I've seen three shows now in Adler Planetarium's still new, still state-of-the-art central domed theater, and I remain amazed at the quality of the celestial imagery and at the precision with which it is projected up on the dome.
Journeys into distant galaxies take place in breathtaking detail, enveloping you in stars, in space, in the feeling of being transported, temporarily, to another world. It would take radical new technology to actually get humans to the Crab Nebula supernova, but Adler's latest show offers a pretty compelling simulation of such a visit.
At the same time, while few of us would notice if a star or galaxy were out of place here or there, these pictures are, to the best of Adler's ability, accurate renderings of what the astronomical objects look like and where they are. As much as some of these images may look like random star fields, this ain't guesswork, and that, alone, is stunning.
"Cosmic Wonder" is the new, third theatrical show to be mounted in the Grainger Sky Theater, which opened in 2011. The first, "The Searcher," melded science fact and fiction and featured recorded narration by actor Billy Crudup. 2012's "Welcome to the Universe" was more down to earth in its treatment of the heavens: It used a live presenter and freshly updated images as it taught some of the celestial basics.
In keeping with the education background of new Adler President Michelle Larson, "Cosmic Wonder" is a show about the way space, in its vastness and mystery, has always compelled us to try to learn more.
"'Wonder' in this show is a verb, not a noun," Larson said. "We wanted to achieve this feeling that you are being invited to wonder about the universe and also that as a human you can't help but wonder. We have been doing that for millennia."
It incorporates Adler's Citizen Science initiative, currently asking for public help in finding gravitational lenses in deep space that help in the discovery of dark matter.
It will be partnered with a temporary exhibition, "Planetary Machines," showcasing Adler's collection of historical astronomy instruments.
But the theater show is plenty impressive on its own, 25 minutes that fill you with ideas yet pass by in a seeming heartbeat.
In addition to the Crab Nebula, where we see what happens after a star has exploded, the show takes visitors into a nebula in the constellation Orion, described by the narrator as "a giant stellar nursery," where images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope show stars in formation.
There's a lot being done with digital interactivity these days. But "Cosmic Wonder" demonstrates that the context of interactive tools is as important as their level of advancement.
Viewers are given a penny, about as hands-on as a tool can get. They hold it to get a sense of how spectacularly dense a neutron star is. Made of neutron star material, we are told, the penny would weigh more than 100 million tons, more than all of the buildings in Chicago.
At another point, we hold the penny up to the theater's sky. In an area the size of Lincoln's eye, a Hubble extreme deep field image photographed 5,500 galaxies.
Project that out to the size of the universe, and you get more than 600 billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, and a feeling that the work assignment you bungled isn't all that significant after all.
"If there's a concept to do over and over again, it's the scale of the universe," said Mark SubbaRao, the show's creator and director of Adler's Space Visualization Laboratory.
What's new about the show is that it's almost all done with Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope. Yes, the images the software giant has stored on remote servers look amazing when projected onto the Grainger dome. Yes, they tell a compelling story of discovery when organized for "Cosmic Wonder" (and backed by local musician Benn Jordan's subtly propulsive original soundtrack).
But, almost better than that, you can download the WorldWide Telescope application (worldwidetelescope.org) and explore the images at your own pace, in service to your own sense of wonder.
When: Friday through April 1.
Where: Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included in premium pass ($28 adults); 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org
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