help but feel that if a town produced two movie stars, two presidents, or two major poets (though we’re not always as diligent about honoring our literary heroes as we should be either), there would be a huge monument, and probably acknowledgment on highway markers. What does that say about the place of science in our society?

(Thanks to the librarian in the Wheaton Public Library who located the Wheaton census record, told me where Harriet Grote Reber’s house stands now, and showed me the local history books. Her vast knowledge shows she bears no responsibility for the relative obscurity of Grote Rebe in his hometown. She only gave me her first name, but I acknowledge her nevertheless, and am waiting to hear if she’ll allow her full name to be used in the book.)

6 Responses to “In Search of Grote Reber”

  1. 1 ericphysjones July 21, 2012 at 11:53

    Thanks for a very interesting report on a man and accomplishment not too far from my home. Alas, it is doubtful that Grote Reber is ever mentioned in schools in the area. For that matter, if it weren’t for the Hubble Telescope, I doubt that Hubble would be either.

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