Friday, March 02, 2007


The planetarium

When I was young, I was fascinated by astronomy. I still am, actually, but not to the edge of obsession, as I was then. There were seven astronauts in the early 1960s, and I knew all their names and information about them. I'd watch all the rocket launches on TV. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I learned about the solar system and the universe. I knew the solar system's 31 moons by name, and I knew details about many of them (ha! now we've named more than 31 moons around Saturn alone, but back then there were 9). I knew the 88 recognized constellations, knew about many of the stars, could point all over the sky on a dark night and tell you many things.

I learned a lot of what I knew from books, but I also learned a lot from visits to the planetarium. When we lived in New York, my father often took me to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. After we moved to Florida, we frequented the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. I loved those places! I'd walk into the dome with a sense of awe, and study the Zeiss projector that would soon show me more stars than I could ever see in the real sky. The guy who was about to give the lecture would come over and tell me about the machine. I'd take my seat next to my father, the lights would go down, and we'd see the program of the day. The lecturer would tell us about the stars, about the nebulae, about the universe, all the while pointing with his arrow-light pointer (in the days before laser pointers). After the program was done, I'd go over and ask questions, soaking in everything I could about it all.

I hadn't been to the Hayden Planetarium since we left New York in 1963, until it was reopened after the construction of the Rose Center several years ago. I was eager to check out the new place and, as an adult, put myself back to my youth for a while, again enjoying the “Space Show”, the planetarium's primary offering. I went to it about five years ago, I think.

And I was disappointed.

They put on a very fancy show, make no mistake about that. It's smooth. It's glitzy. It has a celebrity narrator (Tom Hanks, when I was there; I see on their web site that it's Robert Redford now). It has special effects and videos and...

...and it's homogenized. They bring you into an anteroom, where you stand while they show you a film, narrated by the celebrity. When that's over, the doors to the dome open and you're ushered in by, when I was there, school kids, and shown to a seat. There is no Zeiss projector to be seen, no operator/lecturer. When everyone's seated, the lights go down, the celebrity narration starts, and the projector rises out of the floor. The narration is good, but the show is packaged, like Planetarium Helper®. At the end, the projector recedes into the floor again, the lights come up, and the kids usher you out. Don't try to ask them questions about anything, they're just ushers.

You can't look at the projector in awe.

You can't even walk around the dome; you're ushered in and you're ushered out.

You can't talk with the guy who's presenting the show. You can't ask any questions.

The show is the same, every time. No variation. Seen it? Don't bother going back until they change it. I don't know what the frequency of that is, and I don't see anything on the web site about when it will change.

Now, the planetarium does have other lectures and programs besides the Space Show, including a regular one-hour presentation on the last Tuesday of each month, called Celestial Highlights:

On the last Tuesday of each month, enjoy a live presentation under the brilliant stars of the Zeiss Mark IX Star Projector. This tour of the heavens offers a view of the constantly changing night sky. Learn about the current positions of the Moon, planets, and stars, as well as visual spectacles such as meteor showers, eclipses, and conjunctions.
That might be more like what I remember from my childhood — I haven't tried it, so I don't know — but it's one hour each month. What made the planetarium magical for me has faded, replaced by a mass-market product, complete with glitter paint.


1 comment:

Maggie said...

I wonder if it's a little bit of the loss of innocence, as well. I had a similar experience, but it was in my late twenties. I loved going to the planetarium when I was a little girl. My dad has a keen interest in astronomy (he has an observatory and teaches astronomy for free to scout groups, school groups, and anybody who's interested), and so there were always telescopes when I was growing up. It was a perfectly normal occurrence to have a meteor shower party, or to huddle around the telescope outside in the freezing cold with all my friends if I had a birthday sleep-over party, or to drive to the beach to get a better view of a particular astronomical phenomenon.

When we were in our twenties, a group of us visited the planetarium at the Boston MoS, and it was a packaged show, as you describe. I think it may have had a Star Trek theme. I was very disappointed. When I've attended the planetarium since then, for example with my Girl Scouts, I've actually fallen asleep.

We had a good planetarium experience this summer, however. We visited Mystic Seaport, and there's a small planetarium there. The theme of the show, complete with non-receding projector and live, interactive host, was navigation. As I'm a huge fan of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, I was really fascinated to learn about the methods of navigation used in the early 1800's. It was a show like the ones you describe from your youth, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I know the seaport would be a bit of a hike for you, and I wouldn't recommend going there if you have no interest in the other attractions, but if you ever go, I think you would enjoy the planetarium show.