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In the astro-geek subculture, operating the projector of a planetarium holds the same cachet that driving the Zamboni between periods of a hockey game holds in the cult of the ice rink. At the Buehler Planetarium on Broward Community College's main campus in Davie, that projector privilege rests upon the lanky shoulders of Cory Zimmerman, a tall, bearded, Florida International University creative-writing student.
If you don't think the planetarium has a place in our Stage section, think again. The planetarium is performance art and, in the case of June's offerings at the BCC astronomy complex, three specific acts of an astronomical play offering their own insights and issues. There's a planetarium stroll through the Florida skies; there's the current prerecorded slide show Light Years from Andromeda (until June 19); and there's a post-planetarium viewing of real stars (yes, there are stars above the Fort Lauderdale haze) through telescopes set up outside the adjacent observatory.
In the first act, star guide Zimmerman takes you through a planetarium viewing of what to expect from the evening's Florida sky. In these June weeks, that means planets Jupiter in the east and Saturn in the west. It also means constellations -- Leo, Gemini, Cancer, and Scorpio -- as well as the Big Dipper (remember the Big Dipper, shaped like a spoon, or as Zimmerman says, "Some see it as a shopping cart"?). The stars constructing that shopping cart's front end lead you down to Polaris, the North Star. Working his computer and laser pointer, Zimmerman will show you how everything in the sky spins around the constant North Star.
In the Buehler Planetarium -- originally built in 1965 but renovated in the mid-'80s -- a hundred seats circle the central projector. If you're into gadgets, then the planetarium is all about the projector, namely the Zeiss M-1015, installed 20 years ago at a cost of $750,000, its "Zeiss West Germany" logo dating it to its Cold War-era production. The Zeiss, four feet long, is the same shape as the silver barbell piercing that's attached to Zimmerman's right eyebrow. Its two polar spheres (representing the skies of the Northern and Southern hemispheres) are covered with lenses that make it look like a creepy hybrid of your optician's scary exam equipment and a Matrix sentient robot. The nerdy thrill of the evening, by the way, is to get up close to the Zeiss and gaze backward through one of its beasty eyes. Inside, you'll see a glassy capsule of starry dots through which strong bulbs shine outward to create the universe on the planetarium's dome. It's cool.
Zimmerman has been a star guide for close to two years. He's adept, with steady voice and steady hand on that laser pointer. "Whenever you're looking up at the night sky, you're looking back in time," he'll tell you at the beginning of his exploration. As it turns out, this comment is the underlying point of the night's unfortunate second act, a programmed slide show.
Light Years from Andromeda begins with a cheesy Star Wars rip-off: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." The Andromeda Galaxy, it seems, at 2 million light years away, is the closest galaxy to us and the only object in the sky visible with the naked eye (around here, though, you need binoculars) that doesn't actually belong to our own Milky Way galaxy. The light you might see when you look at Andromeda now is actually 2 million years old, which sets up the show's theme -- what was happening here on Earth during the years it took Andromeda's light to get here.
The show explains that time line -- from primitive times through the Ice Age to the current, um, rational 21st Century --as man evolved from sky-oblivious primate to awe-filled, sky-worshiping caveman and finally to self-aware scientist. Yeah, we get it. We're evolving. Slides showing ugly caveman couples are followed by slides of a cosmic light streak. "Still the light sped on," the show's narrator sighs in a weird anthropomorphizing of light, as if it were the Little Prince himself heading to Earth.
In essence, Light Years from Andromeda is an expanded primary-school slide show with a punch line that we are, as a species, very small. However, the upside of this is the comforting pro-science/anti-dogma message that we did, in fact, evolve. Thank God, as it were, that there's no mention here of the current "intelligent design" fad that neo-creationists are trying to shove down our throats.
The night's third act -- like all good third acts -- pulls everything together. It's the telescope viewing on the terrace of Buehler's 3-year-old observatory with resident astronomy specialist Arno Van Werven. The main telescope supports research by local astronomy professors. Arno himself is particular to researching light from binary stars ("twin" stars, or ones that are closely associated with each other). But for our viewing, he trucks out a group of smaller scopes. When you look up through one of them, you'll see the dark bands of Jupiter containing storms larger than Earth. You'll also see the crowd-pleasing rings of Saturn. If any place in Broward feels like a university quad, it's BCC's stretch of grass and modern buildings sprinkled with the planetarium and observatory where, in the gloaming, families and kids on bikes stop by on a Friday evening to talk to Van Werven and look up. "There are a lot of regulars," he says.
An entire generation -- those who came of age during Studio 54, when that shaft of light from Andromeda was a mere 150 trillion miles away -- may associate planetarium with Pink Floyd laser-light shows. Don't be part of that. There's a solid reason to go to the planetarium now, regardless of the cheesy Light Years from Andromeda (you won't have to wait long for a new show to replace it). The trip is a reaffirmation of scientific reason, where the hard work of Galileo and Kepler still have cred even within a progressively stronger anti-science America. Take a deep breath while you can, before the intelligent-design fanatics take over. Who knows what's next? They might tell you that Copernicus was wrong and that the sun revolves around Earth.