Heroes & Villains - Coming Soon

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From Volume #18, Number 7, July 1937
No attributed author.


The white blankness of the domed ceiling with its realistic silhouette of the Los Angeles city skyline slowly darkened as the lecturer’s voice flowed on and on. Deepening shades of blue crept slowly over the expanse and turned to hues of early nightfall. Where, a few minutes before, there had been bright light, the room was now becoming midnight-black.

As the walls receded into the darkness the lecturer’s soft tones described the beauty of the night, the glory of the heavens; then, without warning, the plushy “sky” above was studded with a million diamond-points that were the stars.

Overlooking the City
Photo by Jake Brouwer.

Large, luminous, beckoning, the vista shimmered for a few moments, then, to the accompaniment of a soft hum, as if from a far-distant motor, the sky changed again.

“This,” said the speaker, “was the way the heavens looked to our ancestors hundreds of years ago. And this,” he continued, as the glazed facets moved again, “is how they will appear to you great-great-grandchildren.”

How was this? How is it possible for anyone to show you sky as it was in the prehistoric past and will be in the dim future? The answer is simple: Through magic of the Griffith Planetarium.

When the great philanthropist, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, died, he provided in his will for what is now Griffith Park, and, more particularly, for the Griffith Planetarium. His aims, as expressed in that will, were: “I am anxious to have these improvements instructive and attractive, fully believing that thereby many people can be lifted out of the trenches of ignorance and superstition, and placed on a higher plane of intelligence.”“If my efforts result in teaching such people to look up instead of down I shall ever consider that the donation of the park and these improvements was not in vain.”

Griffith Observatory.
Photo by Jake Brouwer.

Today, situated on the south slope of Mount Hollywood, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, stand Griffith Park and Observatory, a fitting memorial to the man who was so anxious that humanity be taught to look to the stars.

This classic example of modern Grecian architecture, with its three cooper domes glistening in the California sun, rests at the end of an exhilarating scenic excursion up Hollywood Drive, with a private bird’s-eye view of the entire metropolitan Los Angeles area lying within the traveler’s gaze. But even without this added attraction, the observatory itself, with its trim, well-kept lawns and imposing masonry, us a sight well worth seeing. This, you realize as you cross the portals, is more than an observatory in the ordinary sense of the word. It is, rather, an exposition of the sciences, as interesting and intriguing to the schoolboy and schoolgirl as it is to the most profound physicist, chemist, or astronomer.

In one of the two small domes which flank the large central arch is a twelve-inch refracting telescope through which one may view the actual night sky, which seems somehow prosaic when balanced against the scientific wonders of the planetarium. In the other dome is a triple coelestat, a machine for observing the sun without the usual attendant discomfort, and in a much more intimate manner.

The halls are lined with displays of technical apparatus and demonstration cases of scientific phenomena, which, providing a commentary on human curiosity, are all the more interesting, because it is we, the sightseer and observer, who are allowed to set the operating machinery in motion.

Here, in the geological section, is a cast showing the supposed structure of the earth from crust to crust; there is a miniature oil field showing all the stages of the process by which black gold is extracted from earth, and, incidentally, giving a graphic picture of the reasons why some wells produce while others do not. In one glass-fronted case certain mineral specimens flash back illumination in brilliant variegated tints, teaching the phenomenon of fluorescence, and a little farther down the hall is a nervous seismograph reeling out records of artificial earthquakes.

Suspended from a forty-foot steel wire in the center of the main foyer is a brass sphere called the “Foucalt Pendulum,” which swings in a pit of marble and glass. The pit is graduated in small sections to show the deviation in the swing of the pendulum, and, although to the casual eye it always appears to be swinging back and forth in a straight line, because of the rotating motion of the earth it actually makes a complete circuit of the pit in a fraction over forty-two hours at the latitude of the observatory.

If one were poised in a space ship a mere five hundred miles from the moon, one could get no better view of the lunar surface than is provided by an enlarged cast of the dead planet which rests in one of the glass cases in the planetarium. Touch a nearby button and a brilliant shaft of light travels over the scene, simulating in it progress the waxing and waning of the lunar day, and showing in greater clarity all the craters, depressions and eminences, precisely as they are seen by the astronomers as they study them through their high-powered telescopes.

Those who are afflicted with abnormal curiosity bumps find an attractive playground in the physics section. Here, with no more effort than that involved in the pressing of a few buttons, you can view such a diversity of electric and magnetic phenomena as may rarely be found. Attraction and repulsion by magnets, electric arcs, the generation of currents, the relation between currents and magnetic fields, and endless electrical principles are demonstrated in the simplest manner by the exhibits, and such developments as fluorescence, luminosity, heat and X-rays, caused by electrical discharges under various conditions, are displayed with a simplicity which will delight those unacquainted with the field.

Do you like mathematics? Then search out the mathematics section when you visit the hall. Is your interest in chemistry, meteorites, or general astronomy? You need take but a few steps to discover exhibits in your field. Or, if you care for pure art, you will find it well worth your while to study the series of murals in the foyer, generally acknowledged as some of the finest work of the world-famous artist, Hugo Ballin. No matter in what field of the sciences your interests lie, you will find some means of expansion during your visit to the planetarium.

But it is inside the planetarium proper that you must go to find the biggest thrill offered by the display. Passing from the hall into the planetarium you find yourself in a large circular room with a white-domed ceiling. An usher takes you to a comfortably upholstered chair, which revolves and pivots so the “sky” may be seen without too much neck strain.

After seating yourself the first thing you notice is an apparatus resembling a huge dumb-bell in the center of the room. A profusion of dimly lighted circular glass facets dot either end of the affair, which is attached at the middle to a comparatively frail framework.

This machine is the planetarium projector, a tribute to the progress of optical science in general, and to the wizardry of the Carl Zeiss workshops in particular. Through the revolving of the spheres at either end-but wait…

Back of one section of the assembled audience-there are seldom less than 200 present- stands a small rostrum flanked by a madriad of electric buttons. The room darkens; the gloom deepens, and with the seeming approach of night the audience sits hushed. Suddenly, coming apparently from nowhere, a voice begins to weave its spell. Unknown to the group the speaker has entered, and now stands at his rostrum, his hands resting near the switchboard.

He speaks of past ages, when men trembled at the approach of the blackness of night.
Then he tells of the development of astronomy, and with that development of the increased knowledge of the universe that has come to banish our fears. Now, he explains, man welcomes the night that he may revel in the beauties that become visible only in the darkened sky.

Suddenly stars dot the dome overhead. The projector gyrates, and the planets, stars and constellations assume their correct positional and dimensional relations to each other. This is the sky today. Another button is pressed, and again the projector turns, revealing the heavens as they appeared before the dawn of history. Still another button is pushed, and now we are looking at the sky-picture generations hence.

The speaker concludes his lecture. In a hushed silence the audience leaves the planetarium. As they pass through the door each person instinctively looks to the sky. And that is exactly what Colonel Griffith would have wanted them to do.

“…To look up, and not down!”