Planetariums and the rise of spectacular science

Marek Kukula enjoys a cultural history of the theatres that give us a taste of space.
Marek Kukula is public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London.

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People gaze at planetarium show on the ceiling.

Visitors learn about the Moon at a planetarium in Jena, Germany. Credit: Martin Schutt/Gett

Star Theatre: The Story of the Planetarium William Firebrace Reaktion: 2018.

A childhood visit to a planetarium can be a defining moment, points out William Firebrace at the beginning of Star Theatre. A building that attempts both to model and explain the cosmos is often our first experience of the collision of science and entertainment. Star Theatre is a cultural history rather than a scientific one, but inevitably pivots on science communication. It offers fascinating insights into how astronomy has, through planetariums, evolved over the past century from a tool for education and personal improvement to a crowd-pleasing public spectacle.

Firebrace, an architect and writer, sites the spiritual origins of the planetarium in ancient Egypt, where the star-spangled body of sky goddess Nut was thought to arch over the Nile Valley. Cosmic models also have a surprisingly long technological prehistory, involving astronomical clocks, walk-in revolving globes and giant mechanical orreries, many astonishingly complex. In the late eighteenth century, Dutch wool carder and amateur astronomer Eise Eisinga built an elaborate working model of the Solar System in his living room, although the space proved too small to accommodate the recently discovered Uranus. (Eisinga’s wife, Pietje, insisted that the mechanism include storage for clothing and crockery.)

A proposal for a cenotaph for Isaac Newton, incorporating a planetarium, by french architect Étienne-Louis Boullée.Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The modern planetarium — a dome into which a simulacrum of the night sky is projected — is a newer invention. The prototype appeared on the roof of the Carl Zeiss optical-instruments factory in Jena, Germany, in 1924, devised by visionary engineer Walther Bauersfeld. Known as the Sternentheater, or star theatre, the structure used radical design: a central multi-lensed projector and a lightweight geodesic dome.

It arrived at an exciting time for physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the discovery of galaxies outside the Milky Way by Edwin Hubble were fresh in the public mind. Other breakthroughs were around the corner, including evidence for the expansion of the Universe (Hubble again), Karl Jansky’s early forays into radio astronomy and Clyde Tombaugh’s detection of Pluto.

The planetarium concept also chimed with contemporary social and political movements. In the Weimar Republic of interwar Germany, these hinged on the civilizing force of publicly accessible art, design and science. Sadly, the Second World War destroyed many planetariums from this first German wave, which borrowed architectural elements from neoclassicism and Bauhaus.

Moscow’s 1929 constructivist planetarium combined a proletarian ethos with revolutionary engineering: a paraboloid dome in reinforced concrete. During the cold war, the building became newly relevant as a showcase for the Soviet Union’s mid-century triumphs in space (T. Radford Nature 525, 452–453; 2015). Along with promoting an egalitarian idea of space exploration as the destiny of the Soviet people, it was used to familiarize cosmonauts with the constellations and workings of the Solar System.

Postwar superpower rivalries proved fertile ground for a new wave of planetariums, in which the edifices again fulfilled ideological roles. In the United States, plutocrats were its main financiers. Their often eccentric buildings were inspired by the exuberant aesthetic of pulp sci-fi magazines. As Firebrace notes, US popular science was “linked to mass entertainment, to adventure, exploration and individual encounters with the unknown”.

An engineer cleans a Zeiss Projector at Hayden Planetarium, 1951.

An engineer wipes off the huge Zeiss Mark II Projector in the Hayden Planetarium in New York City in 1951.Credit: Jack Birns/LIFE/Getty

Philanthropist banker Charles Hayden is said to have believed that “feeling the immensity of the sky and one’s own littleness” should be accessible to all, although Firebrace dryly points out that sense of size might also depend on socio-economic status. The 1935 planetarium built in New York City in Hayden’s name featured Saturn-shaped light fittings and was crowned with a bronze dome that used soundproofing to create the illusion of isolation in space.

Britain came relatively late to the planetarium party: the iconic London Planetarium opened its doors only in 1958. Built in a style described by Firebrace as “modest and buttoned up”, it was attached to the Madame Tussauds waxworks museum — an uneasy conjunction that seems only slightly less bizarre when one remembers that both were in the business of simulation. (The planetarium ceased functioning as such in 2006.)

Our era of space telescopes and robotic probes has coincided with a revolution in planetarium technology. Audiences are freed from a fixed vantage point on Earth. They can now fly virtually across the Solar System and beyond by way of a seamless mix of computer-generated and real images provided by digital projection systems at, say, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois, or the Peter Harrison Planetarium in Greenwich, London.

Nagoya Science Museum and Planetarium

Nagoya Science Museum’s spherical planetarium in Japan is one of the largest planetariums in the world.Credit: Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis/Getty

Firebrace laments the loss of the old-fashioned shows’ subtlety, but modern space extravaganzas have helped to renew public interest in all things astronomical. Perhaps it is their resemblance to cinema and computer games that has allowed them to prosper, even as museum displays are under pressure to attract younger audiences. And one might argue that the modern planetarium can be a highly effective gateway to a deeper engagement with science.We now understand that much of the cosmos is invisible, and our methods of investigating it no longer rely entirely on electromagnetic radiation. Star Theatre ends by questioning the future role of the planetarium — an experience based on visible light — in a Universe of gravitational waves, dark matter and dark energy. But it seems unlikely that the winning mix of drama, technology, design and science will go out of fashion any time soon. As Firebrace concludes: “The heavens are as full of light as ever.”

Nature 552, 172-173 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-08441-9
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