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Anthony Francis Jenzano (1919–1997)

Published onDec 01, 1998
Anthony Francis Jenzano (1919–1997)

Tony Jenzano is best remembered for creating a celestial navigation program at the Morehead Planetarium of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the astronauts in the Mercury and Gemini missions as well as many of the Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, and Shuttle astronauts.

Born in Philadelphia on May 20, 1919, Tony served in the Armed Forces in World War II, where he received training as an electrician. Dr. Roy Marshall, director of the Fels Planetarium, recognized his creative mechanical genius and hired him as head technician. When Marshall came to Morehead as its first director in 1949, Tony came along in the same capacity. When Marshall returned to Philadelphia two years later, Tony became manager, and 10 years later, director of Morehead Planetarium.

Tony helped to initiate an unprecedented popularization of astronomy that involved virtually every school child in North Carolina. Every day of the week, one could see dozens of buses from every corner of the state in the parking lot, while eager children saw astronomical presentations designed for them in the Planetarium.

Tony was a problem solver who could quickly come up with mechanical and optical solutions. As every beginning sky watcher knows, star hopping is the commonest technique for getting around the sky and learning the bright stars and constellations, starting usually from the Big Dipper. I asked Tony whether I could demonstrate the process with lines and curves in the sky of the Planetarium, and he quickly designed the projector and motor system to draw these animated lines and stop them at any point for further discussion. When I wished to have the earth and its coordinate system projected onto our sky to show the relation between latitude and longitude circles on the earth and hour and declination circles on the celestial sphere, the projection system was again ready in short order.

There were many unusual applications of the Morehead Planetarium which Tony was happy to foster. One example was working with ornithologists, who were studying the idea that homing pigeons use celestial navigation. The theory was that when pigeons observed some diurnal motion of the sun, they could extrapolate to its noon position and so determine the difference in latitude from their home location. And the pigeons were supposed to be comparing the extrapolated time of noon with an internal clock to measure difference in longitude. We discovered that ornithologists, in a completely darkened chamber, lacking all orientation, and observing the sun's motion for a short time, made very poor pigeons.

Another example was running the Zeiss instrument back to the 13th century, to duplicate planetary conjunctions described in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde for an Academy of Renaissance Scholars assembled in Chapel Hill. This resulted in the "discovery" of a far more conspicuous triple conjection which had occured about a month before the one described by Chaucer. Investigation by Bob Pratt, one of the Chaucer scholars, revealed that this particular conjunction was not mentioned by Chaucer because it did not have the astrological significance of the one he used.

Among Tony's other achievements were beginning an internship program for planetarium personnel, in cooperation with the Physics and Astronomy Department; obtaining accreditation from the American Museum Association; and initiating major improvements and automation of planetarium facilities. He was also a consultant to other planetariums and to the Zeiss company.

Tony was affable and enjoyed people from all walks of life. He had a winning smile and went out of his way to be of help in every sphere of his life. He gained the friendship of many of the astronauts, especially Neil Armstrong, who were grateful for his warm hospitality. In 1989, six of the Mercury astronauts came to Chapel Hill to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Morehead Planetarium. Tony retired in 1981 and died on March 22, 1997. All who knew him remember his kind traits and have an inner smile when thinking of him.

I am grateful to Dr. Lee Shapiro, director of Morehead, for providing me with some of this information as well as the photograph.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of Lee Shapiro.

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