Show & Tell for Grown Ups

November 12, 2014

Under subdued lighting in a Downtown bar, one generally doesn’t expect to see a panel of flat screens lit up with multi media presentations by University of Arizona professors. But on a monthly basis, that is precisely what happens at Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St.

On select Wednesdays, UA’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry hosts Show & Tell – a bridge-building effort to connect the community with a wide variety of UA professors’ projects and research.

Steward Observatory, 1923 photo courtesy Peter Beudert/"Focusing the Universe"

Steward Observatory, 1923
photo courtesy Peter Beudert/”Focusing the Universe”

For the last two years, Show & Tell has showcased topics as diverse and expansive as the subjects offered at the university, including: “Global Revolution: From Harlem to Havana” and “Documenting the Border in Unprecedented Times” to “Tales from the (Video Game) Archive II” and “The Poetics of Noise: Poetry and Punk, 1965-1980.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 12, Show & Tell looks to outer space and at the UA’s international role in astronomical research with the presentation “Focusing the Universe.” The in-progress documentary bears the same name. Through interviews, narration and images, the documentary is delving into the history and influence of the Steward Observatory via a “chronological path of development of astronomy at UA,” explains School of Theatre, Film & Television Distinguished Professor Peter Beudert.

“It is fair to say that nowhere else in the world are three independent academic units of Astronomy, Optical Sciences and Planetary Sciences (at a university). The synergy is amazing.”

To understand how the UA got to where it is astronomically, Beudert and School of Theatre, Film & Television Associate Professor Michael Mulcahy, are highlighting the major players in the Steward Observatory’s creation and evolution. Front and center is A.E. (Andrew Ellicott) Douglass, who was hired by UA in 1906 as an Assistant Professor of Physics and Geography. Beudert describes Douglass as a visionary who advocated funding and building a university observatory for a decade. That funding came in 1916 when Lavinia Steward donated $60,000 to UA to build a telescope in her husband’s name. According to Wikipedia, “Mrs. Steward was a wealthy widow who had an interest in astronomy and a desire to memorialize her late husband, Mr. Henry Steward.”

Aden Meinel, Richard Harvill and others during a dedication for the Steward Observatory's 90-inch reflector in the late 1960s. Photo courtesy Peter Beudert/"Focusing the Universe"

Aden Meinel, Richard Harvill and others during a dedication for the Steward Observatory’s 90-inch reflector in the late 1960s.
Photo courtesy Peter Beudert/”Focusing the Universe”

Other notable influencers in the documentary include: Aden Meinel, who chose Kitt Peak as the site for the National Observatory, was a Director of Steward Observatory and later founded UA’s Optical Sciences; Gerard Kuiper, founder of the Lunar and Planetary Lab who mapped the moon in the 1960s; Peter Strittmatter, the Steward Observatory director for 32 years who turned it into a world class institution; Richard Harvill, UA President from 1951-1971 who invested heavily in Astronomy (and other many important UA units); and Roger Angel, creator of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.

Beyond the tales of those individuals are the quirky, historic tales of the process in context. While funding was secured in 1916, WWI thwarted the building of the telescope for several years. Ultimately, it took three different U.S. companies to construct the telescope: “The Warner and Swasey Co. (Cleveland) built the body and mount of the telescope; The Spencer Lens Company (Buffalo) made the mirror; John A. Brashear Co. Ltd (Pittsburgh) polished the mirror,” states Beudert. The pieces were shipped by train, with the last few miles covered by horse drawn carts.

In 1923, the Steward Observatory, 933 N. Cherry Ave., was dedicated. In 1962, its telescope was moved to Kitt Peak.

“One thing Douglass did was to say the observatory had to be open to the public and that’s never stopped since the 1920s,” Beudert shares. “The mission was to allow people in this community to see what they couldn’t see any other way.”

See more about Steward Observatory’s public resources for sky gazing on their website. Show & Tell: Focusing the Universe is on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 6 p.m. at Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St. Learn more about Show & Tell, and The Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry here. This article originally appeared in the November issue of Zocalo Magazine. Jamie Manser is the Communications and Events Coordinator for Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.