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First Tuesday’s at the Hayden Planetarium

Events, Guest Author: Jeff French Segall

It seems that twice a month, on the first and last Tuesday of each month,  the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History presents a new show especially targeted toward a very special audience – one that truly loves astronomy and appreciates learning about new discoveries in the field. Lily and I really had a wonderful time at the Hayden Planetarium last week.

The one hour show,  The Farthest Reaches of the Cosmic Ocean with Jason Kendall, which began at 6:30, focused on bigness.  Jason Kendall is “an ambassador of NASA”  and he was expertly knowledgeable and a charming narrator. In the Planetarium’s first show after it’s renovation, Tom Hanks show narrated the wonder of the super small morphing into the small, morphing into the visible, morphing into big, then super big and then utterly colossally big, all in one program.

This show, however, by intention and design, completely ignored the micro, and guided us into the universe of the macro.  We started out examining our own planet and moon, then quickly zoomed out to the inner planets, then further out to the outer planets, then further out till the sun shrank to the size of the other points of light we call stars, then further zoomed out to constellations, then further out to the limits of our galaxy, the Milky Way, then further out to nearby galaxies, then to farther galaxies, then to a universe of galaxies, to the horizon of our vision and knowledge.

Jason Kendall skillfully narrated and projected the astronomical images, speeding us through space, light-years and time, all the way back to 13-½ billion years ago, to the point of the Big Bang.  Throughout the presentation, the stars on the dome zoomed further and further away from us, some stars speeding as fast as a racing locomotive, others passing by more slowly.

The effect was that of 3-D without the need for Red/Green glasses.  It was an astounding production. It was visually glorious.

The audience, consisted of people of all ages – even children, and seemed especially sophisticated. In the Q and A period, they asked keen and challenging questions. One such challenge was: “If the Big Bang occurred 13 ½ billion years ago, then what was there 14 billion years ago? Could it not have been a previous universe imploding upon itself, crushing all its matter into a single point which then exploded into the current universe, with this expansion and contraction having been happening for all of time?”  The answers were similarly challenging: “There was no 14 billion years ago.  All space and all time started 13 ½ billion years ago.” The narrator suggested that the questioner google “Chaotic Inflation” for a deeper analysis of that proposition.

In its former incarnation, the old Hayden Planetarium building was like a second home for me when I was a member of its Junior Astronomers Club.  I remember the awe of their shows in which we took imaginary voyages to the planets. In the Voyage to Mars, the red planet loomed larger and larger inside the dome, giving the effect of we in the audience falling faster and faster toward the surface of the fourth planet of our solar system.  Likewise, other shows featured similar trips to Jupiter and Saturn.

In short, the new Hayden Planetarium takes us even further, indeed, fulfilling my hopeful vision for it – that of exciting the imagination and opening up a world of possibilities and ideas. We are all the richer for it.

Jeff French Segall

Guest Author

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