April 2, 2009

Star light, star bright…

Posted in Between Us column at 3:21 am by dinaheng

Dr. E.C. Krupp has spent his life following the stars.

The director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles walks through the building’s exhibition area downstairs, pointing out samples of meteorites, the Apollo Moon rock, information about the planets, solar system, and more.

“The upstairs exhibits represent how we’ve dealt with astronomy from the surface of the Earth,” explains Krupp, an astronomer and internationally recognized expert on ancient, prehistoric and traditional astronomy. “Now, space exploration has changed everything. Downstairs, we have the largest astronomical picture in the world. It’s a section of the sky that shows more than a million and a half objects, yet it’s no more than one-thousandth of the sky.”

This month marks the beginning of the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating 400 years since Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky. What does this mean?  Walk through the Observatory’s “Cosmic Connection” exhibit, and you’ll get an inkling.

The exhibit, which captures the imagination with a 175 foot long ribbon of celestial jewelry, is a timeline starting 13.7 billion years ago with The Big Bang, showing that 10.2 billion years after that event, life begins to form on Earth. From that point to today, it’s a relatively short span of time during which dinosaurs die, humans begin to walk and talk, and then blast off the planet to explore the stars.

“Astronomy alters the way we look at ourselves and the world around us,” Krupp says. “It propelled us to go into space. Space propelled us to look back at the Earth. We’re now thinking about this island we live on. 

“The real function of astronomy is altering people’s perceptions, which can then alter behavior. We are a species that created chemicals that could damage the ozone layer, and then take action to repair it. That’s different than life on Earth when the dinosaurs were here. “

Krupp has visited more than 1,850 ancient astronomical sites around the world, looking at the connection between human beings and the stars.

“I was intrigued by the ideas of people in antiquity mastering knowledge I didn’t think was in their grasp,” Krupp says. “Our ancestors didn’t lose touch with the sky. We did.”

That is so true. How many of us live in places where it’s so dark outside at night that you can  look up at the heavens, and truly see the stars in all their glory? How long has it been since we marveled at a man setting foot on the Moon, rather than wondering why we’re spending money on building the International Space Station?

We’ve monetized our dreams, looking down at our problems, rather than up for inspiration and answers. We’ve placed ourselves at the center of the galaxy, forgetting that we are but a tiny speck in God’s infinite universe.

As the narrator of a recent Planetarium show, “Centered In the Universe,” notes, “Earth is the only place where we know of conscious beings asking who are we, how did we get here, and why is the world the way it is?”

Perhaps if we spent more time pondering those questions, we’d be able to make greater headway in cleaning up the messes we’ve created on this Earth. 

Griffith Observatory was the vision of Col. Griffith J. Griffith, an immigrant from Wales who made his living as a journalist and mining adviser before garnering a fortune in Mexican silver mines and California real estate. He donated the land for Griffith Park to the City of Los Angeles, and bequeathed the money to build a public observatory on it to educate and inspire all those who looked up at the night sky.

Krupp likes to say the Griffith Observatory telescope is the most powerful telescope in the world because more people have looked through it than any other telescope on the planet. 

“My favorite thing is watching someone the first time they see Saturn through the telescope,” Krupp says. “The jaw drops, you hear a gasp, and invariably, the person draws away from the telescope… and smiles. That effect is valuable and worthy.”


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