With its new show Dark Universe, the American Museum of Natural History in New York has turned an already-awesome planetarium experience into something mind-blowing. Not only will you be filled with wonder, but you'll be treated to an incredible science story about dark matter, dark energy, and all the other strange forces that shape our universe.
The AMNH's Department of Astrophysics curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low and awesomely-titled Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart broke the stereotype with their series of Space Shows: technically-demanding and visually-amazing experiences that use cutting-edge data to demonstrate how astrophysics is exploring the universe, and reconstructing some of the most amazing views in the cosmos. (A history of their renderings of the familiar Milky Way offer a glimpse into the rigor of their modeling process.) Most recently, 2009's Journey to the Stars examined the life cycle of stars inside and out, making the most of astonishing new visuals from and giving billions of years of context to the sunrise.
But their newest show, Dark Universe, is their best yet, in no small part because it takes a refreshing approach to its data: it puts you smack in the center of the unknown.
Four years in the making, with a development process that involved dozens of contributors and a century of data, Dark Universe has several hours' worth of information packed into only half an hour, but doesn't overwhelm. In part, that's because it's smartly structured more like a cosmic detective story than a typical planetarium presentation. With all of cosmic history as its backdrop, it follows a century of scientific investigation into the mystery behind dark matter, that crucial but elusive quasi-substance that somehow holds the galaxies in place, and its effects on the observable universe.
Einstein's theories about gravitational lensing act like the corpse that jump-starts the investigation into what prevents clusters of galaxies from flying apart, since their gravity alone isn't enough to keep them there. Enter dark matter (modeled and visualized by Stanford's Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics & Cosmology, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Emmart). It's presented with blockbuster-FX flair as a cross between spiderwebs and sinister smoke, compressing clusters of galaxies into groups and thus definable by what you can't see, in a mappable universe that looks eerily like a collection of nerve cells.
But of course, any investigation of space ends up following that informal Carl Sagan rule: you must first invent the universe. Starting with one of the most visually compelling run-throughs of the expanding universe ever projected, with fireworks of red shift that prove the universe is moving away from you no matter where you are, the scope narrows to an infinitesimal but crucial blip on the cosmic radar: the Galileo probe that was sent to dense, primordial Jupiter to analyze its chemical makeup and determine if the elements present matched with the Big Bang. So meticulous is the rendering that even the Galileo's botched antennae gets recreated, like a half-open umbrella gliding into orbit. (And as with any planetarium show, every leap of understanding makes an eloquent argument for funding further cosmic research.)
Supernovas, cosmic background radiation, and the Big Bang all help paint the landscape on which the dark-matter mystery is playing out. And the picture can't get any newer – Mac Low and Emmart made leleventh-hour tweaks to the modeling of cosmic background radiation when they managed to get hold of the 2013 Planck data, so detailed as to allow for calculation of the percentages of dark energy, dark matter, and 'real' matter in the observable universe. (Real matter? Five percent, tops.) But the undercurrent of Dark Universe is that it's framing an investigation by focusing on what's left to know, and the thrill of getting there. It's a refreshing approach to the data, presenting mysteries within its facts, and charting them as a series of questions rather than a list of conclusions.
Since there's thirteen billion years to cover, it's at times an overwhelming vastness, but the sheer scope provides a beauty of its own. Perhaps the most haunting image of the entire show is the sequence that begins with the sphere of our observable universe with the Milky Way at the center. Given that every galaxy is therefore considered to be at the center of a sphere of similar size, the model plucks a galaxy from the very edge of our observational range, and a new sphere blooms...and another, and another, soap bubbles of neighboring universes. (It's so epic as to be intimidating, but so familiar as to spark the imagination; while the show itself doesn't mention it, the map of galaxies upon galaxies quietly suggests a numbers game in which Earth as a life-bearing planet can't possibly be alone.)
More than anything, Dark Universe breaks down its wealth of information into a handful of fascinating concepts, and then offers enough mystery to make us curious about knowing the rest – a goal at the very heart of scientific exploration.
Dark Universe will be playing at the American Museum of Natural History throughout 2014.