University of Pittsburgh


On a neighborhood hillside in Pittsburgh sits a mysterious building with three bright domes and a roof that opens to the night sky. Pitt alumnus Dan Handley is fascinated by the University’s Allegheny Observatory, and he wants to share its fabled story and its modern sciencemaking with, well, everyone.

Written by Cara J. Hayden

Dan Handly

Dan Handley

In an underground studio in downtown Pittsburgh, a film director listens to an actor who’s reading a script aloud. The actor is perched in a separate sound booth, wearing headphones and speaking into a jumbo microphone. The director, Dan Handley, is stationed at a table with a copy of the script. He’s following each word with a pen as the actor reads about the planet Saturn: “In 1610, Galileo became the very first person to observe Saturn’s rings. Since then, astronomers had speculated on the nature of those rings. Were they solid disks, as they appear to be?

Or were they …”

“Can we pick that up again?” Handley interrupts. He looks at the actor through the sound-booth window and explains that there wasn’t enough of a pause after the words “rings” and “disks.” So the Hollywood actor, David Conrad, backs up and reads the passage again.

Handley, a Pitt alumnus, listens intently to each syllable. With a brown mustache and blond, California surfer hair, he has the subtle look of a film director. He also sports rectangular glasses and the essential apparel of a Casual Day professional: black button-down shirt and jeans. Most people would never guess that he spends the bulk of his time in science laboratories rather than in film studios.

The second reading goes smoothly, so Conrad continues reciting the script, which explains that Pitt astronomer James Keeler discovered that Saturn’s rings were not solid, but made up of individual particles. Keeler made the discovery at the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory back in 1895.

The astronomer’s achievement is one of many long-ago accomplishments that will soon be thrust back into the national spotlight in a new movie about Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory. Handley and his film crew are recounting the drama—both on Earth and in outer space—that has long been part of the observatory’s history.

In the winter of 2007, Handley was driving along Bascom Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Side when he saw something in the distance he’d never seen before: three white domes on top of a hill. Instantly, he knew it must be the building that had given his neighborhood, Observatory Hill, its name.

Handley had moved to the community several months before, when the trees still had their leaves, and he had asked his neighbors about the history behind the Observatory Hill name. There was an observatory somewhere nearby, they said, but few seemed to know much about it. Then winter came, the trees shed the last of their leaves, and Handley found himself driving off-course in an attempt to get closer to the mysterious white domes that were suddenly visible without all the vegetation. At the time, he was pursuing his PhD degree in human genetics in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. He also was producing a television series called Pittsburgh Genius, which showcased scientific research in Pittsburgh on the local PCTV-21 station.

Although Handley got lost trying to find the Allegheny Observatory that day, he eventually found it on another drive. A sign taped to the front door advertised the observatory’s free weekly tours.Handley signed up for one. Once inside, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the building’s marble and wood and its signature stained-glass window of Urania, the Greek goddess of astronomy. The giant telescopes, one dating to the Civil War and the year of the observatory’s founding, were even more impressive.

He also was stunned by everything he learned on the visit. He didn’t know that the nature of Saturn’s rings had been discovered—here! He didn’t know that clocks to standardize time for all U.S. railroads were once set—here! He didn’t know that pre-Wright Brothers flying machines had been developed—here! He didn’t know that astrophysics had its start—here! He didn’t know that astronomers still conducted research—here!

“Not many people think of Pittsburgh when they think of astrophysics, but this is where it all started,” he reflected later. “Many observatories are lone ‘Quonset huts’ on the top of a hill, and they’re meant to be fully utilitarian. This one is crafted with a love—a love for astronomy. Not all cities have something like this—something of historical and scientific importance where the

public can view the night sky.”

Allegheny Observatory is among the world’s major astronomical research institutions, even today. Handley couldn’t believe he had been living in Pittsburgh for seven years and had only now discovered this scientific, historical, and architectural wonder. He also couldn’t believe that his neighbors didn’t know much about it. Everyone in Pittsburgh—everyone in the whole country—should know about this remarkable urban observatory, he thought.

He considered filming a Pittsburgh Genius episode about it, but a half-hour show seemed inadequate to tell the story of the place. No, Pitt’s observatory deserved a professional, feature-length documentary. He thought it would be fun to write and produce, but he wasn’t sure whether he could pull it off. He was still new to the art of filmmaking.

Although Handley has a variety of interests, he has always considered himself to be, first and foremost, a scientist. As a boy growing up in Ohio, he didn’t just read a schoolbook summary of Charles Darwin’s research. He read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle. The books made him want to live like the famous biologist. He, too, wanted to travel to interesting locales and explore science.

In his adult years, Handley has done just that. First he moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biophysics while taking elective playwriting classes. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked his way up to manager in a neurology laboratory at the UCLA School of Medicine. He enjoyed being an oddball scientist in the middle of L.A. film culture. Next he took a job as a researcher with the Procter & Gamble pharmaceutical company in Cincinnati, Ohio. On nights and weekends, he read psychology and philosophy texts, an interest that led him to apply to graduate school in philosophy.

In 2000, Handley came to Pittsburgh to enroll in the logic and computation philosophy program at Carnegie Mellon University. That same year, George W. Bush was elected president of the country. One of the president’s first actions in office was to ban human cloning, a move that caused a grand, national debate. Over the next few years—in between earning his master’s degree in philosophy and enrolling in the PhD human genetics program at Pitt—Handley followed the cloning controversy in newspapers, on cable news, and with colleagues. He came to the conclusion that people on all political sides weren’t using enough valid, scientific evidence to support their claims. He felt strongly that the public wasn’t getting enough good, in-depth information about science in general, and he wanted to do something about it.

So he began taking filmmaking classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a nonprofit organization that promotes the visual arts. He had decided television would be the best medium for teaching masses of people about science. He also applied for, and received, a grant to produce the Pittsburgh Genius television series. The episodes gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how Pittsburgh scientists study stem cells, cancer, Mars, and more.

A year later, Handley made his memorable tour of the Allegheny Observatory. Soon afterward, he signed up for a documentary film course at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. He focused his class project on the observatory. When Mark Knobil, an Emmy-nominated cinematographer, came to class as a guest expert, Handley proposed his film idea. Knobil, a Pittsburgh native, thought it was fantastic. He still remembered his own initial encounter with the observatory.  “I first went there as a teenager and was captivated by the Victorian mystery, whimsy, and majesty of the place,” Knobil says. “It is somewhere Jules Verne would set a story.” He thought it was a movie just waiting to be made. He offered to help Handley transform his idea from a class project into reality. Once Handley knew that he had the support of a professional cinematographer, he decided he really would produce and direct a movie about the Allegheny Observatory. This would be his greatest opportunity yet to educate the public about science.

So in the spring of 2008, Handley hurled himself into the film project. There was much to do: Conduct historical research on the observatory, including the enticing tale of how a lens was once stolen from a telescope and held ransom. Write a script. Hire a crew. Make a list of experts to interview. Hunt for old photographs of astronomers in libraries and on eBay. Build a Web site. Find a helicopter service so Knobil could shoot aerial footage of the observatory. Make a list of objects that could be useful for illustrating scientific concepts: a Victrola record player to show the hypothesized motion of Saturn’s rings, a heat lamp to demonstrate the principles of infrared light.

During this period, Handley also earned his PhD and transitioned to a postdoctoral fellowship in fetal genomics at the Magee-Womens Research Institute near the Oakland campus. He put in nine hours a day at the lab, then several more hours on the film every night, and even more on weekends. Knobil describes him as someone with “boundless energy, tenacity, and focus.” Over the summer, Handley even took a working vacation, which he characterizes as “one of the best times of my life.” He took a week off from the laboratory and traveled to Washington, D.C.;New York City; and Ontario, Canada, with three crewmembers to interview historians about the national importance of the Allegheny Observatory and the astronomers who’ve worked there. The trip was supported by grants won by Handley.

From the start, he conceived the film as an altruistic venture to benefit the public and as a way to celebrate astronomers. Still, he needed financial support to hire well-qualified actors, computer animators, lighting gurus, sound technicians, graphic artists, and other film experts to create a final product that would be both dynamic and polished.

Through networking, he connected with Pittsburgh city councilman Bill Peduto, who’s now the movie’s executive producer. In this role, Peduto has been rallying foundations to support the project. “The observatory is a major part of the mosaic that is Pittsburgh,” Peduto tells them. “Its reach goes around the world.” So far, he has helped Handley connect with the Senator John Heinz History Center, The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Buhl Foundation, and the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh, among others. The foundations have responded with finances, some of which will make the film available on DVD at no cost to local schools. Peduto has also helped Handley to connect with PBS, as well as the Smithsonian Institute, to promote screenings in science museums around the country.

Fortunately, many of the crewmembers—who either already had awestruck experiences at Pitt’s observatory or were surprised and impressed when Handley told them about the hidden jewel—have been voluntarily working for reduced rates. One of them is David Conrad, the accomplished Hollywood actor and native Pittsburgher who currently stars in the CBS series, Ghost Whisperer. Conrad is narrating the film pro bono, which is how Handley ended up working with him at the sound studio this fall.

The film is still in production, but Handley and his team have made a lot of progress. The documentary has a working title: The Story of the Allegheny Observatory. It chronicles the observatory’s surprising history, from its founding in 1859, through the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, to modern day. It’s scheduled to be released in 2010.

Meanwhile, life at the observatory hums along. Pitt undergraduates conduct basic astronomy experiments on Monday and Thursday nights. Tour groups ooh and ahh on Fridays. Louis Coban, the observatory’s administrator and senior technician, maintains the equipment, which involves everything from steadying an air conditioner on the roof so it doesn’t cause the seismograph in the basement to vibrate too much, to washing the lens of a giant telescope by tipping it into a kiddie pool filled with water and a few droplets of soap. Most clear nights, Pitt staff, students, and/or faculty are using the telescopes.

In September, Handley spent an entire night filming a Pitt graduate student while she worked. The student, Melanie Good, was collecting data on the movement of a planet named HD80606 b, which orbits a star in the constellation of Ursa Major. Researchers at eight other observatories around the country were also observing the planet and communicating with each other in an all-night videoconference.

In one of the observatory’s domes, Handley adjusted the angle of his camera while Good hunched over a control center. Her face was lit with the glow of computer screens. Part of the dome’s roof was open to allow the telescope to peer into outer space. In the darkness, Handley glanced at the open sky through the slit in the dome. Then he looked at the computer screen that showed the telescope’s view. There, 190 million light years away, a star was shining. It was a movie in the making.