At 79th Street, on the west side of New York's Central Park, is an imposing building. Even in a city of imposing buildings, this one is special. Enclosing 1.6 million square feet (150,000 square meters), it's the American Museum of Natural History. The museum is made up of 27 connected buildings, and in one of them is the fabulous Rose Center for Earth and Space, the location of the Hayden Planetarium.
The original Hayden Planetarium
The cornerstone of the museum's first building was laid in 1894, and additional buildings were added over the next decades. Yet by the 1930s, although Chicago had the Adler Planetarium, New York didn't have a planetarium, though the museum would be just the place for one.
In the 1930s the USA was still in the grip of the Great Depression. However the money to build the planetarium was obtained by getting a loan from the government's Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created to help stimulate the nation's economy. In 1935 the original Hayden planetarium opened. It was a two-story brick building topped by a copper-covered dome, and featuring Art Deco detailing both inside and out.
Obviously, the new planetarium needed one of the state-of-the-art projection planetariums invented by Carl Zeiss. His original one was installed in a German museum in 1924, and three of them were already in use in the USA. Charles Hayden donated the necessary $150,000 and the planetarium still bears his name.
There was a serious scientific intent behind the exhibits and the planetarium shows. The planetarium was meant to inform and inspire. It was successful in both and a popular attraction, though there was also a practical side. During World War II, the planetarium helped to train military personnel in navigation.
Adieu, old friend – welcome, new one
The Hayden Planetarium was a much-loved institution, but in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the museum was looking towards the new millennium. So much was happening in space exploration and astrophysics, it was time to move on. A planetarium for the twenty-first century should utilize new architecture and new technology to present the new and unfolding understanding of the Universe.
In 1997 the Hayden Planetarium was razed. I had been fond the original planetarium, but when I visited the new one many years later, I was blown away. It's truly amazing. The Rose Center for Earth and Space is a transparent cube six stories high with a giant sphere seemingly suspended within it.
The top half of the sphere is the planetarium theater. The planetarium shows are still created by museum staff, but they're now presented using a custom-made Zeiss projector and digital dome projection system. The shows are also bought by other planetariums around the world, including the one on the Cunard ship Queen Mary 2.
From the Big Bang to the present
If half the 87-foot sphere is a planetarium theater, what's the other half? It's the Big Bang Theater which uses special light effects to tell the story of the beginning of the Universe. The visuals were created using the best available astrophysical data and computer modeling and it's a great 4-minute show.
Once you've seen how the Universe began, you exit to the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway. This is an encircling ramp which takes you from the Big Bang to the present day. Every meter represents 147 million years. As you come to the end, there is one human hair encased in glass. This shows that according to the scale of the pathway, “the past 30,000 years of the human history span the width of a single hair.”
The Universe and planet Earth
The giant sphere is above the Cullman Hall of the Universe. The hall is divided into four main areas of exploration: Planetary Systems, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe. Each spacious section displays information and images, and contains interactive exhibits.
One of the most eye-catching exhibits is the Willamette meteorite, a 32,000-pound space rock. In 1999 there was a legal challenge about ownership from the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon. The native Americans called the meteorite Tomanowos (Sky Person) and it was important to certain rituals. The lawsuit ended in an amicable settlement between the museum and the tribes, with the meteorite remaining in New York.
However the part of the Universe we know best is Earth, and there is a Hall of Planet Earth. Here you can learn about the evolution of our world and how rocks tell its story. Models show how to interpret geological evidence. There are also interactive exhibits and specimens from the museum's collection on display. The oldest specimen is 4.3 billion years old, a zircon crystal from Australia. The Earth itself was a mere babe when this crystal formed.
Not just exhibitions and shows
There is quite a lot going on in the Rose Center beyond the planetarium shows. Its director is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author and television presenter. As a starstruck child, he was an eager visitor to the original planetarium. But he isn't the only astrophysicist there. The center has an astrophysics department where academics carry out astrophysical research. Some of it helps to provide the scientific underpinning of the shows, exhibits, educational material, public events and outreach projects.