How To Use A Planetarium For Anything

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El Caracol, Chichen Itza
El Caracol, Chichen Itza | Mexico

Humanity has been in awe of the wondrous heavens since time immemorial. The ancients saw the sky as a reflection of their world, and they often looked upward to find meaning in their lives and even try to predict the future. In the spirit of understanding the sky, planetaria were developed as a way of sharing the majesty of the night sky with the general public.

Such facilities have been around since antiquity, but the first modern planetarium equipped with a star projector didn't show up until 1923. Since then, the advent of digital technology has revolutionized every aspect of our lives, including the planetarium.

Today, the full-dome experience is one unparalleled in all of the cosmos, and the influence of the planetarium industry has the potential to span far beyond the demographic of space enthusiasts. Whether you're an english professor, an entrepreneur, or a hot new DJ, I think you'll find that a planetarium can be a stellar tool for your line of work.

Although I didn't realize it until I was much older, many of the most memorable moments of my life took place inside of a planetarium. I vividly recall school trips in elementary school to the Robert H. Johnson Planetarium, a low budget facility reminiscent of many traditional planetaria.

Like many people my age who live near a city, these trips were one of the only times I ever got a glimpse at the true night time sky. Seeing all of the constellations in their full glory and hearing about their mythology filled my imagination to the brim, and was likely the seed for my professional career. But even though dreaming about stars and constellations excited me, I didn't think much about my first planetarium experiences.

It wasn't until middle school that I really got a taste of the immensity that the night sky holds, when I saw my first full-dome film, Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity. That was the first time I was taken not just off the Earth, but outside the Milky Galaxy and far beyond. At that moment something hit me. Everything I had ever seen, ever known, ever felt or thought, all of it was right there, a speck of dust drifting in an endless sea of light. From that moment on I was hooked on space, and I wanted nothing more than to understand how the universe ticked.

Fiske Planetarium Dome
Fiske Planetarium | Boulder, CO

Then, when I finally got to college, I found myself privileged to work at The Fiske Planetarium, and I took full advantage of the opportunity. Not only did I teach families and school groups about the wonders of the universe, I eventually worked my way into the dome, and became a fully fledged presenter and space navigator.

It would be an understatement to say that working at Fiske was absolutely seminal to my professional career as public speaker and science educator. I could go on until the heat death of the universe about all the vital information and skill I gained there, but I think it is best summarized in the preface of my book about the universe, where I try to justify my expertise in this field:

"I have flown through the Orion nebula, dove through the Virgo Supercluster, zipped through DNA, soared through the rings of Saturn, and crashed into the Sun more times than I’d like to admit. All before lunch no less! .... Thanks to that, I’ve been to the very edge of the universe and back more times in a single hour than most people have been to a foreign country in their entire lifetime."

It was at Fiske that I got a glimpse at just what a modern planetarium is capable of. Not only did I work as a science educator, I also spent a large portion of my time running music shows, being a sort of live DJ. I played all types of music, from Daft Punk to Beyonce to Nine Inch Nails, all while flying through space. I even got the opportunity to fly for a live performance by Starset along with one of my extremely skilled colleagues. I facilitated rentals for businesses (including a club for pet owners), and participated in our first international film festival. I'm thoroughly convinced that there is nothing a modern digital planetarium can't accomplish, and in that spirit I'd like to outline the various ways they can revolutionize different aspects of our society.

Students in a classroom

Academics

Perhaps the most obvious uses for a planetarium is in the classroom. For the CU Boulder Astronomy department, the planetarium is often an inherent part of the curriculum. Not only does it provide students with a nice change of scenery, it also has the potential to provide an immersive experience that can bring students into the trenches of their coursework. Here are just a few ways a planetarium would enhance the learning experiences of various academic disciplines.

Unsurprisingly, a planetarium is the perfect place to study geography, as public astronomy shows regularly involve orbiting around the Earth. Modern planetaria also have a plethora of overlays that they can put over various planets, allowing them to show students tectonic plates, the locations of volcanoes and cities, airplane and boat travel, trading routes, ocean and air currents, even the core of the planet! Similarly, students of law and political science would benefit from seeing how social policies affect nations from a bird's eye view of the planet.

Performing Arts students could enjoy fulldome films and even do live performances using special effects from the digital theatre. Fiske has already hosted several live acted plays about the stories of astronomers, there's no reason that couldn't be extended to other subjects, especially if the dome comes with a stage!

Those in the fields of psychology and neuroscience would greatly benefit from having 3D models of neurotransmitters that the planetarium staff could manipulate (as many already do), and it would also be useful for them to be able to fly through the brain and see just what parts correspond to various bodily functions. On the same note, students studying anatomy and physiology would have a blast flying through the human body and into cells to study various diseases.

Ecology and biology professors could easily use a planetarium to bring their students to any environment in the world to show their students how various fauna thrive in those environments

Computer science majors might not be interested in putting lines of code up on a dome, but they could practice coding on planetarium software that would then be used for special effects in other primetime shows!

One of the subjects I most fantasize using a planetarium for is literature. Imagine watching your favorite stories play out all around you in HD. By extension, learning history by being taken to the exact time and location of various events would tremendously help students contextualize events and would bring the past to life like never before. Even if films aren't used, just pulling up panoramas of different scenes would really help set the mood for a lecture.

More than anything, I wish some of my physics lectures took place under the dome. Don't get me wrong, I love staring at lines upon lines of equations. But every once in a while, it would have been nice to see some interactive and fun application of the laws of nature in a planetarium film, like in crash course.

For many students school is incredibly difficult, because staring at a board while listening to a teacher drone on and on can easily get monotonous. What better way to fix boredom than by making learning more immersive? My dream is for every student to have access to a planetarium, as no other learning tool has quite the same capacity to bring knowledge to life.

There's no shortage of ways one can think of to apply academics to a planetarium. I also see no reason why public fulldome shows couldn't accommodate topics about fields of study besides space and astronomy.

It would provide students of all disciplines a chance to enhance their public speaking abilities, the same way it did for me. Professors would also get good publicity by hosting personalized live talks for the public about their topic of choice. This would also provide professors from different fields of study an opportunity to meet and work with one another, something I think would be incredibly beneficial for the health of any university.

Using a planetarium would also be a prime opportunity for professors to flex their creativity and show off for their students. Of course, if a professor prefers to go through a more traditional route, they can always opt for a basic slideshow on the dome. While this isn't the most exciting use for such a high-tech piece of equipment, there is the added benefit of being able to show slides all around the dome. This tactic would also work for individuals hoping to host a business conference.

business_people

Business

I have seen planetariums used as fantastic locations for business conferences. I haven't been to many, but I assume a majority of meetings involve the use of powerpoints. As someone who has had to give lectures in pitch darkness, I vehemently protest flat screen slideshow presentations and avoid them at all costs. However, if you have to give one, why not spice it up by putting it on a dome? Not only would it impress your board members, it would also provide a far more interactive medium for you to make your pitches. Using a planetarium one could:

Show potential investors 3D models of their products without having to invest capital in building it. This could technically be done on a flat screen as well, but planetaria usually have multiple processors and come equipped with software specifically designed for dynamic movement.

Pitch multiple ad campaigns simultaneously in a 360° dome.

Fly to various locations around the planet to study local and global trade or real estate routes.

Visualize missions to comets and asteroids for mining (keep in mind that planetarium data is accurate to the real world, and allows one to go tens of thousands of years into the past or future).

Fly to the edge of the universe to demonstrate how small and insignificant we are, thus giving your business partners existential crises and reminding them that their money is ultimately trivial. That or making them want to colonize the universe and capitalize on its resources. Comme ci, comme ça.

Laser projector

Entertainment

Finally, planetaria have tremendous potential for the entertainment industry. As I already mentioned, live concerts are absolutely breathtaking under the dome. With their new music visualizers, operators can synchronize special effects to the music being played by bands. Plus, who wouldn't want to orbit around the rings of Saturn while playing to adoring fans? I've already seen this used to great effect by some of Boulder's native bands, like Intergalactic Peace Jelly. There is however some work that still needs to be done before a planetarium can compete with a large stadium.

One issue that I have noticed come up has to due with seating. Planetaria usually operate like movie theaters, meaning their seats don't move, which can be inconvenient in a concert setting. A possible improvement they could make in the future would be to have mobile seating that could either flatten against the walls or fall beneath the floor, which would increase floor capacity immensely. I should also mention that a planetarium can also get a liquor license, although it has to go through a lengthy legal process to do so.

But beyond just music, a planetarium is the best place in the universe to watch a film. Domes the size of Fiske for example can play films with higher quality than an IMAX theater, and this effect is only compounded by the fact that movies occur 360° around the audience with depth, giving them an immersive experience like nowhere else. I can easily foresee domes overtaking traditional theaters in the next coming decades as a revolution in the film industry, not just for educational programs, but for films of all genres.

Whether you want to see a serial killer sneak up behind their unsuspecting victim, get lost in the alien landscape of a distant world, be drug through the trenches of war, or just want to feel like you're standing in the rain watching a new couple find love, there's no end to the ways a planetarium could enhance our movie-going experience.

There was a time when planetaria were only for spiritual leaders, then they were only useful to astronomers. But no longer. A planetarium doesn't just have to be used for the night sky. It doesn't even just have to be used for space education. You can do anything with a planetarium. Flying through the universe is a breeze, and for that reason I see no limit to the potential of the future.