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  • Archenhold Observatory: Berlin’s astronomy temple and its sky cannon

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Archenhold Observatory: Berlin’s astronomy temple and its sky cannon

Archenhold Observatory opened in 1986, and it features the "sky cannon" the world's longest mobile telescope. Albert Einstein once taught there. Today, it is open to Berliners free of charge.

Photo: SPB-Frank-Michael-Arndt

“Treptow near Berlin has an observatory, and the observatory has a large telescope; the brochure says it is the largest in the world, of which it does not get any larger,” wrote the Berliner journalist, author and satirist Kurt Tucholsky about the Archenhold Observatory in 1929. Almost a century later, the place Tucholsky described as “a tiny arsenal of metropolitan metaphysics” is still home to the longest mobile refracting telescope on Earth and is also the oldest and biggest public observatory in Germany.

“Astronomy began about 30,000-40,000 years ago when the very first person looked up at the sky and asked themselves: ‘What is that up there?’” explains Stefan Gotthold, head of education at the Stiftung Planetarium Berlin and the man at the helm of the Archenhold Observatory. “The universe is so huge, that when I was very young it made me feel small. Yet, even though we’re so small, even though we haven’t even looked at leaving our solar system and there are so many unanswered questions; we’ve accumulated so much knowledge about the entire universe that it’s an amazing achievement. And that makes me feel big rather than small.”

People ask me what I would do if an asteroid was hurtling towards the earth? I’d just sit and look through my telescope and watch the asteroid hurtle towards us.

Berlin itself has a long tradition of stargazing. The original Berlin Observatory, the oldest astronomical institute in the German Sprachraum, was founded by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1700 on what is now Dorotheenstraße in Mitte. In 1827-28, Alexander von Humboldt held popular public lectures on the cosmos at the Berliner Singakademie (now Maxim Gorki Theater) and the New Berlin Observatory, (operational from 1835-1913 on today’s Enckestraße in Kreuzberg), which gained international renown when Neptune was discovered there in 1846.

Sky cannon

The Archenhold Observatory has an intriguing history of its own. When Berlin became the capital city of the German Empire in 1871, it lagged behind the industrialised, modern metropoles of Paris and London. Both the 1851 Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace and the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris were staged as showcases for technological advancement in industry and design. The chattering classes in the newly founded capital were keen for a world exhibition of their own. With the empire in such poor financial shape though, Kaiser Wilhelm II was reluctant to finance the project, writing in 1892: “Paris’s fame keeps Berliners from sleeping: Berlin is a major city, and as such it should have an exhibition? This is completely false. Paris is simply what Berlin will hopefully never become: the biggest whorehouse in the world.”

Not to be deterred, a special interest group joined forces with the Berlin Merchants and Industrialists Association (VBKI) to plan the Berliner Gewerbeausstellung (Great Industrial Exposition Berlin) in Treptower Park for the spring of 1896 to mark Berlin’s 25th anniversary as the Reich’s Hauptstadt. At the
same time, Friedrich Simon Archenhold (1861-1939), a German-Jewish astronomer committed to public education, harboured plans to build a giant telescope through which ordinary Berliners could observe the stars. What better place to showcase such a feat of industrial progress and design than the exposition?

Friedrich Simon Archenhold pictured with his telescope in 1927.

Without funding from the Kaiser, Archenhold launched what Gotthold calls Berlin’s “first crowdfunding campaign” among private investors and what remains the world’s longest mobile long-range telescope – the so-called “Himmelskanone” (“Sky Cannon”) – opened to the public as one of the fair’s exhibits. “People were so excited by it that Archenhold made enough money back from ticket sales to repay the investors,” Gotthold says, “but by the end of the exhibition he was broke. The telescope was supposed to be dismantled and rebuilt in Tiergarten, but, luckily for me, without the funds, the telescope stayed in place.”

In 1908, the original wooden building was replaced with a horseshoe-shaped classical design by the architects Konrad Reimer and Friedrich Körte. It was here, on June 2, 1915, that Archenhold’s friend Albert Einstein gave his first public lecture on his general theory of relativity. The same auditorium (now named the Einstein-Saal) is still used by Gotthold and his colleagues today. “I don’t give lectures here, the programme we offer is about working together with the public, not just about giving out facts and figures,” Gotthold says.

In 1931, Archenhold handed the directorship of his beloved observatory to his son Günter who was forced to resign by the Nazi regime in 1936. Friedrich Simon Archenhold died in Berlin in 1939. His wife Alice and their daughter Hilde were murdered in Theresienstadt. After the war in 1946, the observatory was officially named after Archenhold, though the giant long-range telescope was temporarily taken out of service under DDR stewardship in 1958, and reopened to the public in 1983.

Today, the Archenhold Observatory is the only one of Stiftung Planetarium Berlin’s locations with a Museum of Celestial Science charting the history of astronomy. The aim, Gotthold explains, is to make the science of stargazing accessible to the public and show how prevalent its application is in day-to-day life. “Albert Einstein had to devise his theory of relativity so that we could use satellites to navigate the world on our smartphones,” he says.

Among the exhibits in the museum is a replica of the Nebra sky disc, a bronze plate decorated with a full moon, a lunar crescent and stars (including a cluster of seven stars thought to represent the Pleiades). It’s the oldest astronomical object found in Germany. Visitors can also find Babylonian-era tablets inlaid with ancient scriptures on planetary movements alongside a model of Stonehenge or pocket sundials used to tell the time before watches were a thing.

One of Gotthold’s favourite exhibits is a Meridian Circle, an instrument used to catalogue the stars when seafarers employed astronomers to map their locations. The exhibition also includes a model of a gigantic radio telescope in Germany’s Eifel region (with a real-life diameter of 100 metres), from which sonar waves are beamed out into space. “For about a hundred years, we’ve been sending radio waves into space in search of other civilisations, though we haven’t had any replies yet,” Gotthold smiles. “But radio telescopes can see through dust. Now we know that there are stars with their own planets 100 light years away.”

Existential questions

A model of a space rocket raises old conspiracy theories: how are we to believe that people were on the moon? “I don’t believe that people were on the moon, I know that people were on the moon!” Gotthold exclaims, describing how astronauts left pyramid-shaped mirrors on the surface of the moon which to this day reflect laser beams back to Earth. “Astronomy is a somewhat destructive science,” he acknowledges: “we’re destroying ideas.”

Paris is simply what Berlin will hopefully never become: the biggest whorehouse in the world.

The Archenhold Observatory does not conduct scientific research and is used purely for the purposes of public education: a role which, as it was for Friedrich Simon Archenhold, is close to Stefan Gotthold’s heart. “I really want people to discover these objects for themselves, not just look at them,” he explains. “There’s just so much to discover, and this journey of discovery is what is most important for me, like when grandma or grandpa has a tear in their eye because they’ve seen the rings of Saturn for the first time for themselves, and not just in pictures.” Is Berlin a great place to observe the night sky? “Hobby astronomers would say no, but it’s astounding how much one can actually see,” Gotthold says.

Frontansicht der Archenhold-Sternwarte in Berlin Treptow im August 2013. Photo: © SPB-Frank-Michael-Arndt

“Observing the moon from Berlin is fantastic. You can see planets, globular clusters [of stars], planetary nebulas, the Orion Nebula where stars are born.” Gotthold was born and raised in former East Berlin, near Checkpoint Charlie. Inspired by the stories his father told him about the spacecraft Voyager, he remembers standing in a field as a teenager with a small telescope. This was the start of his practice as an astronomer. Now he heads one of the most prestigious observatories in Germany and takes great pleasure in the fact that Friedrich Simon Archenhold and Albert Einstein once ate, talked and made music in what is now his office.

Sitting on the stage where Einstein first presented his theory of relativity, the conversation turns to Foucault’s pendulum, the space race, the Cold War, and billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. “I think [they] can really show agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency what one can achieve, technologically speaking, if you are prepared to take the risk.”

Along the way, our talk takes in aliens and existential philosophy: “people always need something mysterious, something that can’t be explained, something greater than ourselves.”

This image was released on October 1, 2020 and it shows the galaxy NGC 2525. Located nearly 70 million light-years from Earth, this galaxy is part of Puppis constellation in the southern hemisphere. Photo: NASA

In 1969, the baby boomer generation celebrated a “giant leap for mankind” when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In 1986, Gen X watched the space shuttle Challenger explode on live TV. Is there still much appetite among the general public for rocket launches and space exploration? “In the space community there still is. It’s not as big an event as the first moon landing, but it’s always an event when [German astronaut] Alexander Gerst goes into space,” Gotthold says. “I’m sure that when we eventually land on Mars it will be an event watched worldwide. If we don’t destroy ourselves through climate change, then at some point space travel will be an everyday thing. It will be normal to fly to the moon and to Mars within the next 100-200 years.”

What’s in a black hole? What’s beyond the edge of the universe? What came before the Big Bang? As yet, no one can answer these questions. Isn’t it all rather unsettling? “It actually gives me a sense of calm and perspective,” Gotthold says. “People ask me what I would do if an asteroid was hurtling towards the Earth. I know exactly what I would do. I’d find my wife, and tell her I love her, then I’d look through my telescope and watch the asteroid hurtle towards us. And if I couldn’t find my wife, well, I’d just sit and look through my telescope and watch the asteroid hurtle towards us.”

  • The Museum of Celestial Science is open during the Archenhold Observatory’s event times, during the Berlin school holidays, and Mon-Thu 10-14 and Fri 12-22. Admission to the museum is free of charge. Find out more at: planetarium.berlin/en