A letter to Professor David Helfand of Columbia University
February 6, 2001
Dear Professor Helfand:
As you know I very much enjoyed your lively lecture on the "Cosmic Clock," given to the Columbia Alumni Club in Philadelphia this past September.
We spoke before the meeting, and were discussing the exciting new Rose Center at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, I mentioned an upcoming trip to the planetarium, and I offered to give you my impressions of this new astronomical education facility.
This arose from your participation in some aspects of the Rose Center's educational design, and your dissatisfaction on several levels with how it turned out.
And so my few thoughts have grown to the size of a small article... and I hope you do not mind.
Of course, I am no astronomer.
A view of the Rose Center's globe-type IMAX theater, housed within a glass cube.
But as a layman, I found the main Space Show, narrated by Tom Hanks to be awe-inspiring and even amazing. Unfortunately, it was also too short and skimpy on details.
On the positive side, I must say that the cosmic cruise from planet Earth to the star-making regions of the Orion constellation was totally spectacular. It seemed that the voyage employed a melded technology of photography and computer modeling to yield these stunning images and a convincing sense of being transported.
An unfathomably beautiful space voyage!
I was stunned to see goblets of tear-shaped cosmic matter that had not yet coalesced into stars, and to somehow, incredibly be in their midst. This space voyage benefited from computers and fabulously conceived and rendered images. If they are as scientifically accurate as the film stated, this is in itself a marvelous heuristic achievement.
In fact, one of my chief concerns and interests is: Where do actual photos leave off, and where do computer models and artists' imaginative renderings come in? It was hard to know, when you were sandwiched among nascent stars, if you were looking at a genuine Hubble artifact, or the result of a Sun Sparc workstation's computer wizardry -- or both!
As great as the film was, it seemed too short. Considering the wait in line for it and the various cattle-chute proddings, a longer feature would have been more rewarding.
What else could have been covered with more time? I am sure you would have a hundred answers! Perhaps the life-cycle of star. Or an illustration of how difficult it would be for a signal from a distant transmitting civilization to reach Earth at the proper juncture to be received and understood.
Unlike your lecture on that night in September, this fabulous journey did not educate me as to the scale of time involved in the universe's genesis. Nor was the vastness of distances traveled during the film easy to fathom.
Of an orange and a grain of rice...
Yet your lecture hall metaphor was so simple and understandable by comparison -- you placed an orange at one end of the lecture hall and asked me to hold aloft a grain of rice. The orange was the sun and the rice was Earth. How small and invisible must that rice-grain have seemed to you a hundred feet away in your "sun zone"!
That demonstration was also more compelling than one on the ramp leading around the Space Theater's perimeter, with its little messages about time and distance.
These are just a few observations made after a mostly enjoyable afternoon at the Rose Center. I don't want to seem carping and unappreciative of the Museum or your input in its design. The Rose Center inspires awe by dint of its architecture alone, and surely has rekindled interest in astronomy. The facility itself now undoubtedly ranks as one of New York City's grandest and most popular public spaces. Just the giant hanging model of Jupiter alone -- with its gorgeously angry red eye -- is sufficient to make a trip worthwhile.
So thank you for your work in helping to shape aspects of the Rose Center's creation. By the way, my daughter, Emma Fried-Cassorla, attends Barnard and had hoped to have you as her prof in the Introduction to Astronomy class she is taking across the street at Columbia. She has a different teacher, but she says she is enjoying the course tremendously!
Albert Fried-Cassorla is a writer, playwright and direct marketer. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Fine Arts with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1973. Albert may be reached at 215-635-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) 2001 Fried-Cassorla Communications, Inc. All photos and text, rights reserved.
Main web address for the Museum of Natural History: http://www.amnh.org/