"Eyes of God"

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The "Eyes of God"

L eo was instrumental in helping the AAAP conduct its first public-invitation star parties in Riverview Park (near Allegheny Observatory), and in Schenley Park in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. He also helped established a regular series of lectures at AAAP meetings, featuring noted astronomers and other scientists. Leo very much enjoyed interacting with the general public at star parties, even when the encounters were sometimes less than cordial. He cited one star party held on the night of the Perseid meteor shower, and a disgruntled woman who came up to him late in the evening. "She marched up to me, looked me squarely in the eye," he recalled, "and said 'Excuse me sir. I've been here all night and I didn't see a single star shoot!' "

Leo's propensity for practical jokes continued throughout the years that he participated in public star parties. One of his favorite jests he called the "Eyes of God." For this trick, he trained his telescope on Epsilon 1 and 2 Lyrae, a grouping of two close double stars. Leo would intentionally throw the telescope (a reflector) out of focus so that both double stars would enlarge to round blurs. The false image of the diagonal mirror within each blurred image would give the appearance of the eye's pupils.

The "Eyes of God" trick would one day catch up with Leo. During a public tour of Allegheny Observatory, a woman asked staff member Zack Daniel to show her the "Eyes of God" through the 13" Fitz-Clark telescope, as Leo had done at an earlier star party. Mr. Daniel had no idea what she was talking about. Some time later, an indignant Mr. Daniel cornered Leo in the observatory and scolded him for using astronomy to mislead the woman. "That was a desecration of the science!" Daniel charged, to Leo's inward amusement.

Not surprisingly, Leo developed a reputation for playing practical jokes at Allegheny with friends such as Glenn Winterhalter during the years that that the AAAP optical workshop was operational in the A.O. basement.

Another noteworthy Scanlon prank involved a special type of eyepiece called a spinthariscope (from the German word for "spark"). It was a pseudo-eyepiece with a sealed end which contained a small screen coated with zinc sulfide. A small, radioactive sample was placed near the screen. Radioactive particles emitted from the deposit struck the zinc sulfide screen, creating an image that very much resembled a globular star cluster. Leo slipped this device in the finder of a 69" telescope at a Chicago exhibit and, after several public sessions, "Word got around that M13 was better in the finder than the main telescope!" according to Leo.

Leo and his friends also took the spinthariscope to an out-of-town astronomers convention and advertised that they had developed an optical system that could penetrate clouds. "We showed M13 on one cloudy night," Leo remembered, "and M13 wasn't even up! Then, one observant young fellow blew the whole charade when he noticed that the telescope didn't even have any mirrors!"

"Something Electric Happened…"

Leo and Margaret
Leo's new wife Margaret looks through his 8" Cassegrain telescope outside Valley View Observatory
(Pittsburgh Press photo circa 1940. From the AAAP Archives)
During an astronomy lecture in the summer of 1938, Leo met Margaret Schwarz and learned that she shared his interest in telescope making. They were married on his birthday in 1940. He was 37. His perspective on married life, before and after? "I was so intensely interested in astronomy and applied myself full time to it, that girls didn't enter my life, except as occasional visitors at star parties…..Something electric happened…I just knew that this was the girl. I had been enjoying my hobby all the time, and now I had something else to enjoy."

Leo and Margaret took a 3-month, 7700-mile honeymoon, visiting interesting sites all over the country, but especially in the far West. In addition to visiting observatories and meteor craters, Leo and Margaret toured Carlsbad Caverns, which was to be the starting point for another of Leo's life-long passions. Leo pocketed a piece of petrified wood from Carlsbad, took it home and examined it in great detail. From this he acquired an intense interest in rare gems and minerals, and lapidary work, the processes of cutting, polishing and refining them. In later years he would build an impressive collection of gemstones and the like, including brazilianite, agate, sunset agate, tigereyes, corals, fossils, Indian picture rocks, quartz, onyx and others. Many of these he would fashion into jewelry and other accessories, an acknowledgement of his admiration for the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest.

Photo: Leo11A_Under Saturn.bmp Caption: Leo shows his globe-trotting achievements during Pittsburgh Post Gazette interview (photo by Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Scanlon Family collection)

Eventually, Leo and Margaret had six children, including Leo Jr. in 1941, Monica (1944), Christine (1946), Celeste (1948), Thomas (1951), and Kevin (1957). According to Leo, the names "Leo" and "Celeste" were chosen because of their astronomical affiliations. Having a wife and dependent, Leo was not eligible for the draft in World War II. He assisted locally with the war effort at several steel mills and in his job as a plumber, still with Weldon & Kelly. Ironically, Leo avoided the perils of combat only to have a brush with death after the war when he contracted a severe case of pneumonia in 1949.

Many Irons In The Fire

Throughout the 1930's and ‘40's, Leo Scanlon was moving on many astronomical fronts:

Chasing Sputnik

When Sputnik was launched in 1957, Leo served as Deputy Leader for the local "Moonwatch" team at Allegheny Observatory. The Moonwatch teams recorded the overhead passes of Sputnik and other early satellites to help scientists and the government determine these objects' precise orbits. With the support of Dr. Nicholas Wagman, Director of Allegheny Observatory, observing and timing equipment was set up on the roof of the observatory between the Thaw and Keeler domes. Financial support for the Moonwatch program was provided by Kaufmann's department store, and Leo managed the expenditures. The first Moonwatch observing sessions took place in the winter of 1957-58 and it quickly became apparent that everyone was suffering from bitter cold winds that "felt like the puff of a zephyr," as Leo put it. Various screens were tried, but they were ripped to pieces by the wind. Eventually, the Moonwatch team members settled upon multiple layers of very heavy garments. "We looked like frozen bodies from the last Ice Age," Leo joked.

Personal Lows and Highs

In 1965, Leo's wife Margaret died quickly after the onset of cancer. On this painful occasion, Leo noted, " ... I thought if she had to go, that was a very merciful way, without leaving us with any long, strung-out memories. Well, the children accepted it stoically, like I did. Of course, I cried a lot later." The mid-1960's were also a difficult time for Leo professionally. He had become part owner and a major shareholder in the Weldon & Kelly plumbing firm, in addition to his duties as a supervisor of and estimator for industrial plumbing projects. However, W&K went into bankruptcy, leaving him short $12,000 in back wages and $8000 in stock. He resumed his plumbing career with Schneider Co. in the late 1960's and finally retired from the field in 1976.
Leo in Sun City
Leo, on one of his many mid-life travels, picks fruit in Sun City, California
(AAAP Archives)

In 1977, Leo finally made a much-anticipated trip to England to visit with his son Thomas, a graduate student. While there, Leo was taken to Cambridge Observatory and met with one of its directors, a Dr. Dewhirst. When Leo was shown to the observatory library, he went to a shelf, took down a book on amateur astronomy and pointed to a chapter that he had written. "Oh, you're that Leo Scanlon," exclaimed the director. Leo was also given a personally guided tour (by Dr. Dewhirst) of a radio telescope array outside Cambridge, and visited the famed Greenwich Observatory and its museum of historical telescopes and clocks. While there, Leo made certain to exercise a well-known Greenwich tradition: Standing astride the Meridian so that each foot was in a different global hemisphere. Leo's trip to England was one of many throughout Europe that he enjoyed in the 1970's and ‘80's. His wide-ranging interests in archaeology, art, history and science are evident in his list of fondest personal memories, which includes visits to numerous intriguing sites throughout Europe, the American Southwest and Canada.

In October, 1985, Leo earned the unique distinction of observing Comet Halley a second time, making his observation through the 13" Fitz-Clark refractor at Allegheny Observatory, a facility at which he had spent many enjoyable hours in years past. But Leo's second observation of Halley was a disappointment. "It just looked like a big Q-tip in the sky, four times farther from Earth than when I saw it before, and 16 times dimmer." This second observation of Halley was part of several commemorative activities, including a gathering of so-called "Halley Two-Timers" at the Buhl Planetarium and an interview for ABC's 20-20 news magazine program. During the ABC interview, Leo sang a short ditty that had been composed during Halley's 1910 apparition. The song poked fun at those who feared the Earth's passage through the comet's tale, which was believed to include hydrogen cyanide gas.

In 1986, Leo joined a Halley's Comet expedition to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in hopes of getting a better view as the comet was at a somewhat higher celestial elevation. After several fruitless attempts due to poor local seeing conditions, Leo decided, "Since I had seen Halley's under ideal conditions in 1910, I decided not to wait to 2061 to have another try. I'll have to live with my childhood memories."

In 1992, Leo once again traveled afar to fulfill his broad interest in astronomy. As a member of the Smithsonian Institution, he was invited to visit several major observatories in the U.S. Southwest as part of a Smithsonian program called "The New Astronomies." The first leg of his trip was especially rewarding: He got a first-hand look at the University of Arizona facilities, designed by Roger Angel, where giant mirrors are spin cast, while molten, to the desired shape prior to cooling. (During the casting of the 200-Inch Hale mirror 58 years earlier, Leo remembered that blobs of molten glass were hustled about by wheelbarrows and overhead buckets.) His Smithsonian expedition included a stop at Mt. Hopkins in New Mexico and the then-revolutionary multiple-mirror telescope (MMT). The only low point of this leg of the trip was "a totally abstruse lecture" given by a professional astronomer; during the lecture, Leo got up, went outside and read a Newsweek magazine until the lecture was over. Several days later, he attended a public star party hosted by the Amateur Astronomers of Houston, Texas.

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