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At Hayden Planetarium, Tyson opens a window to the universe

NEW YORK — On a small conference room floor littered with pictures of galaxies and office chairs with price tags still attached, a small group of University freshmen sat captivated by Neil de Grasse Tyson, the recently appointed director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

Amid his passionate criticisms about the inaccurate night sky in "Titanic" and the mathematically false presentation of the Drake Equation in "Contact," Tyson — who doubles as a University astrophysics professor — described the newly renovated $210-million Rose Center and the state-of-the-art Hayden Planetarium.


"Dr. Tyson was amazing," said Karen Mendelson '03, a member of the freshman seminar that visited the planetarium last week. "At first, I thought he was going to give the standard lecture about the planetarium. Then he started talking about media coverage of science events. He was so enthusiastic and passionate."

The seven-story Rose Center is encased in the largest suspended glass-curtain wall in the United States. Almost an acre of glass, in the form of 736 slabs averaging 450 pounds each, was used for the construction of the building. This technological marvel houses the heart of the Rose Center — the 2,000-ton Hayden Sphere.

Within the 87-foot diameter of the sphere are the latest tools in visual technology — the Zeiss Mark IX star projector and the Silicon Graphics Onyx2 InfiniteReality2 visual workstation. The system simultaneously processes 14 gigabytes of data — about the power of 200 desktop computers — to create a scientifically accurate 3D presentation of the universe.

After cuing "Contact" to highlight a mathematical error in Jodie Foster's description of the universe, Tyson escorted the freshman seminar class into the Hayden Sphere. Despite its size and technological sophistication, the museum is dwarfed by the awe-inspiring images it presents.

With a barrage of the latest pictures from orbiting space satellites and an introduction narrated by Tom Hanks, the 20-minute pre-show prepared the crowd for a spectacular experience. Clutching their holographic "Passport to the Universe" souvenirs, the students of FRS 128w: Life on Mars! (or maybe not) embarked on the most advanced planetarium show ever created.

"The beginning of the planetarium show was really enjoyable," Narin Dickerson '03 said. "The way they started with the old-style planetarium show using the new technology was great."


For all its technology and precision, the Hayden Planetarium show elicited some elements of dissatisfaction from the freshman seminar class. "I think the show was really good, but I expected it to be a little longer," Ana Garcia '03 said.

"I think it was flashy and entertaining, but I did feel that there wasn't much scientific content," Dickerson added. "It wasn't geared to the right audience."

Tyson said the Rose Center, which has been open for about a month, is still not complete. He explained that a desire to understand better the vast universe prompted the construction of the mammoth planetarium.

"What we've done for the Rose Center is taken the most fundamental questions we could possibly ask about how the universe works and designed and conceived the exhibits around that," Tyson said in a video statement posted on the museum Website.

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"As a result, a visit to the Rose Center will connect you to the universe in ways that are not common anywhere else in the world. In this way we believe we have made a significant mark in science education."