The Planetarium: San José’s Map to the Stars

July 29, 2005

THE starry dome above San Joséevery night is elusive – if not lost in headlightsand disco balls or forgotten on thebottom of a beer mug or while watchingTV, then discarded by potential stargazerswho can’t find a field in the city where theywould feel safe at night.The drinking, cover-band and TV culturemight have taken its toll on simplernocturnal pursuits, but technology hasintervened again, laying city slickers backunder the stars, or at least under the fakestars, at the new Planetario in the easternSan José suburb of San Pedro. In fact, oneof the founding concepts underlying theplanetarium is the offer of an educationalalternative to the usual array of brain numbingpastimes. It is also a high-techstab at invigorating the popularity ofastronomy and other sciences, placingknowledge of the stars in reach of stay-at homemoms and toddlers by day, and studentsand adults by night.UNDER the $1-million building’s bluearched roof, in a white semispherical theater10.5 meters in diameter, the mysteries of theuniverse are explained in European Spanish,from the birth of the cosmos to the Greekconstellation myths. The stars, as theywould be seen above San José on a clearnight during a power outage, are on displayfor up to 40 gazers in comfortable captain’sseats. A GOTO star projector, a nearly half a-million-dollar gift from the Japanese government,is calibrated to the day and SanJosé’s geographical coordinates.After a documentary video, the currentone called “The Wonders of the Universe,”a guide highlights stars, planets and constellationswith a laser pointer, explainingtheir historical significance and the Greeklegends of gods and their mortal playthingsrecorded in the vast game of connect-the-dots.The operator can simulate a sunrise,highlight the positions of the moon, the sun,planets and stars, and overlay the drawingsof Greek figures on the constellations.AFTER a presentation during the firstweek of operation, Claudia Rojas, 72, wasimpressed, though it wasn’t all news to her.“I remember a lot of things fromschool,” she said, such as the position ofthe North Star, often called the Star of theBaby Jesus, a nickname known in Catholiccountries that was not mentioned in theplanetarium, she pointed out.Her grandson, Alan Carvajal, 5, hidbehind his mother afterward, but hisbrother Eric, 13, said hewould recommend the showto friends.Around the theater, theastronomy and geology departmentsof the Universityof Costa Rica (UCR) displaythe tools of their trades: atremor-sensing laser seismographmachine, a huge chunkof 7-million-year-old petrifiedwood, volcanic rockfrom the ocean’s bottom, anda dried coral colony from theCaribbean the size of astuffed garbage bag. There isalso a long, narrow map ofthe known universe to scalemoving outward in exponentially expandingdistance from the core of the earth.THE brainchild of Jorge Paez, UCRastrophysics professor, the planetarium isstaffed by UCR professors and science studentsfulfilling a work-study program. Theuniversity donated the building for theplanetarium near its campus.Paez is the archetypical professor –middle-aged, balding, wears a gray herringbonesuit, pauses over his words and iskind to children. He spent his days at theplanetarium after it officially opened July14 ironing out operational wrinkles andshowing kids how to make the seismographlaser quiver by stomping the ground.“We wanted children, parents and studentsto have a place to entertain themselves,to get them out of this environment…I don’t know… how should I say it – it’s nota very creative environment,” he said, referringto the world outside the planetarium.Paez initiated the request for a grantfrom Japan for the projector, then convincedUCR authorities to chip in the otherhalf a million dollars he needed for thebuilding. Since this is the first planetariumin Costa Rica, he studied the operation of aplanetarium in Medellín, Colombia, to getan idea of how it should be done, then metwith the director and brought him here toinspect his setup.ONE thing Xinia Fernández, mother ofthe Carvajal boys, would like to see is alesson on the indigenous American mythsabout the stars. It might make the experiencemore relevant to people in theAmericas and more attractive to children,she said. Paez and the planetarium managersare open to suggestions, they said,and plan to augment the presentation andthe exhibits.The documentary and the format changeevery two months, and there are daily programsfor children and adults. Museums inUCR departments, including the insectmuseum and the museum of the history ofcomputers, have offered to loan exhibits.A photo essay on the planetarium’sWeb site, http://planetario.ucr.ac.cr,depicts the construction process from thefirst trench to the inside of the theater, providesa map and directions in Spanish, andcontains general information. For additionalinformation, call 207-5147 or e-mailplanetario@cinespa.ucr.ac.cr.

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