No, this entry isn’t about a round of Diplomacy where Spain conquers the Ottoman Empire, although taking the day after a big holiday meal with family to play games is not a bad thing. It’s more about the things you see as you’re sitting out on the front patio of your folks’ place after that holiday dinner, staring at the sky. I did that yesterday, as the nieces and nephews scattered themselves around the house playing chess and word games and generally being nieces and nephews, and some of the adults were talking and laughing in the kitchen and family room, and some of the rest of us were outside chatting.
So, from the front patio I could see the planet Mars, and then after awhile — as it got darker — the stars started popping out one by one. As we sat and talked, the sky got darker and the planes taking off and landing at the airport were forming their own constellation patterns against the backdrop. And I was thinking that as much as I love doing planetarium work and how unique the theaters are, it just doesn’t compare to the ambiance of being under the real sky. They’re two different ways of getting a feel for the star patterns, and what’s up, but one is not the other. And that’s not so bad, really. There’s a time when you want to be under the real stars and there’s a time when you want to be under the dome. Sort of like playing a game of baseball in real life or playing fantasy baseball online.
The size of the sky and the smell of woodsmoke drifting from someone’s fireplace nearby, and the sounds of the kids playing, and the glittering, showy entrance of the stars in ones and twos provided a fine backdrop for a pleasant holiday scene I won’t soon forget.
The image below kind of evokes that feeling — it’s not my image, but one I found when I was surfing around looking for images of the desert a few weeks back. Scott had the luck to be under a clear desert sky one night and took advantage of it to capture the beauty of the stars. Linked to from: Scott Tucker’s Dark-Sky Images Page.
A few months ago I was flying somewhere and reading a book on astronomy when the guy in the seat next to me took an interest in the subject. Eventually, as it always does when someone strikes up a conversation about stargazing, the topic of learning the stars as a kid came up. “I haven’t actually done anything with astronomy since I went to the planetarium on a high school field trip,” was his statement. Since I do a lot of stuff with planetarium facilities, I drew him out about his experiences and gained another data point about the importance of these ubiquitous facilities in our educational and recreational lives.
Planetaria ARE ubiquitous, but they are in some ways part of an endangered species. They pop up in waves and close down, maybe not quite so quickly. In the past few years the idea of the planetarium has been evolving. For most of us of a certain age, they were the funny round rooms with the “ant” in the middle — that we visited in museums and some well-equipped school districts. The Ant refers to the big opto-mechanical star projectors that still sits in the center of the room in many facilities and splashes stars out across the dome. Then folks started adding slide projectors and video systems, and now today’s star theaters are benefitting from the advent of the Internet, the Web, and all sorts of other technologies. And while some are opening up, others are closing. The planetarium facility — and its technologies are changing and improving while other dome technologies are fading away.
So, do you go to your local planetarium? What’s happening down at the star theater? Are these places relevant to today’s education and recreation? Those are the questions that run through my mind as I create shows and ponder the future of the medium. It’s a unique medium, one that many of us have spent years mastering. It’s certainly not like anything else in the entertainment/educational outreach world! From the simplest (yet most wowie) special effect of a night sky (stars alone) to the 3D technicolor space voyages some producers are turning out, a night at the planetarium is still one worth your time and effort!