REDO: starry city nights no. 8: john c. wells planetarium

UPDATED November 13, 2012

Last Saturday I had an opportunity to take all five children to the John C. Wells Planetarium. Three of them had not yet seen the presentation, and the two who had were happy to see it again. Kids love to watch things over and over. That’s why I know every line of Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, and that “Charlie Bit Me” video on YouTube.

And even though I’d seen the Orion video before, I’d not seen it on this day, with this group of people. The night sky looks different now than back in March when I originally posted this entry, and every day is unique, after all.

This time around I noticed the kids’ reactions: the audible gasps from little ones when they saw the purple Star Ball emerge from its case in the center of the room, blinking and beeping and rotating around.

The kid who, when the host asked if anyone had a question, said “I do! I do!” but never actually asked it, reminding me that wonder and mystery sometimes feel good–we don’t always need to know the answers.

The ooohs and aaaahs from spectators of all ages at the bright beauty of the night sky, all the faces collectively turned upwards, gazing at infinite possibilities and at hope itself. If we stare long enough, we might feel it: what matters is not that which is finite, but that infinite sliver we each contain that tethers us, forever, to the vast sky and to each other. Sitting there beneath the dome of the heavens made me want to gather my gaggle a little bit closer and feel small again.

Maybe sometime soon, now that the sun sets earlier, and before it gets bitter cold, find a dark corner of our friendly city, spread a blanket on the ground, and lie under the stars. Listen to what your kids say, laugh your butts off, and dream that night not of what seems impossible, but of sweet possibilities.

The JMU Planetarium offers free shows every Saturday.

You can read the original post from  March 17  below…

When I sat down with my notes to write this entry, I couldn’t read a dang thing. Why? Because I took notes in the dark. I wrote words on top of words and am now relying on my memory for most of the details. HA. And Brandy. She quietly held her camera in her lap and snapped away at the dome, wishing upon one of those zillion stars that even one picture would turn out. A writer and a photographer in the dark. Whose idea was this?? Brandy’s totally paranoid about the photos you see here, but, God bless her, I think she did pretty darn well, and I expect to see LOTS of complimentary comments about her work, thankyouverymuch.

The John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU has FREE shows on Saturdays at 2:30 and 3:30. (Click here for details.) The 2:30 show is geared more toward younger kids, so the six of us attended that one. The planetarium has theater seats and, obviously, a domed ceiling that acts as a huge screen. The first half of the show we saw was a cartoon about Orion. Sweet (ultra-violent), romantic (obsessive) Orion, who has to slay beasts for his love, Merope, who is the daughter of the king of Chios. The king (who, by the way, in the cartoon, looks just like Ben Stein) gets sick of Orion’s constant attempts to “win” Merope’s favor (thankfully the cartoon glosses over all the violent stuff he did) and poisons him, causing Orion to go blind. Then he drifts, lost at sea, for miles and miles until he lands on Lemnos and is ultimately healed by Helios.

From there he goes to Crete, meets Artemis, and totally forgets Merope ever existed. Artemis is the Goddess of the Hunt and has no feet.

Does that sound strange?

I thought so, too, but none of the women in the cartoon have feet. Their legs just taper down to points. There’s gotta be symbolism somewhere in THAT.

Anyway, Orion and Artemis get along smashingly. The climax of the film occurs when Orion turns into a ninja. At least, that’s what I think my notes say. I also think I wrote the words “Matrix-style,” but I can’t be sure. And something about a scorpion. And Orion DIES!  Artemis memorializes him in the heavens as the constellation you see today.

Oh, yes. I TOTALLY see it.

After the cartoon, the second half of the show started and this massive stellar projector with more than a hundred lenses and mirrors called the “GOTO Cronus Star Ball” rose up like a monolith in the middle of the floor.

The host, Dr. Shanil Varani, demonstrated several cool things. He showed us what’s currently visible in the night sky from the good ‘ole Burg, which includes Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury (!), and even Saturn. Wow! If you want a better view of the heavens while there’s so much to see, you can attend one of the FREE Public Star Parties held on the last Friday of each month in the meadow behind the Physics/Chemistry building. The next one is March 30, and you can like them on Facebook to get updates and make sure it hasn’t been called off for bad weather.

*As a side note, I have to confess that my spelling skills don’t work in the dark and I wrote “Pubic Star Party” in my notes. BAH!

Getting back on track, Shanil talked a lot about light pollution, which not only hurts one’s ability to see the constellations, but all that light at night is just a waste of electricity. Definitely an important point. The most meaningful part for me, however, was when he displayed the planets and talked about their size. We all know the sun is gigantic compared to the planets (a million Earths can fit inside the sun), even though the sun is not a huge star. And a thousand Earths can fit inside Jupiter–the largest planet.

But what really moved me, I admit, is that as large and looming and impressive and popular as Jupiter is, it’s commonly referred to as a “failed star” because of its size. Even JUPITER is too small… it doesn’t have the mass necessary for stardom. And so when I think of the failures in my own teeny tiny human life that I think are SO massive and so… irrevocable, I remember Jupiter… the laughing stock of the solar system.

Now that’s an ego check.

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