ONE OF THE MANY things you lose sight of when living in a city, as most of us do nowadays, is the sky. It isn’t the stars in your eyes; it’s the streetlights and the neon and other ersatz glitter. Even people who live in the country and can see the sky properly rarely contemplate the stars that dance in the heavens and let themselves be awed, swamped, by the thought of Eternity. Mostly, we are too egotistical to face that fact, and those of us who do go stargazing usually do so with the opposite gender and with other things in mind.
But it seems that since Sputnik I we find artificial heavens more appealing, or at least more manageable. In the past couple of years Canada has gone on a glorious planetaria bender: where there was but one small public planetarium (in Edmonton) in 1966, there are now six scattered across the country, in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary, as well as Edmonton. The new ones are all major planetaria and are either the product of Centennial enthusiasm, or gifts from public benefactors such as Ontario’s Colonel R. S. McLaughlin and the Dow Brewery in Montreal.
Planetaria are, as you must know, chambers wherein you lie nearly supine in seats with neck rests and gaze at the heavens projected on the ceiling dome by a monstrous marvel of technology devised in 1913 by the Carl Zeiss company in Germany.
Refinements of the original instrument, owing much to Copernicus, have 8,900 stars and all the planets and the sun and the moon and the earth’s movements built in and synchronized, so that it is more properly described as a time machine. You can run it backward in time, looking for the Star of Bethlehem, or forward to see the probable end of the world when the sun explodes. Apart from shooting stars and such, our heavens are — perhaps mercifully — fairly predictable.
This contradiction — that people will pay to see the heavens projected onto the plasterer’s art, but will rarely gaze upward to see the real thing — puzzles many of the people who run planetaria (they tend to be punctilious about the plural). Most of them are, after all, ardent astronomers who prefer reality.
“Actually, just looking at the sky you can’t see much happening,” says Robert Ballantyne, who helps run Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium, Canada’s newest. “We show months of movement in a few minutes. We are involved in public education, but we're also in showbiz in that it is a theatre, and it is more exciting continued on page 82
than the real thing because we can show things happening: the moon and planets moving, the birth of the world or the end of it. There’s nothing we cannot project onto that dome. The sky itself is vital, but it is just the furniture.”
Since it is such a fundamental piece of furniture, sky quah'ty is very important and is a key factor in a battle for dollars and prestige between East and West Germany.
The Zeiss plant in Jena is in East Germany. Many Zeiss engineers and management officials settled in West Germany and set up shop at Oberkochen, still using the name Carl Zeiss. Belatedly, the Communists realized the dollar value of the Zeiss name and reopened the Jena plant. While the East Germans refined the basic instrument designed in 1913, the West Germans revamped the equipment. Their newest instrument is called the Oberkochen Mark Six and costs about $250,000. The East German projector costs $150,000, which largely explains why three of Canada’s new planetaria — Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver — are equipped with the East German instrument.
“The newest planetarium in the States, at Rochester, has a Mark Six. I went down there to see what their stars are like, and we here in Toronto have got a far nicer sky,” says Ballantyne of the McLaughlin Planetarium.
However nice the sky, it is a backdrop at most planetaria for between six and 12 “shows” a year. Typically, last year’s program at the Dow Planetarium in Montreal included:
“Orion Rules The Sky” — the explanation of the winter sky in Canada. “How Do We Know?” — the story of how astronomers measure distance. “He Made The Sun Stand Still” — or how Copernicus decided the sun stood still and the earth moved, instead of the other way around. “The End Of The World” — a discussion of the ways the earth could cease to support life. And, “To The Edge of the Universe” — an examination of the nature and size of the universe.
The planetaria probably have only one show in common: a Christmas program called “The Star of Bethlehem.” It illustrates the theory that the Star of Bethlehem was the planet Jupiter.
Jupiter, which is nearer the earth, passes Saturn about every 20 years. Approximately every 150 years there is a triple conjunction — an astronomical description of the fact that because of the earth’s position Jupiter, having passed Saturn, then appears to stop, go backward, pass Saturn again and then stop yet again before once more going forward and passing Saturn for the third time.
Such a triple conjunction took place in the year 7 BC. A year later, in another astronomical rarity, the planet Mars was seen to form a triangle with Jupiter and Saturn — and the figure three, which is significant to astrologers.
It’s a fascinating and persuasive explanation of the Star of Bethlehem. No one believes it really existed, but something must have been happening in the heavens about that time. And back then people hadn’t lost sight of the stars. □
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