Archive

ShareThis Page
Pittsburgh’s history in astronomy shows sky’s the limit | TribLIVE.com
News

Pittsburgh’s history in astronomy shows sky’s the limit

ptrobservatory1FILE
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
The historic Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh's Riverview Park, Friday, September 5, 2014.

It’s probably hard for many to believe that Pittsburgh, with its gritty Rust Belt industrial history, has been a big player in the astronomy scene for more than a century.

Local scientist Dan Handley hopes to catch the world up on that assertion in his debut as a film director.

“Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory” will premiere in a private screening Wednesday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

The film documents the contributions of John Brashear and Samuel P. Langley, the first men to run Allegheny Observatory. The men embarked on studies of the sun and skies in the 1800s, a time when astronomy was thought to be useless junk science.

But it’s the observatory itself that’s the main character of the hourlong film, chronicling how Pittsburgh became — and remains — a world leader in astronomy.

“These were scientists who were so driven by their desire to study nature,” Handley says.

Pittsburgh actor David Conrad narrated the film, and Pittsburgh City Councilman William Peduto was the executive producer. The film features interviews with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and Dr. Tom Crouch, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Who would have guessed an observatory could thrive in the Pittsburgh area, long saddled with a reputation as a smoke-polluted steel town where the sun is only barely seen• But, thrive it has, since it opened in 1859 at its original location in Perrysville.

The observatory was taken over in 1867 by Western University of Pennsylvania — now the University of Pittsburgh — and opened in 1912 in Riverview Park.

“It’ll show you that … the observatory was a leader in astronomy, even as far back as the 1860s,” says David Turnshek, chairman of the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Pittsburgh. “It still is. People will be amazed by its history.”

Production on the film began in 2008, says Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center. Science and history educational materials related to the film will be made available to Pennsylvania schools at the History Center and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. There are no dates as yet for additional screenings.

Clearly, Handley is a scientist who knows how to use both sides of his brain. He studied playwriting and science journalism at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and documentary filmmaking at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where he is an Artist Member. Handley also has a master’s degree in logic and computation from Carnegie Mellon University, and received a Ph.D in human genetics from the University of Pittsburgh.

Handley says he hopes the perseverance of 19th-century scientists in the film will resonate with younger scientists.

“Today, if something doesn’t get results right away, it’s easy to say it’s not worth doing. But in science and technology, you can’t just give up,” Handley says. “If you’re willing to be undaunted, to keep working at it, your discoveries can make a great impact on the world.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.