University Lowbrow Astronomers

A Visit to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, December 2009.

by Sandy Dugan
Printed in Reflections: January, 2010.

During a December holiday trip to Chicago, Lowbrow newcomers Betsy and Sandy Dugan made their first visit to the Adler Planetarium. The exhibits were fascinating! Here, in no-priority order, are some impressions:

1) The Gemini XII space capsule. The very capsule in which Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin orbited Earth for four days in November 1966 and did final experiments to allow the Apollo Moon program that began the following year. Seeing the small living quarters for astronauts and the ablated heat shield close up was interesting. The docent said that, because of a computer malfunction, the astronauts had to use a sextant and shot stars in order to navigate; knowing the constellations was a matter of survival.

2) The “Night Sky Live” planetarium show was well done. Similar to one we had seen a few weeks before at the U-M Exhibit Museum Planetarium, it featured constellations and objects visible in Chicagoland.

3) The Space Visualization Laboratory, an on-site research lab at the planetarium, develops ways to display astronomical data. They call it “astro-visualization” and use computer graphics, including 3-D, as well as photographic images to help make information comprehensible. One of their products is the “Moon Wall” (See below). The lab receives visitors for an hour on weekday afternoons. Michael Werner, JPL Project Scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope, on a visit to his home town, made an impromptu presentation on Spitzer that included a guided tour of the Milky Way galaxy map on display at the Adler. The map, three feet high (bulging to six feet at the galactic center), stretches 120 feet along several walls and is a visual color representation of Spitzer data. “We make no apology,” said Dr. Werner, “for doing visual representation of data. There are things that the human brain can see that no computer could imagine.” It was thrilling for us to hear him describe various features: e.g., red areas, where hydrocarbon rich dust has been burned away, surrounded by green areas, where it has not; dark tendrils, where even infrared radiation is absorbed by dust; the “Pillars of Creation,” rising like dark mesas of dust with white star-forming areas on top; the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy. For the latter, the lab shows a graphic animation of stars making elliptical orbits around the center; this is evidence of the black hole’s existence. Dr. Werner said that evidence of black holes at the center of all galaxies is one of the most important discoveries of the last two decades.

4) The Moon Wall. Standing at hand controls, the visitor looks down on a wide screen that displays a composite of visual images of Earth’s moon. The controls move the composite as if the visitor is flying above the lunar surface. You can zoom down to explore a feature in greater detail and then swoop up and move on to another location.

5) An exhibit on the history of telescopes gave much information. There were replicas of many famous telescopes, including Galileo’s and Herschel’s, as well as actual telescopes from various centuries. There were hands-on displays for exploring effects of refraction and refraction, putting lenses in a row to make a telescope, viewing various telescopes. A display on adaptive optics had a telescope mirror (about 8”) with the adapting mechanism on its back, and there was an animated video showing how laser light and computer programs are used to dynamically reshape the mirror during observing and thus reduce the twinkling caused by the earth’s atmosphere. This is the way the Keck telescope gets its superior images.

6) An exhibit on different cultures of the world shows how using astronomical observations can be crucial to the survival of a group.

7) The Atwood Sphere is a planetarium built in 1913 and later restored to functional use at the Adler. It is a large metal globe with over 600 holes punched in it. A dozen observers stand on a platform inside the globe, which is then closed, and illumination comes from the outside. The globe turns showing the movement of the heavens at night. It is a great piece of history.

8) A mid-afternoon refreshment break at Galileo’s Café in the planetarium provided a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline.

9) The Adler Planetarium Web site ( has much useful information, but there’s nothing like being there! The planetarium’s docents and staff were very helpful in answering questions and providing guidance.

We did not see everything, but our visit was a fitting close to the Year of Astronomy, a year in which our enthusiasm for amateur astronomy has been greatly stimulated and encouraged by activities of the University Lowbrow Astronomers and its members.

Reference sites (with photos):

—The Adler Planetarium Web site:

—A Wikipedia article on Gemini XII:

—JPL news release / galaxy map at the Adler, Dec. 3, 2009:

—A Wikipedia article on the history of astronomy:

—A New York Times review of the Atwood sphere:

—A review of Galileo’s Cafe:


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