Make astronomers the stars

MARGARET WERTHEIM is director of the Institute for Figuring, an L.A.-based organization that promotes public engagement with science and mathematics.

WHEN THE Griffith Observatory revamped its planetarium, the board of directors rightly turned to a cadre of experts to produce what is one of the most sensational shows anywhere.

Courtesy of a custom-tailored Zeiss Star Projector, a digital-laser projection system and stunning special effects, we fly through the Milky Way, watch a “Big Bang” simulation, see a re-creation of ancient Alexandria and behold the spectacle of galaxies spawning like clouds of thistledown from the pages of astronomers’ notebooks as we tour the universe. How sad that the story accompanying these images is told by actors, not astronomers.

Before the observatory’s $93-million, five-year refurbishment, professional astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, as well as serious amateur sky-watchers, gave hourlong lectures at planetarium shows. Now, in their place, thespians narrate a 22-minute prepared script. The extent of their astronomical knowledge is never tested because there is no time for questions. As soon as the show ends, audiences are shuttled out. This way, observatory officials say, they are running twice as many shows as in 2002, and the planetarium is expected to tally more than 2 million visitors this year.

Recently, I attended a show presented by a deep-voiced, snappily suited man. As the simulated sun set above our heads, he strode down the aisle bearing an orb of light in his hands. With elegant flourishes, he waved this miniature sun through the air as he spoke his lines, explaining how ancient cultures had described the passage from day to night.


Over the next 22 minutes, we heard about Ptolemaic epicycles, the Copernican revolution, the discovery of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, dark matter and dark energy and extraterrestrial life. Along with my eyeballs, my brain felt as if it had been on a roller-coaster ride. I wanted some reflection on what I had seen, but when I inquired about supplemental literature, I was told that the only thing available was a map of the observatory grounds.

Many planetariums cannot afford on-site presenters and make do with a recorded sound track. The Griffith Observatory prides itself on the presence of a live body. But what we are not getting with the glittery new show is a live mind -- at least not a live astronomical mind. That’s a major loss.

For some years, science educators have stressed the importance of not just imparting knowledge to viewers but of engaging them in scientific issues. Earlier this month, I spoke at a conference on communicating science at the University of Nebraska. Much of the discussion revolved around how we could better explain how science works. Speaker after speaker declared that science is not just a compilation of facts but a set of methods and approaches practiced by living, breathing, idiosyncratic human beings. The trend is to put these faces into the foreground. In short, more contact with working scientists.

At the L.A. County Natural History Museum, for instance, I have been moderating a series of discussions with scientists as part of First Fridays. Attendance has been standing room only, and many audience members stay after the panel discussion to continue talking with our speakers.


At the Griffith Observatory, I watched as a presentation began in front of the giant Tesla coil, a device that generates electrical discharges.

The narrator delivered his scripted spiel with machine-gun rapidity, interspersed with dramatic flicks of a switch that set the coil roiling with lightning bolts. When he completed his monologue, he asked a group of schoolchildren gathered around if they had any questions. A small boy put up his hand:

“Why do you talk so fast?”

“Because I’m an actor,” the young man replied. At that, the children dispersed.


Just before I left, I did encounter a scientist. Sort of. The DVD presentation on the bus that brings you to Griffith Park ends with an exhortation not to forget to have your photo taken with Albert Einstein. In one of the new halls, I found a life-size bronze of the great physicist sitting on a bench looking up at the stars. The place beside him was vacant, and I sat down to join in contemplation of the cosmos.

Despite his immense fame, Einstein made a point of responding to the children who wrote him. What a great pity, I thought, that at the Griffith Observatory, scientists don’t have a chance to interact with children too.