Saturday, January 31, 2009

Griffith Observatory

The week I moved to LA, Griffith Observatory was having their grand reopening after spending several years closed for renovations. My first apartment was directly south of it, so every day I saw it there up on the hill, one of the prettiest sites in a city that's not always known for charm in it's architecture. Nevertheless, it took me over a year to finally go up there. I've since been back two more times.

I love that place. It's totally free to the public (unless you buy a $7 ticket to the planetarium show), and even if you aren't a fan of astronomy, it has the best view in all of LA. I've been lucky enough to see the sunset from there, and let me tell you, it's gorgeous. To the young and broke in Los Angeles, let me recommend it as a great date place too. It's unique and beautiful, and you won't be called a cheapskate for taking someone there even though it's free. Very good for doing stuff on a budget.

Every time I go I leave feeling better about LA. How bad can a city be when a guy named Griffith J. Griffith decided to donate a giant park on a hill and build an observatory so the public could see the stars for free? The story is that after looking through the telescope at the famous Mt. Wilson observatory Griffith said that if everyone were to look through a telescope, it would change the world. Now it's there for everyone to look up at the stars and planets, and little kids are excited to be there, and I feel much better about the future of this country.

As I've said before, I was an English major in college. That's not to say that I don't enjoy science. I do. However, I wouldn't have the patience to deal with the specifics of a given scientific field for my entire life. I like to think that I could write some good science fiction someday, and while I strongly support scientific discoveries being made every day, I know I won't be the one making them. I understand enough of how the universe works to know just how little I really understand, which is why I get angry with religious zealots who refuse to believe in things like Evolution or the Big Bang.

I would never be an astronomer, but I really like the people who pursue the field. After spending four years at Harvard I met a lot of people from a lot of different scientific fields, and most have a bit of arrogance about their chosen profession. Biologists who can genetically engineer a mouse to have gills are probably convinced that they really can do anything.

Astronomers are different though. Every day they are confronted with the vastness of the universe and how little we understand about it. They realize that compared to the billions and billions of other galaxies out there, our planet is just a spec barely worthy of notice. I can imagine that it has to humble a person. In my experience most astronomers I've met love what they do, but they have a good natured sense of of purpose, and a sense of humor about what they do. There isn't much fighting among themselves when someone else wants to do what they do. They're just genuinely psyched that someone else cares about the stars just like they do. Plus they stay up all night in quiet serene places with clear skies above them.

Mankind evolved looking at the stars, using them to navigate, to measure time, and to tell stories and fables that serve as the basis for all religions. We have a built in instinct to look above us at night and be fascinated. One of the things I regret most about city living is that with the combination of air pollution and the insane amounts of light we have on in the cities at night we can't really see the stars. Every time I'm out away from civilization I look up, see the Milky Way, and savor the moment because I always forget just how beautiful it is.

So in closing, go to the Observatory, look up at the sky, appreciate our little corner of the universe and how it inspires us to keep exploring and learning more. You can bet that when I have kids I'm bringing them there all the time.

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