Light-years of learning: Pitt students, learn stars, history at Allegheny Observatory

Allegheny Observatory offers students a chance to look at the stars. Sydney Harper | Multimedia Editor

Though it started out as a recreational observatory for the rich men who founded it, the Allegheny Observatory became the home of research that changed the world and our thoughts on what surrounds it.

Since 1859, researchers at the regal, tri-domed observatory in Riverview Park have made world-renowned scientific advancements. Theories developed within the observatory’s walls about Saturn’s rings and the size of the universe have provided the foundation Pitt students use to further modern scientific understanding.

Today, students from professor John Stein’s observational astronomy lab can use any of the observatory’s three instruments, ranging from a humble 13-inch refractor to a humongous 30-inch telescope, for their own astronomical discoveries.

“Without the observatory, we wouldn’t have any way to do this class,” Stein said

Stein has taught the lab for about 10 years, during which he said significant technological improvements have shifted the curriculum.

For example, the newest telescope at the observatory is entirely automated. Stein said he could even access it from his home — with just an Internet connection and a password.

“When we first started doing this class, we still had that 13-inch telescope that’s purely manual,” Stein said.

That 13-inch refractor, called the Fitz-Clark refractor, is the observatory’s first telescope — it’s been a part of the organization since its inception over 100 years ago.

A group of around 30 men who called themselves the Allegheny Telescope Association bought the telescope in 1859 from Henry Fitz, a telescope manufacturer in New York, just to wonder at the stars. They founded the observatory and housed the telescope in a building just a few blocks down the road from Riverview Park, in what is now the Triangle Tech trade school.

Around 1895, the group gave the telescope and the observatory building to Western Pennsylvania University — which became the University of Pittsburgh.

When the observatory moved to Riverview Park in 1912, the telescope went with it.

In 1895, 36 years after the observatory opened, scientists proved James Clerk Maxwell’s theory that the rings around Saturn weren’t solid, but were rather a collection of individual particles orbiting the planet together.

The telescopes at the observatory are also responsible for “[calibrating] the size-scale of the universe,” according to director Dave Turnshek.

The telescope moved to Riverview Park in 1912. In the ’70s, the astronomers in Pittsburgh used a method called trigonometric parallax to collect data with the Fitz-Clark telescope to determine where and how large items in the local universe are.

Now, Turnshek said astronomers all over the world use those astronomers’ methods and information.

As director, Turnshek has paused astronomical research like the information discovered using the Fitz-Clark refractor to focus on organizing the observatory’s unpublished archival data.

“There’s a lot of value in archival research,” Turnshek said. “Data that somebody doesn’t want to publish … some other scientist might think, ‘This is extraordinary stuff, it would solve a problem that I’ve been thinking about for some time.’”

But that doesn’t mean the high-tech equipment is gathering dust. Pitt students use two of the three telescopes at the observatory on a regular basis to get hands-on experience.

Anna Hegedüs, a professional media major, enrolled in Stein’s observational astronomy lab so that she could get hands-on experience with science.

“You don’t necessarily have to have an interest in astronomy,” Hegedüs said. “The way that Dr. Stein teaches is very accessible.”

Lab classes meet at the observatory for three hours per week to learn about the telescopes and practice using software to analyze their data. For her final project Hegedüs is analyzing shadows on the moon.

Her goal is to determine why some craters have a large central peak — the bump that forms when an asteroid makes impact with the moon.

Though the observatory primarily serves educational purposes, former director from 1898 to 1899 and late Pittsburgh philanthropist John Brashear also requested that it stay open for tours.

From March to October, members of the public can book a tour to learn about the observatory’s history and check out the stars through the iconic Fitz-Clark refractor.

Urns with the ashes of astronomers Brashear, James Keeler — former director of the observatory and contributor to the research on Saturn’s rings  — and their families rest in an ornate crypt beneath the base of the observatory’s first telescope.

On the headstone for Brashear and his wife, a metal plaque reads, “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

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