March 5, 2018: The light, the power, the glory: kids. But can they save us?

During the close comet encounters of Hyakutake and Hale Bopp in 1996 and '97, I had the good fortune of working at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The word “work” I use here loosely for two reasons. There was nothing work-like about it, and the pay was $3.12/hour. [1] Hence, we on the staff labeled ourselves Griffith’s Volunteers, and we relished the mission—to teach.

Built in 1935 on funds bequeathed by Welsh-born industrialist, philanthropist, and attempted murderer (of his wife) Griffth J. Giffith (1850 – 1919), the Observatory is among the two most remarkable Los Angeles attractions including the Getty Museum. The reason Griffith attracts 1.5 million annual visitors is because it appeals to children. [2] More precisely, to child-like curiosity that resides in each of us if we give it a chance to breathe. Griffith Observatory provides the oxygen. When people discover the place you can see color return to their cheeks.

As “Telescope Demonstrator” I held the most coveted position. An endless talker, thrilled to excite others with science, I could not have found a better setting. The dark confines of a 60 foot diameter dome, punctuated by eerie red lights, and a 200-inch streak of telescope lunged at the sky through a gash in the roof. A telescope more people have peered through than any other on earth, 8 million so far.

Both Hyakutake and Hale Bopp, were back-to-back once-in-a-century events. Even the national media descended when I found myself before PBS Newshour cameras. A three minute interview and address to crowds wrapped around the roof was boiled down to a five second sound bite. I called to the people and pointed at the sky, “That comet tail you see now is sixty times longer than a full moon is wide!” Eighteen hundred miles away in Iowa, my mother saw this with sudden expectations for her son in Hollywood.

Visitors set record attendance with up to 1500 per night through the dome. More could have passed, but it was hard for people to leave that small space once they glimpsed their place in the universe. The leading enthusiasts were children. It was kids who provoked adults to remember what it was like to wonder, be amazed, and thirst for more. Be they elderly, romantically obsessed, or gangs who strived to impress their brothers, I remember not one to leave without a sense of urgency. Like they’d just that instant, quite unexpectedly, discovered where the real stars were, and they wanted a piece of it.

Throughout the night to each fresh group of minds, I'd return from answering questions, sharing enthusiasm, or the regular wrestling match with Creationists, to a reprise of my intro, “Tonight we travel back in time! We’ll do that because even at 186,000 miles per second—or one foot per nanosecond—it takes time for light to travel space. So you see me now as I was 15 or 20 nanoseconds ago. But 1500 light years that way is Orion Nebula. What you’ll see there, right now, happened about the time the Maya invented zero, Barbarians burned Rome, and Christianity became official in Constantinople. But in astronomical terms, Orion’s in your pocket. The universe is so big you can go back in time 14 billion years and not take a step. So come see the sky. It’s yours. Who else could it belong to? Now questions! I love questions.”

As adults hesitated, children raised their hands in unison like salutes to the sky. “Why is the moon round?” “How long would it take to walk to Jupiter?” “What do you put on a hotdog with mustard and onions?” This last question came from a shy four-year-old whose father responded to my laughter with, “You asked for questions. You didn’t tell him they had to be about astronomy.”

On one special occasion, a small boy raised his hand. I bent my 6’2” frame over the little fellow to say, “A question! I love questions. What’s your question?”

“I know something about astronomy,” he said. And rattled off a series of facts as though read from a book.

“Wait. Stop,” I said. “Follow me.”

I walked to the center of the dome. I pointed at him, and then the space beside me. With a quick check of his mother, he left her in line to take his station.

I turned to the crowd and said, “I have just been outdone by a five-year-old.”

“Five and one-half,” the boy said.

After the slightest pause, I responded, “Then five and one-half it is.”

“Am I going to be your helper?” he asked.

“No. You stay here. I’ll stand in line with your mom. You’re the astronomer. This is show town. This is your show. Take it away.”

I stood by his mother as he scanned a long line of people, many much larger than he. He said nothing.

I shrugged and said, “We just want to know what you know. Go.”

And he did. With perfect enunciation, but so tenderly, people in the dome fell mute to listen. The only other sound was that quiet hum of German motors still turning their telescope 60 years on.

As he told his story about galaxies that eat each other, suns that blow up so hard they fall down, and stars so heavy a little bit weighs a lot, patrons huddled about him as though sustained by heat of some cosmic campfire. All as that 200-inch tube scooped light from other worlds with no eyes to catch them. That little boy was center of the universe. [3]

After three or four minutes he was done. He walked to his mother’s side. He held her hand for his turn up stairs to the eyepiece. An elderly woman began to clap. As the audience responded, he looked about to see what they were applauding for.

I shook my head, amazed at yet another of Griffith’s many wonders. In the most hedonistic environment on this planet and beneath that ovation I whispered to myself, “It’s not what you show, it’s what you know.”

I hope the remarkable curiosity of that little boy survived these last twenty-plus years. In that time America has cheated our young people through dogmatic doctrines and negligence. Creationists have long sought to invade science education with religion because they’re unsettled by the facts of nature, and fear skeptical thinking about their beliefs. As China builds its economy on science, Americans seek to “teach the controversy” between biological evolution and biblical creation. There is no controversy. Other than in the fertile imaginations of Creationists and their Intelligent Designers, yet to understand the first fundamental rule of science enunciated 2600 years ago by Thales: only natural causes allowed. Supernatural powers, miracles, and magic bear no testable predictions, provide no reasoned models of nature, and cannot be refuted. Try building telescopes, radios, or aircraft with that.

Likewise, we now find the science of manmade global warming off limits to parents who prefer their children conform to creeds defined by liars. States across the country are in another battle of the books to sanitize them of science. In Idaho’s battle, Representative Scott Syme recently said, “I don’t care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat—as long as it’s their conclusion, not something that’s told to them.” [4] Math and science demand independent verification and proofs by the student as standard practice. Barred from man-centuries of effort completed before us until every finding is personally validated would freeze all advance. I needn’t prove Newton’s calculus or mechanics to use both in engineering with accurate results. Syme would rather children be wrong than know the truth so long as they got the wrong answer on their own. Remember, Syme is a legislator of laws. Such utter ignorance of science is not a disqualification for office in Idaho, or anywhere else, but rather a badge of honor.

But math and science aren’t the only thing we’ve neglected to teach our young people. According to the Educational Commission of the States, only 17 US states are accountable for civics education. [5] Americans graduate high school with no understanding of self-governance. Is the Constitution superior to statue law? Why are there individual rights to begin with? Why are courts and the legal process so slow? So vacuous is our grasp of self-governance that in 2017 Newsweek reported a quarter of Millennials find democracy a bad or very bad form of government; a third support authoritarianism; one in six favor military rule. [6]

Simultaneously, an embarrassing fraction of campus students have been taught so little of history, philosophy, and the examination of ideas they’re terrified of adult issues easily defeated with open debate. They yearn for intellectual sanitation of “safe spaces” where they can hide from imagined “micro-aggressions” as they shed tears for cameras and university administrators petrified of violating politically correct McCarthyism.

Kids are one of the stellar powers in this universe. They’re born curious. It takes years of training to kill that. Now that we have, will they have the tools to save America and Western civilization as it crumbles under ignorance? As Thomas Jefferson said, "A nation that believes it can be ignorant and free is a nation that never was and never can be."

Until next time, the first Monday in May.

[1] I have my last check from Rick Tuttle, the Controller of the City of Los Angeles under glass on my desk for one hour at $3.12. Void after 2 years, I’ll not be able to cash it if times get tough.
[2] Griffith Observatory, Griffith Observatory. MISSION: Griffith Observatory inspires everyone to observe, ponder, and understand the sky .
[3] It is quite literally true, that little boy was the center of the universe as is every other location. So fond of this little fellow I was that I incorporated this real life experience into my first novel.
[4] Betsy Z. Russell, Rep. Syme: Don’t care if students conclude earth is flat - as long as it’s their own conclusion , The Spokesman Review, 2/1/18
[5] Jackie Zubrzycki, New 50-State Analysis: Most States Don't Include Civics in Accountability , Newsweek, 12/13/16
Nudged 2/17/19. Added a paragraph break, and indulged myself with one tagline for Idaho politician Scott Syme.
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Published on March 05, 2018 08:52
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