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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 new direction.


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 and Pop Rox 3.0, featuring music by Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera. For the “old timers,” there’s Laser Zeppelin: Lased and Confused and Laser Floyd: The Wall.


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,” he says.


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.”


"Things certainly have changed, but yet they've stayed the same,” adds Hughes.





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