Laura Danly spent her childhood reading books and listening to classical music—and dreaming about space. As an adult, Danly went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and spent several years working at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Her diverse background serves her well at her current job as the curator of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Danly helps develop the observatory’s exhibits, astronomy events, educational programs, and planetarium shows, which weave science with storytelling and music.
What triggered your interest in astronomy?
As a toddler, I used to dream about flying in space. I would wake up from the crib and talk about soaring around Saturn. My older brother, Jim, used to take me to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. We went every month. I loved my brother, and it was something special for me.
Why do you think people are so captivated by the stars and the planets?
From the beginning, the starry sky has drawn our attention. It’s only been about 400 years since we’ve had the true geometry of where we actually sit in the solar system. Now, with telescopes, we can look out and see all kinds of stuff: evidence for black holes and dark matter and planets forming. It’s a riot of activity out there once you look through a telescope.
What’s unique about the planetarium shows at the Griffith Observatory?
Our planetarium shows are not expositions on astronomical topics. Our shows are about storytelling, like the ones our ancestors told while they sat around the fire. We strive to have an emotional show; we want people to feel good and connected to the universe.
How is the music selected for the planetarium shows?
We’ve done different things for different shows. We’ve had composers write original scores. We’ve gotten licenses to use music from libraries or recordings. For the planetarium’s new show “Time’s Up,” we have an original score composed by Michael McCuistion.
What’s “Time’s Up” about?
The show explores time. What is time? What is our place in cosmic history? Will there really be an end of time? Will it be December 21, 2012? What is our preoccupation with doomsday endings? The show opens in May. We think it has some really fun elements to it—things you may not have seen in a planetarium show.
In addition to the planetarium, what other cool things are there at the observatory?
Our historic Zeiss telescope is available to the public every night the observatory is open. More people have looked through the eyepiece of this telescope than any other telescope in the world. We also host several free lecture programs in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, most noticeably our monthly space and astronomy news review, “All Space Considered.”
Speaking of Leonard Nimoy, is it true that you have a personal connection to Star Trek?
I watched Star Trek as a kid. I loved it, as everyone else did. Who didn’t love Mr. Spock? In 1998, I got a call from a fellow who was the science advisor to the Star Trek TV series The Next Generation and Voyager. They wanted to take Voyager through the galactic center, and he’d seen me on TV talking about the galactic structure. We struck up a friendship, and next thing I know, he’d moved on to the Enterprise series. They had an episode where Captain Archer was holding up a book, and it was The Cosmos: A to Z, by Laura Danly. That was the best gift ever.
“Time’s Up” opens May 31, 2012. For more information, call 1-213-473-0800 or visit the Griffith Observatory website.
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