Monday, December 28, 2015

From the Pits of Despair to Astronomical Heights

Sunday, December 27

Aren't search engines the best serendipity enablers? Google Maps took "attractions near me" and interpreted it as "La Brea Tar Pits", only 15 minutes away, and it was! Parking, another matter ...

We stopped on the way for breakfast at Tom n Toms, a Korean coffee chain with a decidedly different menu than that other company. Persimmon freezes, sweet potato lattes, fresh-baked stuffed pretzels. Watch for these guys, we think they will knock another hole in the dominant caffeine vendor's market share.

Wiltern Building
Across the street, a strangely green movie theater caught our attention. It definitely could challenge the oft-decried (and now demolished) "blue building" in Ballston, Virginia, that was home to a number of Marymount University's departments.

La Brea Museum 

Takeaways from the downtown park/ interpretive center/ ongoing archeological dig at the La Brea Tar Pits :
  • Sabertooth cats are not related to tigers. Housecats are genetically closer -- but Tess has agreed not to keep one as a pet. Dire wolves are off the list, too.
  • Bison fossils in the pits even have fly skeletons caught in their pelts!
  • Grad students working in the muck and ooze to excavate fly skeletons are gifted with great dedication to their field of study, not paid enough, or both.
After lunch, we  carpooled up to Mount Hollywood's flanks and stood patiently on line for the bus to the summit under clear skies and mild temperatures.

The Griffith Observatory is an art-deco structure with two great domes housing a planetarium and a 12 inch refracting telescope that supported state of the art astronomy in 1904. More of a recreation and education center than an observatory these days, it is still a favorite destination for locals; the Cafe at the End of the Universe is one of Wofgang Puck's restaurants, one of the theaters is named the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, and the bust of James Dean in the field commemorates the facility's role in Rebel Without A Cause.

Looking down on current-day Greater Los Angeles spread out from horizon to horizon, it is hard to believe that so much understanding of the universe was gained here before advancing technology and light pollution drove astronomers farther and farther from the city, first to Mount Wilson and then beyond.

Less than half a century later the Hubble space telescope has shown us even more wonders, and the ASKAP in Australia has supplanted the great Arecibo antenna in Puerto Rico.  Next, the James Webb space telescope. What beauty will we find?

I visited the 200 inch telescope Mount Palomar once in my youth, and saw the U of A build several specialized telescopes at Kitt Peak and on Mount Hopkins. Spending more of my life observing distant galaxies and less engaging with my own world would have been very different.

I might have had and passed on to my children more common sense, perhaps? As we queued up for the shuttle bus down the mountain, the sun sank toward the horizon and -- as they do on desert mountains, I know this -- temperatures plunged. Huddling together, we successfully staved off hypothermia until the bus arrived.

We celebrated our close escape with dinner at the House of Pies. Tomorrow, we head north to Castro Valley after profusely thanking Brian and Katie for a memorable Christmas visit.

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