Monday, May 24, 2010

Looking Through the Telescope at Griffith Observatory

Sunday was a beautiful day in Verdugo City so we ended up riding over to Griffith Park for a walk to take in the view. The Griffith Park Observatory is one of the places that I truly love in Los Angeles, and one of the few that, on the surface at least, looks much as it did when I first visited as a kid, perhaps 50 years ago. But in all the times I've visited, I've never looked through the telescope before.

Griffith Park Observatory was never a scientific observatory - it was built for public education. The unlikely-named Griffith Griffiths gave the land to the city, which I suspect coveted it mostly as valuable watershed. But from the beginning the park was dedicated to public recreation and education, with the Observatory as the most prominent landmark - not counting the "Hollywood" sign, nearby but not quite in the park.

Anyone who thinks that there aren't lots of people hungry and curious to learn about science need only come down to the Observatory. Create a beautiful and interesting place that's free and you can draw a crowd. I've probably been there at least 30 or 40 times, walked the grounds, toured the exhibits old and new and viewed the planetarium show, but I've never been there at the right time, on a clear night, to look through the 1935 12" Zeiss Refracting Telescope. By the time I had my look, 7 million people had beat me to it. This is telescope that more people have looked through than any in the world.

And what do you get after you wait in line for this purely analog scientific experience? You get to see the surface of the moon close up with your own eyes. That's the real sunlight reflected off the surface of the moon, bouncing off the ridges and crater edges, looking remarkably bright and hyperrealistic. You can look at all the photos you want and it will never look the same as the view through the telescope.

It saddens me that so many science museums are so rotten and boring. When I was growing up, the Griffith Observatory and the California Museum of Science and Industry (especially the "Mathematica" exhibit that I only learned later was created by Eames and Eames) changed my life - they motivated me to the ask the questions that framed my career and my interests. So many museums misuse media and digital technology in ways that remove children from science rather than drawing them in. When I was a kid, the most popular exhibit in the Observatory was the Giant Tesla Coil. Guess what everyone flocks to now? The same old Tesla Coil. Simply seeing a giant spark shoot out of the coil doesn't teach you how electricity works - but it makes you wonder! And that wonder is the root of the motivation that makes some of us try to understand the world for the rest of our lives.

Seeing a print of Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows" is enjoyable, but seeing the painting can change the way you see forever. And you can learn a lot about the moon by looking at photographs, but seeing the moon in the sunlight reflected off its surface and passing 230,000 miles to be resolved by a telescope and your retina is a completely different experience. I feel very lucky to have had both experiences in my lifetime.