Friday, March 6, 2009

Viewing the galaxy from Los Angeles

Piano music played in the background and the lights slowly dimmed. Soon we were sitting beneath the night sky as planetarium lecturer Julia Silverman narrated the performance. The night sky filled with stars forming constellations in the shape of animals, mythical gods and two dippers. Then we were on a voyage in time traveling back to Alexandria and then to the time of Galileo. From our galaxy to galaxies far away, we traveled through it all. And we never left our seats in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium in the Griffith Observatory.

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith donated the land in 1896 to create Griffith Park, the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory, and he later offered money to the city of Los Angeles to build the Observatory. But he probably never envisioned the Observatory of today.

Sitting on one of the highest points above Los Angeles with views of the city to the south and the Hollywood sign to the northwest, the Observatory is one of the best places to be in Los Angeles.

A view of Downtown Los Angeles from the east side of the parking lot at the Observatory.

“Everyone who lives in Southern California should make their way to the Observatory,” Tom LaBonge, the Los Angeles city councilman, whose district includes Griffith Park said.

LaBonge, who has been hiking in Griffith Park for 30 years, said he hopes that everyone who visits has a good experience.

“I hope they get fascinated with astronomy, with the universe, with Griffith Park and the city below,” LaBonge said.

The Observatory, which was built in 1935 was falling into disrepair when it was closed in January 2002 to undergo major renovations. In nearly 70 years the Observatory had seen 70 million visitors.

The Griffith Observatory has been featured in a number of television and movie productions. One of the more recent productions is the film "Yes Man."

On the front lawn the Astronomers Monument features Hipparchus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and William Herschel.

In “The Once and Future Griffith Observatory” movie presented in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, Nimoy narrates the history, renovation and future plans of the Observatory.

The theater, which is part of the new underground area, was named for Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series, and his wife, Susan Bay-Nimoy, who made contributions to the Observatory’s renovation and expansion.

“Everything here is made to stimulate the imagination,” Nimoy said in the film.

Several meteorite exhibits are on display in the new underground section of the Observatory.

From public telescopes to exhibits that show recent data of the sun sent from spacecraft to the Foucault Pendulum, the Observatory has something for everyone and at every interest level.

My favorite exhibit is the Foucault Pendulum, which has been in the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda since 1935.

The Pendulum consists of a 240 pound brass ball attached to a 40 foot long cable that swings in one constant direction.

It seems as though the pendulum is moving in a circle, but in reality, the earth is moving in a circle while the pendulum swings in one consistent direction. As the earth turns, the pendulum knocks over a small black peg approximately every seven minutes. It is an amazing demonstration of how the earth turns.

Located near the entrance of the Observatory, the Foucault Pendulum is one of the original exhibits.

One exhibit that attracted a large group of visitors in the Wilder Hall of the Eye, which is just off of the rotunda, was the Tesla Coil.

The coil, which was invented by Nikola Tesla, was designed to transmit electricity through the air, according to the Observatory guide who led the demonstration of how the coil works.

When he turned the coil on, it buzzed and something resembling lightening moved through the air around the coil. A cage that collects the electricity and grounds it, surrounds the coil.

After viewing the Tesla Coil, I walked through the rest of the Hall, which includes other exhibits such as an infrared exhibit that shows body heat on a screen as visitors walk past a heat sensitive camera, and a model of the observatory, which includes a miniature of the building and grounds, and the new underground addition.

Though the building and grounds look much the same as they did in 1935 when the Observatory opened, there have been many exhibits added and additions made to the building.

The new Stellar Emporium Gift Shop run by Event Network, which is across from the new Café at the End of the Universe run by Wolfgang Puck, is the place to go to buy books about astronomy and other space related trinkets and souvenirs.

Trino Marquez, the store director, said he loves the Observatory.

“Working here doesn’t feel like working because of the whole atmosphere, the beauty of the building and the view of the city,” Marquez said.

Marquez said that his favorite thing about working at the Observatory is the people who visit. He said that the Observatory is a very friendly environment that encourages visitors to feel comfortable.

“We’re very people friendly,” Marquez said. “The nice thing about us is that you can walk up to anybody.”

Marquez added that the most exciting attractions are the telescopes that are free to visitors.

“They can see space,” Marquez said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

“People should come visit the highest point of the city,” Marquez said.

One of the most amazing things about the Observatory is the cost of admission, which is nothing.

All of the exhibits are free as well, except for some of the shows. The parking can be a bit tricky, but it too is free. And not only does the Observatory itself have a lot to offer, but there are special events held on the grounds.

Public star parties, which are free events, are held monthly from 2 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. The Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers come out and give visitors an opportunity to ask questions and view visible planets, the sun, the moon and other objects through telescopes set up on the front lawn. The next event will be held April 4.

The Observatory is open from noon-10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.

For more information about Griffith Observatory, visit

El Gran Burrito

After spending the day at the Observatory a good meal was in order and what better place to go than El Gran Burrito in Los Angeles.

Located next to the subway station at Vermont and Santa Monica, the 24-hour Mexican food restaurant is easily accessible by public transportation and car.

El Gran Burrito is open 24 hours a day and features a wide variety of affordable Mexican food.

But most importantly, the food is great and the prices are reasonable.

“I come as often as I can,” said Paige Luke of North Hollywood. “It’s really good Mexican food and it’s open 24 hours.”

Luke said her favorite item on the menu is the carne asada tacos.

El Gran Burrito features two inside dining areas, three outdoor dining areas and two cooking areas outside.

In the dining areas inside, there are jukeboxes available for customers to use that offer a selection of Latin music.

Owner Carlos Cruz said that he tries to keep the prices affordable for his customers.

“We try not to make too much money,” Cruz said. “I do whatever I can, as much as I can.”

Cruz said his customers and employees are much more important to him than the food that he sells at his restaurant.

He said he is concerned about his customers and his employees, especially because of the bad economy.

He said one of his main concerns and focuses is the single mothers he employs. He makes sure that he is able to keep them on staff at his restaurant.

Because of his attention to customers and employees, the environment is welcoming and very comfortable.

Whether you decided to eat a burrito inside or enjoy some fresh pineapple juice and tacos outside, you will not be disappointed.

A plate of enchiladas with chips and a salad costs just $6. El Gran Burrito is located at 4716 Santa Monica Blvd.

Expenses for the day

Gas: About $4
Parking: Free
Admission to the Observatory: Free
Total amount spent: About $10