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A tale of two observatories

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Posted by BSJ on September 20, 2012 - 3:40pm

Wherever we travel, my husband and I like to squeeze in a visit to an observatory or visit another place of astronomical interest if we can. A recent trip to Los Angeles for a nephew's wedding was no exception.  After all the festivities associated with the happy occasion were over we found ourselves with a rental car and an extra day on our hands - perfect!

 

Our first stop was the Mt. Wilson Observatory where we arrived in time to participate in a guided tour. This $10, 2-hour tour was well worth the price as we got to walk out on the floor of the 100" telescope, learn about the CHARA stellar interferometry array and hear all about the fascinating history of the observatory.

One highlight was getting into the observing room of the 150-foot solar tower where Steve Padilla was recording measurments of the sun's magnetic field distributions using an impressive-looking device. We also got to see one of his famous sunspot drawings which are done daily and posted on the web. There was even a photo (taken in 1962) on the wall of our own Tom Cragg (CR) who worked at the observatory for many years before he moved to Australia.

After our visit to Mt. Wilson, we decided to stop by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Not knowing what to expect, we were greatly surprised to find that the parking lot was full and there were cars parked on both sides of the road. We had to walk nearly a mile from where we had to leave the car with people streaming up and down the mountain in droves. What was going on, we wondered? Was it a rock concert? Surely these people can't all be interested in astronomy.

Boy, were we wrong! The masses were indeed interested in astronomy. People of all kinds, young and old, were jostling for position to look at the fabulous exhibits. From the amazing 3-D hologram-like dioramas (actually using something called the "Pepper's Ghost" effect) illustrating important periods in the history of astronomy, to the massive 152' x 20' composite photo of the Virgo Cluster which one can look at in detail using telescopes on the balcony, the visitors seemed to be soaking it all in. It was neat to see kids talking excitedly about the H-alpha lines they could see using the spectrohelioscope and the prominences visible through the live view of he sun, both coming from the coelostat located in one of the domes.

As we departed that afternoon, people were already queueing up to get a look through the historic 12-inch Zeiss refractor. These public viewing sessions are free-of-charge (as is the museum) and happen every clear night. No wonder more people have looked through this telescope than any other in the world - over 7 million!

"Man's sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!" - Griffith J. Griffith (1850-1919). Donor of Griffith Park and the Griffith Observatory.

photos by John O'Neill (ONJ) and Sara Beck (BSJ).

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