The Adler Planetarium in Chicago on 5 July 2011. Courtesy nvidia.corporation
Last week on the beautiful summer day of Tuesday 5 July 2011 I made my third visit to one of my favourite places on Earth, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Located on the lakeshore with a wonderful view of the Chicago skyline, expectations are high even before stepping inside the building. On this visit my perspective was different to previous ones as we were accompanied by two young boys so that it was their reactions that guided what we saw and did.
First up was the main planetarium show currently showing, Journey to the stars, which is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. To my jaded eyes the show was spectacular, but humourless and made the common planetarium show mistake of trying to cram in far too much information. The young boys, who had never seen anything like it previously, loved it though, at least once the younger one overcame his fear of the dark. They said that the show was ‘cool’.
Soon after there was another show in the same planetarium theatre, Night Sky Live! This time even I was impressed and the boys were enchanted. A live guide, who introduced himself with the easy-to-remember name of Nick, presented the northern summer sky as seen in light polluted Chicago. Nick used humour, spoke at the right level and asked questions from the audience who shouted back their replies. With a remote control he could call up spectacular pre-programmed effects on the dome. The show reinforced my belief in the importance of human presenters in planetariums.
The Atwood Sphere at the Adler Planetarium photographed in June 2000. Image and copyright Nick Lomb ©, all rights reserved
The two planetarium shows were followed up with a visit to the Atwood Sphere. This is the oldest planetarium in Chicago and consists of a 4.5-metre wide sphere with over 600 holes drilled in its skin to represent the stars as seen locally. There is now a small carriage that takes visitors up into the continually rotating sphere for a 10-minute guided tour of the sky. It is a good experience though I was a little disapponted in the guide C—. He didn’t seem to have a talk ready, but begged the eight or so people in the carriage for questions to fill in the time until the summer sky rotated into view. And when he was asked questions he seemed to mix up black holes and neutron stars in his answers. Not that anyone else but an astronomer would have noticed.
After a picnic lunch outside in the park, in which feeding a duck and the seagulls was the highlight, it was back inside the planetarium, this time to explore the exhibits. There was interest in some of these, but when we discovered the relatively new children’s exhibition Planet Explorers, there was great excitement. There was so much to do in this exhibition, which is beautifully geared to 3 to 8-year old children, that we only managed to see part of it. The first highlight was driving small rovers called X Movers on the surface of Planet X. The two boys were in their element in controlling one of the rovers and with separate controls to move forwards and backwards and to steer, they could even cooperate with each other.
The other exhibit in Planet Explorers that grabbed their attention was a large format screen showing an Earth map in which they could try to zoom in on their own home in Chicago. In the four minutes allocated to each user they did not quite succeed, but that did not stop them from trying again, again and again.
Overall, it was a great day at the Adler that was enjoyed by all. And I learnt once again the importance of aiming planetarium shows and astronomy exhibitions at all age groups.