The Rose Center for Earth and Space is the newly-constructed replacement for the Hayden Planetarium at The American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The center is an amazing architectural achievement. A giant opaque ball (the "Hayden Sphere") is enclosed inside an enormous cubic glass atrium. At night, the sphere and atrium are illuminated from the inside with muted purple and blue lights, giving the whole structure a super-high-tech look.

Inside, the top part of the sphere houses the planitarium, and the bottom part contains a separate standing theater currently exhibiting a show called "The Big Bang". Smaller exhibits are installed in a walkway that runs around the sphere, below it and in peripheral galleries off the main hall.

Sadly, the Rose Center fails utterly to deliver what it promises. The whole experience of the center's main attractions feels like something designed by committee, albeit one with an enormous budget. State-of-the-art equipment was purchased: the computer-driven star projector (described in detail below) was custom-built and is the most advanced in the world. Big-name celebrities were hired to do the voiceovers. Factual content was watered down, presumably so the show could appeal to the widest possible audience. What was produced, finally, will ultimately appeal to no one: even children will walk out feeling disappointed and wanting more: more show, and (even worse) more science.

What follows is a personal account of a visit.

The Planetarium Show

The planetarium's inaugural (and so far, only) show, "Passport to the Universe", had been selling tickets like hotcakes: when we first tried to go see it shortly after the museum opened, the place was mobbed with parents, children in tow, and the show was completely sold out early in the day. (The museum accepts advance orders, but holds a certain percentage of tickets for sale the day of.) This time we had ordered tickets two days in advance, just to be sure.

The staff was pretty disorganized, but in the end we picked up our tickets and were hurried up a ramp to wait in a huge line for the elevators. These take you up to the planetarium holding area: a nondescript, dark room with about eight enormous (2' x 3') flat panel displays showing breathtaking views of galaxies and nebulae against a background of mellow techno-music. After waiting for what seemed a rather long time, they announced that we would be proceeding into the "ship", and our "flight attendants" would help guide us to our seats. They were very careful to instruct us that "every seat has the same view of the universe" and we should "move to the end of each row, not leaving any vacant seats".

As we entered the sphere, the lights were set low so our eyes could adjust. There was no projector to be seen, just a large empty area in the center of the room, and rows of seats in circular wedges surrounding it. Folks were generally able to follow the one instruction we were given, but a few still didn't get it and left seats vacant. The seats themselves were extremely comfy, had padded headrests and reclined nicely.

Look out for the Mark IX

Then, rather majestically, the lights faded to darkness, the empty space in the floor opened up and an enormous projector, looking as if it stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, rose up out of the floor.

Now, the star projector has gotten a lot of press as the most sophisticated planetarium projector in the world: it is based on a Zeiss projector called the "Mark VIII" but this one has enough custom modifications that people have taken to calling it the "Mark IX". It has a totally fiber optic starfield generator capable of rendering 9100 stars, each in its proper color, even with simulated atmospheric "twinkling". Its optics are so good that it can render deep-sky objects, whose details are visible only with binoculars. It also has a color video projector built in that can show pictures and animations of planets, nebulae, etc., and integrate them with the star fields.

The projector is coupled with the "Digital Dome System", a Silicon Graphics® Onyx2™ InfiniteReality2™ workstation. The DDS is capable of recalculating the position and appearance of every star and nebula that the Mark IX will display 30 times a second, which is enough for realtime "fly-throughs" of any part in the universe for which the DDS has astral data. And this is a lot: the system has 28 processors, can store 2 terabytes of data and simultaneously process 14 gigabytes of data.

If this is not enough technology for you, they have a spatial sound system built in that is really quite impressive. There is a subwoofer installed under each individual seat, so when (for example) a spaceship takes off, you actually feel the vibration in your chair.

Anyway, the crowd uttered a collective "ooooh" as the projector flashed its first images onto the dome, and they are indeed impressive. The show had started. We were psyched.

Big

Then a voice chimes in: "Hi. This is Tom Hanks here, and I'll be your guide...".

OK, fine, he played the title role in "Apollo 13", but give me a break. The man has a goofy, nasal, happy-go-lucky voice that doesn't exactly allow your mind to soar to the heights of interstellar travel. Get Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stuart or James Earl Jones for crying out loud.

The 30-odd-minute show is equally goofy. The one message it has is: the universe is big. Really, incredibly, mind-blowingly big. (Perhaps there is a sophisticated in-joke at work given that Hanks made a movie called "Big"--where he played (wait for it) a nasal, annoying kid--but I don't think anyone else recognized it.) To demonstrate this hugeness, we are shown an aerial view of the Rose center, then an impressively continuous zoom out (it isn't really continuous, obviously, but it is edited cleverly and is fairly convincing) to an orbital view of Earth, and then make our way out through the solar system, the neighboring stars, the spiral arm, our whole galaxy, our local group of galaxies, the Virgo supercluster, etc.

The most disappointing aspect of the show is that it uses very little of the Mark IX's starfield generator capabilities, which is where the projector really shines. The majority of these effects are done using the built-in video overlays, which are nothing special, and sometimes look odd on the spherical dome. I actually brought a pair of binoculars with me, and in the few minutes of the show where we were actually being shown stars I tried them out, and indeed that projector is pumping out incredible detail. Aside from that, though, the rest of the show might as well be a PBS special, and is wasted on that huge dome.

The Big Bang

There is another exhibit in the theater space below called "The Big Bang", which is so extremely disappointing that it is almost insulting. This time our narrator is Jodie Foster, of "Contact" fame. You literally walk in, are subjected to a couple of minutes of a confusing laser show as you stand around a large hole in the center of the room, then a really loud noise goes off, the show ends and you are escorted out. You don't know whether to be more stunned that this was the whole "show", or that you don't know much more about the big bang than when you walked in five minutes ago.

Roam if you want to, all around the world

The one consolation to all of this sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing is the earth science exhibit off to the left as you enter the Rose Center. This is much more museum-like and content-rich: it has some very nice material on earthquakes, erosion, plate tectonics, pollution and other earth topics. In the center of the room is a huge model Earth suspended from the ceiling that contains a video device which projects onto its surface from the inside. The effect is astonishing: a loop-video plays that first peels off the Earth's cloud layer, then gradually empties the oceans, then back again. The Earth is rotating slowly as this happens. It sounds silly, but it is absolutely mesmerizing. I spent maybe fifteen minutes lying on the floor underneath it, just watching.

Most of this is from personal experience, but I checked some of the facts at the Rose Center website, www.amnh.org/rose. There's a nice picture of the center there as well.

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