Film Notes: 'Undaunted' shows pioneers who reached for the stars at Allegheny Observatory
April 20, 2012 6:45 PM
Kathy Rooney of Mt. Lebanon created the digital illustrations for the science documentary "Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory." This depicts John and Phoebe Brashear's lens-making workshop on the South Side Slopes around 1876.
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Four years ago, city Councilman William Peduto got a call from a friend who said: "Dude, you gotta meet this guy, Dan Handley. This guy has got this great project, and he just needs someone to introduce him to a few people."
And it turned out he did have a great project, one Mr. Peduto describes as "so very Pittsburgh because it's something that, even if you've lived here your whole life, you don't know about. And actually, it's had an impact on the entire world and in its Pittsburgh way, sat there quietly on the hillside."
Mr. Handley, a writer, filmmaker and scientist with a doctorate in human genetics, directed, produced, scripted and edited the hourlong documentary that focuses on Samuel P. Langley and John Brashear and the observatory in Riverview Park four miles from Downtown.
He called his film "Undaunted" because the scientists weathered so many failures.
"Things did not come easy to them. John Brashear -- as you see in the movie -- because he wanted a telescope so badly, he built a workshop on the side of his house so that he could make telescope lenses to make his own telescope. That's motivation."
"And it still took him many years to learn how to make telescope lenses. But in the process, he became so good at it, he became one of the world's foremost instrument makers," Mr. Handley said in an interview this week.
The documentary shows Brashear and his wife, Phoebe, spending two years toiling over a refractive lens in a South Side Slopes shed, only to have John accidentally let it slip to the floor. "It broke in two pieces," he wrote in his autobiography. "It broke my heart, as well as my wife's, in a good many hundred pieces!"
Undaunted, the man who had first peered through a telescope as a 9-year-old in Brownsville, Fayette County, and his wife, went back to work.
"I think we have this idea now, if something doesn't come easy, that you should just drop it, and what I want to highlight is the value of persistence and the value of hard work," the filmmaker says. "We're so concerned about popularizing science and making it funny and making it entertaining that we lose the idea that it's important to be persistent, to really be dedicated and to spend those long hours.
"And it's not time wasted, it's time that's necessary if you really want to excel. In athletes, people accept that, but in academic pursuits, it doesn't get as much attention. That's my message from this movie and things I want to do in the future."
Mr. Handley, who earned his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, a master's in logic and computation from Carnegie Mellon University and an undergraduate degree in biophysics from John Hopkins University, wasn't the only person who put in long hours on the project.
Mr. Peduto ended up as an executive producer, which he jokingly said meant helping to raise money. Mark Knobil and Jeff Garton were directors of photography, actor David Conrad donated his services as narrator, Scott Michael Burns composed an original score, and Kathy Rooney did 11 digital illustrations, which blend seamlessly with archival material, re-enactments and interviews.
Ms. Rooney, a Mt. Lebanon resident and member of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, employed the style of Thomas Nast, the 19th century's most influential cartoonist. She created such scenes as the Donati comet of 1858 arcing over the North Side and the Brashears hosting a neighborhood stargazing party.
Among the experts interviewed on camera are Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Tom Crouch, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who also spoke before the screening.
Langley was the Smithsonian's third secretary and although the Wright brothers narrowly beat him to the first powered manned flight, he established the standard U.S. time zone system to facilitate train travel and developed a research program in astrophysics.
For the filmmaker, it was a forgotten connection that proved surprising.
"The biggest thing, to me, was when we found out that John Brashear made the apparatus that helped establish Einstein's theory of relativity. That was something that was in some obscure books, but it really wasn't something that was widespread knowledge, and we've been able to document that."
A retired physicist and historian from Case Western Reserve University found the document in the archives there. It's uncertain if Brashear himself worked on the instrument, but his company did.
Mr. Handley hopes the film will be shown again in the city and also air on PBS. Funding will allow the film to find its way into schools along with related educational materials.
"Undaunted" should be available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray online and at the Heinz History Center gift shop, likely in May. Extras will include more information about the Observatory, the University of Pittsburgh and women astronomers along with a look at a photographer of celestial objects.