Things I’ve Learned From the Public at Griffith Observatory

That’s me in the middle.

After working for a year as a telescope operator, and showing the best of the heavens to the public, it’s the reactions and mannerisms from the thousands of people that I have encountered that has added the most experience. This article has more to do with learning about the public more than things about the cosmos that I’ve learned.

There’s dozens of reasons why people come up, and Astronomy is NOT the reason!

It’s no doubt how iconic the place is, I mean it’s on almost every postcard and advertisement for Los Angeles!

People see the place featured in all forms of media, whether reality or fiction based, and thus get interested to come up and see what the place is about. Many first time visitors do not know the building is an astronomy museum and planetarium theater, with the actual observatory portion being a smaller dome on the roof. A lot are also unaware that the telescopes are always open for public viewing on any night it’s clear!

Most who come up are there to enjoy the views of the city, see the sunrises and sunsets, hike up and down the trails as part of their workout routines, or simply stop by and check the place out as a tourist attraction. Only a handful of people see the place as a “Mecca” for passionate astronomers or as a place to help their child get interested.

It seems many people are “closeted astronomers.”

I’m discovering this both from the public in L.A. and with talking to people through Orion Bear Astronomy. I am underestimating how interested the general public is when it comes to the sky.

Take the 2017 solar eclipse for example. Almost everyone I knew told me they were not going to travel to see the eclipse. Yet when my father and I arrived in Glendo, Wyoming, this town of 200 people swelled to almost 50,000 people, and a drive from Boulder, CO to Glendo that usually lasted 3 hours took almost 8 on the way back due to all the people traveling home from the eclipse.

Sure, there are those who genuinely don’t care and are not into it. But for many “closeted astronomers,” they’re the one person in their family or circle of friends that has a high interest. It’s their busy day to day routines that don’t offer them too many chances to observe at night and learn more about the heavens, nor see a celestial event that they’re willing to lose sleep or vacation time over. So when they come to the observatory or attend an O.B.A. event, it’s always great to see their interest come alive as they get amazed by their views through the telescope.

Someone retaining at least one fact from the observatory is the icing on the cake!

Astronomy, like all activities, is one of those things that is learned through hands on experience. Most of my knowledge comes from repeated observations!

But when you’re at a place that is constantly throwing information at you, we need to remember that in one visit, even the most interested people retain about 20% or less from all that info just by reading, listening, and seeing. Sure, maybe they really enjoyed the show, or they really loved my presentation, but how much of it are they going to remember the next day?

I’ve learned not to take it personal if people don’t retain the info I say. I can only hope that not only do I give them the right information, but that they can also remember at least one thing I said to them.

The numerous people that try putting their smartphones to the eyepiece.

Especially when I show the Moon, there’s going to be about a dozen people that attempt to put their phones up to the eyepiece attempting to get a picture.  Sure, I can take it as a compliment,  but most who try it don’t even hesitate or ask, which can get annoying when you don’t catch them at first. It also takes way too long to get that perfect shot!

You have to get your camera perfectly aligned and steadied with the eyepiece, which on smartphones is difficult because they reset their auto focus every time you move your hands! At the same time, they’re holding up the line, which is one of the main reasons I don’t allow it. Plus if I let one person do it, then I have to let everyone try it, and that doesn’t work when we are tasked with keeping the lines moving.

Personally, I’d rather people just take more time to look with their eyes rather than waste all that time trying to take the picture.

People are attracted by telescopes!

People see the telescope and immediately want to check it out. They often get in line for a telescope without even knowing what they’re going to see! As soon as the lines form, people see them and start queuing up, even if I’m not open yet!

But that is not all. Even when I’m setting up, people want to be the first to see whatever I point at, so they’re often willing to wait however long it takes for me to calibrate and align the telescope to the sky. There have been many times where I’ve said, “hey, this is going to take me a while, why don’t you go check out another telescope and come back?” No matter how many times I say how long they’re going to be waiting, they persistently choose to stand there so they don’t lose their spots in line.

Even when people cannot view due to weather. I’ll explain, “Sorry, we are not observing tonight, it’s too cloudy, you won’t see anything.” And I’ll still get replied with, “But can I still look through the telescope?” Or “are there any other telescopes we can view?”

The point is, people are attracted by telescopes!

You never know who approaches you!

As stated before, most people are casual tourists or hikers that are up there for the views of the city. So typically they aren’t as knowledgeable on astronomy as I am.

However, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located a few freeway exits away in Pasadena, CA, and people from there do visit! These are people that are part of ongoing or planned missions to other worlds in space! If anyone had more knowledge than me, it’s them! They could be rocket scientists, engineers, planetary scientists, and of course their interns!

That means I need to make sure my facts are correct, because I could be embarrassed in front of the public if I got the facts mixed up. I have not encountered one rude or pretentious person from JPL, all of them share in the passion, and I always love to learn a thing or two from them!

Today’s 5th graders are way more perceptive in Astronomy than most adults!

I am not saying that adults today are dumb. Every generation has learned several new discoveries that were not known prior, and it’s only natural that no matter the level of basic science and astronomy that was taught to them during their youth, after so many years they simply have not retained all of that information.

For example, one night I was showing Uranus through the historic telescope. The remarks I kept hearing were, “why is Uranus so tiny?” “It’s so little!” “Is that it?!” And it was only AFTER I told them the 1.7 billion mile distance that they grasped what they were seeing, “Oh I didn’t know it was that far!” A few days later, I was giving a presentation for the school program. After asking what planet they thought was the best to see, the first answer was “Uranus?” So I said, “you know, the other night I showed Uranus through this telescope, and I had a lot of people remark how tiny it looked. Why do you think I kept hearing that?” And the 5th grader answered, “because it’s so far away!”

For those that think our future is bleak, rest assured that even today’s elementary school aged children, the next generation, already have a better understanding of the cosmos than we ever did as children!

I am sure there are more things about the public that I’ll learn as I keep working there, but these have been the attributes that I noticed the most after one year!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s