Santa Monica College Planetarium Director Jon Hodge – whose fascinating and lay-friendly shows have attracted tens of thousands of adults and children over the past 26 years – has had an asteroid named after him.
It is a fitting tribute to a man who will soon officially retire from SMC and whose passion for the stars is exceeded perhaps only by his ever-affable nature and his ability to turn complex subjects into understandable lectures for people of all ages.
“Jon is very
charming, educated and well-read,” said
Vicki Drake, chair of the SMC Earth Science
Department, which includes astronomy. “I can’t think of a
more worthy individual to receive this eternal honor.”
is being recognized for his “enormous contribution to the dissemination
of astronomical and scientific knowledge to the general public, college
students and schoolchildren.”
I was completely bowled over,” Hodge said, referring to the surprise sprung on him by his colleagues in the Earth Science Department when they recently presented him the certificate affirming the naming of the asteroid after him. “I was, for once, speechless.”
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Hodge speechless because his whole life has been devoted to talking. Over the years, he has talked about every subject imaginable in the universe, many with catchy titles such as “Apocalypse Now: The Asteroid Risk,” “How Big is Space?” and “This Alien Earth.”
His public planetarium shows are held on Friday nights and feature the 7 p.m. “Night Sky” and 8 p.m. feature shows, which change monthly. But he has also put on shows and lectured to thousands of SMC students and schoolchildren, tailoring his material to his audience.
His shows have survived earthquakes and have soared to new heights with the construction a few years ago of a new 50-seat facility, complete with the state-of-the-art Digistar projection system.
The planetarium had been closed for nearly five years in the early and mid-1990s – first because of a reconstruction project in what was then called the Technology Building (now Drescher Hall) and then, shortly before the planetarium was to reopen, because of the 1994 earthquake.
But the earthquake presented the opportunity for some fundraising and – with a generous gift from the late John Drescher – it reopened in June 1997 with new seats, a new dome, the new projection system and other high-tech features.
And though the planetarium was closed for nearly five years, Hodge’s illustrated lectures continued in an SMC classroom – with no dip in attendance.
Ironically, Hodge’s college degree is not even in astronomy. He started out as an astronomy major at USC, but switched to the history of medieval science. “It turned out to be good background for the planetarium field,” he said.
After graduating, he started work at the Griffith Observatory in 1971, first as a guide and then as a lecturer. He took over as SMC’s planetarium director in 1979, but continued to lecture at Griffith until it closed three years ago for major renovations. And he has also maintained his connection at Griffith by sitting on its curatorial committee, which has dealt with the design of new exhibits that will be on public display when the observatory reopens in 2006. He has also worked with UCLA, organizing popular public seminars.
Hodge has established himself in Southern California’s active astronomical scene, bringing in guest lecturers to SMC from such organizations as Griffith, Cal Tech, UCLA and the Jet Propulsion Lab. He is also a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the International Planetarium Society.
“He knows everybody and everybody knows him,” said John Mosley, program supervisor at Griffith, who has worked with Hodge for 28 years.
Aside from the opening of the new John Drescher Planetarium at SMC, other highlights Hodge recalls were Halley’s Comet close approach to Earth in 1985 and 1986, the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in the early 1990s, and the Earth’s close approach to Mars in August 2003.
Halley’s Comet “brought out a huge number of people,” Hodge said. “There were nights we’d have 300 people standing in line for SMC’s rooftop telescope.”
Hodge has not only
been busy stargazing, he has raised a family with wife Mary. He has three
grown children, two grandchildren and a third grandchild on the way. Neither
his two sons nor his daughter have followed in dad’s footsteps,
but his sons do have an interest in astronomy.
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