Buhl Planetarium at 75: Still state-of-the-art science
For 75 years, science at the Buhl Planetarium has meant more than simply looking at the stars.
In its early days, “interactive” meant a visitor pressing a button for information and an employee dropping the needle on a 78-rpm recording, says Ron Baillie, co-director of the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore where the planetarium has been housed since 1991.
Today, modern equipment can take a planetarium visitor inside a human cell, says Brendan Mullan, director of the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory at the science center.
The evolution of the planetarium is in some ways symbolized by the Zeiss Model II Planetarium Projector, which was the key to its early work, but now is simply a display at the science center.
The 75th anniversary of the planetarium, which opened in another domed building on the North Side in 1939, will be celebrated the weekend of Oct. 10. The SpaceOut! Astronomy Weekend will offer programs on navigating by stars, making telescopes and space travel. There will be speakers from universities and local astronomy groups and, weather permitting, observations of sunspots and celestial objects.
When the planetarium opened, Baillie says, it was only the fifth such venue in the United States. Those sites flourished, many ultimately turning into centers for education that use all the information gathered and assembled in the new computers and projectors.
The full name of the original venue, which is now part of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, was the Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. It had a 492-seat “Theater of the Stars” with a 65-foot-diameter dome. Besides the work of the Zeiss II optical mechanical star projector, the Buhl had displays of the planets and galaxy and the Foucault Pendulum, which shows the rotation of the Earth as it knocks over pins. The pendulum still swings in the old planetarium building, delighting children.
The planetarium was constructed from generosity of the Buhl Foundation, which was established by businessman Henry Buhl Jr. (1848-1927) to share the wealth he made as the co-founder of the Boggs and Buhl department store on the North Side.
The planetarium was built not far from that store because of Buhl's dedication to the North Side, Baillie says. Nearly 200,000 people visited the site in 1940, and hundreds of thousands passed through the doors between 1939 and the 1980s.
Move to the North Shore
The metamorphosis of the planetarium into the Carnegie Science Center was brought about by another form of civic development — as well as the forward thinking of the planetarium leadership.
In 1982, Baillie says, Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri (1931-88) began proposing development of the North Shore, at that time filled mostly with Three Rivers Stadium and warehouses. He thought the planetarium might be a good anchor.
“The people at the planetarium said, ‘Well, OK, but we are a small group, and we'd need a lot of help to get this done,' ” Baillie says.
That led to talks that resulted in a merger with the Carnegie Institute in 1987 and the opening of the Carnegie Science Center in 1991.
Baillie says the attitude about the role of the planetarium allowed it to become a site that examines all roles of science. He credits former director Al DeSena with a great deal of responsibility for that.
But DeSena, now program director at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., says the board was looking that way even before he was hired in 1979. At the time, other science centers were developing multidisciplinary programs, leading to the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Ontario Science Center in Toronto.
“I went to a conference on that thinking in 1979, and there were 100 people there,” DeSena says. “Now, there are thousands.”
Looking even farther
In 1939, Baillie says, space had not been reached yet, and looking at it with the help of the Zeiss projector was a major step into learning.
But, now, we can see various aspects of life, the world and space because of the advances of the digital age. In September 2006, Carnegie Science Center installed a full-dome digital projection system, purchased with a $1 million grant from the Buhl Foundation.
Rather than simply looking at space, visitors can “be propelled faster than the speed of light to stand out there and see what Earth looks like from Venus,” Baillie says.
But that equipment and modern information also can look at biology or events on Earth, such as “Journey Into the Living Cell,” which was developed in 1995 in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University.
Mullan says planetariums have become “omni-directional immersion spots for all forms of science.”
Many centers have grown steadily, Baillie says. He says there are “hundreds” throughout the nation, but some that only examine outer space are closing.
Mullan says the symbol of a planetarium has gone from the Zeiss projector to a domed building that deals with all forms of science. The next step, he believes, will be when science centers provide information that is taken into people's home.
“There could be a great solar eclipse that is not visible here but is spectacular in Brazil,” Baillie says. “We could maybe provide images of that event that people could watch live on their TVs.”
“In this informal form of education, people can embrace the concept of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) all together,” Mullan says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.