Planetariums were almost certainly made to screw with me. There is no other reason that someone would think to erect a huge fluorescent dome in an otherwise innocuous space if it weren’t meant to be a strange experience.
The creator of planetaria wants me to be completely confused and disoriented. He wants me to feel small. Which I think is precisely why I was always taken to the planetarium as a child; the planetarium was made for children. Who else possesses the unbounded curiosity necessary to really care and the imagination necessary to make that strangely shaped television screen above them become the real night sky?
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So when I headed to the Leitner Family Planetarium this week, I ostensibly went to stargaze through the telescopes they set up on the terrace at 8 p.m. every Tuesday. I also went to watch a 25-minute short film called “Astronaut.” (!) But really, I had my childhood in mind. I was setting out to reclaim my imagination! My sense of discovery!
When I arrived, I found that the planetarium was full of children. First, Michael Faison — the dreamy astronomy lecturer who makes “Planets and Stars” a blast — led a description of the night’s sky in New Haven. The dome of the planetarium lit up to replicate the view outside, city skyline included. He told us that you could see Jupiter with your naked eye this time of year and zoomed into it on his fancy astronomy computer program. Then he taught us the names of the three moons we should be able to see through the telescope.
“Europa, Ganymede and Io,” he said. I swooned. I was learning already.
Then the lights of the room dimmed and stock suspense music came on. “Astronaut” (!) had begun! The booming voice of Ewan McGregor — aka young Obi-Wan Kenobi and the narrator of “Astronaut” (!) — came over the speakers. Apparently ex-“Star Wars” actors have fallen on hard times. Liam Neeson, another “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” alum, narrates the feature on Black Holes that plays on Sundays.
The children were laughing hysterically throughout the whole movie. They were loving it.
I, on the other hand, was a little concerned. Especially when the movie started discussing the dangers of being a human in space. They introduced us to an astronaut named Chad and then began to incinerate, freeze, suffocate, mutate, and crash space junk into him. By my count, they killed him 10 times! Then we watched him waste away! It was SO MORBID! I was so sad.
The kids were still laughing.
Ewan also taught me that when you add the prefix “space-“ to anything, it is instantly hilarious. Examples: “Space nausea,” “space gymnasium,” “space toilet.”
Then the movie ended (too soon!) and I ambled to the back to talk to Michael Faison.
“We opened the Observatory in 2004. Before that, we used to set up the telescopes on the parking garage down the street,” he said when I asked about the history of the building. “Gradually we took over the building.”
He added that shows full of kids are fairly common, especially during the summer.
“Two-thirds of them are under eight. They come here with their schools and then they drag their parents later on,” he said.
The planetarium also counts some community members among its regular visitors. I spoke to two of them who “loved it so much” that they decided to volunteer: Dave, a self-proclaimed “community member with a career,” and Josh, a high school senior. They both are in charge of setting up the telescopes and usher every Tuesday.
Josh said he likes the job because it’s so unusual.
“I mean, not too many people work at observatories,” he shrugged.
Unfortunately, not too many of those visitors were undergraduates. According to Faison, of the 10,000 people who visited the planetarium over the last year, less than 15 percent of them were Yale students — a figure that includes all the people who were forced to come for class.
So this is an appeal! I looked through a telescope and saw Jupiter! And its three moons! I saw the Ring Nebula! I even learned what that was! You can learn what this is, too! Reclaim your inner child! Watch some interesting (read: creepy) movies!
Go to the Planetarium!