Written in the Stars
Buhl Planetarium sets an International Standard for Planetariums
By M.A. Jackson
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Hundreds of years ago, people looked to the stars to guide them. After
finding their way, they gathered under the night sky to weave fabulous
tales about the stars above them…Cassiopeia, Orion, Pegasus. Today, we hop
in our cars, turn on the satellite global positioning device, and drive to
planetariums to “explore” distant stars, planets,
galaxies, and much more.
But, contradictory as it may
seem, staying the same often involves radical change. The Henry Buhl Jr.,
Planetarium & Observatory is proof positive.
1939: A Star is Born
In October 1939, Buhl
Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science opened on the North Side. It
was the fifth major planetarium in the United States--joining those in
Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Erected for $1,070,000 by
the Buhl Foundation--which was established in the will of North Side
businessman Henry Buhl--the planetarium featured a 492-seat “Theater of the
Stars” with a 65-foot diameter dome. In 1940, approximately 200,000 people
were entranced by images of the night skies produced by the Zeiss Model II
electro-mechanical projector, which rose out of the floor like a phantom
menace. On the planetarium’s roof, a siderostat telescope allowed visitors
to follow stars and planets across the night sky. It was the first such
telescope designed for public use rather than astronomical research.
Warp speed forward to 1991.
The Buhl Planetarium and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh have merged, and a
new planetarium--The Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium & Observatory--is
showcased in the new Carnegie Science Center. The “new Buhl, ” underwritten
by the Buhl Foundation, is a state-of-the-art facility, which has served as
a model for planetariums around the world. In fact, Buhl Planetarium
Producer James Hughes has helped
set up planetariums in China, Europe, and across the United States.
The Digistar II Star Projector can display a
variety of computer graphic simulations, including this wireframe flight
through the City of Pittsburgh.
Taking the Lead with Technology
The Henry Buhl, Jr.
Planetarium & Observatory is one of the only interactive planetariums
in existence and the most technically sophisticated. Of the approximately
300 planetariums of similar size around the world, the Buhl Planetarium is
a leader thanks to its innovative content (including both astronomy and
human body-related productions) and technology (it was among the first
planetariums to add interactive equipment,
as well as the first to blend video and computer graphics).
These innovations were planned
and carefully carried out by the Buhl Planetarium staff and the
organizations supporting them--such as Carnegie Mellon University (CMU),
the National Science Foundation, and the Buhl Foundation. These
partnerships have allowed the Buhl Planetarium to purchase high tech
apparatus and produce new shows each year.
Equipment procured for the
Buhl includes a high-tech digital computer graphics projection system,
Digistar II, which accurately depicts day and night skies on the
planetarium’s 50-foot diameter dome. Sophisticated
“flight controllers”--an interactive system mounted in every armrest
of the 150-seat theater--allow audiences to focus on a particular area of
the screen and manipulate the direction a program will take in real time--panning right or left and speeding up or
slowing down the show. A majority vote determines what the audience
will see. "It’s a democratic system,” says Buhl
Planetarium Director John Radzilowicz with a laugh. The system means
each every time a show is viewed it will be unique and different.
Another newer feature is the
year-and-a-half old full dome laser. This state-of-the-art
system--currently the only one in use--fills the entire dome with images.
Used for laser shows and educational programs, such as Circus in the Stars (a constellation tour using the Big Top
as a backdrop), the full dome laser works with other equipment to produce
dazzling effects. “People come up to us after a show and ask us what kind
of projector we use,” says Radzilowicz, a Manhattan College graduate
and author of two astronomy activity books. “But
each show could have used 100 pieces of equipment. We use multiple sources
to create seamless effects.”
Thanks to its technologically
advanced equipment and its creative staff, in the last decade Buhl
Planetarium has established
itself internationally as a creator of quality programs. The Buhl has distributed over 400 shows, which can be seen on five
continents and in 20 countries and 15 languages--the most widely
distributed planetarium productions on the planet. In fact, Buhl Planetarium productions have
become so highly regarded, they’ve
attracted the talents of futurist and science-fiction author Sir
Arthur C. Clarke, actor Leonard
Nimoy (who narrated the shows New
Cosmos and The Search for Life in
the Universe respectively), NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI, a
branch of NASA), The Center for Light Microscope Imaging and
Biotechnology, Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative (PTEI), and Family
Communications (producer of Mister Rogers Neighborhood).
How did the Buhl
attract such noted personalities and organizations? Sometimes it’s
serendipity. “We got Arthur C. Clark because a CMU professor was from Sri
Lanka and knew him,” Hughes says. “When he went back to visit, he asked
Clark to participate.” But that’s the exception--most collaborations are
due to hard work and “careful negotiations” by Hughes, who has worked for Buhl Planetarium nearly 20 years and was
married in the old Buhl’s “Theater of the Stars."
“When I took over production in 1997, I set a new bar,” Hughes says.
“I said I wanted to have well-known actors, narrators, and organizations
involved so the public would be intrigued and come see the shows.”
From Laser Shows to Tissue Engineering
In 2001, more than 170,000
visitors came to the Buhl Planetarium to be star-struck. They were
entertained with a wide range of shows for every age and interest --90
percent of which were created in-house (including scripts, soundtracks, and
graphics). Depending on the topic, shows run from six to nine months before
being retired to the library (where they can be requested by school groups
or organizations) or archived. And since the planetarium staff produces at
least two original shows a year, there’s always something new to see.
In 1995, Buhl Planetarium took a giant leap forward by
creating a show not about distant galaxies and fiery stars, but about the
human body. Journey into the Living
Cell was developed in collaboration with CMU and was followed by Gray
Matters: The Brain Movie in 2000. In January 2003, Buhl Planetarium
debuted Tissue Engineering for Life, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline
Consumer Healthcare. The program
will be shown in a modular format over the next 2 1/2 years--the first
segment deals with bones; subsequent ones will focus on stem cell research,
the heart, and the spine.
"If we can fly over the surface of Mars, why not
fly over the surface of a cell?" says Radzilowicz of the planetarium’s
Hughes adds: “It’s
kind of the macrocosm/microcosm deal. With astronomy we look through
telescopes, giant magnifiers, and use radio waves, so it's only natural to
look in the opposite direction--through microscopes--to get a close up of
the universe inside us. Besides, with all the multi-media tools at our
disposal, we can do any kind of show.”
Buhl Planetarium succeeds
because of such rich and diverse programming. One of the most popular shows
is The Sky Above Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Aimed at preschoolers and written and narrated by Fred Rogers, the show
explores the wonders of the universe by integrating video and computer graphics of Mister Roger’s puppets like
the movies Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Although such a
production would seem a natural outgrowth of any planetarium facility, Radzilowicz says: “Shows for the youngest of
planetarium visitors are few and far between. Most planetariums don’t even
allow children under 6 into the theater.”
A perennial favorite since
1977 is Evening Laser Shows, featuring
rock music accompanied by a full-dome
laser graphics production that puts the aurora borealis to shame. Thanks to
cutting-edge equipment, the quality of laser shows has vastly improved
since the technology debuted in the mid-70s. The shows regularly change to
reflect trends, but recent productions include Laser Creed<![if !supportNestedAnchors]><![endif]> and Pop Rox 3.0<![if !supportNestedAnchors]><![endif]>, featuring music by Janet Jackson,
Britney Spears, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera. For the “old timers,” there’s
Laser Zeppelin: Lased and Confused
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For the more educationally
minded, there’s Stars Over Pittsburgh--a live program
that teaches viewers how to do backyard
astronomy at home (reminiscent of the old Buhl presentations)--and On Orbit,
a look inside the International Space Station (produced in
collaboration with NASA). The free Observatory SkyWatch, offered on clear Saturday nights, provides a study of
Pittsburgh’s night skies through the 16-inch Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain
Telescope. “It’s an opportunity to do something that most people don’t get
to do…look through a real good quality telescope,” says Radzilowicz.
And let’s not forget the
annual Astronomy Weekend, scheduled this year
for April 5 and 6. Buhl Planetarium staff and members of the Amateur
Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh will help with hands-on activities
and a study of the galaxy from the Buhl’s rooftop observatory.
Buhl Planetarium staff also
reach the public through thrice-weekly Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette astronomy-related articles and quizzes as well as numerous
classes and workshops offered at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie
Science Center, and through CMU’s lifelong learning series. “We had very
few of those types of programs in 1998 when I started here,” says
Radzilowicz. “Now we do at least 10 to 12 classes a year.” And classes pull
in new visitors. “Attendance is way up…and increases every year,” says
Radzilowicz. “By mid December, 2002, attendance for our programs was around
175,000--substantial increase from 150,000 in 1998.”
Seeing the Future
As for the future…the sky’s
the limit. New shows planned for 2003 include one about how Lewis and Clark used celestial navigation on
their 1803 expedition across the United States, and a computer graphics
show about Saturn’s rings.
Plans for Carnegie Science
Center’s 160,000-square-foot expansion includes a new 6,000-square-foot
permanent exhibit dedicated to astronomy and space science. Titled Final Frontier, the exhibit will be
located on the Science Center’s second floor adjacent to the planetarium.
Radzilowicz says Final Frontier
exhibits will be linked to planetarium shows—a Mars display, for example,
will run concurrently with a Mars show. “It will be a complete experience,”
A focal point of Final Frontier will be the Zeiss
Model II electro-mechanical projector recovered from the original Buhl
Planetarium. Restored and converted into an interactive display, the Zeiss
will be joined by its old partner, the fully operational siderostat
telescope. “It’s the return to
iconic status," says Hughes of the Zeiss. “Everyone who remembers old
Buhl remembers the Zeiss.”
“The new exhibit will increase
the visibility of the Buhl Planetarium,” adds Radzilowicz, “and tie us back
to the old museum, which featured astronomy and space-related exhibits.”
certainly have changed, but yet they've stayed the same,” adds Hughes.