January 4, 2007

We decided to visit The Griffith Observatory ….I think the website should have given us some idea (notice how many caveats they use)…but we thought the observatory would be worth it, even though they were “temporarily” charging us…so we went this evening.

It has been my experience, in general, that attractions, esp on the West Coast, are highly priced, but they are well-designed.

The Observatory has been closed for 4 years, and only opened again last month. I am, therefore, amazed that the design of several factors falls far short of the ideal.

First of all, we went to the LA Zoo parking lot to park (we were mandated to take the Shuttle at 8$ per head, but since it cuts down traffic on the hill, that was fine)...the last bus was scheduled at 7 pm, but in the vast parking lots, there was NO signposting about where the shuttle would be, and we found several others like us, looking around and wondering where to go, with just a few minutes for the shuttle to leave. Luckily, others passed the word down and we scrambled towards the waiting shuttles. Inadequately heated buses...several people told me that it was not me, it WAS cold in the bus. They played a mightily insipid video about the Observatory, the Oschin Planetarium and the other areas to visit (they kept stressing the restrooms for some reason.) We asked the driver when the last shuttle back was. He told us (and at least two others), "9.30 pm". This was wrong. The last bus was at 10 pm. We know, we took it. Why would the bus driver, who must have known perfectly well the timings of the shuttle, do this? We got a clue later... We rushed to get tickets for the Planetarium show. Another 7$ apiece. The planetarium projector and the roof, they claimed, were all brand new...but I certainly didn't see anything that justified 4 years of closure. The show, "Centred in the Universe"...was ....quite awful. We go to a planetarium to see the stars, the Universe and everything allied on the screen, not to watch a kind of IMAX movie. I have seen much better presentations at the Kolkata Planetarium and at the St Louis Science Museum . Even the shows I have seen at the now moribund Bangalore Planetarium were better. Of course, by far my best planetarium visit so far has been to the Hayden Planetarium in New York , which I visited last year. There was no interaction between the presenter and the audience after the show. I remember, after the St Louis and the New York shows, I spent quite a long time with the persons who presented the show, asking a lot of stuff and getting a lot of answers. The show was from 7.45 pm. We decided that before we looked around the other areas, we would visit the 12-inch telescope on the roof. was COLD. We joined the queue. And waited. and waited. and waited. It took us ONE hour to get into the telescope area; we were standing all the time. There could easily have been a kind of sign of the sort they have in Disney world which says, "45 min from this point"...that might have let us decide to go off to look at the other areas instead. We finally made it in one hour only because several people in the queue ahead of us gave up and left. Certainly, I felt that some videos could have been organized about the telescope or the stars, while we waited. I thought of the roaring business a nice Malayali chai shop would have done on that cold roof. We watched one visitor push his baby carriage to the side of the roof and leave it there.... and thought that it was probably because while they waited, the baby had grown up and learnt to walk. Our wit and humour got better and better while we waited..."They also serve who only stand and wait" (Milton, Paradise Lost). We served well. The view of the LA basin was superb...but there is only so long that one can appreciate it when one is wondering whether one could warm up better by jumping up and down or huddling into one's jacket. We finally entered the telescope area. The lady there was knowledgeable and did give a lot of data about the 4 stars in the Orion "belt" area that they were showing that day: she explained how many stars are "born" in that area and it is called the "nursery of the stars"..indeed, the 4 stars being focused on by the telescope were about 2000 years old, which is just babyhood in stellar terms. She told us to see the helium/hydrogen halo that the newly-formed stars were still surrounded by.She said that the stars had "moved" and she moved the dome of the observatory a little to let the telescope keep its focus. This was all pretty impressive, but we got about 30 seconds to a minute of viewing after that one-hour freezing wait. It reminded me of visting the Tirupati Balaji temple on a festival day...several hours in the queue and a blink-and-it's-over darshan. While we were waiting, another Observatory official came to the queue and announced that if we liked, we could leave the queue on the roof and go to the garden where they had a couple of telescopes and could look through those, as "they are equally good". Wow. I never knew that telescopes mounted on the lawns would be as good as a 12 inch telescope mounted in an observatory. They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble, just having the telescopes on the lawn! We realized that the Observatory people (that included our driver,Gilbert, obviously), seemed more interested in getting people out of the premises fast, than anything else. That made two people connected with the Observatory who made factually wrong statements to the visitors. NOT great PR. We elected to remain and in the process, lost the time to look at the other areas like, for example, the statue of Einstein, the Edge of the Universe, and so on. We went down to see the lawn telescopes, and at least got to see the rings of Saturn...for a minute, before they closed down too. On the way back, in the shuttle, we were treated to what I felt was a big plug for NASA and the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) . I would have been disagreeably impressed with this kind of plug even if, by an odd coincidence, I hadn't been reading Deception Point , by Dan Brown. With this book in my mind, I found the NASA marketing even less appealing. Of course the video never talked about the glaring failures of NASA projects. Christa McAuliffe? Who's SHE? O-Rings? What's that? An ageing Buzz Aldrin (the second man to set foot on the moon) talked about manned missions to Mars. I am one who cannot see the point of manned and dangerous missions to extremely hostile environments when unmanned missions would do the job better at far less cost. There is a general air in the whole place of their doing us a favour by letting us there, though we were clearly informed that this is NOT a research telescope (that is on Mt Wilson and not open to the general public.) There is a scheme whereby, if one $5000, an expert from the Observatory will come home (obviously in LA, not in Bangalore, India!) with a telescope and show one the heavens (or say, "the smog in LA precludes any astronomical sighting tonight") and one can have a telescope party... I would prefer to spend much less and visit a good observatory in India. I thought of who, some years ago, did a three months' course on astronomy at the M P Birla Institute for Fundamental Research. The theory classes were held in Bangalore, and the telescope they used was the one in Kavalur, near Jolarpet...a 90 inch one! </lj-cut> If you want to visit an observatory...I heartily do not recommend the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.