Griffith Observatory apparently OK

By Phil Plait | May 9, 2007 8:08 pm

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).

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.


Comments (24)

  1. If you like Australia so much, why don’t you move down here? I would imagine that a well educated astronomer (even a bad one) would be received with open arms.

    I’m down here in Hervey Bay in Queensland for a few days, Australia is nice but not for a full week ;-).
    Joke aside, I can’t wait until we move back down here, after we have seen every single castle, palace, church, garden, lake, loch and ruin (or any combination thereoff) in England, Scotland and Ireland.

  2. Supernova

    Wow, thanks for posting these. I knew about Mt. Stromlo, but had not seen any images. They are very poignant.

  3. Rob

    Glad to hear Griffith Observatory is OK. I spent an interesting afternoon being shown through the facility, including the basement and the heliostat several years ago when visiting the US.

    You are right about Stromlo Phil. I was taken on an inspection of the ruins a couple of months after the fire. The impact of the intense heat on mirrors and domes was dramatic to see. Going to Stromlo always felt like a drive out into the country from Canberra as it was surrounded by pine plantations. Of course this is partly what did the damage in the fires. These days there are no new plantations being planted on the hill and all the debris was removed. Now it looks much smaller and closer than before. Only benefit is that some of the staff no have a view from their office windows on the mountains but this does not compensate for the destruction of all those wonderful telescopes and domes.

    All the observatories here in Australia did major re-evaluation of their fire safety plans following the Stromlo fire. Since then we have had a bushfire very close to the Parkes Dish but fortunately no damage other than farmland crops and fences being destroyed.

    Your comment about eucalypts struck home in reverse for me. Visiting Lawrence Berkeley Labs and the countryside out of San Francisco felt like I could be driving down a road here. Funnily enough I was out at our telescope at Parkes a few years ago and ended up helping to show a film location scout around. He needed to find somewhere for a big budget US sci-fi film that required a radio telescope or transmitter. He was impressed by Parkes but thought they would need to digitally remove the gum trees to make it look like the US. I had to inform him that it may not be necessary. In the end nothing came of the visit. I haven’t seen the film that was proposed so don’t know if it even ended up with a telescope in it.

  4. Rowsdower

    Living near Griffith Park, I was afraid not only for the observatory (which I haven’t had a chance to visit since the renovation) but more especially the L.A. Zoo which was in even more danger than the observatory. I hate to think of what would have happened to the animals there.

    The latest report (as of 10:00 PM here in L.A.) is that the fire should be fully contained by tomorrow night. The observatory and the zoo are both out of danger and people who live on the edge of the park who were evacuated are now able to go back home. The only real man-made artifacts that were damaged were some power lines which caused the blackout of about 2,000 homes. All in all, a relatively happy ending to what could have been a serious tragedy.

  5. Ed

    I would just like to say that I’m touched by your remembrance of (even knowledge of) our little ‘scopes over here. I admire your blog and your philosophy.

    I’ve just become a professional Science Communicator here in Sydney (after being an amateur one for most of my life). In fact, you can hear my first, tentative steps on Diffusion Science Radio (community radio) at the above address. Thanks for the inspiration, and let’s keep up the *good* communication between the States and Australia.

    Just wanted to communicate that. :)

  6. Robin

    I, too, am relieved that nothing happened to the observatory. When I heard about the fire, my first thought was “Oh no! The observatory! I haven’t been there since it reopened!” There are a lot of cool things up in Griffith Park, and we’re lucky this fire was contained in time.

  7. Yikes! Those are some apocalyptic photos. A sobering reminder of what bushfires can do.

  8. There is an oldish saying

    He who touches the stars,

    burns his fingers


    At least this is not something we have to worry about in the UK

    Flooding from incessant rain yes

    Raging forest fires? – not really although you can get some peat fires in the Peak District National Park

  9. Crux Australis

    Yay for my Aussie neighbours! Good on ya.

  10. (HEARTS)

    We did our wedding reception at the Mt. Stromlo observatory in 2000 and it was an awesome sight. The Administration building used to be really nice and we took some fabulous photos there. I was devastated when I learned about its’ descruction by the bushfires, I’m glad that the Griffith Observatory has been spared!

    Oh, the remains of the Mt. Stromlo observatory are by the way visible in Google Earth, just search for “mt. stromlo australia”. The walls next to the green patch surrounded by what looks like a small race-track used to be the admin builiding, the buildings to the north-east are the observatories, the furthest to the north-east, next to green patch is where we had dinner ( yes, it was no longer in service at the time, so it was being used for functions )

    Hmm, terribly interesting story .. sorry .. LOL

  11. Michael

    One of the greatest tragedies of the Mt Stromlo firw was that the 50-inch reflector wasmade out of the reconstructed and refurbished pieces of the famous ‘Great Melbourne Telescope’.
    It was made by the Royal Society in 1868 and for more than 40 years was the worlds largest steerable telescope. Almost 150 years of astronomical observation, including a transit of venus, and it was still going strong.
    We will never be able to replace a scope like that

  12. Gary Ansorge

    Planting of pine trees all over Calif. has inceased the risk of serious fires many fold. The original native trees were adapted to the low rainfall levels typical of the western US and wildfires were much less intense, as the availability of fuel was limited. Currently, there are ten times as many trees per acre as there should(historically) be, which allows for much more destructive wild fires. Plus pine trees are high in flamable oils. See what happens when we unthinkingly alter the local environment to suit our purses?

    Glad to see Griffith was spared. It would be a significant loss both to the local and science communities. Griffith attracts a lot attention from local schools, etc.

    GAry 7

  13. Quiet_Desperation

    It’s looking like the fire was started by a homeless guy. Who was smoking.

    If it turns out he’s an illegal alien, I fear Southern California will collapse into an ideological singularity. :(

    Be afraid, be very afraid…

  14. Wendy

    I grew up near Griffith Park, live just a few miles from it now, and watched the fire from the 2nd floor windows of the place where I work all day, and into the night.
    The Griffith Park fire was HUGE. It was also burning 70 years of uncleared, unburned brush. It was nice that Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theater and other man-made recreational and educational sites were not destroyed, but it seems to me that there should be a plan now to prevent the accumulation of fuel.

  15. Gary Mcleod

    I visited the refurbished Griffiths in January after TAM5, and it is beautiful, with amazing stuff from a Leonard Nimoy donation and a truly breathtaking Planetarium presentation, hosted by a woman who performed a stirring, Saganesque saga of cosmic awe. Brilliant. So glad it’s OK.

  16. TheProbe

    We visited Oz back in February and enjoyed every second. The people are great! I encountered acts of courtesy that astounded me. They should find a way to export it.

    As a child, my mother would wheel me in my carriage to Griffith Park.

    Thanks for the pics, and a reminder of our trip.

  17. icemith

    Glad to hear that the Griffith has been spared, but look at it as a wake-up call, and that local authorities better plan the area to deny a future opportunity for another fire. I”m sad to hear that the proliferation of *exotic* timber species, including Euclalytus – familar to Australians, but should only exist here in their native land – has upset the balance in the California landscape.

    The “gum” tree has developed in hand with fire, as it needs it to enable the seed pod to burst and start new life. True, some of the blackened tree stumps may also produce suckers which may grow into trees themselves.

    The expansion of Canberra suburbs, and the mis-guided planing that placed tree plantations too close (with pine trees – an exotic here in Australia, but useful for commercial reasons, for building frames etc., and paper pulp), has caused the same conditions that enable wildfires to menace our Human endeavours in many parts of the world.


  18. icemith

    Ooops, even with the best *planing*, the plank is not as the plans required! It may improve with better *planning*. Or better proof-reading!

    Sorry for the typo.


  19. Great story; and thanks for a moving obituary for the Mt Stomlo observatory.

    Good usage of the vernacular as well…

  20. Mark Skarr

    Are you moving to Colorado or just visiting? I’d love to get a chance to meet the Great Bad Astronomer! (I just can’t aford to make it to TAM.)

  21. Great to hear you had such a good time in Oz, Phil. Hope you’ll be making the trip again sometime soon. Come and visit – I’ll buy you a pack of Minties! Now there’s hospitality!

  22. Antnie

    I found the “Centered in the Universe” show at the Griffith Observatory to be a big disappointment! With all the new information, images, footage from the current mission to Mars, Saturn, Pluto Shuttle missions ect… for a planetarium to show images of a desk and fake twilights emerging from a piece of paper is nothing but theatrics that belong in movie theaters. There is so much fact and good science that could have been presented. They instead choose to fluff up the show with a lot of “There is so much we don’t know yet” to try to amaze us. A great place with a bad show.


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