An old friend came to visit from New York this week and I drove him up to my favorite place in Los Angeles: the planetarium at the Griffith Park Observatory. We escaped the sunshine, leaned back and watched the feature: “Centered in the Universe.” This was the third time I’ve watched it and I can’t get over how well the movie walks gracefully down the tightrope of describing the universe in a way that is scientific, historical and cultural and yet totally open to religious belief.
For those of you who haven’t been, the Griffith Observatory sits at the end of winding hilltop road above the city of Los Angeles, which on a clear day fans out in every direction below the park. I love this place the way New Yorker’s love the whale inside the Natural History Museum. The planetarium inside was immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause for it’s creaky romantic wooden seats and is only recently open to the public again after five years of renovation (no more wooden seats).
This time, as the lights went up at the end of the show, and the big-voiced presenter suggested that the Big Bang may some day seem as crazy as the idea that the sun revolved around the earth, I heard murmurs from those around me about what they’d just seen and everyone seemed to the say the same thing: “that was really fair.”
It’s a hard thing to be fair about these days, the origin of the universe. The debate continues to rage here in the U.S. about how we teach the beginning of our earthly history. In the news lately, actor and writer Ben Stein has lent his support to a Florida bill, The Academic Freedom Act, which would allow teachers to “objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” Stein has a documentary out this spring, called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which looks at those who’ve taken on the Darwinist paradigm.
I wonder what Stein and others who are unhappy with the state of origin education would think about what’s going on in planetarium. To me, they seemed to have done it right–with their careful handling of the changing scientific perceptions of our world around us, all of which is presented to a rag-tag group of visitors of every belief system from around the world and down the hill. So I looked up the movie to see what they were up to and if maybe whoever collaborated on this could help out those science textbook manufacturers.
So how’s this for a dream team of compromise? “Griffith Observatory’s own astronomical artist, Don Dixon, directed the show and also co-wrote the script in collaboration with Dr. E. C. Krupp, Director of Griffith Observatory and a renowned expert on ancient astronomy, and Andre Bormanis, story editor for Star Trek Enterprise. Complete production credits for “Centered in the Universe” may be viewed here.”
Of course, it’s an artist, an astronomer and a Star Trek writer–the perfect combination of beauty, skepticism and fantasy — to describe our beginnings.
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