My grandmother used to go with me to the planetarium. The planetarium of Hamburg is situated inside an old water tower at one end of Stadpark, a large park in the middle of the city. This was a magic place for me. Or “magic” is not the right word, it was scientific and fascinating. There was a small astronomy museum in the foyer, with a telescope, some meteorites and photographs of comets and stars, a model of the solar system and other stuff like that. After buying our tickets, we passed our time looking at the exhibits. Then the doors were opened and we climbed a staircase into the planetarium, a large dome with circular rows of seats.
In the center was the projector, a black, large machine shaped like a bar-bell. The dome was obviously covered with canvas (or something like that). At the bottom of it, one could see the skyline of Hamburg made, I guess, from cardboard.
We and all other people sat down. My grandmother told me that she hat sometimes come here with my grandfather, when he was still healthy. The park was not far from her place, so they could walk here.
On one side, there was a desk, and there stood Prof. Dr. Übelacker, the astronomer who gave the lecture. Each time, there was a different topic; it could be the movement of the planets or just “The sky in June” or anything like that. The professor greeted us and his amplified voice echoed from the walls. He operated some switches, and music began to play. The artificial sun sank, a few clouds hushed like shadow over the sky and the sun disappeared behind the horizon, the lights where dimmed and the artificial sky appeared. Actually, one could see by far more stars than outside. Hamburg is a big city and all the lights outshine most of the stars, let alone the Milky Way. Here, the sky was just marvelous. Whatever the lecture was about, it was always interesting, provoking my imagination and my thinking and giving me some new insights. The planetarium enabled us to travel forward or backward in time, so that the whole sky was rotating around us and the planets where dancing over the sky. We could visit the southern sky and see its constellations, normally not visible from our city. It was possible to project constellations and sometimes he added some slides.
Then, the planetarium was modernized and Dr. Übelacker was pensioned. The new planetarium is no longer a mechanical machine. It is a computer-controlled projector that opens up the possibility to project almost anything to the screen.
Gone is the charming, nice little museum in the foyer that was, I think, run by some association of amateur astronomers. Gone are the well-thought out, insightful and thought-provoking presentations and lectures. Gone is the friendly and clear voice of the professor.
With the new machine, you can fly through the galaxy and through intergalactic space and see the voids between the galaxy clusters, but it is no longer intellectually challenging. In the old planetarium, there where lectures, it was a place of education, of intellectual growth, of gaining insights. The new planetarium is a place of shows and entertainment.
The technical perfection and universality of the new machine has killed the spirit of the place, the very special atmosphere it used to have. The old machine was a star projector with the ability to project the stars, the planets and their movements. It was a limited medium that could do that much, but not more. As a result of this limitation, the real “show” had to occur on the intellectual level. This kind of presentation is possible on the new machine as well, but since this machine can project anything, there is an overwhelming temptation for the developers of shows for it to do something that is just visually fascinating, based on animations and special effects, without being intellectually interesting. The new machine allows for perfect shows. While in the old planetarium, the spectator had to use his imagination and follow a scientific line of thoughts, the new planetarium presents shows dominated by visual effects.
Gone is the quality, the special quality that grows out of making the most from a limited medium. A good lecture in the old planetarium was a form of art, besides being a science presentation.
I am no longer going there. Gone is the magic of the place, the magic (yes, that was the right word).