Under the Small Sky
As many of you may know, I have recently ended my career as a professional planetarian. I worked for almost 20 years (19 1/2, actually) at Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Museum in Canton. I started out as a fill in for weekend lecturer Tim Totten, and then we evolved a rotation to give me more shows and Tim some weekend time off. So I ended up doing probably 30-50 shows per year depending on Tim's coaching schedule and other factors. My resignation was for a combination of reasons. Mostly I wanted the time back. So, with this passing, I want to share a few reflections on planetaria in the following paragraphs.
Our friend Barbara Vaughan wrote one of her short pieces for this newsletter in response to the recent demolition of the old Hayden planetarium in New York. She wrote:
Good-bye Old Friends
I enjoy reading "Focal Point" in Sky & Tel. Some are real chucklers; some are real attention getters; one is real sad--for me anyway. The June 1997 issue describes the end of the Hayden Planetarium in the American History Museum of Natural History in New York City.
That's the place where astronomy really started for me after that not-so-promising night out with my brother and cousin. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Rosenburg, knew New York City like the back of her hand. Each month or so she took 30 kids into the city and introduced us to wonders of the world and universe, past, present, and future. I just know that each and every one of us found at least one interest which we've carried through out lives. For me, it was the Hayden Planetarium. I sat there in absolute, mouth-dropping, dumb-founded awe as the narrator took us into the night, through the constellations, and back into the dawn. I wanted it to go on forever. I wanted to sit through it again--and again. But we were off to more things of new interest.
Now the old planetarium is gone and is being replaced with what sounds like a busy, mind-boggling, multi-media center. I wonder if it will instill the same and awe and curiosity in someone or if it will it be just another entertainment center.
Interestingly, the Hayden Planetarium connection goes a bit further. The author of 1001 Questions Answered About Astronomy was James S. Pickering, Assistant Astronomer, American Museum--Hayden Planetarium. Good-bye, old friends. Thanks for the memories--and the inspiration.
When I read this, I immediately felt a responsive chord inside of me. It got me to thinking, and I wrote a quick reply back to Barb expressing my agreement with her sentiments. She urged me to publish my comments. I decided to think about them a little and expand on them. So here they are, Barb. She described her feeling as "absolute, mouth-dropping, dumb-founded awe". What a wonderful phrase! I think the key word is awe. That sense of awe keeps drawing me back to the stars. What can be more awe inspiring than a sky filled with brilliant pinpoint stars against a black background like diamonds on black velvet? This is, for me, a religious experience. Dave Ross took a wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell, which he used to introduce "Shadows of the Night":
"The purpose of a ritual or body of myth is to awaken in the individual a sense of awe and participation in the inscrutable mystery of being"
But that is what the night sky does for me on some deep, un-plumbable level. That is why the writing of Chet Raymo is special for me. He addresses these issues in the language of astronomy. Astronomy for me is the melding ground for science, which I am versed and comfortable in, and the spiritual or mystical, in which I am not. (Stay tuned for Raymo's new book, "Skeptics and True Believers" coming this spring.)Back to planetaria. A planetarium is a model of the night sky. For me, a planetarium ought to be evocative, not provocative. It should draw out feelings from within, not be "in your face". The sky should be the star, not just a backdrop. When I go to shows at major planetaria, I often spend my time just gawking at the sky, not paying attention to the other program going on. So the quality of the sky is paramount to the experience of recreating the awe-evoking night sky. When I did shows myself, I always tried to choose my music carefully to set a mood. I had a couple favorite pieces for sunsets - music which rather than falling away as the light faded, actually built to an emotional climax as I brought out the stars in all their glory. If I did a good sunset, I felt I had done my job. Sometimes I even got applause as the stars came out. I knew I had evoked a response.
Have you ever been to one of the older planetaria? The world's elite planetaria were built by Zeiss. The Hayden and Adler facilities were "powered by Zeiss". I never visited these, but I have been to the old Buhl in Pittsburgh and Morehead in Chapel Hill, NC on a number of occasions. These were also Zeiss installations. What a sky they presented! The sky was so realistic! One program I saw at Morehead featured the southern sky, so they had to put the instrument through its paces, and I got to see the wonders of the southern Milky Way as I had never seen them. Frankly, I don't remember much else about the show (I think it was about Inca sky legends…).
The first Digistar planetarium I visited was in Richmond. A couple things immediately struck me. The theatre was used as an Omnimax, with the seating in an incline (vertigo city, by the way). Instead of the sky being overhead, where you had to look up to the heavens, it was "in your face". What a different metaphor! The stars were "unnatural". They seemed large and greenish rather than gleaming pinpoints. There were no red giants. The Digistar sky is created and projected by a computer. They were able to scramble the stars up and race them around the sky before putting them back where they belonged. I don't remember why they did this - probably because they could. I just remember feeling something was wrong.
With the building of the new Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, the old Buhl Planetarium met its demise. The cathedral to the stars, which used to be a stand-alone citadel in Pittsburgh, is now subsumed inside the larger museum, just another entertainment feature. It too has a Digistar sky. I used to suggest the club take Pittsburgh trips regularly. After two trips to the new Buhl, I don't really care if I ever go back. (We could also write a similar essay about modern interactive science museums vs. older display-oriented ones… but we'll leave that rant for another time.)
I realize that there are many reasons for the evolution of planetaria. One is economic. The president of AstroTec in Canal Fulton, who make domes for planetaria all over the world, told me that the cost of Digistar completely blows other technologies out of the water. They can't compete.
I know that people today have increasingly short attention spans (I know - I suffer from that in spades). They want to be entertained. Much has been written about planetaria as education tools vs. planetaria as entertainment. I am not sure I buy it. Why can't being educated in and of itself be entertaining? I enjoy learning. Am I that much of a square peg? So the planetarium show for the MTV generation is full of fast-moving special effects - slides all over the dome, video, computer animation, and green globby stars - when they use the stars at all. There is no time for contemplation or feeling. The difference for me is like listening to music and letting your mind interpret the experience versus watching a music video and having one person's (wacko) idea shoved in your face. I remember one time at Hoover Price a man with two small boys got up and noisily tried to leave during the program. As he brushed past me, he said something to the effect that the program was too boring for his kids. As the kids went by, I heard one starting to cry that he didn't want to go. Hmmm.
That is why I mourn the passage of Hayden. (And Adler is being renovated as well, with a new projector and dome). Not because I have been there and had an intense personal experience like Barbara. I haven't. I mourn it because of what it represented. It was a facility where the sky was the message. It was set up so that the planetarium dome was the focus of the facility. You could tell as you drove up that it was a planetarium by the distinctive dome. You can tell what Chartres, Notre Dame or some other cathedral is just by looking at it. They were built for one purpose - to evoke awe and a sense of participation in the inscrutable mystery of being. For me, that's what the sky does - whether it is the big sky or the small sky. The old planetaria did that for me. The new planetaria leave me empty and cold- vaguely unsatisfied and sad. That is the same feeling I get looking at the night sky from my back yard. Robin doesn't understand why I feel that way. It's not what I can do with the sky (she always tries to tell me what all I can do even under lousy suburban skies) it is the experience of the sky.