Black Rock Desert, Nev. >> Tom Varden was not the first person to realize that Burning Man is a great place to look up at the stars and get your mind blown.

But he is the first to imagine a miniature Griffith Observatory at the annual desert art party that promises a mind-altering, out-of-this-world experience.

Varden, a Los Angeles resident, is the lead artist on the Black Rock Observatory, a star-gazing facility that includes two spherical structures and a 20-inch custom-built telescope. The concept grew from Varden’s desire to give back to Burning Man and be a sounding board for its creative energy rather than a mere recipient.

“If you can show someone a decent view of the rings of Saturn, you change someone’s life forever,” Varden says. “You know the moment it comes into focus and they see it because they don’t just take it in — they make noises, they say things, they move, they get uncomfortable. It is exactly Burning Man.”

Varden had the idea for an observatory back in 2012, but he didn’t have the engineering know-how to make it happen until he met the Desert Wizards of Mars, one of several themed camps at Burning Man that consists of about 85 people, including several aerospace engineers from Southern California.


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Last year, the group built a replica of the Curiosity Mars Rover and equipped it with crowd-pleasing displays of the laws of physics, including a rocket-powered stove that can cook a grilled cheese sandwich in 15 seconds, a mirror-laser beam that can catch flame to a 2-by-4 in seconds, and an antennae that broadcasts a live video stream of the Man burn at the end of the festival.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Charles White, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the director of the Desert Wizards. “Blowing people’s minds, that’s our reward.”

The idea for the observatory really took flight after White introduced Varden to Gregg Fleishman, the Culver City-based artist who has designed several notable Burning Man structures, including last year’s Temple of Whollyness, an enormous jigsaw pyramid.

“Gregg’s a genius and he’s kind of a Burning Man celebrity,” says Varden, who adds that he “did a little dance around the house” when Fleishman agreed to take on the project.

Fleishman designs his buildings using geometrical wooden shapes that interlock to create stunning three-dimensional patterns. For the Observatory’s twin domes — one of which houses the 20-inch telescope and rotates like a real observatory — Fleishman was inspired by a shape called a rhombicuboctahedron, which has 26 square and eight triangular sides.

“You see it and you go cross-eyed with geometry,” Varden says.

The Observatory should be completed by tonight, when burners, as festivalgoers refer to themselves, will be able to enter the Observatory to peer into the sky and learn about celestial bodies from the Desert Wizards manning the two domes.

Another team of Desert Wizards will spend the week riding around on the Mars Rover teaching people about science with their improbable experiments.

“It’s not all pocket-protectors and horn-rimmed glasses,” White says about professional scientists. “We’d like to tear down the wall between science and art. If you look at some pieces of art, there’s a lot of science that goes into it. If you look at some science data sets, real data that’s coming out of the instruments, it’s beautiful — it’s art!”

The Black Rock Observatory, designed by an artist and manned by scientists, attempts to bridge that divide. The Observatory, like Burning Man, is about getting people to look beyond their cellphone and computer screens and get inspired by interacting with each other in creative ways, Varden says.

“It’s the realization that you walk around in 4-4 time doing, doing, doing and you forget that — surrender or not —life is happening to you. It’s bigger than you. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful and it’s cacophonous,” he says. “There’s a huge, huge parallel between that and looking through a telescope.”