I think I’m getting to grips with this insertion of maps business…
Growing up in Northern Ireland I was very very interested in astronomy, and the Planetarium in Armagh was a regular treat for me (and perhaps also the rest of the family). My father even cited my interest in one of his papers (“The Permeability of the United Kingdom-Irish Border: A Preliminary Reconnaissance”, published in 1982). At the age of 16 I achieved my first serious hack points outside the immediate educational environment when I served for two years as secretary of the Irish Astronomical Association (from 1983 to 1985). I actually wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up, until I spent the summer of 1988 at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (then in its last few months at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex) and realised that this was not the life for me.
So there was an element of risk in bringing the family to Armagh; would the source of my youthful idealism stand up to mature re-examination? The Planetarium, I knew, had been completely renovated over the last few years and only re-opened last month.
But in fact I need not have worried. This may be local pride, but I think it is still a better and more engaging exhibition than the planetarium in Brussels (which I visited with F a few months back, and he wasn’t awfully impressed). As well as the standard space memorabilia there is a neat 3-D view of Martian cliffs, and two short 3-D films which I’ll have to go and see next time. There was even something for U – a big strip of lights going to the ceiling representing the different layers of the atmosphere, which she was able to turn on and off using switches which were just about at three-year-old level.
The main show in the dome has been completely changed, and for the better, by putting all the chairs facing the same way, and projecting the images from the walls to the dome rather than (as in the old days, and as in most planetariums still) having the audience sitting in circles around the big projector in the middle, mostly having to crane their necks to see parts of the show. The main show was pretty good, and I think well adjusted for people of F’s age (seven) and above.
They prefaced the main show with a brief historical look at the Planetarium, presumably in part to help justify the taxpayers’ money spent on the refurbishment. As a former activist, I was very intereted to see what had been put in and what left out. Rightly, tribute was paid to the vision of the astronomer who had set it up; rightly, the brief tenure of a famous TV astronomer as director-designate (he resigned before it was opened in 1966) was not mentioned; and also, warm tribute was paid to a subsequent director, whose tenure had not (as I remembered) always been easy. (Though I noticed that he had also in fact written and produced the main show.)
We then went outside to explore the scale model of the solar system (though of course you can do that at home) and checked out the Observatory (founded in 1790) at the top of the hill. Here too there was nostalgia (I worked there in the winter of 1985-86, showing people Halley’s Comet through the Grubb telescope) and innovation – a “human orrery” exhibit showing you how to pace out the paths of the planets inside Saturn’s orbit, plus also Halley’s and Encke’s Comets, and Ceres the largest asteroid. Again, U enjoyed this one too and decided to follow the nice circular paths.
So, jolly good fun, and a risk worth taking. We’ll go back next year.