Some Observations at Griffith Observatory

So I must apologize. I went to the preview of the Griffith Observatory so long ago now and did promise to blog about it with more than just one nice picture, but it did not happen. Partly because I had to go back across the Atlantic to do some work, and then got ill over the weekend I was planning to do it, and then..

Griffith Observatory

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts. First note that my two week delay means that this is no longer a scoop, since even the LA Times had a spread on the whole thing on Thursday. A rather nice one as well. I urge you to consult it for a lovely pull-out graphic of the whole site. There is also a special website with picture tours, nifty 360 degree interactive shots of the spaces, and other information. The Griffith opened yesterday.

What they’ve done over the last four or five years is simply shut down the entire building and rethink and redo a great deal of it. How to preserve the lovely 70 year old landmark, while making it even better? Simple question – simple answer: Get $93 million for your project (I find this number, the earth-sun distance in miles, suspicious), and then go underneath the existing building and hollow out about the same amount of space that is has, but underground. Fill it with lots of goodies. And I mean lots and lots. What goodies? We’ll see.

Griffith ObservatoryThey started us out at the side entrance so we saw the underground “Gunther Depths of Space” parts first. The displays down there are very varied. Everything from nice details on asteroid impacts to vast displays of large chunks of the universe…. The largest such chunk is called “The Big Picture”, which is basically the whole back wall of the underground space – 150 feet by 20 feet – showing a very large field of view of stars, galaxies, and the like. There’s even a telescope to view it with. It is split down there into two portions, and upper and a lower. The telescope perches on the upper part.

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Griffith ObservatoryGriffith ObservatoryThe lower portion of the underground space is really lovely. It is devoted mostly to the planets (ahem… including Pluto… although its display was incomplete… I hope that is not a bad sign… click on thumbs), with an interactive display booth for each. I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no booth for Earth until I realized that it in fact had a whole room that opens up at the space where the booth would be.

Griffith Observatory

Both portions down there in this new part have quite a bit to see, and you can spend an awful lot time reading the displays and playing with the interactive items, which have a wide range of complexity. One of my favourite interactive displays down there, because it is the simplest, and people seemed a bit disappointed with it: There’s a giant depiction of the Milky Way Galaxy (which they insist on calling a “picture”), and there is a button on it. You press the button. A little dot lights up to show where we are. That’s it. That’s it? Yes. That’s it. I’d love to stand there longer and watch the people standing there expecting the display to do more….

Griffith ObservatoryI have to say one thing at this point. I listened carefully to the floor staff describing some of the physics an astronomy to people, and answering their questions. There was no evidence that they were not doing their jobs adequately. So either these were not the actors that were feared, or they actually went and swotted up on their physics and are doing a good job. Either way, I had no reason to complain. So there.

Well, I moved on after a while. I was itching to get upstairs to see the original spaces, and see Griffith Observatorywhat they’d done with them. I was not disappointed at all. One Griffith Observatorypasses a rather splendid model of the moon (after going up the steps past the new theatre named after Leonard Nimoy, the large round edge of which also doubles as the sun, in the planets display -very clever mixing of the architecture with the science themes… there’ll be more of that later) and then goes (through the “wormhole tunnel”) to some of the original grand spaces.

Griffith Observatory

Lovely ceiling in the main entrance hall:

Griffith Observatory

Directly below, there’s a very impressive something that they are all looking at down there, no?

Griffith Observatory

Yes, it is their original installation of the Foucault’s Pendulum, back to its former glory. A pleasure to see.

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In this shot, you can see the main entrance, just in front of the pendulum, from the inside:

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Griffith ObservatoryGriffith ObservatoryUp here they have lots of very well thought out exhibits as well. The central hall and ceiling over the pendulum are at the center of the building, and then there are two main corridors running East and West from it, the “Hall of the Eye” and the “Hall of the Sky”. They are filled with exhibits of more Astronomical and other scientific interest. This includes moving models of the earth-sun system showing the seasons, models of earth-sun-moon system showing the origin of the tides, and many more. People were genuinely engaged by these, and not surprisingly. There are other lovely exhibits, such as of the life of main sequence exhibit the stars, which I showed you before, and a whole rotunda (at the West end (“Hall of the Sky”)) devoted to properties of the sun. It was incomplete when I went, so I don’t know exactly what they were doing with it, but it looked good. That was right next to a large light-up display of the periodic table of elements, complete with bare neon lights for the rare gases, which I thought was a nice touch.

Griffith Observatory

At the East end, there was a little room (at the end of the “Hall of the Eye”) devoted entirely to astronomical instruments and measurements. Excellent. Even the ceiling looks wonderful:

Griffith Observatory

This went from the simple astrolabes of old, through a model of Galileo’s telescope, all the way up to the results of WMAP on the cosmic microwave background.

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They have lots of simple but effective displays of the internal workings of telescopes of various designs.

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Griffith ObservatoryGriffith ObservatoryThere is a series of shows (almost like puppet shows) through darkened windows that required anyone over 4 feet tall to have to bend uncomfortably to attend to properly. I imagine that they were intended for children mostly. Bending over to crouch to the required degree, I could see that they were showing scenes of model sailors on model ships in one of them, navigating by the stars I imagine. Yes, they still have the camera obscura, and the Tesla coil. Those are safe. People who were recall them from their childhood were worried, I heard.

Do I have any strong criticisms? Mostly none, really. I think that it is jolly good, for what it is. And on balance a really wonderfully executed refurbishment -by any standards. If I had one serious complaint I would say that the scientific story that they try to tell -the big overall story about the universe- is compromised by the fact that there is no mention whatsoever of Dark Matter. I’m not even asking for Dark Energy here (which you could argue should wait a bit before being in an exhibit), but why nothing on Dark Matter at all? What better place, what better context could there be for an opportunity to appreciate the magnitude of the Dark Matter problem? How can you tell the story of galaxies and the universe at large in the 21st Century without mentioning it? That is my one major complaint. (I should say that I could have missed a mention of it somewhere, in some display or other that I missed, so if anyone knows of it, please let me know. But surely it should have showed up in a number of the displays that they had, even a little bit, not just be hidden off in a little corner. Just to remind you, it is 83% of the matter in the universe…. hardly ignorable in any story about the universe at large.)

There are instruments and displays outside too, but I did not get to look at them. For example, apparently the grounds have an all-encomapssing model of the solar system, out to the orbit of (yes) Pluto. I’ll look at that next time I come up there for a hike, I think. Nope, I did not see the restored Samuel Oschin Planetarium with the fantastic new Zeiss “Universarium” projector (see a post on it here) and the newly rescripted live show and amazing special effects that they’ve been billing in all interviews and other publicity. It was not open yet.

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Hey, we were not paying customers, but merely invited guests. They want us to come back for that, with our wallets. Ok, I’m being cynical…. it is possible that they simply were not ready yet.

Griffith ObservatoryGriffith ObservatoryAnyway, I did not mind. That was the last thing I wanted to see. High on my list was…. the telescope and the roof! There are stairs outside that lead up to the great old 12 inch Zeiss telescope on the roof. There was a guy up there – a real astronomer I think – discussing what you can see (they had it trained on a particular star and I’ve already forgotten which one), how far away it was, how long light would take to get from it to your eye, what kind of star it was…. the usual things. That’s the East side of the roof, appropriately, since that puts it over the telescopes, etc, in the Hall of the Eye downstairs.

    Griffith Observatory    Griffith Observatory

The center has the classic copper dome that you can see from so far away (it is completely newly done – they took all the old copper off, resealed the concrete dome, and then reclad it with new copper) that sits over the newly refurbished Oschin planetarium itself.

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Griffith ObservatoryOn the West side is the solar telescope. That was not open for display at that visit. Maybe because the sun had already set. I do not know. But it is an instrument for use by the public, just like the Zeiss on the other side. Ah! Now I understand the logic of this placement. It is over that rotunda downstairs at the end of the Hall of the sky that has all the details of the sun! In fact, on Wednesday coming, Mercury will be doing a transit of the sun for a good portion of the day, and so they will have it set up so that people can go and have a peek at the tiny speck crossing the disc of the sun. I think that the images from the telescope will go down to that room. Should be great.

As you can see (from the image at the top of this post, and the one nearby up above), the view from the roof is just spendid. The building is beautiful, the park is beautiful and the city looks beautiful from up here. They all deserve each other. I hope that the city’s people come to the park more, and to see the Observatory. Recall that they are not letting people drive up through the park, but instead they must drive to either the Zoo parking lot, or the Hollywood and Highland complex and take the specially provided bus up to the Observatory for $8.00. People are still unhappy about this, but they are expecting so much traffic and interest in the whole thing that they are doing it this way for several weeks. You also have to make reservations in this first several weeks. Personally, I’d like to see them keep something like this up. Why not only have buses coming up, and cut down on the number of cars driving up to the parking lot up there? I imagine that the people who want to drive up to the Observatory parking lot to hike from the nearby trailhead would be unhappy since it won’t be as convenient. I’m sure something could be worked out though. I worry that with the cafe and restaurant up there, the winding road up through the park will become a bit of a highway… Well, that is a discussion for another time. You can go to their website here for more information and to make reservations and the like.

If you ever get the chance, either as a local or a visitor, go along and visit. Enjoy.

-cvj

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