Journalist: Allison Yan
Allison: Hi everyone! Welcome to another episode of SciSection! I’m Allison, and today I’m joined by astronomer and director of the iconic Griffith Observatory, Dr. Ed Krupp! Thank you for coming Dr. Krupp!
Dr. Krupp: Pleasure and thanks for the invitation!
Allison: Of course! So I guess just to start the interview really broadly, I wanted to ask, how did you get into the field of astronomy and what have been some highlights in your career path?
Dr. Krupp: I don’t know about highlights, but it's pretty easy to identify going into astronomy. The fact is that at the time that I became an astronomer, I know for a fact that most astronomers wound up becoming astronomers in very similar ways. And the reason I know this is I was at an American Astronomical Society meeting - this would've been in the late 1960s early 70s - and at that meeting, at that time, you could in fact expect most of the professional astronomers in the US, North America including Mexico and Canada as well, would attend. Not everybody, but almost. And there was a speaker at that meeting, and for the life of me I can't remember who it was. I wish I had taken better notes. But that speaker in getting ready to make his presentation to this assembled group of professional astronomers asked them how many of you decided to become an astronomer as a young child? And nearly every hand in the room - and that's between nearly two and three thousand people - every hand in the room went up. And then he asked how many of you decided to become an astronomer because of 1) a look through a telescope 2) a book or 3) a visit to a planetarium? And once again, just about every hand in the room went up. I think it would be different today; astronomy has evolved considerably. But the fact is, that certainly applied to me back then. I had decided when I was a kid that I was going to be an astronomer. I know when it was: I was eight years old. And I know what did it: it was a book.
Allison: Do you remember what the book was about?
Dr. Krupp: I sure do! That's a kind of a bizarre tale in itself. The book was called Sky-Hi and the author was, I presume a woman, named Mara. And that was about it. There was no publishing information whatsoever to help you trace it. Now the reason I say that is because I lost the book, so I didn’t even have the ability to trace it. I lost it as a kid. And it was one of these spiral books, really one of the early sort of pop up books. Not very elaborate, but it did pop up in a couple of places. And it was a very bizarre collection of adventures in the sky of this kid, Terry. And when he went off into the solar system, he wound up visiting the planets of the solar system. But the planets of the solar system, for one reason or another, were inhabited by the classical god associated with that planet. So you've got this kid - he's doing mythology and he's doing astronomy in the same book. Well of course I lost the book as a kid. It haunted me for years. I started fishing around for it, particularly after I began writing books or having some kind of public presence with Griffith Observatory. So every once in a while I’d throw a line out, kinda talking about this book just to see if anybody would come in on it. Decades went by and nothing happened. And then finally I got a message. It was a letter - this was pre-email days - and the letter said I think I have your book. And my heart sank. Because I was no longer sure the book was as good as I thought it was. You know there you’d have your whole life on the line for the sake of a book that was really an utter failure with the perspective of age and maturity, so I kind of was lackadaisical and I didn’t really respond to the woman who had written to me. And then some months went by, and I wrote back and then I lost the address and just forgot about it. But in fact after about a year, the woman got back to me with another letter and said I've got the book, I'm going to be in Los Angeles, I can bring it up to you, you can have a look at it. So she did! In fact she came to the Observatory, and here's this book in an envelope. I'm just seeing this envelope, and it may seem silly but I was really kind of concerned. I received the envelope from her, pulled the book out, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was the book that had changed my life. And as soon as I turned the page, I knew this book was as good as I remembered it was. I was thrilled! So I put the book away, and of course the lady knew she had a pitch and she was waiting for me to ask if i would buy it. Of course I wanted to, and she charged a pretty penny for it. Although you can find copies still today on the interweb, there was no internet back then. And so it's not that hard to come across a copy here or there. But I stored the thing away because my 50th birthday was coming up. I had no use for the birthday party, but I wrapped it up as a present and a lot of family members were around. And as the party proceeded, I wound up and got the package and brought it out and said “Oh look! There’s another present for me.” And my wife at the time, with whom I collaborated with on illustrated children's books - she was the illustrator, guessed in her head and her heart what was in this package. And she was absolutely chagrined. She was worried I would never do another children’s book now that I found this one. My mother who was at the party certainly knew about the book - she guessed it was the book. And her attitude was this is just great! Well the fact is, it was great. I still have the book, I love it. And I did write some more children's books so all went well.
Allison: That’s such a fun story! I actually, when I was in kindergarten so when I was about 6, I had a similar book. I don't remember what it's called, I just know it's about the rain cycle. And after that, I was like “I am going to study science.” For some reason I read that book inside and out. And it was just one of those things you read when you're little that kind of changes the course of your life. It's really cool!
Dr. Krupp: It is in fact an indication of how powerful the effects of other people doing deliberate things like that wind up propelling us all forward. And I remain ever grateful for the book. I had a column for Sky and Telescope Magazine on astronomy and culture - I wrote months after month, every month for 15 years. And of course, one of those monthly columns I dedicated to this book. Never heard from the author, nothing like that of course, but I still have the copy.
Allison: That's so cool - I love that! And to kind of move on from that, I mentioned in the intro that you are director of Griffith Observatory, and we have some listeners who might be from other countries or all over the world, so for those who don't know: Griffith Observatory is this really iconic landmark in Los Angeles. I personally love going with my family. You get to look through the telescope. I love being able to see the Los angeles skyline! But what would you say has been your most rewarding part in your position as director?
Dr. Krupp: I don't know about rewarding. In terms of work effort that's gone in and being able to have something to show for the work… The Observatory was suffering from success. It opened in 1935, it was the third major planetarium in the United States, in North America. The first, west of the Mississippi and on the Pacific Rim. And it was not even just a planetarium - that goes through the whole history of this early movement in public science that was of course taking place in other parts of the world as well in the US. But Griffith Observatory then was a pioneer, very early and very distinctive from the others, in that it was a public observatory. It is a public observatory. Yes, it's got a planetarium. Yes, it has exhibits. But its primary function is to put people’s eyeballs to the universe. So the fact is, after decades of high public use, the place was getting terribly worn out. And it took decades after that realization - because my first memorandum about this was in 1978. When you're trying to prepare the management of the city of Los Angeles and the Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns and operates the observatory, trying to prepare them for what seems to me significant expenditures at the time. Well I had no idea how significant those expenditures would eventually be. But we did manage to do a $93 million renovation and expansion of the Observatory. We were in exile while the Observatory was closed and making all of this happen for 5 years. But it reopened in 2006, late in the year of 2006. And of course, it has remained, as you said, a landmark and an icon. Not only of Los Angeles, but all over the world. The Observatory if you were to say something rewarding about it: I think it's just getting to be here! It is on the best piece of public observatory real estate on the planet. We're the hood ornament of Los Angeles! Everybody can see the place from the basin below. You get this vista of everywhere, and you're at the connection between earth and sky. And it's not a research observatory - never intended to be so. But in fact, it transforms people's perspective on a daily basis. Minute by minute, as you know as a visitor, just coming for the view if nothing else. So getting to be a part of something that's operated like that, now practically 86 years, is clearly a delight!
Allison: That’s so wonderful! I totally understand - I used to volunteer at this small museum while I was in high school, but I think one of the coolest things was that you get to see everyone else gain this interest in something that you’re so passionate about. And it's really nice being able to pass on something you're so fascinated in, and sharing that with others. And I feel like you might have a similar experience with the Observatory.
Dr. Krupp: No question! And of course our enthusiasm winds up being propelled too, by the numbers. It is the most visited public observatory on the planet. And the Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope - and for some listeners they may not know one telescope from another and all of that - but this Zeiss 12-inch refractor is not the biggest telescope on the planet, for god's sake. It's got a 12 inch lens, which is unusual. And it's a very historic instrument, but a bit old fashioned in its way. It's not the kind of telescope that you would use for modern research at all, and even back in the 1930s, telescopes and observatories for research were evolving considerably. But in fact, that Zeiss 12-inch telescope has a charm that I think is unmatched anywhere else in the world. More people have looked through that telescope than any other telescope on this planet. More people have seen the live face of the Sun on our solar telescope than anywhere else in the world. So those kinds of opportunities, to connect people's eyeballs to the universe, is just a daily pleasure.
Allison: Ya! My sister - the Zeiss telescope was her favorite thing! It took us years to be able to get to the line to go see it, and we finally did probably a year or two ago and she was so excited! She has a ton of pictures - just being able to look through that telescope was probably one of the highlights of her year I'd say!
Dr. Krupp: Delighted to hear that! Of course, we put more telescopes out on the lawn too. As you know as a veteran, sometimes you have to wait a very long time in that line to get to the eyepiece. But it's sort of like waiting for a ride at Disneyland - you just do it until you're there.
Allison: It's worth it! So when we were doing our correspondence before this interview,, I was really excited by your email signatures! I think the first one was “past solstice and perihelion” and I don’t know why but that really just made my day! It was just such a unique signature, and it really puts into perspective where we are in time and space and our place! So I guess I just wanted to ask, what's something fascinating happening in the skies today?
Dr. Krupp: The funny thing about astronomy is that there is always something. It’s like from the old Saturday Night Live show with Roseanne Roseannadanna. There's always something with the universe. And of course we just passed a remarkable and highly visible and public event. This great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. And here the observatory is closed because of COVID-19. Closed since March 13th of 2020 and not likely to open soon. I think we're going to have to see considerable amounts of evolution in everyone's situation before that. But we were able to put that event online with live telescopic imagery. We started with the winter solstice sunset out on the Lower West Terrace, with the sun lining up with the line that's inscribed through sunset on winter solstice. We also have it for summer and the equinoxes. And then just kept the program going, live streamed on the internet for people to get a chance to see it for themselves. Even though the observatory was completely closed. And in fact, as is typical for live streamed events, the audience that responded to that was huge! We had 2.28 million views by the time that Jupiter and Saturn actually set. So that was what last month or so, so you say well what have you done for me lately? Well the universe has always got stuff cooked up and that includes planet Earth and the people on it. And the people on planet Earth are landing on Mars again in February, and our next major effort to try to connect with people online will be to do some programming in conjunction with that landing that we hope is successful. As you probably know and many people do, getting to Mars is not easy, and it is a way more impressive ride than any amusement park as that lander comes down going through what JPL calls the “7 minutes of terror.” And it is terrifying, but nonetheless a great triumph of human spirit when we get to see that happen. So that's where our next focus is as far as whatever it is the sky is doing.
Allison: Wow that’s great! You totally anticipated one of the other questions I was going to ask - how people can stay connected and continue their curiosity even during COVID-19. That's a great way to watch the presentations, even from home! Actually, it's even more accessible now than ever.
Dr. Krupp: The Observatory has been trying to respond to what really is a major crisis, I mean, educationally for people. We would do a morning school program for schoolchildren in the Southern California area - a live program where the kids would come up here and take advantage. They would get a chance to see planetarium operations. Let's make a comet demonstration in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. See actual telescope working, and also some of the exhibits. And of course, all of that just stopped. And we are right now in the middle and about ready to go live - it'll happen next month - with an online live school program for school kids not only here in Southern California. That's where we'll start, but if in fact it all is successful, kids from all over the country may be able to pick up on it as time goes on. But the same thing applies to any of these special events, as you said, and I think if people want to know what can they do with Griffith Observatory right now? I'm afraid the main thing is you just gotta go to the website - that's griffithobservatory.org. But there in fact, you'll be able to find out what it is that's happening and certainly what our online presentations are going to be.
Allison: Wow ok definitely! So for all our listeners, that's definitely a resource to check out! So I think right before we finish our interview I think the last thing I might ask is, do you have any advice for a lot of our listeners who are students, as they go through their learning and as they go after their careers right now. And it can be a very tumultuous time for many students, so do you have any pieces of advice you'd like to share?
Dr. Krupp: Well again, I wouldn't count myself as a person who has lots of good advice, particularly for people who are embarking. But I do think that it is always important to be looking for the things that you love and make sure that is how you spend your life. That doesn't mean it has to be glamorous, it doesn't have to be romantic, but you do have to love it. And then at the same time that you’re doing that, I think you should always be ready for surprises, for the unexpected. They certainly occurred to me - I'd never imagined that I'd be working at Griffith Observatory, it was the farthest thing from my mind and I had no interest in doing it. So you do have to be prepared for surprises like that. And then as that kind of thing continues, you just have to always, in your thinking and in your planning, this is probably the most practical advice I can give anybody, is when you start looking at a problem, think of it as something that needs to be approached very systematically. And figure out the first principles: What's important about this? Why do I care? Why should anyone else care? You have to be able to answer those questions in order to be able to do all of the hard work that's going to follow.
Allison: Wow! That's a really great way to wrap up this episode actually, so thank you Dr. Krupp so much for joining me! It was really great to talk to you!
Dr. Krupp: Thanks a lot Allison!