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New Movie Highlights Pittsburgh as World Leader in Science

The Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park is the subject of a new film to be debuted Wednesday night. Undaunted looks at the history of the University of Pittsburgh owned and operated facility, first opened in 1867, and the people that brought it to life. The film goes so far as to call it the true birthplace of aviation and the field of astrophysics.

Dr. Dan Handley, the film's writer, director and producer, wanted Pittsburghers to know how important the observatory and its scientists have been to the world. "The reason it's called 'Undaunted' is pretty much everyone associated with the observatory's history ran into a lot of obstacles," said Handley. "John Brashear spent years trying to learn how to make a telescope lens with all sorts of failures. He just persevered over many years and got to the point he learned so much, he became one of the world's foremost instrument makers."

When scientists in the 1880s sought to test the widely-accepted theory that much of the universe was made up of "ether," the only person with precise-enough instruments to measure the speed of light was John Brashear at the Allegheny Observatory. Results of the experiments were initially confusing but became clear when Einstein formulated his theory of relativity, according to Handley.

Handley says few people realize the first director of the observatory was Samuel Langley, for whom the USS Langley, Langley, Virginia, and the NASA Langley Research Center are named. Langley pioneered solar energy research and established aerodynamics as a science, according to Handley.

In order to understand the history, the film offers concise explanations of the science behind the story by famed astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse of the American Museum of Natural History. "He can explain physics and astronomy like no one else can," said Handley.

Several Pittsburgh foundations supported the film, which cost about $260,000 to make. Pittsburgh City Councilman William Peduto is listed as Executive Producer for providing what Dr. Handley calls crucial guidance.

Handley hopes PBS will air the movie eventually — it will be shown locally and offered free to schools in the region.