Griffith Observatory: Entertainment, Education, or Both?

partial view of and from griffith observatory at night, by c.v. johnsonYou may recall a post I did some time ago about a worrying development at Griffith Observatory, just before it reopened after the splendid three year refurbishment. (See here for my long post -with pictures- of my visit to the facility around the time of its reopening.) Various reports said that they’d decided to hire actors (not trained in the subject of astronomy) to largely replace the lecturers (trained in the subject of astronomy) for the new planetarium show. This seemed a very disturbing turn of events, and so I did the blog post about it.

Well, I’d put the issue out of my mind until a few weeks ago when Jerry Weil, one of the show’s creators, showed up in the comments section (I love Google) and made his case for why the new show was just fine. Among the things he said in his comments were:

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.

Now, I have not seen the show, and so cannot comment in detail on its contents, or the setting, but I am -to say the least- very worried about such a statement. So I asked him to unpack the statement a bit more, thinking that I may have misunderstood. His clarification:

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.

Not wanting to repeat my often-made point that education and entertainment need not be thought of as mutually exculsive, I made a mental note to see the show and revisit this issue if I thought I could contribute further.

Remarkably, a few days later I was at a party at a neighbour’s house (Cinco De Mayo), and it was a great opportunity to meet some more neighbours. Among those were some people with whom I bonded over the issue of Education, Science, Media, Society, Entertainment, and combinations thereof (you know, the usual things I bang on about). The issue of the Observatory Planetarium show came up (I can’t recall who brought it up) and I discovered that I was talking to someone who used to be one the lecturers! I learned there that the discussion was still ongoing, and that many people were very unhappy with what the show is now, versus what it could be.

Some weeks later (two days ago) a new comment appeared on the post. This time is was from Steve Cooperman, another ex-lecturer from the show (google strikes again). His comment is so detailed and so full of information that I decided to bring it out of the background and include it in a full post. He gives links to articles elsewhere that discuss the issue too (for example, one by Margaret Wertheim in the LA Times). The comment is written mostly as a response addressed at Jerry Weil, who I hope might be interested in engaging in further discussion. I’ll shut up now and let Steve Cooperman take the stage:

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: [this link -text reproduced in full at bottom of Steve’s comment -cvj]

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: [this link]

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: [this link]
(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:


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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26 Responses to Griffith Observatory: Entertainment, Education, or Both?

  1. Jude says:

    Wow. Steve’s comment deserves to be read as widely as possible. I’m glad you reprinted it here.

  2. Jerry Weil says:


    Let me say first and foremost that I never intended my comments to in any way support the idea of displacing former Observatory employees. I do not know anything about the employee’s history with the Observatory, the negotations, etc. I also did not mean in any way to say that one type of show is better than another, or that a show with actors is better than one with astronomers. When I came on board the show had already been designed and was in production for some time. My comments were only meant to apply to the show as it was designed. That includes the fact that no time is allowed for Q&A. OF COURSE, if the show were designed differently, or if time was allotted for Q&A, it would be imperative to have knowledgeable presenters. I truly feel badly for anyone who loses their job, especially when they have been doing a great job as I’m sure you yourself were. I’m sorry that those people you mentioned did not feel satisfied with the current show – that response is quite different from the responses I have heard, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

    Your comments about the dimness of the projector is absolutely accurate, and was the biggest disappointment for all of us involved with the project. Unfortunately, the technology of the laser projectors is not yet as advanced as we would like. As that technology improves, the quality of the projection will improve. The installation at the Observatory was only the second in the world, and the system has a ways to go before being perfected.

  3. Carl Brannen says:

    The beauty of the milky way is something that is largely lost to modern man. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people responsible for limiting the time spent looking at the stars here have never seen the real thing; that is, have never been far from city lights in the mountains or desert.

  4. candace says:

    Strangely enough, I was talking about the planetarium show that I saw at Griffith Observatory with a friend not two nights ago. The new planetarium has opened here in London and I’m intending to go as soon as someone turns the summer back on, but it came up in a conversation about planetariums and science communication in general.

    And sadly, I honestly took the piss out of the Griffiths show. I even mimed the overdramatic cheesy orb opening thing with a handy bike light, and the narration intonations more akin to Mother Goose children’s reading hour than a planetarium presentation. I said it was really very…Disney, which was a shame because there are so many people out there (like the friend I was talking to) that are genuinely interested in the universe and looking around frantically for ways to experience the wonder for themselves.

    In a way, I am sort of scared to go to the London planetarium for fear that they have made similar mistakes. I hope not (but I have my doubts seeing as how the original planetarium was tragically closed to make way for some crappy sleb exhibit). All I know is that a sense of wonder does not come out of an Easy Cheese can.

    Griffith Observatory is a wonderful setting. I’m sure it could be put to more substantial use. If they want inspiration just from within California, I’ve had good planetarium experiences in the past at the Cal. Academy of Science and Chabot Space Centre.

  5. Kea says:

    far from city lights in the mountains or desert…

    and/or in the Southern Hemisphere – even more spectacular!

  6. ccpetersen says:

    Interesting discussion. I am a planetarium program producer (although not the one at Griffith) and a former live presenter at various facilities, and I feel that the current Griffith show is quite a lovely one. The two times I saw it, the actors did a very moving presentation, and I was very impressed. Bear in mind that I was very skeptical ahead of time about the hybrid pre-recorded animation and live lecturer format.

    However, let me give a bit of anecdotal experience here. I had been to several (well, a dozen or so) Griffith lectures in the “old” days, and I have to say this: all but one that I attended before closure featured a lecturer who made mistakes, who couldn’t speak well (spoke in a monotone, stuttered, snifffled into the microphone), peppered his talk with lots of “ums” and “uhs” and “ahs” and in a couple of cases, gave out flatly wrong information. I do not know who these lecturers were: I know Steve Cooperman, so I know it WASN’T him. But, if the issues with poor lecturers were spread across the spectrum, then I have to conclude that there were a few good lecturers, and many not-so-good. That translates into the possibility of a lot of boring, not-well-done lectures done, thus giving the old GO a chance to bore a lot of people with uninspiring lecturers.

    I do NOT know why the observatory went to the hybrid format, but for my money, the show I saw worked better for me and the audiences I sat with than the old format did, with all the mistakes and poor showmanship.

    Let me make it clear: I am NOT saying that every lecturer was like that, don’t get me wrong on that. But, in terms of giving a standardized experience to many of the observatory’s visitors, I think the staff and producers went for something that would served all visitors equally, and give each audience member the same chance to learn something as every other audience member.

    I’m a fan of well-done live presentations; I create animated shows (please don’t use “canned” –it’s a pejorative that has no place in a rational discussion — would you call “Gone with the Wind” canned?). A good story is a good story, no matter what the content is, but it can suffer if it’s told by a lackluster presenter or produced by a crappy producer (in animation or whatever). That’s a fact of life that seems to be ignored in the discussion about the GO lecturers.

    I’d like to think that If GO could have found many good storytellers and speakers among the old crop of lecturers, they might have selected them. I do not honestly know why they selected the way they did. But, think about this: GO operates in a town where performance is the local trade. Like it or not, GO performers will be held to the same standard as the stars. So, it doesn’t make sense to have a planetarium show be poorly done, as it was in the past, by some lecturers who weren’t performers, and whose quality detracted from the exciting stories to be told in astronomy.

    Those of us in the science storytelling biz have a tough row to hoe anyway; science is a “fear” subject. So, if GO has decided to “glitz it up” to bring science in a professional storytelling manner, then I think we should recognize that and make the effort to understand what they’re trying to do, rather than criticize and complain based on factors other than effective science communication.

    Disclaimer: I am the person who wrote all of Griffith’s exhibits. However, I had NOTHING to do with the planetarium show. As I mentioned earlier, I was skeptical about their new show, but once I saw it and recognized what they’re trying to do, I decided it was an effective way to do things. Would I recommend it to others? Not necessarily. What works for GO may not work for others.

    But, let’s think and talk about the best and most effective ways to present complex science topics, and focus on that.

  7. Clifford says:

    Hi ccpetersen,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think that I see the point you’re trying to make, but it raises some concerns for me. Do you really think that combating a “fear” of a subject (science) is best achieved by “glitzing it up”? Does that not risk making it even more inaccessible and hence, frightening? Would the better solution to having some poorer performing lecturers on the staff not be to try to train them better, to rehire the ones who perform best, etc. Getting rid of them entirely seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, wouldn’t you say?

    A few uhms and ahs here and there might not have been so bad if in exchange as an audience member you get real answers to real questions. This includes the “I don’t know” answer, which is a very very important answer to see come up from time to time when talking to scientists. It combats another fear of science and scientists -the perception that we somehow have answers to everything and know infinitely more than the “regular” people. It’s very instructive for someone from the general public to see how quickly we a can get to an “I don’t know” answer…. It actually makes science more accessible… not less. You don’t get any of that if you have a scripted show and no Q&A. How often do people get the chance to meet real scientists? Not as often as is desirable. Taking away yet another place in the city where they can be met (even if their presentation is flawed) seems to me to be a serious error of judgment on the road to making science more accessible.

    Imagine that when you were at college, the university administration decided that the best way for you to learn, given that most of the professors were not very good teachers (having mostly never been trained in teaching), was to replace all your lectures by scripted videos produced to the highest Hollywood standards… leaving you with no opportunity to talk to your professor at all. Would you have considered this a good thing? A person coming to the planetarium show has maybe that one chance -not a whole semester’s worth, just a single chance- to make contact with a real person who has studied the subject in a bit more depth…. is it not worth the risk of having a real (but perhaps not word-perfect) lecturer interact with them rather than not at all, or an actor who has no knowledge?



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  9. ccpetersen says:

    Hi Clifford, et al. Before I respond, let me say that I really enjoy reading your site. I’ve been meaning to link to it from my blog, and will definitely do that once I’m back home from being on travel.

    Anyway, you make good points in your response, and I want to stress that I am not upset at anything you’ve said. Let me point out, however, for the benefit of the folks reading this at home that I have done my share of lecturing and research in my past career, and as a consultant to many, many planetaria and science centers, I’ve heard my share of really bad presentations (both live and “memorex” so to speak). If it were a case of a few “ums” and “ahs” I’d put up with it. But, my recollection of the experiences I had at the old GO was that it went ‘way beyond that, to the point of a bad caricature of a planetarium lecture in a couple of cases. Is that enough to chuck the live presenters in favor of pre-recorded material? Certainly not. But, if such presentations DO become the caricature of the facility, and people come to expect science lectures to be boring with geeky lecturers who can’t speak well, it reflects badly on the facility (and to some extent, science).

    I’m at the AAS meeting this week, and believe me, you know (I hope) what listening to research reports can sound like. They feed right into the general MISperception of how scientists talk and act. You and I both know, however, that scientists are NOT like that, but they aren’t trained to present material to the public. There are, however, some who are good at it — but they’re not in the majority. That’s changing as a new generation of more media-savvy researchers come on the scene.

    You asked in your reply to me if I thought that science could only be presented well with glitz (that’s the gist of it anyway). I didn’t say or imply that. What I do think and what I’ve tried to do in my own work is to imbue the best practices of successful media with the best practices of good storytelling. Think about your favorite lecturer. Does he/she stand there and talk in a monotone? Certainly not. He/she is animated, turned on, enthusiastic. ANd it flows to YOU. And gets you excited about the topic.

    In many ways, this topic is echoing some of what is being talked about in science centers and planetariums as new technologies move in to replace older ones that are dying out. And, as I keep telling others, you can have all the toys and bells and whistles, but if you don’t have a good story (and good presentation skills in live and/or pre-recorded media), all the excitement of science will get diluted or lost in a miasma of poor presentation.

    You said:

    “Would the better solution to having some poorer performing lecturers on the staff not be to try to train them better, to rehire the ones who perform best, etc. Getting rid of them entirely seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, wouldn’t you say?”

    I don’t know how GO would answer that. I don’t speak for them. If I had that choice at a facility I ran, I would have to assess the poor performance and see if retraining would actually help.

    I also am not privy to the decisions made by GO management about who was let go, etc. So, I can’t speak to that, either. But, if I were that mythical director, faced with putting together an effective, memorable presentation that could be used with a hugely diverse population of a metropolitan area like SoCal, I’d certainly have to put serious thought to putting together a standard show, just as GO has done, to put out a standard message that entertains and educates.

    There is no harm in entertaining. There is a great deal of solid research into the memorability of educational material that points to good entertainment values enhancing a good educational message. The best teachers may not think of themselves as entertaining, but I bet you they are very entertaining. I’m thinking of one of my math teachers, for example. She made math entertaining.

    People don’t go to GO or science centers to do serious education. They go to enjoy themselves, to maybe learn a few new things that they might not get at home. Those of us in that industry know that. It’s why we’re called “informal outreach.” So, we get to do the best of both worlds.

    You make a very passionate case for people having only that one chance to interact with a real person at a planetarium. GO still does have talented guides there to answer questions, and when I was in residence there for a few days during opening, I saw a lot of them doing just that.

    GO isn’t such a closed shop that people only have one chance. I think you’re making it sound much more drastic than it really is, although I can understand the frustration of seeing what has happened. But, the GO folks have a huge audience to answer to, and have found a way to standardize their message across the diversity they answer to. Only time will tell how well it works (in my opinion).

    Again, however, I don’t speak for them, and I don’t have special knowledge of their decision-making in this area. I can only speak from what I experienced as an audience member pre- and post-renovation, and give the benefit of my comparisons with what I’ve seen at well over 300 other facilities during my career.

    Lecturing WELL is not an easy task, and I do stand by my anecdotal experience with the very poor state of some lecture experiences I had at GO and other places. And, I do still maintain that if a lecturer can’t tell a good story, and couldn’t do it after years of experience, then he/she should not be doing it. And if they ARE doing the same poor job year after year (whether in the classroom or planetarium) then retraining may not be the answer. We’ve had lousy profs, and who’s gonna tell THEM how to lecture right if they’ve gotten away with it for years?

    It’s a tough one, and I don’t pretend that there’s an easy answer to it, or to the concerns raised about GO.

    thanks for letting me expound a bit more.


  10. Clifford says:


    Thanks. We definitely agree that is a tough one. What bothers me is the throwing out the baby with the bathwater issue…. it sounds like there was no attempt at all to consider training, a hybrid model where you kept the best lecturers, etc. I don’t agree that I’m exaggerating the importance of a single human-level encounter with a scientist…. it can make a lot more difference than a slick highly produced show that you could have stayed home to watch on Discovery or PBS.

    Once again, I don’t think that we need to separate entertainment from education. People can go along to the exhibit with the expectation that they’re going to have a great time with generous helpings of both. In all likelihood the best model for the observatory will be a hybrid of the two modes (glitzy stuff as well as real people with real knowledge ….with training for those lecturers who need it) and maybe this and other discussions can help move toward that model.

    Anyway, I have another question. I went through the exhibits at the Griffith Observatory, and thought they were rather good indeed (I listened to some of the floor staff answering questions, by the way, and I agree with you: those I heard did seem to know what they were talking about and answered questions well….. so visitors might indeed get more than one chance at a encounter with a person with knowledge, as you say…), so if you did all the writing for those (as I understood from your first comment) then I’d say you’ve done a great job.

    Along these lines, I have a question that I’d like to ask: I understand that things have to be left out, but I was (as you can tell from the post I did about the visit) a bit puzzled as to why there was absolutely (as far as I saw) no mention in the whole observatory of Dark Matter or Dark Energy. Now I can maybe understand why there might be some reluctance to go into the latter, but not mentioning anything about Dark Matter was puzzling to me….. Did I miss it somewhere? That’s possible, and I apologize if I did. If not, then do you know what the thinking was behind this? I guess I felt I was worried that the story of the universe should not be all tied up so neatly… we should not be afraid to talk about some of the mysteries…. and among all the great things we’ve learned by looking with observatories of various sorts -as shown in the rest of the exhibit- it would be great to acknowledge that there’s a ton of stuff we can’t see, and that the vast majority of the universe of matter is invisible and not yet understood…




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  12. Thanks, all, for your comments so far. And thanks, “ccpetersen,” for saying that my shows weren’t boring! ~8-)>

    You’re absolutely right — some lecturers were/are better than others. The way it used to work, our “Program Supervisor” (now retired; as he said, “marginalized” because of the new way of doing things there) would provide a script, and most lecturers would paraphrase what the script said. That is, they’d find what they thought were better ways, based on their own experience, to describe the visuals we were projecting.

    And as I’ve said, I think that there is room for both kinds of shows: pure entertainment and educational.

    But as Clifford mentioned, there is NO reason for those types of shows to be mutually exclusive.

    I could NOT give a lecture that was just facts, figures and slides! My background as a Physics teacher is just too laden with demos and puns and video clips of physics profs hanging upside-down relative to each other or Mechanical Universe segments to allow for an unpunctuated monotone.

    There HAS to be variation in delivery. “mcpetersen” has been great about providing musical scores that your company has sold for years, plus all the other show packages. You both have done a great service to many planetaria with much less imagination. You’ve allowed them to survive!

    And each audience deserves the best presentation, even if the audience consists of an elderly ladies club coming up to Griffith on a Wednesday afternoon for an outing or a Saturday evening almost-full-house mix of a cross-section of LA’s population.

    The strength of a live delivery, if it’s done well, is to show the human side of Science. Astronomers (scientists in general?) might seem lofty and unreachable, but we’re human, and we do what we do because we’re inspired in some way to communicate our joys of what we do to people of all different backgrounds.

    There is all together too much of what Sagan called “The Demon-Haunted World” in our civilization today, and the live lecturer is the link to provide that “candle in the dark.” There are too few Sagans out there, and he was gone too soon. Yes, we need more storytellers, but not lip-synchers.

    A taped or lip-synched show is one way to inspire, and we see a lot of that. But a live performance/lecture adds that extra spot of humanity in a society that threatens to separate all of us into sound bytes and electronic bits.

    It’s the difference between a movie and theatre: sometimes a live performance is more “homey”, and it allows us to see that scientists are real people on a quest to understand Nature on its own terms. And it’s fun to be brought along on that journey.

    Done well, a lecture is a collective “hug” for an audience that tells them there are still great mysteries, and at least one person (the lecturer) is inspired to tell everyone about them.

    And I think that one of the reasons why science has fallen OUT of favor with so many people (in favor of more pseudoscientific explanations) is that people yearn for answers to puzzles, and if an explanation is too lofty and unreachable, the audience just turns it off and goes into their own “Private Universe” (a great series).

    We need more people to live in THIS Universe, and that’s why every planetarium show needs a Q&A period. Each visitor deserves a 1:1 encounter with a teacher, not someone pretending to be one.

  13. Kelly says:

    Thanks to all for the great discussion here. I’ve seen the GO show, and my Jane Q. Public reaction is as follows: (1) It is too simple for an adult audience. Why not do a kids version and an adult version? (2) The lame lit orb thing is cheesy (as mentioned above by Candace) and detracts from the meager content. (3) The actor who “voiced” the show I attended needs to go back to acting school. His voice was fake, almost creepy. At the start of the show, I could hardly believe a real person was speaking. Then his lips moved.

    I’d rather a few ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ from a live astronomical mind than a smooth-talker with nary a slip of tongue. Education is not something we do terribly well in this country, and taking the marrow out of the planetarium presentation is a step in the wrong direction.

    I stood in line (30 minutes on a weekday afternoon) and plunked down the dough for the planetarium because I expected to learn something. Instead, in the midst of a performance that was supposed to feel ‘live’ but felt more fake than if it had been recorded, I found myself wondering about the career missteps that lead an actor to the ultimate nutty professor role.

  14. ccpetersen says:

    I wish we were talking about a few “ums” and “ahs.” As I said earlier, it was worse than that, but I made that point already, so I won’t dwell on it.

    CVJ mentioned the issue of the dark matter and no mention of it. It’s a fair question and one that we wrestled with in the exhibit production process.

    The simple answer is that what I wrote about in the exhibits was determined by the curatorial process (a level above me). They had only so much room on the panels for words and images, and so the exhibit material was themed. The theme is: “Turning visitors into observers.”
    So, the exhibits help do that. It was a very good move on the part of the curatorial team (which included the former program supervisor, plus professors from area universities, plus the director, etc.) and I appreciated their extreme foresight in giving that sort of direction and theme to the exhibits.

    Dark matter is indeed a sexy topic, and it is also timely; but in a few years, it may be solved. The exhibits have to stand for a long time, and the idea (as far as I recall it from my feedback from the curatorial teams) was that anything that would go out of date quickly (or be made wrong by new developments), or did not fit the theme, would not be detailed in exhibits, but would be the subject of guide answers, or a changeable exhibit/bulletin board, new planetarium show, etc.

    If you think back to the exhibits you saw, they are all aimed at answeing the questions that people ask about what they see in the sky — motions, seasons, day/night, planets, stars, galaxies, etc. The exhibits answers those questions, and help people become better observers of what they do see. Now, that does allow us to get into such things as California contributions to astronomy, through observing, etc., but there simply is not the room to go into everything our hearts desired. Hence, the theme. You have to start somewhere.

    That’s the short answer. I can get into more detail when I have more time; I’m on travel right now and will have sporadic email access the next few days.

    Thanks again for letting me expound on your space. I should stress again that I don’t speak for GO; but I’m happy to talk about the work I have done for them.

  15. ccpetersen says:

    p.S. Hi Steve!! More later!!


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  17. Lel says:

    As someone who grew up in the neighborhood in the 80’s and saw the various planitarium shows, including Steve’s, at least a dozen times I must say that I was appalled at how little the new projector was used in CIU. I can see how CIU might be a good replacement to the old Voyage to the Planets show, which was more for the Sesame Street crowd, but the obsavatory really needs to bring the real astonomers like Steve back into the planetarium where they belong.

    I think the management of the observatory is making a giant mistake by assuming that visitors would rather look at CGI eye candy than acualy get more than 5 minutes of time looking at the night sky at a more leisurly pace with a liitle context from someone who actualy knows what they’re talking about. This is what used to make Griffith unique from all the other ‘Science Centers’ which offer IMAX type shows. Having the so-called actors actualy make the whole thing seem a lot cheesier and silly, by having them sit there and do a live voiceover of a movie. They might as well just hire Patrick Stewart to make a prerecorded voice over, and they would at least have a good actor.

    CIU may be fine for kids or tourists who don’t give a crap about learning anything substantial, but the reason the observatory exists is to serve, enlighten, and educate the people of the City of Los Angeles, the ones who pay to keep it operating. I think the obervatory should be able to find a place for the lecturers like Steve in the planatatium who’s presentations many of us miss so desprately.

  18. Thanks, Lel.

    I’m glad that you brought up the “Voyage to the Planets” show. That might have been THE straw that broke the camel’s back. Let me explain.

    Sometime in the mid-90’s, I was giving that Saturday/Sunday afternoon show, expressly for the younger-than-5 crowd.

    Unknown to me, Michael Piller (of Star Trek fame) and his daughter, Brent (named for Brent Spiner, “Data”) were in the audience. Apparently they didn’t like what they saw in the first few minutes, and they left because Brent was bored.

    Weeks later, I received a copy of a letter from the Program Supervisor back to Piller, saying that the City didn’t have the budget to produce the highly-visual show that Piller’s daughter would have wanted to see.

    The kids’ show’s “hero” was a non-animated alien named “Critney”, and the lecturer played off against Critney’s recorded narration during the show. It was a good idea, but badly executed. Critney had an irritating, high-pitched grating voice, and his “slide” rendition changed the number of fingers Critney had from slide to slide!

    The show was fine for what it was — just an introduction for kids to the planets in the Solar System. But Piller was right — it needed to be more animated.

    Unfortunately, they couldn’t have stayed long enough to hear all the Star Trek and Star Wars references in the REST of the show, nor the extra planetarium projector motions I included to make the show more visually interesting. Sometimes I simulated our actual space travel by moving the Moon to a different phase, as if we were in 3D space, passing it by.

    And there were a great many age-appropriate analogies I used to draw parallels between how the Earth behaved and how the other planets did.

    By the end of the show, the kids’ almost always enjoyed it, and I found myself talking to kids for 10-15 minutes after show time, just answering their questions. And no one ever asked me, “Did you memorize all that?” or “Were you reading that?”

    I have no doubt that Brent was more visually and intellectually sophisticated than the average 5 year-old, just for who her father is (was; he died about a year and a half ago).

    But this goes back to the idea of how much change is TOO much? Now that the Observatory has the budget, how is it being used? Is it being used in the best interest of public education?

    There was a new article in the LA Times the day yesterday about the Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory.,1,3469245.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california

    It concerns the pegs that visitors used to see as an indication that the Earth was rotating. Every 8 minutes (more or less), a peg was knocked down.

    You know, at some point you just have to say: this is a City historical site. Some things have to be preserved (like lecturing in the planetarium.)

    They’ve been open for over 1/2 year, and they still don’t have pegs to mark the movement of the pendulum. Without the pegs (and the suspense), it’s a useless exhibit unless someone makes the point to come back 1/2 to 1 hour later to see the apparent motion.

    The article mentions that new, remote-controlled pegs, are being developed.

    Does everything have to be remote-controlled or technological?

    If people are expecting pegs to be knocked over by the pendulum, and the pegs were lost in renovation, make more blasted pegs!

    How much is a remote-controlled system of pegs going to cost, as opposed to a wooden dowel, painted black, cut into segments, that will mark the passage of time in 8-minute intervals? Think of the shop-time to devise the contraption, then to build it . . . No wonder it’s taken months!

    And, in the meanwhile, thousands of visitors per day look at the pendulum, and wonder how the wonderful descriptions that ccpetersen has written correspond with the object they see in front of them.

    Innovation is great — I’m all for it. I’m a gadget-freak myself.

    But this is coming at the expense of the public’s understanding of Science. And without a public outcry, this sort of useless innovation will continue.

    You know, sometime it’s nice to listen to a book on tape. Or CD. I’ve even read some books on my PDA. But there are times when you just want to curl up with a book — a personal interaction between you and the written thoughts of someone from another place and time.

    My contention is that when you want to confront the Universe on its own terms, you want to get personal. You want to be in a place where that interaction can happen.

    And if you can’t get to the wide-open spaces, then the planetarium is “it”. And the more direct interaction you have with the Universe, the better.

    That’s why there has to be a live lecturer who can answer questions in the planetarium. That’s why there have to be pegs in the pendulum pit, from the get-go, so that you can “see the Earth move”, and you only have to wait 8 minutes.

    As time goes by without these forms of interaction, more and more people either develop misconceptions (like, the pendulum is NOT a clock but what it shows can’t be seen in less than 1/2 hour now) or will say that the show is just another AV presentation.

  19. ccpetersen says:

    Sorry for the lapse in posting; where I was the past few days I had little access to email — and actually it was kind of nice!!

    Anyway, back to our muttons here. I, too, heard the Pillar story, and also another one about another well-known filmmaker coming to Griffith and being appalled at a) the production values, b) the lousy lecturer, and c) the poorly presented information. You guys live in Tinsel Town, and like it or not, that is the standard by which all other presentations are measured. I can’t say I agree or disagree with that thought, it just is what it is. (Same issues, different institution in New York City, by the way… )

    Lel makes the comment that implies that the Observatory assumed that attendees wanted to be entertained by CGI, etc. I think that’s an unwarranted assumption on Lel’s part to ascribe some negative ulterior motive to the observatory that may or may not be there. If we’re going to yell at them about the way they treat science, then we can’t turn around and be unscientific in our assumptions about their motives. Has anybody actually asked them what their assumptions were about what audiences want?

    I did ask them, early on in my work with them. Again, I didn’t work on the show, but the same people curating the exhibits I worked on also curated the show production, so I doubt they’d suddenly drop the same audience assumptions and research for the show that they used for the exhibits. I don’t speak for them, but I do know they cared very much about the total audience, the diversity of which they have to serve every day.

    They also had to keep up with the upcoming technological change that is sweeping over planetariums. There’s no way around the fact that the “old” planetarium of slide projectors, etc. is going away. As a planetarium show producer for other facilities, I’ve watched this coming for some years now; the reality is that digital video is the way things are going. CGI is a good tool, and I use it myself. So, let’s not throw out THAT baby with the bathwater of one’s discontent with Griffith.

    This new technological direction in planetariums requires and actually allows us (as fulldome producers) to move in some new directions artistically. Those directions are not “crap” as someone else here has posited. They are all aimed at what any of us want to do when we share astronomy: to get information across to a wide group of people. But now we get to play with the cool visual toys to make our stories as beautiful and compelling as the state of the art will allow. What I wouldn’t have given for a good video system for some of my past shows! You have no idea how limiting it was to do slides and stars until you get to do video and stars.

    (Let’s not get into the use or non-use of the Zeiss here, that’s a separate topic… let’s just agree that when I say “stars” I’m talking about them as an important part of the show and I don’t care at this point how they’re generated…) Video has allowed us to move beyond static images, which is a magic filmmakers have always employed. And we don’t see people yelling about that…

    Anyway, I deal with the art of story telling about the stars and planets and galaxies all the time in my scripts. I want them to look as beautiful as the words I write so that I can excite and inspire people.

    I don’t have the dubious “luxury” of preaching to the converted in my shows, as much as I might artistically like to assume that all show attendees will be science fans. Often times they’re not. They come to the planetarium for various reasons. And, in the best of all possible worlds, each attendee will get the same message as every other attendee, given in a professional and entertaining manner. Sorry to say, as I said earlier, that in the old days Griffith had some people who couldn’t do that. Pillar, the other director, me, and many others, experienced lousy shows there. That’s not quite fair to the folks who plunk down their bucks to see any presentation — they should all have access to a quality presentation and accurate facts.

    And, guess what, awkward programming, poor lectures, etc. happen in other facilities, too. It happens regardless of what toys they use to tell the stories of the stars. TO paraphrase the old saw, “It’s the story, stupid.” And, I might add, how you tell it.

    There’s more than one way to tell a story in the planetarium. Griffith is showing one way to do it. Whether it’s a method that stands the test of time remains to be seen. I have my agreements and disagreements with it, but I don’t pretend that it’s the worst thing on earth, or the best. It is what it is.

    It’s odd that some people (here and in a few other blogs and stories I’ve read) who criticize Griffith SEEM not to have really dug into what the observatory’s stated motivations for their exhibits and shows are before making public assumptions about those motivations. I know the Friends of the Observatory and the city made the information available to the press and in interviews before and during opening. Did it somehow get lost? Are fractured egos and hurt feelings all around barring the way to further understanding? Is there a true rift in communications between all parties?

    I don’t have answers to those, and they are valid questions. I do know that the staff at GO is running flat out to get their work done, that not everything they do is under their control (city rules, requirements, etc), and that they are not evil people. Yet, I keep seeing statements by others who seem to assume the worst about GO and its people. (And don’t get me started on reviewers who have opined about GO without having a) seen much of the place or b) have not paid attention to the very helpful press materials that were sent out to help explain the observatory’s philosophy, or c) have spent very little time getting the observatory story before bloviating about how good/bad/evil/thoughtless/artless/weird/etc. GO is now that it’s open again. I’ve seen some mighty lazy journalism about GO the past months, but I’ve also seen some very good writing by people who made it their business to be sensitive to all the issues about GO, not just the ones where they had a personal or artistic ax to grind.)

    BY comparison to those kinds of reviews, the discussions HERE seem quite civilized in all but a few cases. And I’ve seen some thought-provoking points here, which was why I decided to respond to some of the postings with some of my own insights.

    Again, I don’t completely agree with GO’s approach, just as I don’t completely agree with some of the points I’ve seen here. But, the approach is fair game for discussion, which is what I appreciate about this site.

    Interesting point about the pendulum, Steve. I also read somewhere that there’s some labor issue now involved about not letting volunteers into the pit to replace the rods because they might get hit by the pendulum. Was that here I read it? Anyway, if so, then the city may have stepped in and forced an issue. I can imagine it’s frustrating for the GO folks, but let’s not go overboard and blame them for something they may not have control over.

    Just in closing, the Griffith Observatory Steve and others worked at is not the same one today. It’s not the funky place on top of the hill where you guys all kind of did your thing. With all that public recognition over its opening, I suspect (but cannot prove) that the city is taking MUCH more of an interest in the place, and perhaps being more of an enforcer than in the past, particularly in regards to things like safety in the pendulum pit. That’s one of the pitfalls of being in the public eye and a public institution, and I’ve heard similar tales from other facilities whose parent “institutions” are cities or counties or school districts…

  20. Thanks for your comments, ccpetersen.

    You know, I really didn’t expect that when Griffith reopened, it would be the same ol’ place. Even Einstein said that the only constant in the Universe is change. And natural selection shows that if you can’t adapt, you don’t survive.

    But that is NOT to say that what’s gone missing was worthless, and if the City is placing the Observatory under greater scrutiny, I actually invite them to even look more closely and even to follow the money trail. See if City rules are really being obeyed or not.

    I just received a couple notes from a student I taught back in 1990. She’s now doing her residency in Emergency Medicine through L.A. County. And she wrote (splicing two separate note portions together):

    “I went up to the new Griffith Observatory (before the fire) and I asked about you. They told me a whole story about how there are no science teachers running any of the shows and how they hired actor[s] with good voices who couldn’t answer any science questions. I was so sad!! … I will need some more time to really go through the [whole] discussion on the planetarium show [on this website], BUT I wanted to say that I am totally on your side. I couldn’t even bring myself to go to the new show because I was so upset with the whole actor thing. One of the best parts of the show was that you could ask questions to someone who COULD answer them. I guess I should motivate [myself?] to check out this new show just so I can get the full picture, although I am already biased. And yes, I couldn’t understand what was going on with the pendulum without the pegs – what is the point of it even swinging?”

    The point is: the planetarium show currently lacks something: critical thinking skills. Your descriptions at all the exhibits are great, IF (and you know it’s a big IF) people bother to read them. Some will, and they’ll be enlightened. Most won’t — they’ll wait for a guide (if one can be found at the right time) to tell them something about the exhibit. From Wertheim’s article, it sounds to me as if the spiel will be scripted.

    Others will take the easier way to education and will listen to and watch the planetarium show. But what would allow them to gain even more from the experience is to talk to someone about what they’re seeing.

    In the show, they will see a Big Bang. It’s nice video-rendering, showing that the Universe eventually forms the tendrils that seem to connect supercluster to supercluster. But how is it so different from what starts each NOVA show? A lay-person will not notice anything different unless s/he’s told more about it than the actor can read from a script.

    Right now, the script is set in stone and has been for the past year-plus because of the need to video-render everything that goes on the screen — oops, dome, it’s still a dome for projecting stars, right? [Because if they only needed a screen, they could use the wonderful Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon to show the same thing. There really isn’t any need to be surrounded by Galileo’s workshop, especially since the audience’s attention is always focused in one spot, anyway.]

    What about all the new information about coaxing dark matter out of oblivion by watching galaxies collide? What about new information about the brightest supernovae in the Universe or the largest 100-plus solar mass star? Anything new about gamma ray bursters?

    The planetarium video shows the surface of Mars. Is that better than what NASA’s own video trip down Valles Marineris shows?

    How about showing the great new images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing our intrepid little landers, past and present, and their true locations and surroundings from way up in Martian orbit? What a great cosmic perspective that would be, instead of people believing Hoagland’s stuff about a face on Mars as being a sign of intelligence. OUR stuff on Mars shows signs of intelligence, and the Griffith show doesn’t show that.

    How do we keep a population starving for Science knowledge “in the know” when the “current” show is 1.5 years old, even before it debuts? When there were live lecturers, tidbits of info could be inserted in real time, and now with the new facilities, images released to the public hours before could be projected, with no need for slides and proper exposures, mounting, masking, etc.

    Yes, it’s not the Observatory I worked in before it closed. Now, it has the potential not-yet-realized to be much more!

  21. ccpetersen says:

    The current show is less than a year old, although the script had been in development longer.

    FWIW, I’ve worked on show scripts for a year or more sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the latest info is missing. Sometimes the concept takes a while to get approved, etc. and the information is put in as it goes along. Every show is different.

    What I would like to see happen at GO (and any other facility using fulldome video programming) is that time be made for Q&A before or after the rendered portion. It gives the chance to present a set amount of information in a standard manner, but also gives audiences a chance to answer questions, and, as importantly, for knowledgeable people on the staff to interact with the public.

    Heck, I’d like to see that at movies! What a great thing it would be to have “directors’ discussions” after movies, where we could all ask those questions about technique, drama, etc. that pop up as we watch the movies…

    Perhaps that taped-and-live programming element will happen at GO. I don’t know that the current method of programming is set in stone there or elsewhere, mostly because as I ‘ve said before, the fulldome video medium is nascent. People at facilities that use it are still learning the best ways, and the alternate ways, of using it with and without live elements.

    GO’s transformation isn’t in a vacuum in the planetarium community. There are more than 300 other facilities using fulldome video and those people are (I hope) still figuring out the best balance of programming. There’s no one right model, just as there’s no one right way to do star talks or storytelling.

    From what I could tell of the GO decisions (and forgive me if I sound like a broken record here, but for the record: I don’t speak for them and I don’t know all the decisions they’ve made), but I suspect that the idea for doing the program as they have it now stems partly back to figuring out how to serve the huge crowds they expected to come back after a five-year renovation and being closed.

    They had to be dealt with at a time when staffing levels were still not up to snuff. I know that staffing had to be ramped up and that it depended on the city making the jobs available, etc., not an easy task for a civil service entity such as C.o. L.A. I do recall hearing that certain jobs were not open to be filled until late in the game, nothing the obs. could do about it. But, I don’t know if that affected the lecturer jobs, nor did I ask.

    But, to put a fair face on it, you had a facility that had to be restaffed and reopened after five years of being closed. It was always expected that attendance would be high. So, a fulldome video show would help bring a standard amount of info to the many who expected to attend. I recall hearing that the show schedule was set for 8 or 10 shows a day (not sure if that’s accurate now) but that’s a pretty heavy load to carry, even for seasoned lecturers.

    Back when I was lecturing, I used to do five or six a day (at a different planetarium) and it would wipe me out (that was five or six HOURS straight for several weeks at a time), and I consider myself pretty knowledgeable, too. You can’t be “on” that whole time. Heck even teachers get a break! So, in that light — heavy show demand and need for standard, good performances — I can see a director trying what GO is trying to do.

    My issues with the show have less to do with the visuals (which I think are great) and more to do with the tendency of some of the performers to go overboard in interpretation. THAT can be as bad as the “lousy live lecturer giving mistaken information” model I’ve decried earlier. Either way it affects the “performance” and the information transmission. If you get the right performer, it’s a magical experience that can bring tears to your eyes (in a good way). I know it did for me, and that was totally unexpected, since I figure I’ve “been there and done that.”

    But it cuts both ways: good performances AND bad ones are memorable…

    I’m not insensitive to people’s feelings about what you all used to be able to do at GO — those are valid feelings and if I were in your shoes, I’d probably be upset, too. But, the reality is, things have changed. GO is operating under a new paradigm and handling huge crowds, and trying to do what planetariums have always done: bring the wonders of the universe to those crowds.

    It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is.

  22. Thanks, again, ccpetersen, for the points you’ve brought up. All are noteworthy and valued.

    Actually, as far as I know, although all the upper echelon positions at Griffith are supposed to be Civil Service, I’m pretty sure that the Director, the Assistant Director and the new Curator are all appointments. I don’t think that any of them actually took and passed a Civil Service test. That, of course, is something we can look into.

    Yes, they were tremendously understaffed at the opening. There was a plan put forth by long-time guides in January 2006 for staffing. It was scrapped by the administration. Then, half a year later, they asked that the plan be rejuvenated because they didn’t have any other ideas on how to do it. There are many long-standing guides at Griffith who have either quit or given up hope of ever ironing out the situation.

    There was originally a plan that all staff-members would have uniforms. Guides spend hours polling each other and pouring over catalogues. In the end, that plan was scrapped. There has been a lot of wheel-spinning in asking the part-timers to do things and then scrapping the results in favor of, often, nothing.

    And you’re right — I was fried after 4 1-hour shows in a row, mainly because I gave each show with the energy as if it were my first. Talk about an acting job! ~8-)>

    Right now, they alternate actors — the actor who just gave a performance becomes the “announcer” for the next show.

    Perhaps it will eventually go to tape. That’s one way in which to mix the volume levels I spoke of originally.

    However, there will always be an need for Q&A because THAT is the framework in the charter that allows Griffith Observatory to even exist.

    Last, the crowds have NOT been as large as anticipated, and many people are upset at having to take the shuttle to the top of the hill only to find out that they can’t get a refund for a shuttle trip if the show happens to be sold out.

  23. ccpetersen says:


    I went to your site to respond a bit more, but when I went to MySpace to sign up so I could respond, I kept getting “technical errors” from the MySpace response system.

    Anyway, you raise good points all and I appreciate your viewpoint on the guide situation. I don’t have much to say about that since I have little knowledge of that side of things at GO.

    At this point, for this particular discussion, it essentially boils down to a couple of things: one of them is a personnel issue, which I do NOT want to get in the middle of (understandably) and have been avoiding getting into the middle of (as you may have surmised). I am going to withdraw from that part of it now, since you stated in your blog that you may be meeting with the director soon. That’s all between you and him.

    But, the other point is a larger discussion about science presentation. I’d love to continue on that second point, particularly in contexts that include Griffith and other venues of science knowledge purveyance.

    There’s no doubt there’s a hunger for science knowledge among some parts of the population in the US (and likely elsewhere). However, what dismays me MORE is the studied and bragged-about science ignorance among certain of the leadership classes. I find that appalling, and I doubt there’s any discussion we can have about live vs. taped, actors vs. lecturers, etc. that will help THOSE people out. My goal with my work, and my blog and the shows and the books I have written and continue to write, is to reach the people who want to know more and are looking for that knowledge.

    That being said, they’re gonna get turned off by poorly produced material (whether live, taped, acted, etc.) and if poor science communication turns ’em off, we lose. Don’t get me started about the p***-poor job “Big Media” often does in presenting science concepts, particularly in movies, but also in mainstream media. It’s like they don’t care.

    So, it’s left to those of us who know and love science to find ways to get it out there. I’m exploring other ways to do that now, even beyond my work with planetariums and science centers. Time will tell if they work!

  24. Sure, I think we should pursue the direction of what it means to have an effective presentation.

    In the meanwhile, yes, the Observatory continues in the manner in which it’s been allowed to. We old-time lecturers just received an e-mail notice that “they’re” looking for more presenters for the Centered in the Universe show.

    Did they ask us first? No, apparently the job description has been posted on the Griffith website for about the past 10 days:
    during which time I’ve had a few e-mails back and forth with the Curator, and she never intimated that they’d be looking for new “performers” soon. This is exactly what they did last year, when they made a general call for “actors” a couple days before letting us know.

    There is additional information at the almost-hidden link that takes you to a PDF file, saying that the position is Equity Actors exempt.

    The original page shows that guides need more background knowledge than the lecturers would.

    Perhaps some people on this list would like to apply?

    The more, the merrier.

  25. Pingback: Location, Location, Location - Asymptotia

  26. Tre Gibbs says:

    After reading the comments and replies to the Griffith Observatory drama, I find it absolutely unbelievable that Steve Cooperman fails to note that 2 of the 6 lecturers actually are former lecturers and not exclusively actors! Steve, you know this. Also, another one of the lecturers is a former astronomy teacher for the NYC public school system, and yet another lecturer is an amateur astronomer.
    The Op-Ed piece by Margaret Werthiel, actually supports Dr. Krupp and Dr. Danly’s ideals – the lecturer whom Margaret saw was most likely the lecturer who is not an actor!
    Out of the 8 current lecturers, only 2 of them have NO ties to astronomy. Besides, I’ve personally witnessed certain telescope operators (astronomers) on the front lawn, insult children and generally annoy the hell out of some patrons, so knowledge of astronomy is not automatically the barometer in regards to inspiring the public.
    While I understand the objection of having ones job literally taken away from them in what seems to be such a deceitful way, that in no way legitimizes these nasty comments on the current lecturers.
    Yes, it’s a scripted show. Yes, there’s no “official” Q&A afterward. Yes, 25% of the lecturers have a limited knowledge of astronomy. But, the emotional delivery of this fantastic script has the ability to move people in an almost religious way (how’s that for irony?). When people make that emotional connection, curiosity and exploration will follow, and THAT is the ultimate goal.