18 September 2008

California Academy of Sciences and Morrison Planetarium

The California Academy of Sciences reopens in a beautiful new building on Saturday September 27th. This long-awaited opening will be a major event for San Francisco. The new building is an architectural achievement and a model of sustainability. I am particularly enthusiastic about the new Morrison Planetarium, one of the signature pieces of the CAS. I was able to preview it today in a press-only tour and I was very impressed.

There are several elements of a planetarium that make it distinctive. The newest planetariums (such as Morrison Planetarium here in San Francisco and Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles) feature state-of-the art projection systems that blend traditional star projections with high-resolution digital images, enabling a richer and more engaging presentation of astronomy. Morrison also features a tilted dome rather than an overhead dome, so you can fully experience the immersion of the screen without having to tilt your head back in your chair. The dome is tipped at approximately 30 degrees so you are viewing the show more like a movie theater than planetarium. The narration and sound are very good and the total effect is to truly transport you out of the day-to-day and take you untethered into space. It works!

The highlight of my visit today was the show in the Morrison Planetarium theater. The inaugural show is called Fragile Planet and it provides, through a series of stunning images - the Earth, the Solar System, nearby stars with planets, the Milky Way and other galaxies - a snapshot of the extremely delicate balance of conditions necessary to create life as we know it. What I found most interesting was the notion of the "habitable zone" that exists at just the right distance from the Sun (or around any star for that matter), the space in which planets can experience the temperature conditions as we do on Earth, conditions which support liquid water. During Fragile Planet you are transported to Gliese 581 d, an extrasolar planet orbiting a star in Libra. Gliese 581 d is a planet that due to its location near and in the habitable zone of its star, might support life.

Wired Magazine has a good video clip on the new planetarium featuring Ryan Wyatt, Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization.

All in all, the California Academy of Sciences is a superb place to learn about a broad range of sciences, housed in a magnificent facility that will be a treasure for San Francisco for generations to come.