In the New York Times recently, Edward Rothstein wrote about the “sense of wonder” that the best science museums instill in visitors. He was reviewing San Francisco’s Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences, which opened last year in Golden Gate Park.
Wonder is not puzzlement, bewilderment or confusion. But it is also not satisfaction, completion or understanding. It is more open-ended … In the wake of wonder, we are literally moved. We cannot remain still. We are spurred to explore.
The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is frantically getting ready for its own opening November 20, so I can’t speak to the success or failure of the new 166,000-square-foot facility, designed by Legorreta + Legorreta, the famous Mexico City architects. Dallasites should recognize their distinctive style from the Latino Cultural Center: big, bold shapes and Southwest colors, open courtyards and an ‘urban lantern’ tower. (The museum’s donation project is even called Light the Lantern.) When I visited last week, most of the exhibit galleries were still under construction (coincidentally, one of those exhibitions is on tour from the Exploratorium.)
But one attraction was up and functioning — and it was filled with wonders. The museum’s Noble Planetarium has the first Zeiss hybrid planetarium system in the Southwest. That insectoid-mechanoid piece of equipment up there is the “star projector” part of the system, the Skymaster ZKP-4. Forget your old grade-school visit when you got to see constellations light up overhead. The ZKP-4 is capable of showing thousands more stars than were previously displayed by planetariums (it projects both southern and northern hemispheres, for instance), and thanks to fiber optics, it shows them with far more clarity.
But that doesn’t begin to convey how stellar this thing is. It’s the online information that the Skymaster can access that makes it whoa-baby ‘cosmic.’ Because of the huge amount of digital data compiled by places like NASA, the ‘skies’ that Skymaster shows us can be seen from almost any angle and in practically reach-out-and-touch detail. It zooms through the solar system, stops and pivots around individual planets, showing their daytime and nighttime sides. Then it can peer at them up-crater-close. And all of these images are kept fresh: You’re seeing Jupiter’s clouds from just a few days ago.
It’s also the contexts, the ways of seeing these stellar wonders, that fascinate. At one point — as planetarium director Linda Krouse kindly put the equipment through some of its paces for us — the overhead images retreated from the solar system to reveal all the stars encircling Earth 10 light years away — it was shown as a red ball — and then we saw the larger ball of stars 100 light years around us. Pulling back even further, we saw that ball in relationship to the entire Milky Way galaxy. Let’s get seriously small: A single light year is nearly six trillion miles. So that circle of stars is six hundred trillion light years across. Yet with the Milky Way, it looked like a softball tucked under someone’s arm.
When it comes to the more grounded and concrete realm of space displays, the entrance to the Noble will exhibit some of what Frank Zappa called “cosmic debris”: The replica of NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit (above) was still being unpacked. The MMU was the little rocket-powered easy-chair that astronauts used to zip around outside the Shuttle. There’ll be a Sputnik, a meteorite, plasma screens with real-time images from both the Charlie Mary Noble Observatory at UNT and the Hubble Telescope.
Certainly, there are grander, more elaborate planetariums around. The Hayden in New York, let’s face it, is awe-inspiring (it holds more than four times the Noble’s 100-seat capacity). But there is something that distinguishes the Skymaster’s software abilities.
It’s live and interactive. It doesn’t have to follow a set program. The operator can veer off to answer specific questions. Our tour came to a slack-jawed halt as Krause took requests. Could she show us the Voyager missions? Up popped the paths of the space probes, arcs of light soaring out of the solar system. Cassini? Galileo? The Crab Nebula? Because the entire room seemed to shift and spin, my producer had to flee the auditorium — the ZKP-4’s cosmic leaps are dizzying.
Oh, the places you’ll go. Come prepared with some suggestions on what you want to see. The Noble can pack a lot of universe into its little space.