Chamber of Wonders

Chamber of Wonders

Projecting a Volcano

Projecting a Volcano

The Death Starball

The Death Starball

Checking Boxes

Checking Boxes

Meteorite Hits the Cat

Meteorite Hits the Cat

A Star is a Ray of Light

A Star is a Ray of Light

Recipe: A Barn and 30 Years...

Recipe:  A Barn and 30 Years...

umm that table lamp on the right...

umm that table lamp on the right...

Build a dome I said ....

Build a dome I said ....

Sunday, January 7, 2018

How I Got My Own Stars

I got the idea I'd watch the stars, so I went out into the backyard clutching a small book to see them.

I couldn't see much, only the Big Dipper, there were too many lights.

I got a tiny spyglass so I could see more stars.  It didnt work, it was too shaky and I couldnt see anything

So I saved and saved and got a larger department store telescope.  Now I could see some nebulae and a bright galaxy or two, but the city lights were too bright.  It was cold in the winter.  It was hot in the summer. I couldnt stay up late.

I still couldnt watch the stars very well.  I remembered once on vacation way out in the country I had really seen the stars, but I couldnt bring them home with me.

Then one day I got an idea.  I took a cakebox from the bakery, punched holes in it with a safety pin, and put a small light under it in my darkened room   I saw stars!

I made a small dome in my closet with poster board.  I punched more stars.  I saw the Big Dipper again, only now I could see it whenever I wanted.  No late nights.  No city lights.  No cold winters or hot summers.

Then came life ..   high school, college, marriage, a house, jobs, a son ..  and my star dream slept until I moved to this small farm.  Then I remembered my star dream.

I got a bigger telescope and went out, but the same problems were still there.

City lights.  Early jobs.  Cold winters.  Hot summers.   And then I remembered that cakebox in the closet.

And I remembered saying in my own dark .. I see stars!

And so I built and drilled and learned and experimented and tested and developed until one day I went into my own little building out in my backyard..

And in my own dark I flipped a switch.

And I almost shouted with joy.

NOW.  After all these years ..   I had my own .

I had my own stars. 

Do you want to see them? 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Baseballs and Broken Glass

Can we see the universe, or at least a model of it, in everyday 'junk' we find, or in the odd assortment of items we collect as we go through life?  It isn't hard if you look deeply - for all things are IN and OF the universe are they not?  So all things can model the universe in at least some way.

I stepped on a spare window the other day - it had been leaning against a wall in my barn, had fallen over, and bang - I stepped right in it - it shattered somewhat but held together.  Wasn't it the universe?  A Big Bang had sent fissures rippling outward .   pieces of it were breaking off, or precariously holding together.  It was transparent, emitting light, yet it had its solid parts reflecting stray beams.  Perhaps some giant foot had set off our own cosmos?

In a previous job, having nothing to do at lunch. I used to wander a baseball field in a nearby city park.  Over the months I accumulated over 20 baseballs, which I put into a basket in that same barn.  Wondering what to do with them, I then realized THEY TOO could be a symbol of the universe from the right perspective.  Were they hydrogren atoms then, closely packed together making up the higher elements?  Did their stitched seams represent gravity, holding the canvass of creation together?  Or were they the spheres of all matter, rounded and stuck together by mutual attraction?  Could they collide with each other - were they at one time batted into a new trajectory?

Everyday junk and incidental collections.  Baseballs and Broken Glass.   Whats in your universe that maybe IS your universe?  

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

People Magazine Article!

Never Sent - but still true.  

Shakespears original Globe Theater was open aired - that means playgoers could literally attend their midsummer nights dreams under the stars. I wanted to recreate that experience, not literally of course - too much rain in middle tennessee, but I built a planetarium instead. Lassoed the stars if you will, then looked into the 'great beyond' of cyberspace and found I wasnt alone in this unique pasttime. Other luminaries beckoned, all I had to do was ask. 

I bought the projector from a reclusive genius named Steve Smith - drove to Arizona one improbable 72 hours with my father, Nashville to Douglas AZ and back to retrieve it. Smith spent a year painstakingly creating both a scientific instrument and folk art - a 20 inch copper cylinder that is best looked at before seeing what it can show you. 85 lenses - it takes the breath away. 

But the others, they are out there. Ron Walker near Phoenix, filmmaker and purveyor of dreams called me one day, or tried to. He restores old commercial units, and blends his artist sensibilities with an engineers expertise. I'd never met anyone like Ron. But then others surfaced as if by magic. To wit, Charles Jones, professional magician, appeared out of nowhere (how else?) and demonstrated machines he had built decades ago - he was an expert in many fields, most of all the illusion that is central to the planetarium experience. You WILL believe you are under the night sky, but not tonight in the city .. 100 years ago perhaps - when natures stars were the only cable and movie folks needed .. in their glory. 

Owen Phairius appeared, with a collection of vintage scientific apparatus and a dream of opening a museum to display them. Owens from California - hes run Planetariums for decades, an incredible voice collecting incredible machines. Ken Miller's from California too - an engineer by trade, he can discuss voltages and light bulb specs like most of us discuss the weather. These people rock! 

And so I built it - my little 15 foot theater - I have a little group called the Home Planetarium Association (www.planetariumsathome.) with a newsletter that comes out when I manage to get it out - very old fashioned. Like the stars. Like the Hayden. Adler. Like Armand Spitz would have liked it. I knew other pioneers in the field, Richard Emmons mainly, who I dub the 'father' of home planetariums. He ran one from his garage, and set one up in an Ohio classroom in the 50's. His daughter is still a valued correspondent. 

So I built it .. I think they will come to my own little field of dreams. I'll call a newspaper or two soon. And let them in. But I'm savoring a few more silent nights by myself with my stars. Gods stars really, they arent mine. But on the other hand, they belong to all of us. Its just that nobody looks at them anymore. I figure maybe I'll start changing that. One child at a time.

A Brief History of the HPA

From Observatory Central   May 2007

A Brief History of HPA 

In the 60's I was in Villa Park Illinois outside Chicago - 33 North Second Street to be exact, off St Charles near Roosevelt and North Avenue, and I struggle to remember the dawn of my astronomical interest. As much as I'd like to say it was the few trips to the Adler Planetarium that were FIRST setting me on this road, and these surely planted the seeds for HPA 30 years later, before planetariums for me were telescopes. And I've traced this fascination to an earlier fascination of staring for months at the Sears Christmas catalog. I would dream of the things I saw there, and on one page was a 60 MM telescope, clamped to of all things a stepladder - it had no mount. Getting a later model, then a more traditional 'dept store' 2.4, then 7x50 binocs, led me to amateur astronomy. Oddly though, the old Topps department store on North Avenue sold cakes, and a cake box punched with holes with a light inside soon found its way to Alan Weigers darkened bedroom - we saw our own stars a few times. Then all of this slept for many years. I have since found and given Alan credit - he heads the drama department at Elmhurst College today and follows my progress with interest. Trips to planetariums at Cranbrook and Abrahms at Michigan State where I graduate keep alive this sleeping interest.

Fast forward to Detroit and the years most of us go through, high school, college, marriage, houses, jobs .. two 6 inch scopes get built and i devlop my own unique penchant for building low tech things myself, clutching a library book by Sam Brown replete with telescopes built from 2x4's and little else. That was me, I was dubbed a bit of an 'astro hillbilly'. Years go by, career leads me to Tennessee and an old farm. Astronomy sleeps as my music hobby blossoms, bands follow in my barn mostly, and an interest in writing explodes. I become part of a mail-based group called the HRSC, the Home Recording Star Coalition, we write and tape our own compilations, volumes. I begin writing a newsletter for the group and grow frustrated its leader is rather inactive over time, leading me to resolve to create my own pre-internet network. At this time my astronomy interest resurfaces and I create the Spyglass Network, SGN. It flourishes for over 30 issues, and it was a free-for-all, mail based juggarnaut - at one time 5 other members started their own spinoff newsletters - it was about everything astro, but skewed more and more into writing, my secret passion - poems, stories .. humor - we published some items in the larger world.. I still get mail, wondered where SGN went .. I had fueled it with a book of stamps a week for many years .. but then something spun off 

Reading one day in the old Starry Messenger want ads, I come across a 'drilled starball' being sold by someone named Dick Emmons. Mesmerized, my planetarium core leaped out of my heart and wrote a check for 200 dollars and sent it some place called North Canton in Ohio. Seeds long ago planted were about to burst .
I didnt actually have a running planetarium until Issue 8 and several years had gone by, that seems almost incredible looking back a decade, but after purchasing the Emmons Starball, HPA unfolded but slowly. Modeling the newsletter on the HRSC and SGN formats that had come before was easy, and thats why they are people oriented, quote oriented, prepared material is rare, its mostly just quotes. Being of limited means, at this point the 200 buck investment was huge, and long I pondered how to even get a light inside it, let alone build a dome. I had trouble building a shed to house a dome! These things would get built, and by then I was in a financial renaiisance, allowing me to purchase Steve Smiths 20 inch copper cylinder (which i believe is destined for a magazine cover someday, i'm working on the mounting it needs right now), A Spitz A2 from Mr Pielock, who everyone seems to know as one of the premier old projector and related collector/dealers, if not THE man. More recently I dared to put up a standalone 15 foot theater, its 3 years and still being worked on - money became tight again so it was largely back to do it yourself. Strange habits insued as they will in this pursuit - owning a large country barn facilitated the collection of odd size globes, old slide projectors, anything vaguely related. Having an amateur band inhouse for years brought disco lights, fog machines etc - we specialized in Halloween parties and it was a short walk from the stage we had built to the dome... 

But this was me doing these things.. and I talked about them in HPA - but HPA quickly became so much more, everywhere i turned in this dawn of the Internet age new dirt grew new seeds. Staggeringly enthusiastic people - the Emmons family, Steve and Emma Smith - Bob Myler - Roy Gustafson. I was like a seabird I saw in Hawaii, riding the thermals up the beautiful cliffs of Oahu - I found myself at IPS conferences, explaining to bemused professionals 'lean tos are very American' (from one slide I still have) Nashville, Pensacola, and Cleveland - people I meet today still remember my little exhibit table - I didnt get a whole lot of interest, but it was just BEING there - . when I sat at Emmons table and I was included in his Spitz lecture, I felt .. this has its place .. and many of those professionals had a foot in the home realm - articles were published .. it seemed like it would go on gaining altitude forever. 

Other holdovers from who I was transfered over - short stories - history .. there were so many facets of this . but then I began giving shows and I quit after 13 issues. for a long time. Life intervened - I laid it all down .. the theater and projector slept - HPA faded .. personal problems, career problems, you name it .. they happened .. fast forward to early last year, the sparks reignited .. it all began coming together again, yet I knew all those years, alot of personal archeology was necessary - things were rusting .. shelves had become dusty .. 

but now the net was here to stay .. digital cameras .. and someone named Ron Walker who had somehow contacted one of the few holdovers from the SGN days, Murray Cragin, co-author of the Deep Sky Field Guide.. and as the new theater took shape, the old things were dusted off - Richard Emmons passed .. and the thought of a new newsletter came up - and some of those people were still around .. and amazing new people were but an email away - and old music, words were becoming new again, and new words abounded. And now with Issue 17 being worked on, the old issues being revived, and a place like this to daily converse .. the original dream is back and riding those thermals again .

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Songs for the Year

The Planetaria Oscura Newsletter ran for 1 year from March 2016 to February 2017, and each issue has been summarized here.  Every issue had a theme song, captured here in youtube videos.  Its gratifying to have a song for each month.

March - We Have Heaven (Tell the March Hare)  YES

April/May - Pieces of April (Its a Morning in May)  THREE DOG NIGHT

June - Jennifer Juniper - DONOVAN

July - July Morning - URIAH HEEP


September - September - EARTH WIND and FIRE

October - Theme from the Twilight Zone

November - November - SLEEPING WITH SIRENS

December - Remember December - DEMI LOGAT

January - Happy New Year - ABBA

February - February - ELZHI

Friday, February 3, 2017

And If You Go Chasing Rabbits ...

from Planetaria Obscura February 2017

Our VOICE is an overlooked aspect of planetarium shows!   A trip to the planetarium is like Alice chasing that White Rabbit down his hole - a trip to wonderland.  Alice said what's the good of a book without pictures and conversation, but a planetarium shouldn't be the opposite - all pictures with no conversation.

So its just another aspect of planetarium running to consider - once reality is suspended and we’ve led some folks down our rabbit hole, they will hang on our words as well as our stars.  The power of silence at times, well known by sportscasters, is an important tool.  Its tempting to talk over parts that don’t NEED talking over.  Its tempting to talk too fast, or to shout all the time.   Its important to recap - people have a tendency to want to start over - they won’t give you the last two numbers of their ID - they have to go back to the beginning and do the whole thing.  We’re talking without eye contact - without hand gestures - with music playing in the background ..  Our voice is like that perfect supporting actor - there, but not there - adding to the presentation but not stealing it.  Its like off-center framing in cinematography maybe. Which brings me to

The movie The Kings Speech was celebrated for its ’off centre’ framing - it’s the perfect term for a planetarium presenter - people are listening but we ain’t the center.   In the movie, King George VI learns to talk on the radio to his subjects, but he leaves in the particularly problematic ’w’s so people will ’know its me’.   This goes down the whole fear of public speaking rabbit hole, though it should be easier in the dark with nobody staring.  But because its easier, its tempting just to wing it and not carefully consider how we say things, not just what we say ..  The beginning of Twilight Zone is just as chilling whether we see Rod Serling standing there in his suit or not.  But we have to be ourselves.  

The Cheshire Cat in Alice had the best idea - fade to invisibility as we do in the dark.  But let the people still see our grin.  More cats in the dark!  ….

Medium Isn't Rare, OR Well Done!

 From Planetaria Obscura January 2017

I bought a rotating turntable for my star cylinder, and decided my 15 foot dome wasn't big enough, but lacked the charm of my old smaller 10 foot dome.  So . I hit on the idea to cut down the size while keeping aspects of the larger theater.

How would it unfold?  Well it revolves .. It REVOLVES around motion, ‘relatively’ speaking.  I was struck by the guy in Minnesota’s unique combination of fixed (painted glow in the dark stars) and mobile (elaborate, tilted, gear driven revolving dome).  He rotates the DOME, not the stars.  Motion is relative, but it introduces something I’ve not really had.   I even once had this manifesto that said, my stars DON’T MOVE.  But why did I say that, and why change it now.  Why did getting this star revolving table set off new thoughts, a new plan.   Could it be, at least symbolically, that our ideas get ‘fixed’ ..  and we don’t want to change them?
I loved the stars rotating, and it instantly reminded me of being in a rotating spaceship - the stars don’t rotate, what you’re sitting on rotates - the ship, the earth .. Remember that scene in Star Wars IV (Episode IV first - its just good parenting) where the robots escape in the pod, and see the star cruiser rotating.. At first I thought it was too fast, but slow motion is the same as fixed - boring. This was somehow more invigorating, and it wasn’t like I couldn’t stop it to talk about things. Purist Alert - the next part may seem blasphemous.  Then the idea came into my head to move the cylinder closer to the screen on the wall - something I’d never done before - it was always dead center.  YES this introduces some distortion, but I had to make the mental leap that I was never going to depict the sky exactly how it was outside.  For one thing, its by far easiest to keep the cylinder in ‘north pole’ mode, pointing straight up.   Now the stars (with some distortion but a 3D effect) tumbled in and marched before my very eyes!  I liked it.

But the curse of the medium wasn’t yet overcome - now the stars were too far away from the seats - so if the cylinder could move up, so could the seats ..  Goodbye to the lazy boys, the metal chairs were back, 7 in a semi-circle, 6 feet from the screen… I realized in a medium size dome I was wasting floor space - room for only one row of chairs but not two. Wasted, like both my youth and my 401K.  Now the rotating stars were close - IN YOUR FACE - it was exciting .. You wanted to reach out and grab one and take it home.   Then the final revelation.  Medium wasn’t the right size. It can’t be larger.  But I could make it smaller, while retaining good aspects of medium and large ..  I put a black vinyl wall right behind the chairs … now it seemed like an intimate spaceship .. And as a bonus, the back half of the dome now became a spacious backroom where all manner of musical equipment and storage could go.  I could still operate off to the far side.  Big/Medium/Small was mine.