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January 25, 2007

Donors’ love of the stars shines on at Griffith Observatory

http://www.jewishjournal.com/philanthropy/article/donors_love_of_the_stars_shines_on_at_griffith_observatory_20070126

Samuel Oschin

Samuel Oschin

The late Samuel Oschin loved adventure travel.

Some of his best-known and most exotic expeditions included retracing Robert Peary's voyage to the North Pole, paddling up the Amazon in a dugout canoe and crossing the Alps atop an elephant (à la Hannibal).

Less well known is the central role his romance with the night sky played in his adventures.

"He navigated by the stars when he traveled to these remote places," his widow, Lynda Oschin said. "That experience was as important to him as the trips themselves."

Through the generosity of the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Oschin Family Foundation, visitors to the Samuel Oschin Planetarium at the newly renovated Griffith Observatory will also have a chance to orient themselves in the universe.

The Griffith Observatory's reopening on Nov. 3 after a five-year, $93 million renovation showcased the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, which joins the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theatre, contributed by Leonard Nimoy and Susan Bay-Nimoy, as well as the Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space Exhibit as expanded offerings from Jewish philanthropic families.

This gift of cosmic knowledge from the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Oschin Family Foundation is one of the fruits of a successful business career with very earthly roots.

"My husband started off selling shoelaces and potato chips when he was a kid in Detroit," Lynda Oschin said.

That early entrepreneurial spirit eventually led Samuel Oschin into building, banking, investment and commercial real estate. It also allowed him in his later years to make several significant contributions to astronomy, his "second love."

"One year he took me to the desert near Lake Mead so we could watch the Perseid Meteor Shower in dry air with no light pollution," Lynda Oschin said. "Even before we saw the first meteor streak across the sky, I was dazzled just looking up at the night sky under those perfect conditions.

When my husband told me there were more stars in the sky than there were grains of sand on the earth, I really understood how deep this passion for astronomy was in him."

In addition to the planetarium at Griffith Observatory, the telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory -- which Cal Tech astronomer Michael Brown has recently used to discover new worlds in the dim reaches of the solar system beyond Pluto -- also bears Oschin's name.

A childhood visit to another major telescope in Southern California inspired the imagination of Richard Gunther, a venture capitalist, securities investor and philanthropist who funded another key element of the Griffith Observatory renovation, the Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space Exhibit.

"When I was 12, I went to the Mount Wilson Observatory, which was then the largest telescope open for public viewing," Gunther said. "I was stunned to look through the telescope and see that the Orion Nebula, which to the naked eye looks just like a single star in the constellation Orion, is really a huge, dense cloud of gas where hundreds of stars are being born."

His lifelong fascination with astronomy and that early lesson in the trickiness of perspective in astronomical observation inspired Gunther to become involved in the renovation of Griffith Observatory -- on one condition.

"I wanted to serve on the Depths of Space Committee," he said.

For more than two years, Gunther worked with astronomers and astrophysicists from UCLA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop an exhibit that would convey the vast distances between objects in space -- and the dramatic shifts in scale between huge objects like the Orion Nebula and relatively tiny objects like asteroids -- in a way that would be both comprehensible and engaging to millions of visitors.

"My task was to keep the excitement for kid viewers," Gunther said.

The result of Gunther's enthusiasm and the work of the other committee members is a dazzling exhibit that illustrates the relationship between the earth and its neighbors both near and far -- the moon, the sun, other planets in the solar system, the stars in the Milky Way and objects beyond our home galaxy.

"It's a marvelous educational tool," Gunther said. "I hope it will turn thousands of kids on to astronomy."

Gunther has had good luck transmitting his love of space science to the kids in his own family. He said all of his children are sci-fi fans, and he was thrilled when his grandson asked to go to a space shuttle launch. "My son went to Prince Edward Island to watch a total solar eclipse a few years ago," Gunther said. "He was awed as all the birds grew quiet and the shadow of the moon swept toward him across the Atlantic."

In his grandson's sense of awe Gunther sees a hint of what he calls the "healing quality" of astronomy.

"Ten years from now, with the next generation of space telescopes, they'll have found 100,000 planets beyond our solar system," he said.

"That's not just a curiosity. Painting a much bigger picture of the universe can change the way people view one another. I believe astronomy can help us develop a broader vision of what it means to be alive."

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