Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Observatory And Beyond The Infinite 2

It was truly sickening. My city covered in a blanket of air filth. They say the levels of air pollution have been steadily decreasing recently due to aggressive environmental actions, but you sure couldn't tell that day. I could hardly make out my bank building, downtown, it was so hazy.
A little depressed by the view I walked away from the railing and stopped looking at it. I found myself in front of a bronze bust of the actor James Dean. This was a memoriam to honor his short life, and also to note that the last scenes from "Rebel Without A Cause" were filmed at the observatory, the second of the three films he completed before his death in a car crash in 1955, and after he made a reputation for himself as a maker of breakfast sausage.
Now it was time for the observatory.
Which has an interesting history. After making money through mining investments, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith (he never actually attained the rank of Colonel during his lifetime, but liked being called one) purchased Rancho Los Feliz in 1882, and turned it into an ostrich farm. Tired of the antics of the ghost of Antonio Feliz (a previous owner of the property), he donated 3,015 acres to the city of Los Angeles in 1896. After being released from San Quentin Prison for shooting his wife in the face in 1903 (she survived), Griffith attempted to donate $100,000 to the city to build an observatory, which refused the offer calling it a bribe. However, after his death in 1919, the city began to build what Griffith wanted, the result being the Greek Theater (completed in 1930, and the observatory (completed in 1935).
Griffith Observatory was never meant to be a working astronomical observation platform, although there are large telescopes on the roof. The lights of the city below would always hamper viewing the cosmos. It had been intended to always be available to the public as a museum of sorts, with exhibits concerning astronomy and science in general. Admission has always been free.
In 2002 the observatory was closed to undergo a 93 million dollar renovation, restoring the building, replacing the planetarium dome, and adding space for new exhibits. It reopened in November of 2006.
I have visited the observatory many times throughout my life, as a child, and young drug addled adult. I remember going there with my first wife, Michelle, and boogying during the laser light shows to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Beethoven. I had not been there since the renovation.
I entered the front doors, happy to be out of the heat, and was glad to see my old friend, the Foucault Pendulum. Suspended from the high ceiling by a thin wire (energy supplied by magnets keep it swinging) is a large gold ball with a little pointer secured to its bottom. It was designed to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, and the direction of its swing completes an entire circle every 24 hours. The staff place tiny pegs on the floor which the pendulum knock over to mark its movement.
I stood and stared at it for a while, but I have never doubted that the Earth rotates on its axis each day, and soon moved on.
The east and west wings of the observatories ground floor contain exhibits on tides, geological formations throughout the region, devices to observe the sun, models of the stellar types, and other interesting items. I witnessed a demonstration of Tesla Coil spewing electrical charges through the air which frightened me badly. Then I went downstairs and learned how to make a comet.
This area was all new to me. They put a cafe, gift shop, a whole bunch of new exhibits, and the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, where I attended a twenty minute show concerning meteors, asteroids, and comets. The theater has 200 seats and was about half filled with Saturday visitors when the show began. One inquisitive little Hispanic girl, not more than six or seven, sitting to my immediate right with her mother and sister, called down to one of the presenters on the stage below when asked if anyone had any science questions, "What are you going to do with that stuff?" She was referring to a table which had various glass beakers, bowls, and other scientific paraphernalia resting on its surface.
"We're going to make a comet," he said.
"Cool... awesome," she noted.
It was cool, and awesome. As I'm sure you already know, dear readers, a comet, such as Halley's which visits the inner solar system every 75 to 76 years, is nothing more than a big, dirty snowball, that when approaching the sun, sheds water vapor, and other volatile chemicals from its surface creating the magnificent tails that comets are closely associated with.
The show began and pictures were displayed on the central screen. At one point the question was asked to the audience what were the three states of water. "Liquid," the audience responded, and the guide giving the show held high a beaker half filled with water to demonstrate. "Ice," the audience responded. "Or solid," the guide clarified, holding another beaker of ice chunks. "And what else?" he asked. The audience was less sure of this one. "Vapor," the guide declared, "Water vapor, which is invisible."
"Water is invisible!" my little Hispanic friend exclaimed in wonder.
Then he made a comet. The guide poured into a large plastic bag some water, added silicon (sand), carbon (charcoal), ammonia (a few squirts of window cleaner), then simulated the cold of space by adding chunks of dry ice (carbon dioxide) and gravity by squeezing the bag for about twenty seconds. The result, a little dirty snowball, which is basically what a comet nucleus is. One of the attendants held the little comet (using thick gloves) for closer inspection as we exited the theater, after we all promised not to touch (it was very cold).
My lovely case manager, Erin, when I told her of this exhibition and process, was struck dumb with cool indifference.
I checked out the rest of the basements displays. Models of each of our solar systems planets covered one wall, and the wall opposite boasts the largest astronomically accurate image ever constructed, a 152 foot long, by 20 feet high image of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, which you can stand and look at, or view from 60 feet away through telescopes. Awesome.
I took a look at the 12 inch Zeiss telescope on the roof before returning home. Visitors were not allowed to look through it, but I'm sure that if I were to I could surely see beyond the infinite.

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