Acting Up At Griffith Observatory

griffiths observatory roofAs mentioned before, I am really excited about the re-opening of the Griffith Park Observatory. See this earlier post. [Update: See post about my viisit here.]


[Further Update: After reading the rest of the post, be sure to read the comments (starting here) for some commentary on the planetarium show since it was launched.]


[Yet another update: The discussion has continued to another post, with more contributions from various people concerned with the shows and the observatory, past and present. Link here.]

I’d noticed (on their site) the employment notice:

The Observatory will complete its four year renovation and expansion project in the Fall of 2006, with improvements including the new 200 seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, doubling of the exhibit space to house more than 60 new and exciting exhibits, and new sound, lighting, interior dome and digital laser projection technology in the refurbished Samuel Oschin Planetarium theater. Employment opportunities will continue to increase as we approach our reopening date.

… and the job decriptions for the Museum Guide:

Job Qualifications
12 semester units or 18 quarter units in a recognized college or university in Architecture, History, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy, Zoology or related field. Six months experience working in the above fields may be substituted for education.

Job Description
Demonstrate and explain exhibits relating to astronomy and related sciences. Answer questions related to the observatory, astronomy and related sciences. May be asked to safeguard exhibits, and open or close
facility.

and thought it was ok (“may be substituted for education” was a bit worrying, but I think I know what they really meant), and assumed that the guides would be supplementary to more experienced staff who know more about the actual science, etc.

It seems I was wrong. A newspaper from the neighbourhood that the observatory is in, the Los Feliz Ledger, has a story (by Kimberly Gomez) entitled “Actors Get The Call Over Astronomers”. It seems that:

The traditional planetarium lecturers, who in the past led hour-long talks in the planetarium at Griffith Observatory, are upset that when the observatory re-opens this fall, they will be out of a job. According to four past lecturers, their position which traditionally required an education in astronomy, has been changed.

Continuing…

Now the Observatory is in the process of hiring “show presenters” who need no prior knowledge of astronomy to present a new half-hour planetarium show entitled “Centered in the Universe.” The new show will loop nearly continuously with little or no opportunity for visitor questions.

Of course, as far as I can tell, the biggest controversy that is getting people upset in the region is not this story at all. The issue on everyone’s minds in relation to the observatory is of course parking, the new traffic patterns, and whether or not it is legal to charge a fee when people use the proposed shuttle bus to the site, introduced to stop them driving their vehicles through the park…. As usual it’s all about cars and not about the actual content of the thing the cars are taking people to. Sigh. Anyway, back to the story:

The former lecturers became particularly concerned when a casting call notice was posted for the positions on an entertainment industry web site in August asking for actors—male or female between the ages of a “mature 28” to a “youthful 55—to audition for the jobs. The ad also called for applicants with an engaging personality and appearance and those that are not “overly character” or “nerdy.” The ad also stated that an “affinity” for astronomy was “great” but non-essential.

Wow. I had completely missed seeing this call (I’m not in the habit of browsing the entertainment industry job sites…. but that reminds me of a tale I must tell you sometime soon), and so did not appreciate the magnitude of their policy change. It is rather sad indeed that they are going this way… Just in case you think that it is a misinterpretation of the policy:

“This has always been a science lecture now it’s strictly Hollywood—entertainment rather than substance,” said James Somers, a planetarium lecturer for Griffith Observatory for 27 years and an astronomy professor at Glendale Community and Moorpark colleges.
According to Somers, he was told by Observatory staff that the new planetarium show was no longer about education, but about inspiring people.

I don’t understand why “education” and “inspiring people” are mutually exclusive goals. What is wrong with these people?!

So what they are doing, it seems, is lowering the pay by 2/3, and having an increased rehearsal schedule.

According to Dr. Ed Krupp, Griffith Observatory director, the lowered wages are due to fewer requirements expected of the lecturers.
“The planetarium show will be half the time,” that it used to be, he said, “and will liberate the lecturer from having to manipulate the equipment and concentrate on delivery.”

the planetarium lecturers say they are concerned the observatory is moving away from educational opportunities—a situation they say will result in a significant “dumbing down” of the observatory experience.
“When you think of [the] Griffith Observatory, you don’t think actors, you think of academics or astronomers,” said John Sepikas, a Griffith Observatory planetarium lecturer and astronomy professor at Pasadena City College.

(Well, I wish this was true. I think most people already think of the tons of movies that used it as a backdrop, rather than the content, but I get his point.)

I’m hoping that -despite this disappointment- there can be something positive to come out of this…(yes, I’m an optimist). Maybe some of the actors who get the job might actually be intrigued by the intersection of science and entertainment and try to bring it out in their future work. They might think of it as a rather cool job, a nice change from the usual stuff they do in their day to day material. There might be a little flow the other way, with their sneaking some science into Hollywood. You never know where it might lead… I’ll be talking to my friends in the Industry about this, you can be sure.


[Update: Be sure to read the comments (starting here) for some commentary on the planetarium show since it was launched.]

-cvj

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16 Responses to Acting Up At Griffith Observatory

  1. Jude says:

    What is the point of a planetarium if not education? Unless it’s a laser light show, it’s not about the show–it’s about astronomy.

  2. Yvette says:

    I find this quite upsetting, really. Is the field so populated by people who can’t talk that they can’t find enough articulate AND knows astronomy people in one of the world’s greatest metropolitan areas?

    What worries me the most about this is how there’s no better way to get someone’s interest than genuine interest in the subject on part of the presenter. We always remember the people who told us just what it feels like to SEE Saturn through a telescope or the ones who were willing to throw in a tidbit on a particular star because they wanted to see a child’s eyes grow wide in excitement. However well-meaning an actor may be, a lot of the most memorable stuff from planetarium shows will be lost, along with the simple elegance of being excited by science. The universe is a fascinating enough place that the truth is more beautiful and glamorous than anything we could do to jazz it up!

    I’m also very concerned about the idea that it’s ok to get rid of the Q&A section because that’s often what’s most memorable about planetarium shows anyway. Really now, people do not get “inspired” in any meaningful sense by just looking at a pretty picture- they get inspired when they start thinking about what they see and asking questions about it! Plus the irony of not being allowed to ask questions in a scientific outreach program just boggles my mind…

    Sigh, I’d go and apply for the job but it looks like I fall short on the age requirement. If the Griffith Observatory would give me a chance to interview, however, I promise I wouldn’t look at all nerdy as I clearly must be if I like astronomy…

  3. Clifford says:

    Yes, I agree that it is upsetting. And extremely upsetting that nobody seems to care either. This is just bizarre to me.

    -cvj

  4. Stevem says:

    Well, the actor who gets the job will at least probably be able to show you the exact spot at the observatory where Arnold Schwarzenneger materialised in Terminator. (I knew I had seen it somewhere before). I could be wrong, but being LA it is not unlikely that a lot of people go there to see where some of their favourite movies were shot rather than for astronomy education. I agree with you though that “inspiring people” and “education” should not be mutually exclusive, and what is educational can also be entertaining too.

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  6. ioana says:

    jesus. they will take the visitors on a tour and show them, yes, where Rebel without A Cause was shot. and the most embarassing thing will be that people will be more interested actually in the Terminator moment than in the Rebel moment.

    i am mystified by this notion of education being “fun”. education is not supposed to be fun (blah). Inspiring, yes. Challenging, yes. Infusing you with the enthusiasm and the self-confidence that comes from seeing yourself grow and develop literally from day to day because of the things you learn – yes. But “fun”?????

    but hey, what do I know. When I went to high school I wore a number on my uniform and learned in ninth grade what kids today barely brush against when they’re college freshmen…it definitely wasn’t fun. i guess i’m just a disgruntled hag 🙂

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  8. Tre Gibbs says:

    The new Samuel Oschin Planetarium show is absolutely wonderful. The 33 minute show (13 minutes are the new Carl Zeiss Star projector – at a cost of 3 million dollars – and 20 minutes of animation and special effect ‘magic’) has been attracting record numbers of people on a daily basis. Many people who travel, visiting Observatories and Planetariums have told me personally that, “Centered In The Universe” is one of the best Planetarium shows in the country. There’s nothing ‘Hollywood’ about it. It’s not ‘jazzed up’. it’s subtle, inspiring, emotional, thought provoking. The narrators take a back seat to the visuals and message. The viewer has an almost religious experience afterward, able now to begin to grasp the immense complexity of the Universe, and feel as if they are truly part of something greater than themselves.
    “Centered In The Universe” has been able to bring the fascinating subject of astronomy to everyone, young and old, not just ‘astronomy nerds’ like myself. This feat is paralleled with Griffith J. Griffith’s original vision for the people of Los Angeles. He wanted everyone to experience astronomy the way he did because he was certain it would change the world.

  9. Clifford says:

    Great to hear that!!
    Thanks!

    -cvj

  10. Jerry Weil says:

    Thank you Tre for your wonderful comments. As someone who worked on creating the planetarium show for a year and a half, I found it quite disturbing the way this site was attacking the show without even seeing it. It was our intention with creating the show that it would be accompanied by canned narration, but Dr. Krupp insisted on having live lecturers – he felt very strongly about mainting this tradition. With the new structure of the shows, there is no time for a Q&A period, so there is no need for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. It is important to keep the show exciting and entertaining, but the star of the show should be the visuals. Also, because of the current shortage of lecturers given the ambitious show schedule, one of the lecturers is Patrick So who is a long time employee of the Observatory and astronomical expert. If you happen to see a show where he is working you could find no one better to answer any questions you might have afterward.

  11. Clifford says:

    Dear Jerry,

    Where exactly was this site “attacking the show?” This post was written before the show was launched, and is clearly about the discussions leading up to the launching of the show. Have you actually read this site? I’ve been very supportive of the observatory. See the pingbacks to this post at the bottom of the comment list. I’ve singlehandedly sent hundreds of visitors to the newly observatory by word of mouth and by the high volume of readership of for example the post “Some Observations at Griffith Observatory” which was picked up by the blog LAObserved and had a huge readership from Los Angeles residents and visitors…. (even now it gets lots of hits from searches for information about the Observatory). I made no comment on the planetarium show in that post since I did not go to it. Did you read my reviews of what I saw on the visit, (which has been clearly noted as an update to this post, which was clearly written *before the show launched*, about the ongoing (at the time) discussion about the structure of the show)?

    Supplying information is good, and so thanks. I’ll certainly update the main post to point at your remarks. Hopefully we are on the same side here, which is education, right? So let’s work together.

    On the other hand, I have to say that I’m a bit concerned by this sentence of yours:

    With the new structure of the shows, there is no time for a Q&A period, so there is no need for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy.

    Could you unpack that a bit more for me? What is the role of the lecturers?

    Thanks,

    -cvj

  12. Jerry Weil says:

    Clifford,

    Sorry I wasn’t clear with my comments. I didn’t mean that the specific show was being attacked in any way, I was referring to the attacks on the new concept of the show. And I wasn’t referring so much to your comments as to those who responded to your comments. Dr. Krupp has come under a tremendous amount of attacks for “going Hollywood,” but I give him a lot of credit for revitalizing the Observatory and inspiring people my making astronomy fun and exciting.

    As far as the role of the lecturers, I was certainly one of the people who originally thought it was an unnecessary burden to have live lecturers when a canned narration would work just as well. After seeing the show, I have to say that having someone there live really adds to the excitement of the show. It makes it “feel” more interactive, and it certainly keeps your attention knowing there is a live human there speaking. However, since it is all scripted and there is no Q&A, it is not necessary for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. I am also an actor myself (in fact I had coincidentally worked with the actor/lecturer at the show I saw), and I have certainly played many roles in areas where I had no prior knowledge. In this situation it’s more important to have people who can convey the excitement and wonder of the Universe than to have a deep understanding of the subject matter.

  13. Well, allow me to have a say here since I was one of the lecturers displaced. Jerry Weil was concerned that people were dissing his show before it was seen. I’m concerned that he automatically dismisses the importance of having a live lecturer who knows Astronomy without having seen any of our shows!

    For supplemental reading, below my comments is a wonderful Op/Ed article I copied from the LA Times site, before it disappears from their online site.

    Right now, the article is at:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-op-wertheim29apr29,1,4088921.story?coll=la-news-comment&ctrack=2&cset=true

    The article was from April 29, 2007, very contemporaneous with some of the final comments above. It concerns the hiring of actors over seasoned astronomical lecturers — some of us had been lecturing at Griffith Observatory for well over 20 years.

    During the five years of renovation, we lecturers were never told that when Griffith reopened, things would be different. Instead, we worked in good faith during the renovation at the mini-planetarium facility near the L.A. Zoo, expecting to do more of the same: only in much better facilities.

    Let me give you more background, just in case you’ve heard the story from only one side: Jerry Weil’s.

    When the Observatory reopened, the long-time lecturers were not only NOT invited back, but the salary for the position was cut by a factor of three, and even the actors who were hired were misled as to the salary they would receive.

    For most lecturers, rigid rehearsal schedules for the new show made it impossible for those who were full-time teachers or professors to participate. Three of eight long-time lecturers, two of whom were actors who had a background in Astronomy, were able to retain positions (the third because he was on disability from his main job), but only mostly as back-up and exit-door announcers. And they were often belittled by the producer and director of the show, who weren’t even City employees. There was a purposeful attempt to limit the planetarium time of any past lecturer. Since we were teachers, we could have rehearsed during the summer. They purposely waited until the end of summer to keep us from taking any of the positions.

    A similar article deriding the hiring of actors to the one I copied below is at:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=aaIGMSBXecjg&refer=us

    Now, many patrons — perhaps as many as 400,000 people — may have already seen a show which offers little explanation of the night sky. The actors read a script, they don’t point out objects in the “night sky” of the planetarium, they cannot answer astronomical questions raised by the presentation for patrons after the show, and people leaving the theatre have been heard to ask, “Is there an adult show?”

    In fact, when the actors were hired, the call went out for a specific “type” of person to be a presenter, in defiance of fair hiring practices in Los Angeles; it was a clearly discriminatory call for workers, saying the presenters didn’t even need astronomical backgrounds. If the union can’t handle it, it will eventually go to lawsuit.

    400,000 people around Los Angeles have seen Griffith Observatory as a Disneyland and NOT a place to see the night sky well, which can only be done in the planetarium and for only about 5 minutes in the current show. Wait ’til you read the article below which offers a scathing indictment of education at Griffith Observatory!

    In preparation for the renovation, Observatory administrators were even allowed to travel to Germany to ask the Zeiss Optical company to completely remanufacture the instrument to allow for a better projected-sky! Then, instead of incorporating the projected sky as a major show component, approximately $2.7M was spent in video-rendering the presentation to make it more “Hollywood” instead of explanatory.

    What a waste of resources for a $7M instrument (NOT $3M, Dr. Weil!) The current cost of the show is in excess of $1400 per second of show time. That doesn’t include the projector which may never be used to any large extent in any future planetarium show if the high-tech methods continue to prevail. Even the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon has a projection system which is hard to focus, as I saw — Leonard Nimoy’s short is great, but it should not be the only piece projected there.

    [A short aside on the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon since Mr. Nimoy’s generous philanthropy is renowned: Very little has been planned for the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon, and, as I mention below, when I saw Mr. Nimoy’s short and excellent re-introduction to Griffith Observatory, I was shocked to see that the focus needed adjustment. I was told that focus has always been difficult. Perhaps it’s already been fixed in the past two months since my last visit.

    There is so much more that can be done in that venue, and plans for its development are almost non-existent. For example, a feed could have been provided into the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon so that, days after reopening, it could have provided a unique view of the transit of Mercury, with live explanation, to hundreds of people at a time. As far as I know, no one even thought of that. Will it show the lunar eclipse coming up later this year? Are there any special lectures being planned for it, now, six months after reopening?

    Now, it is only a “place” in which to hear about the new building. I would like for it to be an “experience”, equivalent to Mr. Nimoy’s generosity.]

    It is often quoted that Colonel Griffith J. Griffith’s experience of seeing Saturn through the telescope on Mt. Wilson was the inspiration for the founding of Griffith Observatory: public astronomy that would inspire.

    But when Griffith was inspired on Mt. Wilson, it wasn’t in a vacuum; he had astronomers by his side to talk to and ask questions of. THAT is why he wanted the citizens of Los Angeles to have the same experience, and why he ceded the land to the City for Griffith Observatory.

    Dr. Weil, why are you so dead-set against a live interaction with someone who knows Astronomy? Even the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a Public Education Office, and one of the past guides from Griffith Observatory works there as one of the main managers!

    NOT having an adequate explanatory experience in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Griffith Observatory thus might even abrogate the Charter ceding the site to the City for public use!

    According to the article below, the only questions that guides and performers can answer are those that they’ve been told to speak from their scripts. Isn’t that rather mechanical? Is that in keeping with YOUR experiences in life?

    When you go to your dentist, for example, do you expect that he or she is an actor? If you need a firefighter, do you want an actor to show up? How about your families’ school teachers. Should they be actors, too? Isn’t it a sham that people come to Griffith Observatory to hear about astronomy, and since it’s a “live” show, they OF COURSE expect to hear an Astronomer, and they only get an actor? When a Mars Rover makes a great discovery about finding, say, water on Mars, does an actor run the press conference? What makes you think that actors are really the people that visitors want to hear? When people go to a Britney Spears concert, they really DO expect to hear Britney Spears, NOT someone lip-synching.

    That’s what visitors get at Griffith Observatory now: lip-syncing.

    It’s fine to spread awe and wonder — we all want that. My main inspirations, intellectual and spiritual — come from the sky!

    It’s the method that’s in question. We all know, as long-time teachers or learners, that students/people learn best when there is interaction. And those are the people who will eventually vote yea or nay on future ballot propositions to keep Griffith afloat. It was a $63M ballot measure in Los Angeles that allowed the project to get started, and I believe that the people of Los Angeles need an accounting for how that money was spent.

    There are still telescopes at Griffith Observatory from which the public can learn about the sky, but we all know that viewing is limited by light pollution. THE major innovation since Griffith’s time in seeing the night sky is the planetarium, and visitors are not even allowed to ask questions during or after the show, and the actors can’t answer any. They were hired because they LACK that knowledge. More people can see planetarium shows per day than can look through the telescope.

    And after 5 years of renovation, the Observatory wasn’t even ready to produce a School Visitation program when it reopened. Now, more than 1/2 year later, students can visit in classes, but they are NOT seeing shows in the planetarium. How can they begin to dream about the Universe, how can they fit their current lives into the reality of Global Warming, if they don’t even see the sky?

    On the day that Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful Op/Ed piece, below, appeared in the L.A. Times, there was an article in the Ventura County Star where Dr. Krupp is quoted as saying that the stars over Los Angeles are difficult to see. One would think that seeing them for longer than 5 minutes in the excellent planetarium sky would be even more important, since that sight would be truly inspirational view of the sky to the people of Los Angeles. And it really is 5 minutes or less of constellations, and barely a couple minutes more showing planetary motions. Not even the night sky for the evening is being projected!

    That article about the disappearing night sky is at:
    http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2007/apr/29/light-descends/
    (You might have to register to read it, or I can copy it for you.)

    Dr. Weil, let me be a bit more specific about what’s wrong with the presentations in the planetarium right now. While the musical score of CIU is really wonderful, when my family saw the show (twice) on the 2nd evening for employees, one actor was far better than the other. It was good to hear that they don’t say the same things, contrary to the instructions I was told they had — to adhere strictly to a script — because there were particular phrases I remembered from one show that were not in the other.

    But the sound track overpowered both the actors occasionally, making it difficult to discern what they were saying, so I would suggest that they control their own volumes, or equivalently, the volume of the music. It would be a shame if the actors couldn’t be heard . . . One actor sounded as if she had a very dry mouth — very obvious over the sound system. Another actor was a lot more animated — he was much more “into” the material. So, from my own experience, I can’t say that they are all doing a professional job, and I know that what they were doing is easily within the ken of all or most of the planetarium lecturers who worked at Griffith before the reopening. Except the actors are missing the experience of interacting with an audience the way that Colonel Griffith interacted with astronomers on Mt. Wilson.

    Isn’t it easier to give lecturers some vocal tips and encourage them in acting roles that to take actors and make them astronomers? We often hear about school boards who don’t have someone to teach, say, Physics, and all of a sudden, one of the Physical Education teachers is teaching the subject. That, my friends, is what is going on at Griffith Observatory. And since they are actors, as soon as a better role comes along, they will abandon Griffith Observatory. And if they don’t, then they’re not even good actors.

    It is the lecturers who have stuck with Griffith Observatory through thick and thin — in my case, 30 years — who deserve to continue there.

    One other small point: I think that the actors should use the laser pointer themselves to point out the one constellation described (the Great Bear) because the computer operator in the 2nd show was all over the place with it — he had NO idea how far south and west of the Great Bear he was really pointing! I guess he needed to look at the screen while he was pointing out the stars. (Pointing out the Big Dipper was far easier.) Instead of accountability being in the hands of one person, now there are three or four involved in a show. What a waste!

    There are rumors that even the school shows planned for the future will be highly-scripted, with little give-and-take allowed for students in the planetarium. It would be as if school kids in every classroom in Los Angeles watched TV all day, with no interaction with their teacher. At least one LAUSD school board member is dismayed at the situation at Griffith Observatory.

    Even at the mini-planetarium near the Zoo, students saw presentations on the Night Sky.

    Now, scouts and even students taking college-level Astronomy classes throughout the Southland and up to Santa Barbara, have no use for Griffith Observatory because the sky is no longer seen in the planetarium! Teachers and professors are refusing to send their students there because there is nothing in the planetarium that can’t be seen elsewhere. The grand sky view is not being shown.

    There is a growing public outcry against the programming at Griffith Observatory. Someone should be held accountable for why, during “Astronomy Day”, Griffith Observatory offered NO special programs or tours having to do with the occasion, other than the already-planned, monthly star-party sponsored by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.

    Dr. Weil, this is NOT to say that there isn’t a place at Griffith Observatory for “Centered in the Universe.” But it is more akin to what “Laserium” was — entertainment with no explanation — than it is to a topical lesson in what is going on in space. It is a jumble of many topics strung together, but no depth is offered for any of them. And while the program is visually stunning and a great accomplishment in the planetarium field, its video effects are dark, and people see things like that all the time on PBS or in IMAX theatres, and in those venues, it’s brighter, let alone the occasions I’ve mentioned when the actors cannot be heard because they are drowned out by the musical score.

    What the planetarium can do best is to project the night sky, and for most of the current show, that backdrop is used as “wallpaper”.

    Dr. Weil, you are so used to CGI effects that you now believe that the real Universe can only be seen by computer animating it. There are many different methods of education — not just a light show with no explanation — should be seen at Griffith Observatory. They would make the difference between a population living on the edge of educational darkness and the vibrant light of what could be their 21st century educational future. Griffith Observatory is in the middle of not only a diverse population of those whose education is scientifically deficient — it is also located in one of the premiere astrophysical and aeronautical capitals of the world.

    — Steve >>>>

    From the Los Angeles Times:

    MAKE ASTRONOMERS THE STARS

    The Griffith Observatory’s glittery new show is told by actors instead of real scientists.
    By Margaret Wertheim

    MARGARET WERTHEIM is director of the Institute for Figuring, an L.A.-based organization that promotes public engagement with science and mathematics.

    April 29, 2007

    WHEN THE Griffith Observatory revamped its planetarium, the board of directors rightly turned to a cadre of experts to produce what is one of the most sensational shows anywhere.

    Courtesy of a custom-tailored Zeiss Star Projector, a digital-laser projection system and stunning special effects, we fly through the Milky Way, watch a “Big Bang” simulation, see a re-creation of ancient Alexandria and behold the spectacle of galaxies spawning like clouds of thistledown from the pages of astronomers’ notebooks as we tour the universe. How sad that the story accompanying these images is told by actors, not astronomers.

    Before the observatory’s $93-million, five-year refurbishment, professional astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, as well as serious amateur sky-watchers, gave hourlong lectures at planetarium shows. Now, in their place, thespians narrate a 22-minute prepared script. The extent of their astronomical knowledge is never tested because there is no time for questions. As soon as the show ends, audiences are shuttled out. This way, observatory officials say, they are running twice as many shows as in 2002, and the planetarium is expected to tally more than 2 million visitors this year.

    Recently, I attended a show presented by a deep-voiced, snappily suited man. As the simulated sun set above our heads, he strode down the aisle bearing an orb of light in his hands. With elegant flourishes, he waved this miniature sun through the air as he spoke his lines, explaining how ancient cultures had described the passage from day to night.

    Over the next 22 minutes, we heard about Ptolemaic epicycles, the Copernican revolution, the discovery of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, dark matter and dark energy and extraterrestrial life. Along with my eyeballs, my brain felt as if it had been on a roller-coaster ride. I wanted some reflection on what I had seen, but when I inquired about supplemental literature, I was told that the only thing available was a map of the observatory grounds.

    Many planetariums cannot afford on-site presenters and make do with a recorded sound track. The Griffith Observatory prides itself on the presence of a live body. But what we are not getting with the glittery new show is a live mind ­ at least not a live astronomical mind. That’s a major loss.

    For some years, science educators have stressed the importance of not just imparting knowledge to viewers but of engaging them in scientific issues. Earlier this month, I spoke at a conference on communicating science at the University of Nebraska. Much of the discussion revolved around how we could better explain how science works. Speaker after speaker declared that science is not just a compilation of facts but a set of methods and approaches practiced by living, breathing, idiosyncratic human beings. The trend is to put these faces into the foreground. In short, more contact with working scientists.

    At the L.A. County Natural History Museum, for instance, I have been moderating a series of discussions with scientists as part of First Fridays. Attendance has been standing room only, and many audience members stay after the panel discussion to continue talking with our speakers.

    At the Griffith Observatory, I watched as a presentation began in front of the giant Tesla coil, a device that generates electrical discharges.

    The narrator delivered his scripted spiel with machine-gun rapidity, interspersed with dramatic flicks of a switch that set the coil roiling with lightning bolts. When he completed his monologue, he asked a group of schoolchildren gathered around if they had any questions. A small boy put up his hand:

    “Why do you talk so fast?”

    “Because I’m an actor,” the young man replied. At that, the children dispersed.

    Just before I left, I did encounter a scientist. Sort of. The DVD presentation on the bus that brings you to Griffith Park ends with an exhortation not to forget to have your photo taken with Albert Einstein. In one of the new halls, I found a life-size bronze of the great physicist sitting on a bench looking up at the stars. The place beside him was vacant, and I sat down to join in contemplation of the cosmos.

    Despite his immense fame, Einstein made a point of responding to the children who wrote him. What a great pity, I thought, that at the Griffith Observatory, scientists don’t have a chance to interact with children too.

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  15. Clifford says:

    Note to readers: The discussion continues in a later post to be found here. Steve’s comment above is featured there, and much more.

    If you’d like to comment on the issue, please place it on that post’s thread.

    Thanks.

    -cvj

  16. MaryBeth & John Fulton says:

    My…Oh my! I am feeling overwhelmed by some of the early comments above! I had not visited the Griffith Observatory until I moved out here & married a couple years ago, sooo I cannot comment on it’s style of teachings prior to that but…. We had the pleasure of being @ Griffith Park for the Grand Opening last year. There is sooo much to see and learn out there sooo we had to settle on a “partial adventure” at that time which did not include “Center of the Universe” or “The Leonard Nemoy” presentations.
    I am happy to say we went back just a couple days ago, took some friends that were visiting from India & made a point to see both presentations.
    I have to say….I was moved & inspired by both! REALLY!!! The gentleman may be an actor but I believe that he truely loves his work.
    Let me preface…..I am very fond of storytelling you see. I have been all my life. Some of my favorites can be found on FortNight in Burlington Vermont on New Years Eve. They have been doing it for decades there & it is always worth sitting out the sub-zero temperatures. Another great place is on a summer night on a small grass airstrip, under the stars, every year during the Antique Airplane Associations annual Members Fly-In over the Labor Day Weekend. Storytelling is an Art as well as an education….if done right.
    The “center of The Universe” show is both I am certain. He told the story with so much accuracy & precision….yet you really got the feeling he had an emotional attachment to it. That he understood not only the subject of the video but had accomplished an overwhelming desire to help the audience to gain as much understanding and appreciation as humanly possible in that 32 minutes. I as well as my guests were so moved! He may not be a trained Astronomer or Scientist but he has my vote. I believe, in the case of my experience with the actor, Tre Gibbs, Mr. Weil hit a home run! If he is half as good as Patrick then I am at a loss for those negative comments.
    Keep up the great work!! You have our support now & always!
    Warm Regards,
    MaryBeth