Star-Gazing on a Rainy Saturday

Photo from NASA

Last Saturday, the torrential rain that dumped on New York City lead me to the American Museum of Natural History and back 13 billion years, to a period when no stars speckled the night sky and invisible dark matter, hydrogen and helium occupied space. Then I traveled 4.5 billion years back, to the sun’s formation. Finally we returned to today, and I was left thinking about how 5 billion years from now, the sun may reach the end of its life, leaving only its hot core as a white dwarf.

And so goes “Journey to the Stars,” the newest film at the museum’s Hayden Planetarium.

The neck-craning, awe-inspiring show, narrated by none other than Starship Enterprise’s bartender Whoopi Goldberg, takes astronaut-wannabes and star-gazers alike through space, from a time without stars through present day. Audiences learn how stars work and why some appear blue and others yellow. They even see the inside of the sun, where hot gas churns and nuclear fusion occurs.

Carter Emmart, director of astrovisualization for the museum, directed this 25-minute movie, which runs every half hour every day of the week. (It certainly took me away, allowing me to forget for a few minutes the sheets of torrential rain that awaited outside.) I spoke with Emmart—who’s currently directing a new show for a new dome/visualization center in Sweden—about the process for “Journey,” what he hopes people take away from it, and of course, Whoopi.

Audubon: You said a division of NASA provided seed money for this film. Who else did you work with to get the project off the ground?  
Emmart: Typically we seek three or four entities to partner with. In the case of “Journey," Lockheed-Martin and Accenture provided major sponsorships.
[We also worked with] Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, Papalote, a children’s museum in Mexico City, and the company Goto in Japan, a manufacturer of planetarium equipment.

How long did it take to make “Journey”?
20 months, on the books.

What was the best part of the process?
Working with more than 40 scientists to visualize their data. It’s a long, tedious process to get to the finish, but we are visually storytelling the processes of the universe, having to layer together visual results from researchers that they themselves have never been able to show in such context and scale.

Can you explain a little more?
Usually scientists take their data and visualize in a way that speaks to their colleagues…For the general public, you have to bookend this visualization, you have to put it into contextual surrounding. We offer to put into context the whole surrounding story of their research. They tend to naturally get excited about this. It’s a great way to communicate what they’re doing to the rest of the world. I think of us as a modern digital diorama.

What do you hope people take from “Journey”?
Wonder, realization and appreciation that our cosmic surroundings are what and who we are. That we are part of system, a planet that is part of the much larger universe.

What did you think of Whoopi as narrator?
I personally love her…She’s very recognizable in
New York. She actually reads to you in a way that’s not talking down. The 5-year-old in me says, ‘That’s the person reading to me in the park during storybook hour.’ But at the same time, I can listen to it as an adult. It just rolls together…She threw in some of her own aspects to the script, some Whoopi-isms, and I thought they were wonderful.

Anything else to share?
Our shows are about getting to know the neighborhood…Our place here is pretty special on the most colorful, beautiful liquid water planet we yet know. We literally live on paradise, and we must remind ourselves of that fact. I think space helps us see that perspective clearly. The universe is, after all, our home’s home.

Show information
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West and
79th Street, New York City
$24 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, $14 for children ages 2-12. Note: This includes admission to the museum, plus the show.
More information:
American Museum of Natural History web site

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