Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Decline of Planetariums

Or is that "planetaria"?

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to attend a school that had its own observatory and planetarium. As early as first grade, I was exposed to the wonders of the planetarium show, where the sky was projected on a hemispherical ceiling from this funny ant-like device. An astronomer (or maybe just a science teacher) would explain about the constellations, or the planets, or the Milky Way, or whatever, and could demonstrate on the ceiling what he was talking about. And it wasn't just in school that I enjoyed them - I visited several other planetariums over these years (the 70s and 80s) and got the same basic thing.

So when did they turn into overpriced movie theaters? My family and I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. One thing we were really looking forward to was the planetarium show. It's billed as a planetarium; that's what I expected. But when we entered the room, it was just an Omnimax theater. We didn't get a planetarium show at all; instead it was just a 30-minute movie.

I guess it's easier for them to run a movie every half hour than a live show. And trying to recreate childhood experiences almost always disappoints. But the content itself is so watered down now. There's no basic descriptive astronomy: what's a constellation? what's a star? where are the planets? The subject matter is too broad (this particular one was about the origin of life in the universe) and necessarily, therefore, too shallow.

So take this as a call for planetarium shows like they had in the old days. And if anyone knows where I can still find one today, leave it in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. James,

    We were at a planetarium show a few months ago, and it was pretty much like I remembered. The domed ceiling, the wierd sinister-looking projector, and a live person narrating and I think even answering questions. This was at the Franklin Institute I think, in Philly.

    I think the Hayden Planetarium at the New York Museum of Natural History still give real planetarium shows, although I haven't been to the show in a few years, and that whole section of the museum has been revamped into The Rose Center for Earth and Space.

    Sorry that you're out there in the People's Republik of Kalifornia, where doubtless the planetarium shows have been "improved"! Good luck