June 24, 2008

On the Job: Pursuing a Passion in the Stars

By Jeremy Boren

Lou Coban has what many people would consider the ultimate office: plenty of space, little supervision and a stellar view.

He's encouraged to clock in around noon because his work as administrator and electronics guru of the Allegheny Observatory usually takes him late into Riverview Park's starry evenings.

"Most people have an office; I have a whole building," Coban said as he gazed at the 96-year-old observatory's largest telescope. The 47-foot-long Thaw Memorial Refractor has a 30-inch lens, weighs 4 tons and photographs the heavens from a perch embedded in bedrock.

Coban tilts the mammoth telescope with a remote control and engages an electronic gear system to open and rotate the largest of the observatory's three domes, a maneuver once performed by hand.

"At one time that dome had a bolt rope that went up to the third balcony and there was a great big ship's wheel up there, and that's how you moved the dome -- you rolled that ship's wheel around and it moved the dome around," said Coban, 38, of Observatory Hill.

"That was before electricity got real popular," he added.

Coban's job at the University of Pittsburgh-owned observatory involves an unusual mix of tasks.

His work is as much about conducting research and helping astronomers study galactic curiosities as it is about preserving and sharing the history of the observatory.

"I love it here," said Coban, who became administrator in 2006 but has worked there in various capacities for more than a decade. "They're going to have to tranquilize me to get me out of here."

It could take more than that. Some who loved the observatory never left.

On the last stop of a tour, Coban showed visitors the final resting place of some of the observatory's long-dead founders, whose remains are in a small, tiled crypt under one of two smaller telescopes.

Paraphrasing a poem by the 19th century British poet Sarah Williams, the epitaph of popular observatory director John A. Brashear and his wife, Phoebe, reads: "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

Coban said he has found his calling. He is four classes away from earning a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics, and he holds a degree in building construction.

Coban has worked with groups studying the universe at the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes of the W.M. Keck Observatory atop the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii and contributed to studies here of star parallax, or how stars appear to move in the sky.

The precise position and movement of stars is useful to astronomers searching for distant planets that are detectable when they influence a star's gravitation. Planets cannot be seen easily because they reflect only a small amount of light.

Research projects at the observatory change as Pitt researchers receive grants from NASA and various universities and involve various phenomena.

For example, researchers at the observatory have received money to study two of Albert Einstein's predictions about gravity in a project called "Gravity Probe B."

The study seeks to measure how the great mass of the Earth warps and drags its corner of space-time.

"It's so diverse. It never gets boring," Coban said. "It's not like you're doing some same thing on a production line. It's always different."