Monday 11 Aug, 2014

L.A.’s Griffith Observatory Always Puts on a Show

Scenic shot of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory

Calm view of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory

It’s a big week for astronomy enthusiasts. Last night was the largest supermoon of the year, and tonight and tomorrow night brings us the Perseids meteor shower, everyone’s favorite annual shooting star show. All this space buzz has me thinking about the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where an appreciation for the cosmos is a year-round affair.

The Griffith Observatory is one of L.A.’s most popular attractions, and many student trips to Los Angeles include a visit. It’s actually much more than an observatory; it’s a museum, a panoramic lookout point, and a gathering place for locals and visitors with an interest in science and space.

So what makes Griffith Observatory so special?

The view
This is one of the best views in Los Angeles. Griffith Observatory is perched high up in the Hollywood Hills, and its lookout decks provide an absolutely incredible view of the entire city below. By day, you can see all the way to the ocean. By night, the city’s twinkling lights stretch out as far as you can see in every direction. (Bonus: look behind you for a unique view of the nearby Hollywood Sign.)

The history
The Griffith Observatory originally opened on May 14, 1935, thanks to Colonel Griffith J. Griffith’s donation of land and funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on this spot. It has been a beloved landmark of Los Angeles ever since. The observatory has even been immortalized in film; it was the location for the climactic scene in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, and today they have a statue of James Dean’s head in honor of the movie.

The main exhibits
Of course, learning about space is the heart and soul of the observatory experience. In the Hall of the Eye, you follow the history of humankind’s celestial observation, tracing our endless quest to better understand our universe. In the Hall of the Sky, you learn about the sun, the moon, the planets, the seasons, the tides, and everything else that makes our world tick. The highlight here is a solar telescope—one of the largest in the world—which shows the sun in real time (don’t worry, you don’t go blind when you look at it).

The Big Picture
About a decade ago, the observatory had a major renovation that added an entire new floor, and the best thing to come of it is an enormous image called The Big Picture. This giant wall photograph (152 feet long by 20 feet high) reveals the core of the Virgo galaxy cluster, home to more than a million galaxies, stars, and other celestial objects. Amazingly, this immense world is a snapshot from just the tiniest slice of the night sky, an area you can cover with your index finger held a foot from your eye.

These are some of the biggest draws of the Griffith Observatory, but there are countless other highlights to capture the imagination (with honorable mention going to the astronomers monument, the planetarium, the spark chambers, and the glass-walled Gottlieb Transit Corridor.). With all its interactive exhibits—big and small, inside and outside—the observatory has a way of making you think a little more profoundly about the universe, and our place in it.