We Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly ...

Issue Date: 
May 5, 2014

PerchedExterior of the Allegheny Observatory’s main dome, which houses the Thaw Refractor. atop a city hillside, the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory dominates the landscape in the neighborhood of Riverview Park. With its towering Ionic pillars, three impressive domes, and chiseled frieze of astronomers’ names, the neoclassical basilica exudes both mystery and majesty. The only physical legacy of the observatory’s origins in 1861 is the still-operating Fitz-Clark Refractor. But the spirit of discovery remains as strong as ever at this historic scientific landmark.

In the 1860s, a Pittsburgher named John Brashear spent all of his spare time creating a telescope lens that would give him the best possible view of the night sky. His interest in amateur astronomy began when his grandfather took him, at the age of 9, to view the night sky through a traveling telescope on display in his hometown of Brownsville, near Pittsburgh. There, the youngster first gazed at the moon and Saturn, stimulating a lifelong interest in both astronomy and optics.

In his early 20s, Brashear worked in a Pittsburgh steel mill and pursued his love of stargazing at night. Without the financial means to buy a refracting telescope, he recruited his wife, Phoebe, to help him craft a powerful lens. The couple set up a lens-making workshop in their Southside Slopes backyard coal shed. After months of work, Brashear dropped and shattered the results of their first attempt. Within two years, though, they had crafted a new, improved lens—and it got the attention of a distinguished scientist and astronomer, Samuel Pierpont Langley.

At the time, Langley was the first director of an observatory that sat in the woods of Riverview Park, across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. The observatory was born in 1859 as the Allegheny Telescope Association, a venture made possible by several Pittsburgh philanthropists who were drawn to stargazing. Langley, a professor of astronomy at Western University of Pennsylvania (which later became the University of Pittsburgh) worked with one of those founding philanthropists, William Thaw, to improve the observatory’s facilities and to acquire new and better equipment. Thaw, a trustee of the University, was interested in enhancing the observatory and had transferred ownership of the observatory to the school in 1867.

When Langley learned about Brasher’s new lens, he recruited the millworker to become the observatory’s adjunct equipment manufacturer. Thaw financed and equipped a new workshop for Brashear, who also developed a silvering process for mirrors used in reflecting telescopes. He published the details freely, refusing to patent the innovation for his own profit. It became an industry standard for nearly 70 years, and Brashear became recognized as one of the nation’s most talented lens-makers of the era.

Langley also embarked on new discoveries, and he needed to find a way to acquire income for the observatory. So, he began to sell time. “People were telling time by sundials, almanacs, or when the chickens got up,” explains Art Glaser, a historian and tour guide at today’s Allegheny Observatory, about the lack of precise or unified timekeeping during that era. “Trains were crashing if the conductors’ pocket watches were just a couple minutes off,” says Glaser.  The boom in rail travel during that era made a solution essential. So, at the observatory, Langley found a way to standardize time using the transits of stars. He then broadcast, by telegraph, his precise astronomical time signal to the Pennsylvania Railroad for a fee. Soon, Langley’s Allegheny Time System was being broadcast twice a day to railways beyond Pennsylvania, eventually covering more than 8,000 miles of railways in the United States and Canada. His work led eventually to the entire nation adopting universal standard time through an act of Congress.

InIn the lobby, visitors can view a statue of John Brashear, the original lens of the Thaw Refractor, and a stained-glass window of Urania, the Greek goddess of astronomy. 1887, Langley was appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but he continued to work on novel scientific ideas at the Allegheny Observatory, traveling between the two sites. During this time, he experimented with building unmanned aircraft and developed a heavier-than-air model that flew briefly over the Chesapeake Bay. Before long, though, his innovations were overshadowed by the Wright Brothers’ successful manned flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Today, a model of one of Langley’s aerodromes hangs above an alcove on the first floor of Pitt’s Posvar Hall.

Eventually, Langley turned his attention fully to the Smithsonian Institution, and the Allegheny Observatory was led for nearly a decade by James Edward Keeler, who discovered the rings of Saturn and cofounded what is now the most prestigious journal devoted to research in astrophysics, the Astrophysical Journal. Craters on the moon and mars, an asteroid, and a distinctive gap in Saturn’s rings are named in Keeler’s honor.

When Keeler left the Allegheny Observatory, Brashear stepped in as interim director and, by 1900, managed to secure funds for what he called “the temple to the skies.” He hired Swedish architect Thorsten E. Billquist to design the new facility—the neoclassical basilica, dedicated in 1912, that still stands in Riverview Park. The redesigned building included a research library, lecture hall, classrooms, offices and three telescope domes to house the original 13” Fitz-Clark Refractor, a new 30” Thaw Refractor, and a new 31” Keeler Memorial Reflecting Telescope.

Brashear’s vision was to ensure that the University’s observatory would remain open and free to the public: “In my early struggles to gain a knowledge of the stars, I made a resolution that if ever an opportunity offered or I could make such an opportunity, I should have a place where all the people who loved the stars could enjoy them,” he wrote in his autobiography, A Man Who Loved the Stars.  “And the dear old 13” telescope, by the use of which so many discoveries were made, is also given up to the use of the citizens of Pittsburgh, or, for that matter, citizens of the world.”

The observatory’s current director, David Turnshek—professor and chair of Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy—perpetuates this sense of wonder, along with Lou Coban, the observatory’s administrator and technician. The observatory’s activities include ongoing research, educational experiences for students, and community outreach activities. Public lectures, open houses, and tours remain open and free to the public. Turnshek says the loose notion of backyard astronomy is vital to the observatory today. That curiosity hooked people like Thaw, Langley, Brashear, Keeler—and Turnshek, too.

Not unlike his predecessors, Turnshek cultivated a relationship with the cosmos at an early age. Using a high school friend’s homemade telescope, he turned an unblinking eye to the night sky. He went on to make a number of his own telescopes, including the lenses and mirrors, starting at age 14.

“It’s absolutely contagious,” he says about the allure of the unknown universe. “It influenced what my career would be.” Turnshek’s research focuses on distant quasars—or quasi-stellar objects—which are supermassive black holes surrounded by brilliant accretion disks embedded in the centers of galaxies. In addition to studying the physics of this energetic phenomenon, he also studies the properties of gas distributed throughout the universe by observing how the gas absorbs background quasar light.

After the dedication of the new Allegheny Observatory building in 1912, research there began to focus on explorations beyond Earth’s solar system, such as measuring the distances to stars and searching for and studying planets beyond our own solar system. A longstanding hallmark of the observatory’s work is astrometry, the science of measuring accurate positions of stars. By measuring the position of a star at opposite ends of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, a parallax or trigonometric measurement can be obtained to pinpoint the star’s distance from Earth. Broadly, astrometry provides fundamental results on the distance scale of the universe, the orbital mechanics of binary stars, and basic properties of stars.

“We’re one of the leading institutions for stellar parallax work,” says George Gatewood, a Pitt professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, about Allegheny Observatory’s trademark field, which began here in 1914. Gatewood completed his PhD research in 1972 using astrometric data from the Thaw Refractor. With more than 110,000 images, the observatory holds the world’s largest collection of parallax plates, or photographs, of star positions used to determine distances to stars and their motions.

Gatewood—the planetary detective who served as the observatory’s director from 1977 to 2008—increased the program’s star-measuring capabilities by modernizing the Thaw Refractor in 1988. He also initiated a program of extra-solar (outside our solar system) planet searches. The Pitt astrophysicist identified Epsilon Eridani as a star with an orbiting planet, as well as a possible multiplanet system around the star Lalande 21185.

“Pitt is the only institution of its size with a professional observatory right in the same town,” says Gatewood. “The future of the place is educational, and the future looks just as great as the past.”

Michael Wood-Vasey, a Pitt astrophysicist and assistant professor of physics and astronomy, now teaches an upper-level undergraduate astronomy course and leads a research group, using the observatory as a primary resource. In 2005, the 31” Keeler Reflector was replaced with a modern, automated 16” Meade RCX-400 telescope system, and the Keeler dome was computerized. The entire system—the lens caps, telescope, and dome—can be operated by remote control from the Department of Physics and Astronomy on the Pittsburgh campus, allowing Wood-Vasey’s research group to use the telescope routinely.

Following Gatewood’s path, Wood-Vasey’s research group explores planets, beyond our solar system, that transit or pass in front of their parent stars. They’re also even “checking for signs of habitability as they observe the signatures of other worlds,” says Wood-Vasey, who notes that some of the work has been published in major journals. It’s experiential, hands-on learning that many students of astronomy elsewhere don’t have access to.

Walking the pathway that spirals up to Observatory Hill, any visitor might feel an arresting sense of smallness and wonder approaching the domes that slide open to reveal what so few city dwellers experience—diamonds tossed on a blanket of the deepest blue. The history and magic of this place have been captured by Pitt alumnus Dan Handley (GSPH ’08G) in his film Undaunted, which premiered last spring on WQED, Pittsburgh’s public broadcasting station.

The Allegheny Observatory remains both an educational and a research facility. But it’s also a learning institution for the public, a condition mandated by Thaw when he brokered ownership to Pitt. If it’s the third Friday of the month, a public lecture will be starting in the evening (except in December). The lecture hall—a small museum of the observatory’s rich history, complete with antique telescopes and small meteorites—is the first door on the left. But if visitors have a few minutes before the lecture begins, they can walk down the marble corridor under the watchful eyes of the past directors, some in statue poses, some gazing from framed paintings lining the walls. Or enter the observatory’s dimly lit library, a three-story archive of anything and everything astronomy. Or even venture to the base of the massive Keeler-dome telescope.

There, in a tiny basement room decorated in luminous mosaic tiles, is a crypt. The room contains the mortal remains of Keeler, his wife, Cora, and son, Henry, who rest in an urn on the bedrock of the Allegheny Observatory. And, next to them, lie Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. The epitaph on their tomb, an excerpt from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” still speaks to all those who have looked upward in awe:

“We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

(Excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Pitt Magazine.)