Lost in the Stars

Neil Tyson began taking astronomy courses at the Hayden Planetarium when he was 11 years old, coming in from Riverdale on Saturday mornings. By my reckoning, we were there together in the late sixties and early seventies, attending classes for young people on subjects like celestial navigation and stars and galaxies. Tyson grew up to become the director of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opens this week, replacing the old planetarium. I veered off into the literary life, but recently joined him for a preview of the new facility.

To build the Rose, the museum had to dig on hallowed ground. From its opening in 1935, the Hayden Planetarium had been one of the most prominent astronomical institutions in the nation and a place of pilgrimage for generations of schoolchildren. Under its dome, we gazed at stars cast by the mysterious, multifaceted, bug-eyed Zeiss star projector while a lecturer’s flashlight pointed out the constellations. The unseen guide introduced us to the starry sky normally obscured by city and suburban lights. He went on to demonstrate how our experience of day, night, and the changing seasons depends upon our residence on a spinning, sun-orbiting planet. For some, the performance was a revelation: It was here that my own lifelong passion for science was kindled, and it was here that Tyson had his first view of a truly star-filled sky.

Everything about the Rose at first seems as new as the twenty-first century, with sunlight streaming through startling vistas of open space. I found myself in the lower-level exhibition space beneath the 87-foot aluminum sphere that appears to float within the glass-walled cube. It impends eerily, like some rogue planetoid, but it also playfully evokes the curve of the old Hayden dome. Keen to the importance of branding its product, the museum has given the sphere the Hayden name, and there are several other echoes from the past. Again scales measure your weight on other planets, with a new one added to reveal your weight on a neutron star, a class of objects that hadn’t been discovered when the first Hayden opened.

I met up with Tyson in his office, where we reminisced about having owned the same model amateur telescope, a six-inch Criterion Dynascope with a white Bakelite tube. He is a large, gregarious man, a working astronomer whose main field of study is the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. He led me on a personal tour of the exhibition area, bouncing on his feet and grabbing me by the arm as he showed me how the sphere – surrounded by models of galaxies, planets, and atoms – will be used as a huge prop to demonstrate the almost ineffable breadth of the universe, a difficult concept freshly illustrated. A walkway that spirals down the outside of the sphere takes you through the 13 billion-year history of the universe.

The old planetarium succumbed to laser shows and Star Trek science. The Rose Center returns it to real scholarship at a time of real progress in the field, and Tyson declares that ours is “the golden age of astronomy.” Research is now being conducted, passionately, upstairs in the new offices beside the sphere, where astrophysics has been added to the museum’s ten other research areas.

Tyson gets to play with toys bigger than Dynascopes now, including the custom-built Zeiss Mark IX projector housed in the Hayden’s 429-seat theater. This is the home of the Rose’s main son et lumière experience, and here I was able to assess more coolly the new Hayden’s distance from the one I had known as a boy. The Mark IX can project a moving image of any neighborhood in the universe as seen from any other – an effect nearly everyone at the museum claimed would allow viewers to “fly” through space. In the old Hayden, we were presented with the universe as seen from Earth; the biggest conceptual difference made by Tyson is to shift our perspective to the universe in its entirety. In this change he is backed by the history of science, which has worked for five centuries to relocate mankind and the earth from the center of the universe.

However, none of us will ever travel outside the solar system or faster than the speed of light, and by emphasizing fake (the Hayden’s word is “virtual”) journeys to the stars, the new planetarium disconnects us from the universe we can experience. The night sky, eclipses, tides, phases of the moon, or the changing seasons – phenomena happening right in our faces – are barely mentioned. Tyson says he hopes that visitors will turn to the library to find out more about the celestial objects described at the Rose; his predecessors encouraged us to turn to our Dynascopes.

In its effort to entertain, the Rose sells short the excitement of the scientific enterprise. The facility wraps science in a conventional package – as a collection of updatable facts – rather than as an enduring means of using observation and reason to think about the world. There is little about how astronomy is done.

Starting this spring, twice-monthly evening lectures are to be followed by “star parties,” in which armchair astronomers will be invited to bring their telescopes to the new full-acre terrace and eating area located outside the glass cube. The institution also plans a continuously updated Website and a vigorous education campaign. If Neil Tyson and his colleagues can communicate their enthusiasm for their science, they may do more than inform us of the latest news from deep space. They may get us to step outside on a clear, moonless night and raise our eyes to the sky, just as the old Hayden sought to do.

Lost in the Stars