Griffith Observatory is an icon of Los Angeles, a national leader in public astronomy, a beloved civic gathering place, and one of southern California’s most popular attractions.

“Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.”

– Plato

Photo by Todd Abbot Winters.

This past weekend I had the honor of attending a friend’s wedding set in the hill country outside of Boerne, Texas. I had been in town since the Friday afternoon prior to the wedding for the rehearsal dinner and was lucky to spend some time with the groom on his soon-to-be wife’s porch that evening. In the country, particularly at dusk as the sun sinks beyond the horizon, there is a calm that covers the landscape like a blanket. You are inclined to soften your voice and observe the transformation happening around you.

Constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

Tabula Selenographica in qua Lunarium Macularum exacta Descriptio by Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr. Handcolored copper plate engraving c. 1742.

As we sat in rocking chairs, discussing the excitement in both of our hearts for their future, I noticed something that often goes missing in the city–the stars. For the Greeks, love is often comedic or tragic, but it can also be faithful, hopeful, and pure. For us, examples of both are set in constellations.

Constellations of the Northern Sky.

Constellations of the Southern Sky.

The Western understanding of constellations originates with the Greeks, but the Babylonian-Sumerian civilizations were astronomers before. Though the Greek names are most familiar to us, the idea of a constellation, “a group of stars forming a recognizable pattern that is traditionally named after its apparent form or identified with a mythological figure,” also existed in ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt.

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy.

Perseus Liberating Andromeda by Francesco Maffei, circa 1658.

Andromeda and Perseus are two such Greek constellations that are surrounded in myth and love. As Perseus returns from slaying the Gorgon Medusa, at the behest of Polydectes, he spies the beautiful Andromeda chained to a rock on the cliffside. Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, had bragged about her daughter’s beauty to Poseidon and then was forced to offer her as a sacrifice to Cetus, a sea monster and Poseidon’s son.

Perseus carrying the head of Medusa the Gorgon, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825.

Andromeda as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825, showing the constellation from the inside of the celestial sphere.

Struck by her beauty, Perseus slays Cetus and frees his new-found bride. Their story is immortalized by the two nearby constellations named for them.

Benjamin Franklin (left) and Thomas Jefferson (right).

By studying the constellations, we can understand how ancient civilizations viewed their relationship with the divine, but astronomy also has a far more practical purpose. America’s founding fathers  emphasized the importance of exploring the celestial bodies for meteorological reasons. Benjamin Franklin observed the night sky to better predict the changing of seasons.

Astronomical Case Clock by Thomas Voight. Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Interior of the clock showing weights, pendulum and day labels. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson’s fascination began when he witnessed a lunar eclipse during the Revolutionary War. Decades later, he had a beautiful clock made by Thomas Voigt of Philadelphia. The inside of the clock case was marked so that–like the Great Clock prominently displayed in the Entrance Hall of Monticello still today–the single weight would keep track of the passage of time as it fell.

The 40-inch refractor in the 90-foot dome at Yerkes Observatory.

Aerial view of Yerkes Observatory, looking North.

Nearly a century later in 1897, astronomer George Ellery Hale, with the financing by Charles T. Yerkes and architectural expertise of Henry Ives Cobb, founded the Yerkes Observatory. “The birthplace of modern astrophysics,” the observatory is located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin and operated by the University of Chicago. Here, observatories evolved from merely housing telescopes to accommodating physics and chemistry experiments and equipment. The telescope there, constructed by Alvan Clark and Sons, remains the largest refracting telescope ever made, and it boasts a 40″ lens.

The 90-foot dome under construction.

The 40-inch refractor as seen in 1921.

Albert Einstein and faculty standing in front of the Yerkes refracting telescope, 1921.

 

To be continued…