The Perspective Machine
When I was a kid, I visited the downtown Minneapolis planetarium, which was inside the old central library. I was living in South Dakota, so I’d seen stars aplenty. But having the constellations explained to me was a revelation. This was space, the final frontier. And I was boldly going where no man had gone before. Sitting under that dome as dots of light shifted overhead helped me see beyond my own kid problems. Beyond my town. Beyond my planet, even.
The new Bell Museum’s planetarium is one of the most advanced in the country. It’s huge. It’s high definition. And its seats are really, really comfortable. But one thing it has in common with even the lowliest of its predecessors—by comparison, the Minneapolis planetarium of my youth may as well have been shooting light through an old tennis ball with a flashlight—is the ability to make one feel insignificant. Or, if you prefer, part of something much larger and grander than our everyday lives.
There is a reason seemingly unanswerable questions are referred to as “cosmic”: Where do we come from? Is there life out there? Was there a beginning of time? Does the universe have an edge beyond which there is nothing?
I’m not the kind of person who spends a lot of time wondering if our universe exists within a speck of dust on the tutu of a ballerina. In fact, I have spent my life working in the decidedly un-cosmic and down-to-earth field of journalism. I have concerned myself with human problems and issues and even, once or twice, dubious fashion trends. But I’ve always appreciated the perspective that comes from thinking about what lies beyond planet Earth, which from space appears eerily serene and independent of us.
When I started as an undergraduate at the U in the late 1980s, one of the first courses I took was “descriptive astronomy,” which was listed in the course catalog thusly: “The sun, moon, planets, stars, and material between the stars; the galaxy and universe to which the sun belongs. Nonmathematical.” The absence of mathematics was critical, of course. I remember that the professor, who bounded down the center aisle to start each class, was always disheveled, with crazy hair, an untucked shirt, and deeply wrinkled pants. Nobody saddled him with mundane rules dictating dress. Sartorial matters were small potatoes in his world.
We discussed questions surrounding the origin of our universe, such as: How can something come from nothing? Can religion and science live together if we make God the orchestrator of the big bang? But the best moment came when the professor let us listen to a pulsar, or neutron star, as its beams of radiation crossed the Earth and were picked up by a radio telescope. I’m sure by today’s standards, this is the equivalent of getting excited about Pong. But then, it was akin to eavesdropping on a distant, interstellar conversation.
I can hardly wait to visit the Bell’s planetarium—officially called the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium—once it’s up and running in July, and again ponder life’s grand questions. I’ll wear my shirt untucked, of course, and my pants will be appallingly wrinkled.