All posts for the month March, 2005

I took a little breather from writing here this past week—a lot of things were on my plate to finish up for clients, and I wanted to step back and think about a direction for some of the topics I plan to write about here.

One of the questions I get a lot from people at conferences is “What’s your next book going to be about?” or “What’s your next show going to be on?” I always ask them what they’d like to see me write about and I get a wide variety of answers. One thing that nearly everybody has said is “We need a good show on dinosaurs.” And for years, I’ve wondered why we do shows about dinosaurs in star theaters. It’s really more of a paleontology thing, which doesn’t require a dome to tell the story. Except, it does, in one way: it’s commonly accepted that some sort of impact had an effect on life some 65 million years ago, back when dinosaurs were the Big Cheeses on Earth. So, that makes the dinosaur story a Space Story and thus can be told in the planetarium theater.

Okay, that’s all fine and good, but it’s my contention that once you get past the part about the impact, you’re back to a paleontology story with some climatology thrown in for good measure. However, with modern fulldome video theaters able to show pretty much anything that can be rendered for them, you can find yourself seeing paleontology, chemistry, biology, and probably even botany in the dome, along with astronomy.

However, I haven’t written a dino show yet, and really I’ve had other topics to explore for myself and on behalf of clients. If somebody wanted to commission me to write one, I’d be more than happy to throw my considerable experience behind it and write the best darned show you ever saw. And I often wonder what new, fresh approach I could bring to what was (and may still be) a staple of planetarium programming for so many years. Good question, and maybe I’ll explore that in another entry here sometime.

What’s intriguing me lately?

    The evolution of the early universe, specifically the formation of the earliest galaxies.
    Starbirth regions, which involves other planets (sometimes).
    New ways of studying the universe.

To expound a little on a couple of these topics: research into galaxy formation is proceeding in a quite lively fashion, as is continual interest in the inner workings of starbirth nurseries. Infrared-enabled groundbased and space-based observatories are taking the lead on this, although there’s work also being done in the radio regime. Planets—both here and “abroad” are also taking center stage. Just yesterday I saw a discussion on a bulletin board about what to name these new planets the researchers are discovering. To me that’s pretty darned cool: we’ve gone from devising ways to spot these things to actually spotting them and now some folks want protocols to name them!

So, the answer to that question I always get is: the cosmos is ripe with stuff to talk about. I’m sure I won’t run out of topics anytime soon!

In Paradigm Shifty Things, I wrote about the changes from starballs and slide projectors to fulldome video in the planetarium community. By all means this is not an instantaneous switchover, and in fact I see a few years where we’ll have all kinds of theaters with all kinds of projection methods being used. It makes life complicated for those of us who produce content for these facilities, that’s for sure.

Currently Mark and I are re-purposing our collection of “old fashioned” shows (the ones that were formerly slide shows) into fulldome video. The more I do this, the more I realize that even fulldome is a series of “slide shows,” only those slides are whipping by us at 30 frames a second. I watched a colleague’s show a few times, one that has been hailed as the best of a new breed of shows, and it is an eclectic mix of 3D animation and still images used in imaginative ways.

Imagery and its uses poses some very interesting philosophical questions that range across issues of perceptibility, cognition, understanding, and memorability. Recently I was at a meeting in New York where we talked about visualizations and their impact on learning and understanding. Mark and I showed three versions of a scene from our recent Hubble Vision show. In one version we had a set of images of planetary nebulae appear side by side in a three-screen array that dissolved through 12 different images. We also showed the same scene with the images cross-fading to each other in one frame, and finally we showed the same images animated in a fulldome video version coming from the apex of the dome and moving off screen toward the viewer. Our intent was to show the many different ways the same visual information could be presented. One of the attendees posed an interesting question about what effect each of the different scenes had on audience understanding of the differences and similarities between each of the planetary nebulae depicted. The narration states that Hubble’s images of planetary nebulae showed haunting visions of destruction, leaving it to the imagery to convey a visual impact.

It was an interesting question, and one that I’m still mulling over in my mind. More importantly though is that producers have and will continue to make those kinds of choreography decisions for each show they do. In order to make effective shows, they have to ask themselves, “What’s the best way to use the imagery I have? Will an animation tell the story, or will the still image? What will the animation tell the audience? What will the still image convey?”

These may seem like “angels dancing on the head of a pin” question, but they’re at the heart of good visualization in any medium.

Being in “show business” (or at least as close as doing planetarium shows about cool stuff in astronomy gets me), I often deal with the question “What do I tell the audience?” It’s sort of a back-door way into asking, “What does the audience want to know?” But, to my way of thinking, the first question that should be in the back of any creative talent’s mind is, “How can I make them feel?”

In talking and/or writing about astronomy, it’s actually not too difficult to figure out what stuff turns an audience on because there’s a whole universe of objects and processes out there to talk about, and there are a million tales to tell. So, my shows take you all over the cosmos, from the solar system to the limits of the observable universe.

So, how does “show business” get invoked here? Well, creating shows for people to learn about and/or enjoy the cosmos is a “people business” — meaning you have to think about the audience. Maybe not necessarily what they do or don’t know, because if you’re writing for a general audience you have to think generally. You have to make them feel at home in the universe you’re creating for them in your program (whether it’s a TV show or a planetarium show). At a very basic level it means that you use language people can understand. Jargon, while it may sound cool and demonstrate that science and technology have their own language, also irritates people because they don’t know what it is. Use some term like “stochastic nature of star formation” in a show without explaining it (and why would you explan statistical assumptions in an audio-visual entertainment?), and your audience spends the next couple of minutes wondering “the whatty nature of whosie-whatsis? huh?” and then they’ve missed what you said next. Not good.

As much as we might denigrate TV or movies or “show business” as reaching for a lowest common denominator, there are important lessons to be learned from the success of show business. It uses techniques that entertain and inform, whether they’re striking visual work, a song, a stirring speech, or whatever it is that catches the audience’s attention and heart.

So, when I write a show, I work a lot on the language that people will hear in the narration. It has to invoke their interest AND their emotions in order for them to remember and learn. Same with the imagery, whether it’s slides or videos or 3D animations. Put together, these elements should appeal to your audience at the same time it educates and entertains.

It’s tough to do all this, no question about it. But if I’m going to be a good science communicator, I also have to bring a little “show business” into the dome with me.