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The cosmic messenger

A few say Griffith's director has `gone Hollywood,' but fans say his core is solid mettle.

October 30, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

AS a group, astronomers have been known to disagree now and again. But they long ago reached consensus on a name for the persistent and singular phenomenon that was first sighted at Griffith Observatory in 1969. They call it Ed.

From more than three decades of observation, Los Angeles sky watchers know this phenomenon's appearance is typically heralded by the approach of an aged turquoise Chevrolet Camaro. At the wheel will sit a slight but indefatigable man with a mustache, rimless glasses and, most likely, a garish tie with a planetary theme. This is Edwin C. Krupp, 61-year-old UCLA PhD, author, archeo-astronomer, cosmic showman, comic-book collector and director of the Griffith Observatory for the last 32 years.

"It works," Krupp said recently of the Camaro, which he bought new in 1968. "I'm comfortable with it. I can get it fixed. And every day, someone either admires it or offers to buy it." Besides, Krupp said, if it can last another 59,000 miles, his odometer will match the diameter of the moon's orbit around Earth -- 480,000 miles.

This may not sound like conventional astronomy, but it's classic Krupp. Since stepping up from a curatorial position to take the reins of the observatory in 1974, he has taken a cue from the neighboring Hollywood sign and made it his mission to integrate popular culture and astronomical awareness every chance he gets. Now, with the landmark Griffith Park facility reopening Friday after four years closed and $93 million in upgrades, his philosophy and habits have never been more visible.

"This project has been fluid," Krupp said, sidestepping office clutter to reach his desk. "The minute you pause, you start creating more problems down the line. So you have to make decisions."

Though Krupp moved into this office in May, the room around him was crowded with unpacked boxes. On the walls, back issues of Sky and Telescope and National Geographic shared shelves with action figures of Albert Einstein and a Marvel Comics character called Doctor Strange.

Comic books "are essentially mythic, so that interests me," said Krupp, who buys about a dozen per month. "I'm interested in belief systems. I'm interested in symbolic representation. I'm interested in compressed language."

Indeed, Krupp spouts sound bites the way black holes suck cosmic matter. During a tour of the new planetarium, he suggests that the old wooden headrests may have violated the Geneva Convention. Asked how the observatory is handling the debate over Pluto, he proposes fluctuating display of the planet count, "like the sign that shows the number of hamburgers served at McDonald's." Resisting the trend toward all-recorded planetarium presentations, Krupp announces that he's sticking with live lecturers because "this place isn't about astronomy -- it's about astronomy and people."

His books are that way too. He's written several that focus on the role of astronomy in human belief systems and several for children, which bear such titles as "The Comet and You."

Mark Pine, who worked as deputy executive director of the Friends of the Observatory before joining the observatory staff in recent weeks, said recently that he sees three archetypes reflected in his new boss: Carl Sagan, the scientist and public-television popularizer; Griffith J. Griffith, the donor who believed a century ago that looking through a free telescope could change a person's life; and the Energizer Bunny.

"He has a different way of looking at things," said Paul Knappenberger, president of Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who has known Krupp through more than 20 years of professional conferences and shared eclipse expeditions on land and sea.

"At first, you might have a tendency to underrate him, because he is such a character. But under the flamboyance, there's a love of the sky and a desire to share that with anybody who will listen to him," Knappenberger said. "He's really made that a physical reality there at the new Griffith."

Still, Krupp does not enjoy universal admiration among those who tote telescopes. Stung by his recent decision to recruit actors unschooled in astronomy to serve as narrators for the new planetarium show, some local astronomers, including Pasadena City College professor John Sepikas, say Krupp has "gone Hollywood," dumbing down the institution's offerings.

Krupp responds that he wants good communicators, whether they have astronomy degrees or not, and that there's now room for more sophisticated discussions outside the planetarium show.

"I don't think I've ever seen him stumped," said Andre Bormanis, a science consultant and story editor for the "Star Trek" television franchise who collaborated with Krupp and artist Don Dixon on the new planetarium show's script.

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