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

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

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.”

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