It’s in the stars

By on March 30, 2014

Photo: During periods of particularly strong solar activity, Herman Zwirn can see the aurora borealis (seen on page 2B) from his observatory in Lily Lake. Though the aurora was visible earlier this winter, cloudy weather distorted the view. But in 2011, he captured spectacular shots (below). “The entire sky, the entire sky was the aurora,” Zwirn said. “We had run into a coronal mass ejection head on like a wave, and it just covered the entire sky. It was spectacular.” Photo by Cheryl Borrowdale

Lily Lake resident’s passion for astronomy burns bright
LILY LAKE—On a clear night, Herman Zwirn of Lily Lake can see distant nebulas or observe the icy rings of Saturn from his backyard observatory.

The observatory—a small building with a roof that rolls off to allow unobstructed views of the sky—features a large telescope, as well as a refractor, which Zwirn can use with filters to observe the sun during the day.

His telescope is powerful enough to observe surface features on the planets.

“With Jupiter, you can make out the swirls in the atmosphere, you can make out the loops and the details of the storms,” he said. “Saturn, you can see the rings pretty well and see the storms on the surface.”

Faded star charts line the observatory’s walls. He put them up when he first built his observatory in 1989, but they’re mainly decorative now. Computer programs that show the location of objects in the sky replaced them years ago.

He spends just about every clear night outside in his observatory, often accompanied by one of his collies, who like to lie nearby while he is staring into the heavens. For Zwirn, it’s all about the wonder.
“I think astronomy is one of those things. When you start doing it, there’s a wonder to it. Just opening up the telescope, there’s so much beauty to see. I watched the sun today, and there’s a nice bunch of sunspots. It makes your brain tickle, like classical music. It just takes hold of you,” Zwirn said. “The wonder never goes away. It just gets more wonderful and challenging.”

Zwirn’s passion for astronomy brought him to Lily Lake in 1987. He had been observing the sky from an observatory he’d built at his house in Lisle, Ill., before that, but when a car dealership went up nearby, the lights from the parking lot blotted out the night sky. He moved further west in search of darkness, even though he worked on the north side of Chicago for many years and had a two-hour commute.

Nearly three decades later, development is once again encroaching on Zwirn’s view, with light pollution from new stores and gas stations making it harder to see the stars. Air pollution is also making his view hazier, with fine particulate matter making it more difficult to get clear views.
Aurora lily Lake110704
That’s why Zwirn now trains his telescopes mainly on the brightest objects in the night sky, the moon and the planets, while in Lily Lake. He and his wife, Mary, now spend much of their summer on a farm in north-central Iowa, where they have a second observatory and a darker night sky—dark enough that he can photograph Andromeda.

“I like to do the planets and the moon, because that’s what’s best to do here,” Zwirn said. “But when I’m out further, I like to go deep sky. You can see the Milky Way. Even out here, you can see it faintly, but we’re rapidly approaching Chicago.”

He regularly consults charts created by cleardarksky.comto determine which nights are the darkest and will have the best sky transparency—both important for astrophotography, one of his favorite astronomical pursuits.

“If you’re just looking through a telescope, it’s not that critical,” Zwirn said. “But if you’re taking images, it is. Astrophotography can be something that is remarkable.”

Zwirn’s passion for both astronomy and photography began in high school, when he lived on the south side of Chicago and joined his school’s astronomy club. His father cut a hole in their garage roof so Zwirn could observe the sky better, and he still has pictures that he took of the moon as a teen. The more he learned about astronomy, the more serious he became about it.

He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied fine art painting for a few years until he got drafted in the Vietnam War. Stationed in Thailand, where the Air Force ran operations into North Vietnam, Zwirn learned computer skills and became fluent in Thai—and when his service was over, he returned to Chicago to work in information systems.

The shift from art to science was a natural one, he said.

Herman-Zwirn-2 “One of the reasons I enjoyed working in systems so much was that it was just as creative as art. We were making new things up, and we got to see them work,” he said. “Most scientists have some artistic bent—music, painting, photography. I think they go together.”

Astronomy and astrophotography can be solitary hobbies, but Zwirn enjoys sharing his interest with others, particularly children. He’s a board member for the Fox Valley Astronomical Society, which meets at Peck Farm in Geneva. And he likes to attend the public star parties and work with area schools.

“In many cases, (the schools) don’t have any equipment at all, so we’ll go out with the kids and set up the telescopes. One of our best times was at a middle school, and it was cloudy, so the kids decided they were going to do a little dance and make the rain go away—and the sky cleared,” he said. “These are just wonderful experiences, and you just hope that these kids have the chance to make a choice (about entering STEM fields).”

His passion for astronomy has also taken him all over the world to observe total solar eclipses.

Remarkable things happen during an eclipse, Zwirn said, as the natural world reacts to the sudden disappearance of the sun. While he was eclipse chasing on a ship in the Sea of Cortez, off the western coast of Mexico, dolphins came up to observe the sky at the moment of total eclipse.

“They got up on their tails. It was like they knew they couldn’t look at it until it was total,” Zwirn said. “They were like little dolphin astronomers.”

From the deserts of Libya, where he joined 15,000 fellow eclipse chasers who arrived to view a seven-minute total solar eclipse, to the Bolivian altiplano, where he camped at 14,000 feet above sea level and in the middle of a llama path, viewing eclipses is “just an overwhelming experience,” he said.

He also rents time on telescopes around the world. To see the southern sky, he uses large telescopes in Australia that he can control remotely, viewing stars and other celestial objects that aren’t visible in the northern hemisphere.

“I haven’t been out a lot this winter because of the weather, but I’m out whenever I can,” he said. “Most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by math and science, and I can’t imagine not having that knowledge.”