Film tells story of 'Undaunted' efforts of scientists at Allegheny Observatory

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 8:43 p.m.

On a steep hill in an isolated part of the North Side is an unusual building with a remarkable history.

“Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory,” a new documentary screening at 8 p.m. May 9 on WQED-TV, tells this story. Considering the magnitude of the scientific discoveries made there, it's a little odd that few people seem to know much about Samuel Pierpont Langley, John Brashear, and the other scientists who worked at the Observatory.

Filmmaker Dan Handley, a biotech entrepreneur by trade, thought his scientific background made him a good candidate to tell this story.

“I had lived in Pittsburgh for years and never heard anything about the observatory,” Handley says. “To me, it was really profound. I thought it was the perfect topic for a documentary: The stories of the people are amazing, the accomplishments are profound, and the building itself is beautiful.”

Handley enlisted the help of a present-day scientific giant — astrophysicist, author and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson — to help tell the story. Pittsburgh-born actor David Conrad donated his services as narrator.

Langley's arrival at the Allegheny Observatory in the late 1880s turned around a crumbling institution, built by wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists with a passion for astronomy a generation earlier. He lost little time creating a system of accurate astronomical time-keeping, which he then sold to the railroads. This eventually became known as Eastern Standard Time.

“Undaunted” uses archival photos, historical re-enactments and computer animation to illustrate several complex astrophysics experiments.

“That's one of the ways I wanted to make my mark,” Handley says. “There's a lot of filmmakers out there, but not so many with the science background that I have. Science is difficult and not often explained very well. I've struggled through classes where things aren't explained well. I have empathy for that.”

The trick is focusing on the essence of the experiment, while remaining accurate and clear, and “not dwelling too long,” Handley says. “You're not there to watch a lecture, you're there to watch a movie, to be entertained and maybe learn something.”

Tyson's presence should garner some interest in the subject. Few have done more in recent years to promote science in the public eye, or have become so beloved in doing it.

“That was an experience I'll never forget,” Handley says. “I think I contacted him in 2008. I thought, ‘How am I going to explain the astrophysics?' I thought he would explain these things really well. All he can do is say no, right? His assistant got right back to me. I'm hoping (Tyson) was happy that I was a scientist. I think I made him comfortable that I would explain these subjects accurately.

“Four of us went to New York City. We completely dismantled his office to put up lighting equipment. It was nerve-wracking.”

Another of the observatory's “forgotten giants” is John Brashear. He was a millwright in a steel mill, with a passion for astronomy. Unable to afford his own telescopes, he and his wife spent their nights designing and painstakingly crafting their own lenses. Brashear's lenses became known worldwide for their precise craftsmanship, and enabled many subsequent breakthroughs in astronomy.

The total budget for the movie was about $250,000, Handley says.

“Had I not had people donating their time and effort, it would have been double that,” he says. “Who knows what someone the caliber of David Conrad would have cost?”

The other side of the equation was finding funding.

“The other big stroke of luck was having a friend introduce me to (Pittsburgh City Councilman and mayoral candidate) Bill Peduto,” Handley says. “I asked him to be executive producer. After I told him about the history of the observatory, and (that I wanted) not only to preserve that, but export it to the rest of the country, he made the introductions to the foundation people. Otherwise, it never would have gotten made.”

Handley decided against playing up the Pittsburgh elements of “Undaunted” too much, to give it more universal appeal. It has been picked up by American Public Television, one of public television's largest distributors.

“So far, the feedback I've gotten from program directors across the country has been positive,” he says. “They like that Neil deGrasse Tyson is in it. It's not dated. It talks about our region, but connects it with a broader area.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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