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From Bregenzerwald to the stars

From Bregenzerwald to the stars

From Bregenzerwald to the stars

A public observatory in the Bregenzerwald? Not yet, but you can still peer into the heavens at Paul Baumgartner’s private observatory in Krumbach.

Upon a hill in Krumbach rests a looking glass into the cosmos. Four by four meters in size, this modest structure features a gable roof on wheels. Rolling this three-sided prism to the side exposes a large telescope belonging to Paul Baumgartner. Here upon his hill, far from the light pollution of the big cities, Baugartner proudly enjoys viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye. On request, he’ll happily open his star-gazing house to the public. He also organises lectures, sells telescopes, comics, science fiction and non-fiction books in his shop “Himmelklar” at the village square in Krumbach.

Paul Baumgartner was born in Vienna, attended kindergarten in Moscow, went to elementary school in Hatlerdorf (Dornbirn) and in Vienna, and as a young man moved to Mödling, where his grandmother came from. It’s complicated, though perhaps this is a better way of summarising: Paul Baumgartner was born on Planet Earth and was just completing an apprenticeship as a bookseller when his friend discovered a rifle scope in the attic of grandfather’s house. With it the boys drove up to the Perchtoldsdorfer Heide moor, settled down in the feather grass beneath the pines, and peeked through the glass. To their amazement, the airport in Schwechat in the far distance came into sharp focus. Were those luggage carts and airplanes? In his excitement, it occurred to Paul to point the telescope at the sky. “Look, there’s a star,” he exclaimed. “It has such a funny ring.” Even more impressive than the rings of Saturn were the possibilities: If he could see the rings with this old device, what else was possible?

With wild determination, he purchased his first telescope with the money he earned working as an apprentice. Next, he joined the astronomy club. During those first early days, his passion to observe and photograph celestial bodies never let up. It started with the moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Later he found DeepSky objects such as Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy, globular star clusters and the Orion Nebula. To earn a living, Paul helped his father in his IT company for many years. There he programmed websites, which he still does on the side, and delivered blueprints for open-plan offices all over Austria. For many years, Paul and his wife spent their holidays in Lingenau. Martina worked in the vegetable industry in Vienna, though the pair shared a passion for the Bregenzerwald, its people, and the stars. The dream of one day settling down here germinated. They searched for three years, before finally selecting the perfect plot of land in Krumbach. Here they built a small observatory on their property.

The mayor at the time, Arnold Hirschbühl, was a well-connected man. He recommended a local architect with whom they should definitely speak. “It turns out that there are many amateur astronomers who set up ready-made garden huts, but what Rene Bechter made is special.” At the end of 2015, the Baumgartners finally moved to Krumbach. On Open House Day, know locally as “Krumbach goht um,” Arnold Hirschbühl suggested the Baumgartners open the observatory to the public. Paul initially laughed at the suggestion. “Nobody cares,” he thought. But he was dead wrong. People listen to him with fascination as he explains that while a normal camera has a focal length of 28 mm, his telescope has a focal length of 4,000 mm, which can be doubled to 8,000 mm! Initial sessions were so popular that now school classes and children visit, some of whom even ask for a telescope for Christmas. People usually look at the stars with one eye. But when Paul adds a binocular attachment to the telescope, observers can view the moon spatially for the first time. It’s a stunning, all-new experience for most people who often exclaim: “The craters are incredible!”

Does alien life exist? Probably says Paul, but not on Earth. “Our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away. A radio signal would take 8.4 years to get there and back. The space probe Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, has only just left our solar system, although it’s travelling at 62,000 km/h. These are impossible distances to cover: Earth is our only home.” Paul Baumgartner tries to make this clear to anyone who will listen. After all, the climate on Earth is changing rapidly. He has many books on this subject in his shop. “Because it’s so suitable, it may indeed be that people will one day travel to Mars. But in twenty years time, this may affect perhaps three people who will probably never return. We only have this Earth.” An amateur astronomer, who writes about this subject on the internet, adds: “Looking to space to understand our situation on Earth may help mankind to come to their senses.” In August, when shooting stars fill the sky, Paul offers a night hike in Sibratsgfäll along with rangers from the Nagelfluhkette nature park. Most people can’t help but to wish upon a shooting star. Paul also has a wish: “A public observatory. I hope it’s someday possible, though right now it’s just an idea,” he says cautiously. But you never know. After all, small things have a way of becoming big things, just ask the universe.

Author: Irmgard Kramer
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2020