Physicists, rocket scientists and mathematicians aren’t the only people who appreciate astronomy — humans have always been fascinated by the night sky. Its alluring beauty, its mystery, its sheer vastness — it’s hard not to look to the stars and yearn to know more. And thanks to advancements in technology, just about anyone can explore space and learn about the galaxy.
“We seem to have this natural explorer sense about us,” said Matt Linke, the director of the planetarium on the fourth floor of the University’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History. “We’re curious about what’s up there. We’ve all looked up and seen a bright something, the twinkling something, or the shooting something, and so we want to know what those things are.”
The planetarium serves as a resource to explore the universe. On weekends, museum staffers give star talks in the facility, not only explaining ways to locate certain stars and constellations, but also sharing the mythology that fills the nighttime sky. Sitting in the planetarium’s plush leather seats, one can look up in the dome and see the beautiful night sky spread above — unlike the dim, light-polluted sky seen from campus.
“We try to cover a little mythology and a little astronomy,” Linke said. “A star talk is mostly ground-based, but then we also leave the earth and take advantage of the technology.”
Linke has been working in planetarium education for 33 years and has been at the University for more than 22 years.
“I’m certainly more of a traditional planetarium educator,” Linke explained. “I’m not an astronomer by training.”
Linke said the purpose of the planetarium is to educate, get people interested in astronomy and to understand what they’re looking at. Sometimes people will ask him what stars they might be able to see on their vacations in other countries. By simply punching in coordinates, the planetarium can take its viewers to anywhere on the globe and show what the nighttime sky will look like from that location.
The planetarium also runs shows that explore specific topics, like black holes, perceptions of space throughout time and the motions of the sun, earth and moon. A show called “Stars of the Pharaohs” combines history and astronomy, allowing viewers to explore the role of the nighttime sky in ancient civilization. To the Egyptians, the stars told tales of their gods.
This sacred connection between the stars and storytelling is not lost. Today, people are just as allured by the sky as they were in ancient times. Linke called this interest “ingrained in us.”
The dome uses two sets of graphics to depict constellations during star talks: redline drawings that connect the stars and the actual pictures of what they represent. Linke said the physical drawings are more useful for storytelling.
Linke reflected upon a time when people existed in a world where there wasn’t as much light pollution as there is today.
“We know they were watching the sky,” he said. “We see their petroglyphs; we see the kind of things they did in caves, things they made. They were clearly visualizing what they saw in the nighttime sky.”
The Exhibit Museum is not the only place with a planetarium on campus. A new planetarium resides in Angell Hall, along with an observatory that allows students to observe the actual sky.
“(Looking at the sky) takes you to a different mindset than you would have in your everyday life,” said LSA junior Mary Holt, president of the Student Astronomical Society. “It’s something that’s outside of your world and makes you think about what else could be out there.”
The Student Astronomical Society hosts open houses in the Angell Hall Observatory a couple of times a month, focusing on generating student interest in astronomy. On clear nights, they set up telescopes in the observatory.
The Student Astronomical Society tries to make astronomy more accessible to people who might not necessarily be interested in science.
The images projected in the planetarium — brilliant star clusters, expansive nebulae, constellations, planets and the moon — all have as much artistic value as they do scientific.
“Sometimes there’s art in science,” Holt said. “I feel that there’s a beauty to it. Finding patterns in the sky is also an art.”
Though the planetariums in Angell Hall and the Exhibit Museum serve more or less the same purpose, the shows they give differ because the sky is a canvas that can be interpreted. Linke said he always makes an effort to work different perceptions of common constellations into his sky programs.
“The mythology, the sky legends, are an important part because it’s part of our collective human background and culture,” Linke said. “If I say constellations and I mention a few names, people just think right away that they’re Greek and Roman constellations. But the reality is, every culture on the planet has left their fingerprints on the sky.”
It’s clear the night sky is not just for space geeks and wannabe astronauts. Its rich history and artistic beauty make it something that almost anyone can appreciate. Linke and Holt agreed the night sky is something we all share. Though it is the same sky we see, there are many ways to enjoy and interpret it.