What is a Pioneer Works?

If you happen to scroll through the list of observing locations on the AAA website, you might happen to notice that we regularly observe at a place called Pioneer Works, located in the not-too-distant galactic neighborhood called Red Hook, in Brooklyn.

Over a century ago, the red brick building at 159 Pioneer Street was home to Pioneer Iron Works, one of the largest machine manufacturers in the country. Today it is home to a non-profit collective of scientists and artists where free lectures, performances and art exhibitions are held on a regular basis. This cultural center was the vision of prominent Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin, who bought the building in 2010. Newly renovated with 40 foot ceilings, this 27,000 square foot space is huge. Inside it are all types of fascinating things like a science lab, an exhibition gallery, a photographic microscope, a chalkboard with mathematical equations and diagrams beyond my understanding, and much more.

The programs, performances, exhibitions and lectures held here often draw many hundreds of visitors on a single evening. For AAA observers, the outdoor garden space adjacent to the building is where the fun really happens. Here’s how it all started…

About two years ago, the club was contacted by Lauren Silbert, resident neuroscientist, and Janna Levin, Columbia astrophysicist and Science Director at Pioneer. They had heard many good things about our observing sessions, and were looking for a few people who were capable of operating their telescopes and willing to provide stargazing after some of the astronomy related lectures. A few of us met with Lauren, and we decided to give it a try.

photo credit: Rori Baldari

We started off with stargazing after a discussion on dark matter, then another night after astronaut Mike Massimino’s talk, and on another evening with Dava Sobel, the author of “The Glass Universe” which told the story of 19th century female pioneers of stellar classification from early glass plates.

After just a few of these garden space stargazing sessions, the folks at PW were quite impressed with the dedication, commitment and knowledge our observers possessed. The visiting public was very happy too as they were treated to fine views of the planets, Moon and stars. Shortly after, the club was asked to provide stargazing on a more permanent basis in support of the Second Sundays program, which features open studios with artists in residence, live music, exhibitions in art, science, technology and education.

To support this ongoing presence, we have amassed a terrific and growing group of observers, some of whom are myself, Otto Chin, Peter Lipschutz, Omri Elisha, Faissal Halim, Cecilia Almeida, David Kaufman, and last but not least, Bart Fried with his fantastic antique brass refractor. In addition, PW is hoping to build Brooklyn’s first public observatory on the grounds in Red Hook. While it’s true that this is not the ideal location in terms of light pollution, one thing is certain: when they build it, people will come.

One of the most exciting events we’ve participated in at PW was the great eclipse of August 2017. This highly promoted event drew close to 1,000 people who flocked to Pioneer Street, waiting in some cases over 2 hours in lines that wrapped around the building, just to catch a glimpse of the sun and moon through AAA members’ solar telescopes. Our steadfast handful of observers stayed the course for the entire duration, determined not to let a single visitor go without seeing this spectacular celestial phenomenon.

With the next observing season almost upon us, check out the events at Pioneer Works, and if you are interested in becoming a volunteer observer, please email Rori at [email protected].

photo credit: Rori Baldari