Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Observations on the Observatory

Photo by Matthew Field.

In November 2006 following four years of renovations, expansion and earthquake retrofitting, the Griffith Observatory re-opened to the public. This past Saturday, I finally braved the still-excited crowds of visitors making their pilgrimages up the hill in Griffith Park and paid a visit to the Observatory.

Despite the throngs, I really did enjoy it. The upstairs galleries are small, heightening the feeling of the crowds, but they are definitely worth taking the time to view, for me especially on the west side of the building in the Hall of the Sky where there are some of the best didactic representations of astronomical answers to common questions such as why do we have tides, how do the seasons work and what is an eclipse? Also in the Hall of the Sky are a coelostat and three solar telescopes, allowing visitors to defy their mothers warnings and look directly at the sun, witnessing sunspots, solar flares and seeing the full spectrum of light emitted by our solar system's star.

Another personal favorite of mine in the Hall of the Sky was the Observatory's depiction of the Periodic Table of Elements--with actual specimens or examples of each element (except for the dangerous radioactive ones, such as plutonium). Pressing a button on the display highlighted the elements found in planets, stars and even ourselves! Imagine my surprise when I learned that tin is one of the major elements that comprise humans...

Downstairs in the Gunther Depths of Space the exhibits are devoted to exploring the unique attributes of each planet in our solar system and the wonders of space in general. Here an interactive display afforded visitors the opportunity to see how asteroids, meteors, comets and other interstellar travelers could impact the landscape of the earth. I regret to inform everyone that I successfully created an asteroid large enough (1000 KM) and dense enough so that even though it was moving at a relatively slow rate, it's approach towards the earth at a 70 degree angle completely obliterated our planet upon impact in the ocean. Other visitors merely left craters with their impacts, and some created meteorites so small and light that they burned up in the earth's atmosphere.

The common element in all of these exhibits that I enjoyed so much was that they, as writing instructors everywhere advise, showed me instead of telling me. That is the beauty of science museums for me, that everyday visitors get to become the scientists: observing, using advanced instrumentation and trying things out to see what happens (they don't always result in complete annihilation).

The Hall of the Eye on the east side of the building also has that potential, with holographic dioramas that tell stories about the development of telescopes and other astronomical viewing devices--I think, but I'm not entirely sure because unfortunately this hall has a fatal flaw; it was absolutely impossible for me to hear anything that was said in the little vignettes. Use of cones of silence or listening hoods or even just earphones would help to make this hall be all that it can be.

My one other concern about the Observatory was that the way-finding was completely incomprehensible. We arrived at the beautiful building (noting as we passed each planetary orbit embedded in the ground, including Pluto) and marched up to the front door only to be confronted with a sign that literally read, "Entrance" but just below that, "Not an Entrance." Huh? We circled the building completely once, seeing all sorts of doors that did not appear to be where we were supposed to enter, but finally ducked into one anyway, only to discover that most people had simply ignored the baffling sign on the front door. Once inside, we had trouble figuring out how to get from the upstairs to the downstairs and back again and ended up going back outside, down and through the cafeteria to find the Gunther Depths of Space.

But way-finding aside, our trip to the Observatory was a fun one and the icing on the proverbial cake was our viewing of "Centered in the Universe" in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Narration was performed live by Observatory staff as the fantastic, brand new Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector and two Digistar 3 digital laser projectors transported us from the early days before telescopes to current theories about how the universe moves and functions and through our solar system out to the far reaches of space.

No comments: