The first planetarium in the western hemisphere is now the most technologically advanced
July 12, 2011 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Adler Planetarium, founded in 1930, was the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, and is a US national monument. Until recently, the planetarium was run with a Zeiss Projector (Mark IV) that was around 40 years old. The proposed upgrade was controversial in the 2008 presidential elections, as $3 million in federal funding was earmarked for the $14 million project. In the end, the high-tech projection system was funded. The result: the world's most advanced planetarium system, with a 64 megapixel resolution display, provided by 20 individually modified projectors, 42 GPUs and run with the help of 84 servers. And it can be controlled from an iPad or X-Box controller.
posted by filthy light thief (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow.
posted by delmoi at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2011


So, can I have that Zeiss Mark IV? It looks like it's only a few small modifications away from being a Death Ray, and if that doesn't pan out, it'll be a great conversation piece.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:06 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


And I bet the new system still doesn't look as good as the Zeiss.
posted by zsazsa at 9:08 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huh. I remember visiting the Adler and being disappointed. It was cool, but not mindblowing. And I'm a physics/cosmology fan.

The Shedd Aquarium though. Holy fuck, that was awesome.
posted by kmz at 9:09 AM on July 12, 2011


You know, I went back to the Hayden Planetarium recently with my sons, and it's cool and everything, but I kept wanting the old Zeiss Projector to rise up out of the big gap in the middle of the floor in a cloud of dry-ice smoke. I miss it. It was cool. The new projection systems make lovely images, but there's something missing. I can't imagine Laser Floyd will be any fun without that big monster twisting around in the middle of the room.
posted by The Bellman at 9:15 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Deep Space Adventure is the first show with the new super-system. If you're closer to the west coast than the east, you can see a junior version of this system, the Morrison Planetarium (part of the California Academy of Sciences). See more: Behind the Scenes at the World's Most Technologically Advanced Planetarium! (man, that was so 2008). Additionally: a mixed review of the Morrison's new system.


zsazsa: And I bet the new system still doesn't look as good as the Zeiss.

From this 2007 review of the old system, the 1970s-era system "felt like school," but that might have been in part to the presentation method.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:17 AM on July 12, 2011


I can't imagine Laser Floyd will be any fun without that big monster twisting around in the middle of the room.

You know, there are other ways to arrange for a big monster to twist around in the middle of the room during Laser Floyd.
posted by The World Famous at 9:18 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I know it's an apples and oranges kind of comparison, but what would the equivalent pixel count of the Zeiss projector be?
posted by tommasz at 9:20 AM on July 12, 2011


tommasz, it really is apples and oranges, but you could make some go of a comparison if you knew the size of the projection.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:23 AM on July 12, 2011


I have a soft spot for planetariums and the old Zeiss projectors (got married in Morehead Planetarium).

But the new digital projector systems are pretty amazing. Well worth a $3M earmark (or it's total cost). Especially considering it greatly expands the shows a planetarium can host. Making "let's go to the planetarium" as popular event as "let's go to the movies" or even "let's go to the imax" seems like it can only benefit the planetariums (and the science education centers and museums usually associated with).
posted by alikins at 9:24 AM on July 12, 2011


For those of you reminiscing over the old-school projector, you might like this AskMe post.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:30 AM on July 12, 2011


Nit: The Adler's last Ziess projector was a Mark VI, not IV. The original was a Mark II, which was upgraded to a Mark III, then replaced in 1970 by the Mark VI.
posted by eriko at 9:32 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I feel the same way about this, as the last time I visited the Museum of Science and Industry. They had removed my favorite exhibits of antique scientific equipment (including a Wimshurst Machine 6 feet in diameter) and replaced them with clunky touchscreen computer kiosks with really poor quality content.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:35 AM on July 12, 2011


f u john mccain for calling this an 'overhead projector' in the 2008 presidential debates
posted by kakarott999 at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Boston's Charles Hayden Planetarium also recently completed a major upgrade. Not being up on the world of planetarium tech, I don't know how comparable it is to the Adler upgrade, but it's pretty frickin' awesome to see.
posted by briank at 9:40 AM on July 12, 2011


I just saw a show at the California Academy of Sciences last weekend. It looked terrible. Really. The dynamic range of the illumination (don't know the precise term) seemed too narrow. You could see the "stars" jumping from pixel to pixel. They were dim. The color was faded. Yuck. At least I know one thing I'll never have to do again. I hope someone somewhere will do vintage star shows with these amazing optical projectors.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 9:56 AM on July 12, 2011


You know, there are other ways to arrange for a big monster to twist around in the middle of the room during Laser Floyd.

I am available for private shows.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:57 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Had The Book of Fantastic Machines as a kid, with the Zeiss a favourite entry. Lifelong planetarium fan, and talk of refurb rather than closure makes me happy, but I have to agree that the machine evoked a certain amount of drama for a kid, apart from the projections themselves. (never been to a non-zeiss planetarium, at least a public, full-size one, so can't speak to the quality of the projections by alternate equipment)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:05 AM on July 12, 2011


I sure hope this is better than the digital projectors I've seen at the California Academy of Sciences in SF and the AMNH in New York. While I agree that digital projection has given planetariums more flexibility in the type of show they provide, the digital equipment I've seen is absolutely a step backwards in terms of being able to project a reasonable facsimile of the night sky.
posted by balberth at 10:16 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


a US national monument

Hardly. A national historic landmark, yes, and that's a fairly rare distinction. But it ain't no monument.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:16 AM on July 12, 2011


I've been disappointed in the non-Zeiss planetarium shows I've seen. The stars from the Zeiss are razor-sharp and give you the feeling of looking into space. All the others I've seen look more like slides being projected with no depth to them.

The Zeiss at the Morehead is being replaced with a newfangled digital system, alas.
posted by bitmage at 10:18 AM on July 12, 2011


So, can I have that Zeiss Mark IV? It looks like it's only a few small modifications away from being a Death Ray, and if that doesn't pan out, it'll be a great conversation piece.

If you're going for the conversation piece, you can always build your own.
posted by TedW at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2011


What did they do with the old Mark VI? I hope they keep it on display somewhere. It's truly a thing of beauty.
posted by washburn at 10:39 AM on July 12, 2011


If you're going for the conversation piece, you can always build your own.

I remember doing this in junior high school. Our science lab had a cheap projector, they still sell similar models at Edmund Scientific. Our science teacher set up templates for cutting pieces of a geodesic dome out of cardboard, we cut and glued them together, white paint on the inside, instant cheapo planetarium dome. Hang it from the ceiling in a spare classroom, black out the windows, you're all set. It's not as accurate as a perfect sphere, but it's pretty good. Even the Adler dome is made from rectangular panels.

So I'm a big fan of Zeiss projectors. They are a mechanical representation of geocentric astronomy. It projects two halves of the celestial sphere from the projectors at the two ends. It's aligned to the ecliptic, and around the middle of the projector, it has individual projectors for the planets. It is a miniaturized, mechanical representation of the universe. Digital planetariums are like digital watches compared to analog watches. Sure they're cheap and accurate, but a digital watch is one more disconnect from the real universe around us.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:43 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


"A national historic landmark, yes, and that's a fairly rare distinction. "

Right? They totally took it away from Soldier Field, just up the street from Adler, after that unfortunate alien spaceship landed on top of it.

(I too will miss the Zeiss but I'll hold off judgment on the new one until I actually get a chance to see it in action.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:03 PM on July 12, 2011


The Chicago Academy of Sciences, founded in 1857 had a Atwood Celestial Sphere, a forerunner of the modern planetarium. Just so you know.
posted by FireSpy at 1:20 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another fun Adler fact: When King Daley launched his overnight demolition raid on Meigs Field in 2003, the contractor trained a spotlight on the webcam that was broadcasting from the top of the planetarium so that their activity wouldn't be discovered until the sun came up and the damage was already too far gone.
posted by hwyengr at 1:22 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Those old Zeiss projectors always remind me of the Martians in George Pal's movie.

McCain: "My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?" No, John, our kids can figure out how the solar system works with play-dough made from wheat flour, like you did in your school days when you weren't teasing the stegasauruses.
posted by Twang at 7:38 PM on July 12, 2011


The Chicago Academy of Sciences, founded in 1857 had a Atwood Celestial Sphere, a forerunner of the modern planetarium. Just so you know.

Now it's at the Adler.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:53 PM on July 12, 2011


I'd also agree that the Morrison Planetarium's digital system is (or was...I went there shortly after the reopening) pretty disappointing and washed out. Griffith Park Observatory's new system, on the other hand, is great, since it combines a digital projection system with a newer-generation star projector.
posted by foonly at 4:14 AM on July 13, 2011


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