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Halloween Thoughts

WMacDonald's picture

With days shortening, nights lengthening, and Halloween growing near it is only natural that our thoughts should turn to the dead—and some of them were astronomers. (Insert blood-curdling scream here!)

Throughout history dead people have been interred in grounds sacred or not, either singly or in mass graves. Some had resting places in more formal tombs or crypts, perhaps even inside a church building. But did you know that a few “lucky” people are buried in observatories?

One observatory with such permanent “staff” is the Alleghany Observatory in Pittsburgh, home to a giant 31-inch refractor. Conveniently, such a large telescope requires a large pier and so buried in vaults in the basement section of that pier are James Edward Keeler (a former director there, and also of Lick Observatory), and John Brashear (the preeminent optician) and his wife Phoebe. The Brashears’ epitaph is “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” Of course nobody (no body?) was buried in their telescope pier when they were observing, so that was easy for them to say!

At Lick Observatory, the remains of its benefactor James Lick were interred at the base of the pier of the great 36-inch refractor. The legendary observer E. E. Barnard was mindful of this and thankful for the company of the observatory’s janitor, slumbering nearby, as he recounts:

At times it was pretty lonesome. For when one stopped to think, the dead body of James Lick lay under the pier of the great telescope only a few feet away. This was specially trying after the servants had reported seeing Mr. Lick looking through their window at them one dark night. The proximity of a live human being, though sound asleep, did much to offset the equally close proximity of a dead human being who according to the above reports might not be so sound asleep as is customary under such conditions.

Oooh, spooky! Happy observing.