Life, forever dying to be born afresh, forever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its real amidst the stars.
—H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 1920
Saturday night I trudge past a surprisingly dark Greek Theatre, up the hill to the seductively lit Griffith Observatory. As dusk descends, dozens of families and school groups scramble across the grounds. The verandas of the observatory are packed. The great lawn is littered with dozens of telescopic contraptions, big and small. Lines of people shoot out 20 to 30 deep in all directions. Everyone is waiting patiently to have an up-close look at the lunar landscape.
David Sovereign, who bears an unusual resemblance to cartoonist R. Crumb, is the two-time president of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. As he explains the group’s origins, an entire family of turbaned Sikhs suddenly distracts him. Their headgear is slowly moving his telescope as they attempt to view the moon through its low-to-the-ground eyepiece.
“Careful there,” suggests Sovereign, while trying to reposition his 4-foot-long scope to again line up with the luminous three-quarter moon.
“I joined the club in 1970 — it started as a hobby,” explains the bespectacled Sovereign. “We started in 1926 as the Los Angeles Telescope Makers Society, then incorporated as the Los Angeles Astronomical Society in 1939.”
Besides these Public Star Parties hosted every month at the Griffith Observatory, the society, made up of nearly 500 members, offers public outreach events for groups to learn about the night sky; telescope making at its Garvey Ranch Park Observatory site in Monterey Park; a tap-the-telescope loaner program; a “dark sky” site some 60 miles north of Los Angeles and beyond the range of urban light pollution; and a newsletter and library as well. At the observatory, members and their guests can view the night sky through two large reflecting telescopes onsite or bring their own to set up on concrete pads equipped with power outlets.
In the total darkness in front of Griffith Observatory, everyone giddily bumps into one another. After waiting in line to view the sky through what appears to be a gigantic pair of binoculars counterbalanced with circular weights, I get to really see the lunar surface for the first time. I am shocked by the extreme clarity. Nearby, I overhear a kid talking about solar maximum. I think he’s discussing an episode of Rome but quickly learn that solar maximum is when massive amounts of sunspots appear during extreme solar activity. Who knew?
The kid kinda looks like a miniature version of Jonah Hill’s character Seth from Superbad. His name is Alberto Celis, he’s from East L.A., and he’s only 10.
“I just graduated from Ivanhoe Elementary,” he says, like it was Harvard. “And now I’m going to Polytechnic in Pasadena.”
“Well, Alberto,” I ask, “what do you like about astronomy?”
“I like studying things above the Earth.”
I continue with my 10-year-old level of questions. “If you could go to one planet, which one would you go to and what would you bring with you?”
“Does it have to be a planet?” asks the briefly disappointed brainiac.
“Uh, okay. One celestial body,” I counter, surprised I pulled that phrase out of my lower zeitgeist.
Celis seems quickly relieved. “I would go to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon,” he says proudly. “And I would probably bring a greenhouse.”
At first I think he means a green-colored house, as any 10-year-old might, but he actually means a greenhouse to grow plants and vegetables so we would survive as a species.
I feel like I’m a 10-year-old.
“And how long would it take you to get there?” I query, figuring I’d snag him with obscure technical stuff.
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“Uh, I don’t know ... probably a long time,” Celis says, suddenly sounding like any human born after 1997. But then he quickly adds, “It took Cassini [the spacecraft] about seven years to travel to Saturn, so about that long, I guess.”
I ask him the most mundane of adult questions, feeling ancient even as I do: “And what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Celis sighs, then takes a deep breath. He answers calmly and deliberately: “I want to be a few things. Probably an astronomer. An artist. A zoologist. A paleontologist. Things in that area.”
Later, as we all watch the spectacular Lotus Festival fireworks over Echo Park Lake from the back veranda of the observatory, I think about Alberto Celis, a 10-year-old from East L.A., and for the first time in a while, I actually feel optimistic. Maybe there is hope for us. Maybe someday Alberto and his friends will get us off this global melting mess and somehow into a brave new world.