Observing the skies

Once every while in life, we make a random decision that turns out to be one of the best we’ve ever made. Visiting the Griffith Observatory was one of those decisions for me.

I was with my colleagues in Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles when I realised I’d had enough. I’d already looked up the Observatory, and although I didn’t know what I’d see there, I knew I wanted to go.

Astronomers monument - Griffith Observatory
Astronomers monument

It was quite a long train ride (Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line) from Hollywood Blvd. However, the best thing about public transport is that you could to go the whole length of the city, and observe life without stopping or taking shortcuts. It’s not just about the destination but also about the journey itself.

Low-cost buses run every 15 minutes to and from the Observatory. I got on one—the Dash Observatory bus—and it took me along a winding path up a steep hill. As we drove I saw private vehicles struggling to find parking spaces all along the mountain—a common occurrence in most places in the United States, but a phenomenal one nonetheless.

As the bus stopped, and I got down, my jaw dropped. I’d let that happen plenty of times during the trip already, and I didn’t care that it’d happen many more times for the rest of the trip.

Before me stood a magnificent dome and square-shaped building. In front of it was a large lawn with a statue of six famous astronomers. Nodding hello to and taking a picture of Hipparchus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and John Herschel, I walked towards the entrance of the building.

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Even as I passed the astronomers, I noticed how there was something to gawk at everywhere I turned. A bronze armillary sphere, a sundial, the Hollywood sign, and the magnificent views of the LA skyline kept me hooked longer than I’d anticipated.

As I entered, I came upon the solar system. Called the Wilder Hall of the Eye, there were exhibits with detailed explanations of the Milky Way, star clusters, ancient telescopes, animated displays of olden time-telling methods, models and artifacts that depict the beginning of sky watching in California, and the most notable of all—the Tesla Coil. Although I didn’t see the sparks of electricity, I felt a thrill run down my spine as I realised what it meant to be standing in the presence of some of the greatest scientific achievements humankind has ever made.

Stepping further within the building, I stopped in my tracks for a moment. A vast hallway had opened up in front of me, its painted ceiling arching high above. I craned my neck to see the Greek-style artwork—Hugo Ballin murals—all around the sky and upper walls. And in the middle, stood Foucault’s pendulum that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation.

Unable to tear my eyes away from the sheer glory of everything that surrounded me, I stood transfixed for a while before giving in to the mad desire of getting everything in one picture. I’d never taken so many photos or videos in one place, but I still couldn’t capture the euphoria of witnessing it live.

On the other side, there were exhibits I was more familiar with—videos displaying the phases of the moon, the earth’s rotation, paths of the sun and stars, seasons, eclipses, tides, and the elements of the periodic table. At the end of it was a live image of the sun along with sun-watching gadgets and NASA videos of the sun.

Skipping the planetarium show, I went back outside to get a glimpse of the looming telescope.

Walking away from what looked like a coffee shop, I strode along the corridor staring at the views, making my way to the viewing area. A small queue later, I faced the large telescope pointed right at the planet Venus. Every half hour, the guard on duty shifts the telescope a few inches to match its movement. As I watched the small, round Venus, half hidden by the clouds and the sun, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much we’ve managed to pierce the mysteries of the sky.

So many things in the universe that we wouldn’t have heard of or seen are now common textbook knowledge. It made me understand how tiny, how small our lives are, as compared to the expanse of matter out there.

With that shuddering thought, I made my way back.

And until a few hours ago, I didn’t realise that I’d missed an entire range of exhibits in the lower levels of the Observatory. The lower level begins from the Café at the End of the Universe, a restaurant operated by the renowned chef, Wolfgang Puck. My bad, I should’ve researched the place before going there. I’m disappointed. But if you’re ever in the vicinity, you shouldn’t miss this place—it’s a great way to make an afternoon enchanting.

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