Anyone can use Polaris, the north star, to orient himself in the world, says Brian Welch, the stargazing young presenter of a show at Buehler Planetarium on a recent Friday night. But in our perpetually wired age of GPS ubiquity, we don't really need it anymore. Until the zombies come and shut down our electric grid, he adds.
Space may be the final frontier, but when brought to you by the impassioned astro-geeks at the Buehler Planetarium, located at Broward College's Central Campus in Davie, it's also the best-keep secret in Broward County — a genuinely fun, different, and inexpensive night out that's not just for middle-school field trippers.
"We do, of course, offer field trips, but we operate five days a week," says Susan Barnett, director of the planetarium. "We appeal to all ages, and I think it's a great place to come, young or old, whether or not you have a child for cover.
"We're constantly changing," she adds. "For one, the sky is always different, so you can keep coming back and know more about the sky each time. And we do change the shows every few months, for a different way of looking at the world around us and the universe."
South Floridians can find planetariums at the Miami Science Museum and West Palm Beach's South Florida Science Museum, but the Buehler, built in 1965, is the only full-time public planetarium in Broward County. Inside its lobby, a bulbous, pocky model of the moon juts out impressively from the wall, its realistic craters dotting the landscape like so many popped zits. After a nominal admission cost — no less than $2 and no more than $7 per person, depending on the event — visitors enter the planetarium to the tinkle of soft jazz, passing what looks like a double-headed satellite in the center of the room: It's a vintage Zeiss analog star projector, designed in West Germany, that once transformed the domed, 30-foot-high planetarium ceiling into the vast cosmos. Today, digital projectors have solidified its obsolescence, but it's still a cool-looking prop.
On this night, a Friday, a dozen people had gathered under the dome for Welch's presentation — too small a turnout for such an interesting place. Prompted by the click of a button, we saw a vista of stars above us, the way most city folk see the night sky thanks to the "light pollution" of urban power grids: a black abyss sprinkled with a few dots of light. Welch then showed us what the sky really looks like, absent such pollution, and it was a gorgeous blanket of stars, closer to a TV on the fritz or a salt-and-pepper collage than the sparsely populated star colony we're used to seeing. Next, he explained a few of the constellations, propelled us toward Jupiter's immense surface, and soared across and around Saturn's thousands of wafer-thin ringlets in an absorbing demonstration.
Next came Cosmic Colors, the planetarium's latest educational video, which it will continue to run through May and June. The movie is intended to reveal the reasons behind our electromagnetic color spectrum — why we have a blue sky, a red planet (Mars), and green leaves. Apparently, these are tough nuts to crack, even for adult audiences: The explanations whiz by with the rapidity of a pretest review; I assume it all has to do with sunlight passing through a prism and reflecting different colors at different times, but anything more specific went over my head like a comet in the night sky. The video may be worth seeing for, if nothing else, the voice actors selected to represent each color: Yellow sounds kind of gay, green is an Irishman, violet sounds a bit like a Depression-era flapper, and as for red — well, you'll want to take her out for a cocktail after the show, if you could handle her.
After the presentation, which runs about an hour, visitors can stick around the free observatory a few steps away, where, on a cloud-free night, you can observe Saturn or Jupiter through its state-of-the-art telescopes. On the night I attended, the rain continued to patter down from an endless gloom; the telescopes could glimpse only a soda machine from across the campus (you could look even closer and see what flavor of Gatorade it offers).
But, as Barnett says, "If the clouds don't clear, it doesn't matter inside the planetarium. We have control of the universe." Though the planetarium is open every day, Wednesday is perhaps the most poppin' day of the week; at 1 p.m., you can stare directly into the sun with solar-filtered telescopes in the observatory, and at 7 p.m. either Welch or Arno Van Werven, a knowledgeable astronomy devotee from the Netherlands, will host the live sky tour called "Stories for a Starry Night," whose topic changes every week based on audience requests.
"It lets us explore all kinds of things in real time, where we could explore how people in different cultures view the moon or take people on a trip from the surface of Earth through the edge of the galaxy," says Barnett.
Catch Cosmic Colors Fridays and Saturdays, and there's at least one special event each month: On May 16, the planetarium will host "Celestial Navigation," which delves into the art and science of geographical positioning through the altitudes of celestial objects. Which can certainly come in handy, you know. That zombie apocalypse could be just around the corner.