Sky is no limit at New York museum

Sun Journal

Universe: Visitors can revel in the wonder and expansiveness of space and time at a newly opened center.

February 13, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- It happens to everyone. You awaken from a deep sleep, and for a few long seconds, you grope for a clue to where you are and what day it is.

In a similar way, most people go about their daily lives with few clues to where they really are in the vastness of space, or in the long march of time. For too many, the meager stars in the urban night sky are the universe, and the dawn of time was way back when dinosaurs ruled the world.

Not even close.

In an effort to shake us awake to the astonishing realities of space and time -- at least as modern science understands them -- the American Museum of Natural History in New York has created the Rose Center for Earth and Space. It stands on 81st Street at Central Park West, on the former site of the influential, but outdated Hayden Planetarium.

Here, says its director, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, visitors can "escape into their own universe, and walk out with an enlightened sense of awareness of our own home, a home not defined by a block, but by our planet and our solar system -- one of 100 billion star systems in our galaxy."

Opening to the public on Saturday, the $210 million Rose Center will give visitors a vivid sense of the true scale of time since the Big Bang, a scale in which the dinosaurs only recently vanished, and the sun and the Earth are relative newcomers.

And its high-tech Space Theater -- powered by a new supercomputer and NASA's latest 3-D star maps -- will whisk visitors into the galaxy and beyond, for a look back at ourselves from the edge of the observable universe.

There's lots more.

"The old Hayden Planetarium thrilled generations past and inspired many to become astronomers," says museum President Ellen V. Futter. "Our hope and conviction is that the new Rose Center will have an even more dramatic impact on New Yorkers and our visitors for generations to come."

The Rose Center is already having a visual impact. It is housed in a 95-foot-high transparent glass cube, set alongside the older Natural History Museum buildings and their surrounding West Side neighborhood like a crystal tumbler on a table crowded with brick and stone.

Inside the cube, seemingly afloat, is an 87-foot white aluminum sphere. The 2,000-ton sphere contains the Space Theater planetarium in its upper hemisphere, and the Big Bang Theater in the lower.

One of the niftiest tricks devised by architects at the Palshek Partnership, and exhibit designers at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, is the Scales of the Universe exhibit -- a 400-foot square walkway around the Great Sphere.

With the sphere as its standard, the Scales walkway introduces visitors to the relative sizes of objects from galaxies to atomic particles.

If the 87-foot sphere were the sun, then the giant planet Jupiter is represented by a 9-foot orb hanging overhead. Earth stands on the railing, about the size of a volleyball.

Or, if the giant sphere represents a raindrop, then the hamburger-sized model on the railing is the size of a red blood cell. Imagine the sphere as the size of the red blood cell, and a 3-inch model represents a rhinovirus.

Below, on the floor of the vast cube is the Hall of the Universe, with the Great Sphere hovering overhead like an alien ship. Here, interactive video, computer and hands-on displays explain such cosmic mysteries as the fate of colliding galaxies, and how the residue from exploded stars became our world and our bodies.

One touch-screen video station answers what many people ask at some point: "What came before the Big Bang?" Since the Big Bang marked the beginning of time and space in our universe, the display suggests that it's a bit like asking what's north of the North Pole.

Other exhibits explain how astronomers search for alien life, and planets orbiting distant stars. One describes the role of violent impacts in the creation of the moon, and the extinction of dinosaurs and other life -- past and future.

The hall's centerpiece is the 15 1/2-ton Willamette meteorite. The flattened, eroded chunk of iron was a static museum landmark for decades. It is now more appropriately and oddly menacing as it hovers precariously over the impact exhibit.

The Rose Center is at its best when it awakens visitors to their true place in time and space.

People emerging from the Big Bang Theater -- an innovative but visually disappointing sound and laser show meant to illustrate the primordial blast at the beginning of space and time -- enter a 350-foot spiral ramp, the Cosmic Pathway.

The walk guides them down 13 billion years of cosmic evolution since the Big Bang, past telescopic images and touch-screen explanations. At 3 million years per inch, visitors reach the formation of the Milky Way Galaxy (9 1/2 billion years ago) and our own solar system (4 1/2 billion years ago).

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