To Pittsburgh City Council,

 

       I am writing out of concern for the fate of Buhl Planetarium and the Zeiss Projector. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and often visited Buhl Science Center as a child. When I was in grade school, my father and my older sister were volunteers at Buhl, and I contributed as much as my age allowed.

 

         Many of my best childhood memories are of Buhl. In addition to the planetarium, I remember the Hall of the Universe, the BioCorner, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Siderostat refractor telescope. I especially loved the Foucaultís Pendulum, the dignity of its measured procession, and the sense of majesty and permanence imparted by its carved marble floor and elegant brass rail. 

 

         My father always tried to inspire a special love and appreciation for science and nature in my sister and me. For our bedtime stories, he often told us the mythologies of the constellations. We would act out the tales, using our stuffed animals as stand-ins for the celestial actors, Raggedy Ann for Cassiopeia, a stuffed horse for Pegasus, Kermit the Frog as Perseus, et cetera.

 

         But these stories reclaimed their epic proportions during the star shows at Buhl Planetarium. I remember watching the strange, insectoid silhouette of the projector rise from the floor, like some bizarre creature emerging from the underworld, bearing explanations for stellar parallax, retrograde motion, and Keplerís first law. I remember the thrill and fascination of watching the stars shift across the dome, smiling at the giddy vertigo of that momentary doubt whether it was the stars or I that moved. I loved the sense that mystery could be explained, that the universe could become accessible, having been lovingly mapped over the centuries, transposed onto the celestial sphere, and then precisely projected onto the dome of the planetarium, like a gift from scientists and historians to laymen, so we could all marvel at the beauty of the universe together.

 

         I am now taking an astronomy class at San Francisco State University with Dr. Debra Fischer, a founding member of the California and Carnegie Planet Search Project, the planet-hunting team responsible for discovering over 100 planets outside of our solar system.Dr. Fischer recently invited me to work with her research team, the N2K Consortium, which will continue the search for extrasolar planets. I definitely attribute my enthusiasm for astronomy and clear advantage over most of my fellow students to my experiences at Buhl. Iím sure these factors contributed to Dr. Fischerís decision to ask me to join her team.

 

†††††††† Iím always astounded by the way astronomy at once humbles and elevates us. It must be the most profound measure of humankind that although we are confined to one tiny planet; although we are blind to most of the sights of the universe (being able to perceive only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum); although our tenure on this planet is but an eye-blink in the lifespan of the universe -- still we have the intelligence, logic, and determination to seek out what lies beyond, to quantify what we cannot even imagine, and  - most importantly - to share our understanding with others.

 

         It distresses me that such an elegant and educational piece of scientific equipment as the Zeiss projector could be discarded, as though it were not representative of humankindís most brilliant and astonishing accomplishments.  Thereís no other way to say it: People donít make things like this anymore.  The Zeiss is from an era of durable craftsmanship, when technology was both precise and human, before post-war technologies made things lighter, cheaper - and more expendable. It is a relic, certainly, but a useful relic, all the more worthy of appreciation and respect because it still works. The sum of centuries of knowledge and effort are distilled in a machine like the Zeiss projector: it is the embodiment of why people learn, study, teach; it is the best humanity has to offer itself.

 

         But the greatest value of the Zeiss, I believe, is its potential as an educational tool.  I hope the curators of the Childrenís Museum will find a way to incorporate the Zeiss projector into their exhibits in the old planetarium building; I cannot imagine how anyone purporting to be concerned with the scientific education of children could decide to put the Zeiss projector in a warehouse instead of making an effort to use it. It defies common sense, as well as proper reverence for both the scientific legacy of humankind and the more recent history of the city of Pittsburgh.

 

      Also, I urge the Pittsburgh City Council vote to approve such historical landmark status for Buhl Planetarium. Along with the Carnegie Museum and Heinz Hall, Buhl is one of the buildings I describe most often and most lovingly to my friends in California; it is one of the many things that makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher. I hope it will be cherished and preserved.

 

Best regards,

 

Katherine Roolf

San Francisco >

 

July 5, 2005