Griffith Observatory apparently OK

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May 9 2007 8:08 PM

Griffith Observatory apparently OK

Wildfires are sweeping through the country right now. A mixture of high temperatures, low humidity, and low rainfall has created terrible conditions; I'm surprised none has started where I live (though it did rain a bit last week).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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In southern California, specifically LA, a huge fire tore through Griffith Park, a lovely area in the heart of LA. Sitting atop a hill there is the venerable Griffith Park Observatory. Built in 1935, it just underwent a $90+ million expansion and renovation.

It was in serious danger from the fire, but it appears to be OK (you can see dramatic images of it on Flickr, like the incredible image above). I've been keeping an eye on this... in November of 2004 I was in Australia on a speaking tour, invited by the National Skeptics for their annual conference. I had an amazing, tremendous, bonzer time. I love the area, the people, the coffee, just everything there.

But there was one somber moment. With some friends I toured four world-class observatories down there, including Mt. Stromlo, which is near Canberra, the Ozzie capital city. In January 2003, a fire of apocalyptic proportions burned in the Canberra hills, and in this case there was no happy ending: the observatory was almost totally destroyed.

When I toured the area, it was still completely ravaged. There were burned trees everywhere, live oaks and eucalyptus, the same kind we have in northern California (the whole area was strikingly similar to Sonoma County, in fact, which was very disconcerting -- I'd just be thinking how much it looks like home, when a pack of wallabies would hop across the road). And the observatory... oh, the observatory.

The domes were destroyed. Some had collapsed, some had been taken away. In one, the mount structure for the telescope was still inside, and they wouldn't let anyone in. There were many tons of unstable steel in there.

I could see paint peeled away from the metal domes due to the intense heat of the fire.

And then we went to the 50 inch.

I knew this telescope. I had never used it, but I have friends who had, and I'd seen pictures of it in happier days. How many papers on the MACHO project had I read, observations done on this grand old lady? But not any more. The telescope, like many big instruments, was an open truss structure. Steel pipes had held the mirror in place, but the fire had softened them, and the whole thing had swung down. Bizarrely, the mirror hadn't melted: the glass had shattered in place. We walked right up to it, and we could still see that it held a parabolic shape, but instead of one piece of glass, it was now several thousand, like someone had taken a hammer to it.

One piece near me stuck up a bit, and without thinking I reached over and pulled it out. It was maybe three inches long, and one end came to a wicked point. I just stared at it, and our guide told me I could keep it. I remember just staring at it... I still have it. It's packed away, ready to move to Colorado, or else I'd put up a picture of it. I keep it around to remind me that sometimes, solidity is an illusion.

Still, you can't keep Australians down. I wouldn't even hope to try! They're rebuilding the observatory, of course. I just can't say enough good things about Australians, including them having their heads screwed on straight -- well, most of 'em do. But that crazy upside-down place is enough to turn anyone into a drongo.

So. I'm glad that Griffith Observatory is out of danger. I'm not sure I can take the destruction of another wonderful place where people get a chance to touch the stars.

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