Ephs enjoy a date night out at campus planetarium

September 16, 2015 by Caroline Ryan

In an effort to take advantage of an interesting and unusual event on campus, I reserved two tickets to a fall planetarium show in Milham Planetarium for myself and my roommate, Lylia Li ’18. We were able to attend the first of the fall shows, which occur weekly on Friday nights at 8 p.m. in Hopkins Observatory.

We walked into the planetarium to see a small, circular room lined with couches and capped by a white domed ceiling. Introducing herself as Becky Durst ’17, a student welcomed us in and explained that she was the Astronomy teaching assistant who would be guiding and narrating the show. A blue projector, which Durst informed us is affectionately nicknamed Carl, dominated the center of the room.

Sliding into a seat on one of the low-backed couches, I noticed they were covered with a pattern of yellow stars.

CR: I like the themed upholstery on the seats! What a personal touch.

LL: I didn’t realize it was going to be a person talking to us. I thought it was going to be like in those big auditoriums, with a pre-recorded voice.

CR: I was imagining it to be similar to the Hayden Planetarium [in New York City], which is really big and has a voiceover recorded by Liam Neeson.

LL: Yeah, where the seats tilt back a lot and move around.

Despite our surprise that the small, circular building did not in fact contain a gigantic auditorium with contributions from famous movie stars, we were both impressed by the layout of the room. Turning off the lights, Durst manipulated the projector to bring up a full display of the night sky illuminated by millions of stars.

LL and several young children in the room: Whoaaa.

During the show, Durst operated the projector to show us what stars can be seen from different regions and at different time periods, pointing out and commenting on specific features. We were able to see most of the planets and learned how to identify the North Star using the big dipper as a reference point. Durst was additionally able to illuminate images of constellations superimposed on their constituent stars, explaining their basis in mythology.

After the end of the hour-long show, Li and I made our way outside, blinking up at stars that suddenly seemed so dim and few in comparison to the artificially bright display we had just seen.

We immediately tried and failed to locate the North Star, but both agreed that we had enjoyed the show, even if it hadn’t given us the ability to navigate using only the night sky. I commented on the zodiac constellations we had seen and Durst’s assertion that they have no real significance.

CR: I liked seeing the zodiac signs, even though she completely dissed them.

LL: I loved learning about the zodiac signs. We all know astrology is real.

Although the show didn’t help us to predict our futures, we both felt we gained some perspective on the infinitely large size of our universe. We were impressed at seeing an image of the Andromeda galaxy, which the Milky Way is predicted to collide with in three billion years.

LL: We’re actually on a huge rock hurtling through space! That was the coolest part, seeing another galaxy that we’re going to collide with. I wish I could see that.

While not as excited by the prospect of witnessing the ultimate completion of our galaxy’s collision course, I was fascinated by one particular fact Durst had highlighted: As many stars we see are hundreds of light years away from Earth, what we see in the night sky is not a reflection of the present, but rather of how it looked hundreds of years ago.

CR: Isn’t it mind-blowing that the things we’re seeing in space actually happened so long ago?

LL: Definitely worth it.

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