I admit it, I have a knack for sharing stories about the rude people, or the illiterates who possess no astronomy knowledge. They stick out because they’re unusual and not what I’m routinely there for. What I’m supposed to be doing is what Griffith J. Griffith envisioned: provide an experience that makes astronomy accessible to the public in hopes it impacts them the same way his own Mt. Wilson visits did for him
Because the place is popular and large crowds are common, most visitors are not necessarily astronomy enthusiasts, but merely curious tourists with varying degrees of interest. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the crowds you do speak to actually listen.
But plenty of times, we do have a successful reach. All it takes is a personal touch. some intuition, and a lot of patience. Here are tales where basic human interaction resulted in us fulfilling that vision for a person, or their family/group.
Perhaps for every one time I deal with a rude or entitled person, the amount of positive feedback experience from visitors I have received far outweighs it:
- Being able to say something or answer a curious question that actually resonates for that person.
- Being greeted by people who remembered me from the last time they had visited.
- Being able to showcase multiple objects to the same few people on a less busy night.
- Being told by tourists visiting all the major Los Angeles attractions that our place was their favorite of all.
- Meeting fellow astronomers and scientists, some of whom do work for JPL and other similar agencies.
- Seeing the children get extra giddy when they meet people who share the passion for space and astronomy.
- The reactions when showing people my astrophotography, especially when used as part of the presentation and revealing the differences between what they see from L.A. versus what a camera can see out in a dark sky.
Those examples are frequent enough that I can’t list them all. But the following are experiences that stand out.
When set up outside during a busy night, the lines to check out the telescopes were long as expected.
As I was giving the introductory talks to people waiting in line to see whatever I was showing, I was approached by a preteen girl who asked me, “Do you know how long it takes to get to the airport (LAX) from here?” After looking up the expected estimated time, I asked to speak to her parent, which she led me to her father waiting in line near the back of the line.
“So I have to ask, are you guys going straight to LAX after visiting here?” He confirmed, saying that they intend to finish the visit after viewing through our telescope and head straight there. So then I insisted, “how about you two come up front and let’s save you some time!” A little shocked, he asked me if I was sure, and I said, “Absolutely! I know how much of a hassle it is to fly out of LAX, let alone getting there at this hour – you just never know with LA freeways.”
As a thank you for the gesture, they gave me a $10 tip. Hopefully they got home safe.
A Special Needs Class
While I have a usual interactive routine for each class that visits the telescope dome as part of their school program trip, I always remain ready to change the presentation on the fly so that the respective group can get their high spots in and leave the dome satisfied.
This was a special needs class, with varying degrees of functionality on the spectrum. To make the presentation as accompanying to all their individual needs as possible, I was much less strict; such as if a kid wanted to lean on something rather than sit on the floor, I let that happen. Because a parent had told me some of them had sensitive hearing, I made it a point to warn the class about any loud mechanical noises when showing off the dome itself.
After allowing a couple of them to move the telescope and use the dome controls as part of the normal presentation, more kids kept asking, “can I push the telescope?” or “Can I push the button?” And it kept going on as I tried fulfilling their requests, to the point where one of the teachers/chaperones said, “you unwittingly opened up something for them.” To which I replied, “I was a special needs child during my younger years, so I get it! It matters more that they are interacting and having a good time!”
“How is that possible?!”
When I was arriving for my shift and signing in at the Edge of Space desk, I saw a pair of ladies come up to the desk to ask a guide, “I have a science question.” “Sure, go ahead.” “So is it true that the Earth and Moon are so far apart that you can line up all the planets in between them?” Even though they didn’t ask me directly, I quickly answered, “yes its true!”
“How?! That sounds fake!” One of them responded while raising their voices a bit, almost sounding hostile. “How is that possible?!”
Not phased, I asked, “Okay, do you know the diameters of the planets?” “No, I guess I don’t.” “So then let’s add them up one by one.” They seemed to be listening to each number as I went along.
“Now, do you know the distance between Earth and Moon?” “No, I guess not.” “It’s about 238,000 miles away on average. So when you add up all the diameters of the other planets, you realize there is still several thousand miles of space left!”
Then a light bulb it their head, and then they said “Oh my goodness, that’s amazing! It’s hard to fathom that!” After that, the conversation turned peaceful, and I was even given a “good job, I love the way you handled them!” from the observatory guide sitting at the desk watching it all unfold. Another funny thing about it is both women admitted they were actually school teachers!
On a few isolated occasions, I’ll let some patrons bypass the long line mainly for medical reasons, or if they are risking not getting the full experience they paid for (with proof of course).
One night, after stepping out to introduce the dome to the long line of people waiting outside and let them know what we were looking at, a couple who was close to the entrance but not yet inside flagged me down and told me that they had tickets for the last Planetarium show and they were minutes away from missing it.
After showing me their tickets, not wanting them to miss out on the non-refundable show, I gave them my name, told them the fastest route to the planetarium line, and told them to come back as soon as the show was over – and get there before 9:30 (closing time). I had figured they had waited in that line long enough, and the least I could do was make sure they got the full experience.
Sure enough, they followed directions, and got to enjoy a small perk, all because basic honest communication saved their experience!
The Family That Kept Coming Back
Usually I’ll exchange maybe a sentence or two on average to an individual or a family, and then they move on with their night. So I know a particular person/family likes me when I encounter them waiting in line again.
This family had a younger daughter who was definitely the “space child” of their family. It was also a night when all three of the best solar system objects in the sky (moon, Jupiter, or Saturn) were visible – perfect for such a visit!
I first noticed them while showcasing the Moon, which they were attentive and asked good questions. After I switched it to Jupiter, there they were again. “I remember you guys, I thought you’d have seen Jupiter through another scope by now!” “She wanted to come back to your line again!” So in response, I made it seem like I was switching eyepieces just for her to make Jupiter look bigger. A little bit of experience enhancing goes a long way for such a kid who treats our Observatory like they’re at Disneyland.
Sure enough, Later in the night I noticed them again, this time after the line had closed. They snuck in by telling the guide they knew me. I gladly made the exception for them, even though I did tell them it normally wasn’t allowed. When it was their turn again, this time I switched it to Saturn and did the same eyepiece thing just for them.
They thanked me profusely for the night, and it was another example of basic human interaction going a long way.
See? Plenty of great and positive things happen at the Observatory. It’s those experiences that remind me why I love doing what I do!
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