Buhl Planetarium: Kerridwen Parslow

Buhl Planetarium

I worked as the only full time museum guide at Buhl during the winter of 1970-71 (during one of my periodic term breaks from college to earn some money to support myself). By that time many of the exhibits were getting a little worn out but most were still functioning. The display of the planets (which back then included Pluto) had a recording of the mnemonic ditty "my very educated mother just served us nine pizza pies" that would not turn off and those of us who worked there had to conspire to unplug it so we would not be driven crazy by the continuous tape loop. The Christmas trains display was fun while the volunteers were setting it up and for the first few days, but after a while standing all day in the same place making sure the thousands of kids who streamed past didn't touch anything was excruciatingly boring.

One of my jobs was to climb over the railing around the Foucault Pendulum twice a day and set up the little "dominos" that its swinging point would knock over as the rotation of the Earth shifted its orientation. I was also responsible for demonstrating the Van De Graaff electron accelerator, which would make my long curly hair stick out straight from my head making me look like a giant dandelion. While it was cool to be able to reach out and zap museum patrons with a sparking jolt and to make a fluorescent tube glow just by holding it, my skin would crawl and my hands ached for an hour after each show. And I also would broadcast the announcement that would bring people to the main gallery to see the demonstrations of the Oudin type Tesla coil, which now resides in a Faraday cage at the Science Museum on the river. I can still remember all the words of the little spiel that I memorized about the Tesla coil! Though no matter how carefully I described the mechanism, somebody would always ask what it was after I stepped out of the microphone booth -- I would just answer that we were about to demonstrate the "Frankenstein machine" and everyone always seemed to know exactly what that meant.

I did appreciate being able to sit in on the planetarium shows several times a day, though since my day started at 7:30 AM after a one hour bus ride in the dark and ended at 9:00 PM with another dark bus ride home I felt like I lived in permanent night for those months. Due to the shortage of staff, I usually worked 6 or 7 days a week and Buhl closed from 5 to 7 each evening so most of the staff could go home for dinner. I could not do so I would just eat half my packed lunch in the lounge and nap (I was not paid for those two hours) until they reopened for the evening crowd. I had a very crabby and abusive supervisor but the astronomers in the offices upstairs were kind to me, knowing how much I loved science (and I had taken Astronomy as an elective the previous term at Pitt) and they let me watch them use the refractor telescope on days when we were not busy or there was additional staff to cover for me.

Allegheny Observatory

In the mid 80's my good friend, electrical and software engineer Chas DiFatta, was on the staff at the Allegheny Observatory, helping to design and build electronics and programming for locating remote planets by detecting light deflection in stars (I believe it was a sub-project of SETI). He was an amateur spelunker and explored the buried long tunnels under the observatory that had once been used to create long refracting paths for mirrors when the telescopes were wholly optical rather than digitally enhanced. He found all sorts of neat artifacts down in them, like old tin snuff boxes and coins. I visited him there while he was working several times and he let me sit in the seat of the big telescope and view through the eyepiece when there was a night clear enough for decent viewing (always a problem in the high ambient light of a big city.). I remember the crypt below the planetarium where former directors James Keeler and John Brashear and their loved-ones' remains are interred and the verse inscribed above the vault: "We have loved the stars too fondly to fear the darkness". Really a wonderful building.

Another bit of trivia about the Observatory: they have to keep that space within the dome where the big telescope lives at the same ambient temperature as the outside air so when they open it for viewing the lenses won't fog up or deflect from material expansion or contraction. When my friend had his scheduled sessions using the telescope during the winter he had to dress from head to toe in down-filled expedition gear like an Arctic explorer or mountain climber.

Being in the dome when they rotate the entire floor to aim the telescope is pretty cool.

2019 November 23