Valley College Planetarium and Observatory programs are unique in the LACCD.
By Jerry Ough, Staff Writer
If you have ever looked up at the night sky and wondered about the stars and planets, there’s no better place to find out what’s happening up there than the Valley College Planetarium. Though Valley does not, in fact, have an Astronomy Department (it is part of the Earth Science Department), the Monarch stargazers still manage to put on the district’s only monthly public planetarium productions.
On the first Friday of each month, Valley invites the public into the campus planetarium for multimedia programs covering all sorts of astronomical topics. The planetarium shows are intended not only to entertain, but also, according to Planetarium Director and Astronomy Professor David Falk, to encourage and develop critical thinking skills.
“It’s not just about science for science’s sake, it’s about scientific literacy,” said Falk. “The issues are getting more complex. We need to have a better way to understand what’s happening, which means there has to be a basis of knowledge to work from.”
The Planetarium has been here since the 1960s, and Falk has played an important role in its evolution ever since he was a student and Planetarium lab assistant at Valley back in the 1970s. Falk returned to Valley briefly in the mid-1980s and helped get Valley’s astronomy club — known as the Astronomy Group — started as a campus club in 1986. He could not resist the lure of his old alma mater and eventually returned as adjunct and, eventually, full-time professor.
The monthly shows in the small but mighty planetarium on the southwest corner of the campus are sponsored and largely managed by the Astronomy Group. Admission is only $6.
Falk said the Astronomy Group is distinct from other Valley clubs because it plays such an essential role in presenting both Valley’s monthly Planetarium shows and the free Sunday evening Robert Gerard Lecture Series. The late Robert Gerard was an Astronomy Group member whose family made a generous donation in his memory, which helped fund some important department functions and provided a way to pay for student lab assistants in Astronomy classes.
Falk said, in the absence of Valley funding, donations and constant fundraising are the only ways to keep the department running properly. Falk said current Astronomy Group President Bryan Stranahan and former President Bonnie Kent deserve special credit for their efforts to keep the Planetarium programs running smoothly.
“Without them I couldn’t be doing everything I do out here. I’m just a one-man show without them.”
The September Planetarium program featured a presentation about the night sky, the constellations of winter and the fascinating, sometimes humorous myths behind those constellations. October’s Planetarium show was “E.T. - The Real Search,” a speculative hunt for extraterrestrial life.
On the first Friday in November, the Planetarium will feature “Black Holes,” an immersive show about the mysterious, fascinating phenomenon of stars that have collapsed and compressed into a celestial object so small that space and time have no meaning within the black hole’s bounds. This full-dome show was produced by the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City and is narrated by John de Lancie, the actor who played “Q” in “Star Trek - The Next Generation.”
Valley social science major Raymond LaGuardia said he found the “E.T.” planetarium show so fascinating that he brought a friend with him the next time he came to the planetarium.
“I like alien movies so it was interesting to see the science behind people actually looking for real aliens.”
Film major Milo Hickey said even though he is not majoring in astronomy, he said the Planetarium was surprisingly immersive. He said his first time at a planetarium show was “one of the most mesmerizing things I’ve ever seen.”
“If you haven’t had the chance to go,” said Hickey, “it’s one of the most amazing experiences on campus for sure.”
For more information about the Astronomy Group’s events and activities, visit them online at http://lavcastrogroup.org/.