Those of us who grew up near one of the five great American planetaria—the Adler in Chicago, the Fels in Philadelphia, the Griffith in Los Angeles, the Hayden in New York, and the Buhl in Pittsburgh—shared in a source of inspiration that brought many students to science. Jordan Marché, in a book developed from a graduate thesis, describes the genesis of these planetaria in terms of their educational aims. He provides the history of the field, from the Farnese Atlas of more than 2,000 years ago to the modern era.
Though I was one of those inspired by New York's art-deco Hayden, I hadn't realized the intimate connection between public education and Zeiss's development of projection planetaria around 1920. In fact, an early idea was to link the Ptolemaic Earth-centered projection planetarium to an adjacent Copernican Sun-centered mechanical planetarium. Even in the early German Zeiss planetaria, the beauty of the star projection overwhelmed the public interest in the Copernican orrery. When I mourned the loss of that preshow orrery as New York's Hayden metamorphosed into the Hayden sphere in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, I hadn't known that I was watching perhaps the final demise of this valuable educational idea.
Marché devotes one of his major chapters to the broadening of the planetarium range, from the expensive Zeiss machines to the pinhole projection planetaria of Armand Spitz. He tells Spitz's personal story and how Zeiss fans tried to discourage him. In the end, Spitz's vision won, as hundreds of planetaria spread around the country, ending the Zeiss monopoly.
Marché's book shows the signs of its thesis descent, with introductory and summary material for each chapter of a type that doesn't grace most books. Still, those of us concerned with public education will be interested in the discussion and, most particularly, in the many quotes from recognizable research astronomers and other figures about educational values.
I wish that Marché had mentioned the pioneering planetarium idea of my predecessor at Williams College, Albert Hopkins, who in 1836–1838 built the observatory that is still the nation's oldest. He built a domed room on its ground floor under the telescope turret that, in 1851, saw a replacement telescope that was the first to be built by young Alvan Clark. That domed room had stars pasted on its ceiling, making it the first American planetarium of any type. In 1963, a Spitz model A3p was installed and gave good service for 42 years. We are now enjoying a mini-Zeiss, model ZKP3/B Skymaster, which gives the double-lobed structure of the older parent Zeisses.
Marché discusses developments such as the launch of Sputnik and the U.S. response through science training for students via the National Defense Education Act. But his book ends before the digital era, as skies in many planetaria are now filled with blobby images that nonetheless allow audiences to zoom around the universe, looking at views from positions far from the Solar System. Though my hope that our new Zeiss can give us 42 years of service—which may be as long as it takes to get replacement money—weighed on the side of our purchasing this optomechanical projector, whose quality matches its high reputation, we put our toe in the water of digital planetaria with an Ansible MicroDome. At 10% the cost of our baby Zeiss, we are learning how to zoom out to the Orion Nebula and how to turn on star trails that show retrograde motion.
At the major planetaria, the battle between optomechanical projectors—now made by Zeiss, Goto, Minolta, and some others—and digital planetaria continues. The Rose Center in New York, for example, has 25-minute shows that use the Zeiss for only the first 90 seconds or so, with all-sky “fulldome” projection taking up the rest. I reviewed the Rose Center as “The Heavens in a Jewel Box” in the August 2000 issue of Science.
Millions of people across the country and around the world have learned about astronomy by visiting planetaria. Most of these are outside of educational institutions, but many classes also visit planetaria, raising interesting questions of what mix of astronomy and astrophysics is best for students.
Jordan Marché's interesting book provides useful background information relevant to the major source of public information about astronomy.
Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970. Jordan D. Marché II. 2005. 288 pp. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 00-8135-3576-X. $49.95. Hardcover.
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