Cosmic Collisions: A Striking New Planetarium Show
"Change is a constant in the Universe," Robert Redford's gentle voice tells us. We're seated comfortably in the Hayden Planetarium within the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. But all around us celestial objects are spectacularly crashing into one another. "Things going bump in the night" as AMNH President Ellen Futter had told us by way of introduction to Cosmic Collisions, the newest space show produced here. And every audience member who walks in will have his or her world rocked.
It opens to the public on Saturday, March 18th in New York and will immediately be distributed to AMNH's partners, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum and GOTO Inc., one of the largest makers of planetarium hardware and programs. None of the partners are worried about simultaneous distribution. Seems there're plenty of catastrophic smash-ups and smack-downs to go around.
Cosmic Collisions chronicles a paradigm shift. For ages of human history, the sky has been perceived as gentle, majestic, and eternal. But that's not the way it is at all, we recently discovered. Precipitating events happen fast in the Cosmos. It's the aftermath that may take eons. We learn in this show, for instance, just how counter-intuitively rapid was the formation of our Moon. How do you like one month?! And if you've never felt sympathy for dinosaurs before, wait until you see for yourself what actually killed them, along with nearly 75% of other life on Earth.
"We are a museum about evolution; about process," says Mike Shara, Curator of Astrophysics for AMNH and science warden of Cosmic Collisions, "How do species evolve? How does our Earth change? Our Milky Way Galaxy?" AMNH's answer: collisions are the agents of change at all scales.
We humans tend to see ourselves right in the middle of those scales - halfway between quarks and galactic super-clusters. From the safety of our padded chairs in the dome we see that some cosmic collisions are beautiful and harmless: the delicate spark-flurries of a meteor shower as Earth swings forward through remnants of a comet's tail. But other clashes would kill us, all of us, immediately. Looking back through time, it's clear that we are only here, able to make or enjoy planetarium shows, because of a confluence of collisions that rigged the game in favor of us, though almost surely not with us specifically "in mind".
On this topic, Cosmic Collisions plays it straight. The script neither admonishes those who believe in some form of intelligent design, nor does it pander to that possibility. It simply speaks the science, staying on the firm ground of the proven, without provocation or cheap shots at faith-based belief systems.
"The show itself has evolved," Shara says. How could it not? With 3 major partners, 18 outside providers of imagery, an in-house production team of 34, and 15 external science advisors all providing input and improvements. Yet the production went together in record time: 18 months from clean screen to final mix. That's faster than a speeding photon measured against typical Big Planetarium production time. Especially when you consider that entire new software applications had to be written to, for example, extrapolate 2D images of certain galaxies out into 3D volumetric space and through dramatically accelerated time. But it's not computer code you see up there on the dome. It's imagery; incredible in that it's so thoroughly credible. And who provides the final measure of that imagery's success?
"My real bosses are a horde of sixth-graders," exclaims show director Carter Emmart, referring to the average age of space show-goers. It's a tough challenge. For their entire lives, this audience has been bombarded by X-Box style interactivity, cinematic surround sound, high-end animation, hyper-capable characters, A-list actors, superheroes, supernatural storylines... And it doesn't make planetarium producers' lives any easier that - compared to HDTV and theatrical film--the technology of digital dome projection is really in its infancy. 3D animated images projected across a 100 foot dome simply cannot (yet) be as bright or as sharp or as fast as what you see on your laptop. Or what an 11 year-old sees at the arcade.
On the other hand, AMNH's Hayden/Rose Center is much more than just a screen. The show leverages AMNH's Digital Universe asset, an elegant virtual 3D charting tool containing accurate positions of billions of stars, clusters and galaxies, all developed within the Museum's walls. And AMNH actually does cutting edge new science here. With a one-two punch of world class researchers and supercomputing horsepower, the team that built Cosmic Collisions was able to visualize phenomena with previously unseen clarity. The raw data leaps to life, quite literally right before our eyes. One stunning example is the mixing interaction of our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy; a swirling dance of fecundity as we watch new epochs of star formation igniting at the visual rate of 40 million years per second! This represents a new method of astrophysics; a third modality called Modeling added to classical Theory and Observation.
Particular kudos must go Ryan Wyatt, Lead Science Visualizer at AMNH, the individual responsible for taking messy, confusing jumbles of numerical datasets provided by astronomers and transmogrifying them into emotionally moving pictures--all the while retaining the full accuracy and precision of the astronomers' original measurements. If it sounds like witchcraft, it very nearly is; a roiling silicon cauldron demanding a pinch of intuition, at exactly the right moment, in order to taste just right.
Even so, no show can be perfect. Those looking very hard to find fault may notice some quirks. There's not a single mention of the most obvious indicator that collisions are a fact of celestial life: the cratered current face of Earth's Moon. Only one star crash is depicted--and only very fleetingly. Yet real stellar collisions come in a fascinatingly broad range. From tiny, dense neutron star smacks that are all over with in milliseconds to, say, a white dwarf tearing through a red giant over the course of ten years or more! These would have made for awesome animations. Also, a great deal of show-time is spent on solar physics--stunning, great science to be sure, but the connection to "collisions" is as tenuous as the beautiful auroras that the program depicts. In fact, the solar storm stuff is so good that it might have been better saved for its own stand-alone show.
Cosmic Collisions also makes a choice to restrict its narrative to an episodic presentation of types of occurrences. But that comes at the expense of telling a memorable story. It's a bit of a lecture. The intended audience would probably be better captivated by more of a movie. Phenomena are generalized, rather than personified with real examples we might have seen on the news. No reference to Shoemaker Levy 9, the comet that woke us up to the threat of impacting ice-balls, for example. Not a passing tip of the hat to NASA's Deep Impact mission, a purposeful collision for the sake of great science. This choice is understandable--it keeps the content evergreen--but it doesn't give a great creative actor / director / artist like Redford much to sink his voice into. And it doesn't leaving us feeling like we've experienced the collisions; only like we've seen them and heard about them. Other recent large scale planetarium shows, at other institutions, have trended away from quite so academic a tone.
These are minor quibbles. Not one of the hard-boiled professional journalists in whose company I watched the show walked out of it unchanged. All of us--even the writers of astronomy publications--learned at least one or two facts we hadn't known when we sat down. And we remembered it isn't really about us, after all.
If only 10% of any audience that sees Cosmic Collisions really gets it that it's up to them to be a dynamic force in the Universe, rather than simply getting hit with whatever Nature deals, think of the way technology policy--especially space development--would change.
And if only one grade school kid per showing is motivated to pursue a career in science, we'd have orders of magnitudes more scientists than we have now entering their prime in less than two decades. Think of the impacts they'll make on their world ...
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