Halls of Astronomy

Griffith Observatory, image courtesy Tina Burch, DailyNews.com staff photographer.

Griffith Observatory, image courtesy Tina Burch, DailyNews.com staff photographer.

For the past year, I’ve been involved with one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever been invited to join, working as senior writer for the Griffith Observatory’s exhibits, set to be unveiled to the public sometime this autumn. The subject is, of course, astronomy, and without giving away too many secrets, it’s safe to say that we cover everything from earth-based astronomy out to the limits of the observable universe. (You can read more about the observatory at the story link under the picture.)

Like just about everybody else in the planetarium community, I’d been aware of Griffith’s place in the domed landscape, but it wasn’t until I got started with the project that I learned more of the history of the place. And, after my first meeting with the curatorial teams advising on the content to be covered in the exhibits, I was hooked by their idea of bringing astronomy to everybody using this “People’s Observatory” to do so. How so??

There’s an easy answer to that: because throughout my career, I’ve always tried to bring astronomy to everybody. I’ve eschewed the jargon and technobabble (which I CAN sling with the best of them when I’m working with scientists who know the language) in all my work. So, “speaking astronomy in plain English” wasn’t exactly unbroken ground for me. But, the challenges of explaining this complex science at a general level, on panels that often didn’t have more than 40 or 50 words on them—that was different.

At some point I’m going to write more about how it all worked—probably later this summer when I’m completely finished with the work. For now, let’s just say that, with astronomy at least, there’s a way to tell the story of the stars—and I want the next person who tells me that finding a way to make our science approachable is just “dumbing it down” to know that telling the story of science is a job we should ALL take seriously. And we should do whatever it takes to learn how to tell that story effectively. That’s what the Griffith experience has reinforced for ME.

Fascination with Mars

Mars up-close and personal

Mars up-close and personal

We took a little field trip yesterday and went to see the IMAX movie Roving Mars. It’s an amazingly well-done work about the launch and explorations of the Mars Exploration Rovers currently ranging around the surface of the Red Planet. Even though I’ve followed the missions for a long time, I was still amazed at how cool it is to be “walking” on Mars as the movie lets us do in a nicely cinematic way.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how poorly attended the movie is. We asked the ticket seller about that and she said that since the movie isn’t 3D and “action adventure” it doesn’t do well. Kinda sad in a way, because the adventure of landing two robots on Mars is not something we want to underestimate.

I mean, really. Think about what is required to make a “bull’s-eye landing” on a planet that it takes seven months to reach! But maybe because there isn’t violence or shoot-em-ups or car chases, some film producers have figured that movie-goers don’t want the experience. Too bad. We miss some beautiful stuff if we limit ourselves to spoon-fed visceral experiences.

So, I’ll go on record here as saying that the producers of Roving Mars give us a beautiful tour of Mars through the eyes of the rovers and the people who built them. All the elements are there: people, humor, the romance of space travel, beautiful scenery. And it gives you something to think about as you’re walking out of the theater because Mars is that way. Once you fall in love with the planet, it stays with you.

On a related note, I was browsing around online for new books to buy, and ran across Roving Mars at Amazon, along with a slew of other books about Mars. Which got me to thinking about how much Mars is in our collective subconscious. There were 19 books that loaded into my search page when I typed in “Roving Mars,” some of which turned out to out-of-print NASA documents about Mars spacecraft design. So, I searched on “Mars” and got several pages of books, ranging from books about the planet to books about love and relationships to science fiction titles.

Then, I went to Google and typed in “Mars missions” into Google, and got more than 31 million page hits. Lots of people writing and reading and blogging about Mars (including me), and it doesn’t stop there.

So, what is about Mars? Sure, there’s mystery and “romance” connected to the Red Planet. We’ve seen it throughout history as a godlike entity, a god of war, a place where monsters and princesses thrived, and imbued it with all sorts of “human” attributes, even though it is an alien planet. Now that we KNOW that it’s a dry and dusty desert place, that doesn’t seem to slake our appetite for the Red Planet. I’m hoping we’ll get there one day soon and watch as Marsnauts walk through Ares Valles and maneuver around Olympus Mons. I’m also hoping that I’ll get to go one day… but that’s a slimmer hope than the one that says, “Let’s get somebody to Mars, period!”

Until that time, though, I have to content myself with movies like Roving Mars and writing planetarium shows about the place, as I did with MarsQuest a few years ago.

And you? What will you do to kindle and rekindle interest in Mars?