Video presentations take visitors on voyages to some of the billions of other galaxies. The information surrounding a scale-model Earth reminds us what a happy accident it is that our planet can sustain life.
It is ironic, then, that of the three institutions on
Shedd takes on Earth's aquatic life, and Field its natural history. Adler handles merely the cosmos. You know, the place that is immeasurably, mind-numbingly vast, progenitor of such fundamental contemporary questions as what is dark matter and how did the universe begin?
In the middle of all this cosmological import is
It doesn't use 3-D technology, but thanks to an array of 20 high-grade digital projectors working in concert, images projected on the interior of the Grainger's 71-foot-diameter dome are so alive that the moon comes at you like a physical object, and seeing the sun's surface in vivid, festering close-up makes the room feel hotter. As I wrote in reviewing the first show in the rehabbed space, there are times when your eyes and your mouth compete to be open wider.
The planetarium offers the choice of two Grainger shows at any one time, keeping them fresh by rotating in a new one every year. Be sure to see at least one of them for the combination of contemporary science, cutting-edge intergalactic imagery and just plain wow factor.
There are two other theaters too. Where the film presentations at most museums steal time that could be devoted to browsing the galleries, Adler video -- images brought back from deep and distant space and prepared for public display by the planetarium's own
"Our calling card is to see a show," longtime President
"Night Sky Live!" -- in Adler's second domed theater, the Definiti -- has a live narrator give visitors a crisp demonstration of stars, planets and constellations that can be seen locally at night, even through
And "Welcome to the Universe," in the 3-
When you're not seated in a theater, the planetarium -- thank goodness -- has ample signage to keep you from losing your way in a building that definitely does not follow the same grid system as
"Yeah, but then I think we turned around and went back in here," a mother was overheard saying to her son.
The original Adler, the first planetarium in
Clad in polished brown granite, the 12-sided art moderne building (dodecagon, if you're scoring at home, one side for each sign of the zodiac) is an architectural gem, like the main
And like Shedd, it was augmented in the 1990s by a big, glass-faced addition that greatly increased the institution's user-friendliness and usable space without stifling the vintage charm.
In Adler's case, architect
Adler's exhibition halls have been greatly reworked in recent years too. Below the Grainger, in the main building, there's a fine survey of "Astronomy in Culture" and a stunning collection of ancient telescopes, said to be among the world's finest. If you love astrolabes and diptych sundials, this is the place for you.
The great globe known as the Atwood Sphere is a kind of ride, sort of steampunk, utterly charming. A 1913 mini-planetarium that's 17 feet in diameter, it has visitors ride a mechanized sled into the star dome. Nearly 700 holes in the stainless steel skin allow light that represents known stars, and the guide points out the constellations.
The newest exhibition, "The Universe: A Walk Through Space and Time," effectively communicates the scope of space as well as such current questions as whether it will all end in the "Big Chill," the "Big Rip" or the "Big Crunch." Have a nice day.
Upstairs on the main floor, in addition to cafeteria space overlooking the lake, a gallery devoted to our solar system includes meteors, a piece of Mars and the latest on Pluto, demoted from planet to "trans-Neptunian object."
There's a charming little-kids play area, Planet Explorers, separated by walls and watchful guards from the rest of the museum. Wee ones can manipulate scale-model planetary rovers and even crawl underneath the landscape to pop their heads up into clear bubbles as the rovers are driven around them.
Already home to the Gemini XII capsule of astronaut
Outside the building, closer to the lake still, sits the
Also on reserve and deserving to be on display: the old Zeiss Mark VI star projector, the antlike amalgamation of metal, light and lenses that used to project stars against the planetarium dome from the center of the room. It would make a potent vintage partner to the
But what's easy to miss about Adler is one of its best features: the easy integration of working scientists with the visiting public. Staff astronomers give regular, casual talks in the lower-level space visualization lab. A recent one covered gravitational lensing, which allows black holes to be spotted via the disruptions they create in the space-time grid. (Don't worry; there are visual aids.)
A glass-walled office on the same level houses staffers on the Zooniverse project, one of the world's foremost "citizen-science" efforts, run in conjunction with
Don't forget: To pause as you enter and examine the stunning, art deco dedication plaque. Carved in stone are Adler's founding principles, including "to guide to an understanding of the majesty of the heavens." Surrounding it are stylized medallions representing the planets, accurate again now that Pluto is out.
Don't miss: The Moon Wall, which is sort of a Google Maps of our natural satellite. Using a computer and a massive video display drawing images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, visitors can explore the lunar surface in intimate detail. It's in the Shoot for the Moon gallery on the main floor.
Don't bother: Right nearby is the Lunar Leap, which purports to simulate diminished gravity, but is also just a sled you push up an angled surface (and then feel less weight on as you head back down). Its best purpose, though, is burning off kids' excess energy.
Pro tips: If there's a big celestial event happening -- a landing, a fly-by, an eclipse -- Adler usually has programming that covers it. Spring for the All-Access Pass, which is pricey at
Museum campus parking, in surface lots or at metered spaces, is expensive and limited. Better to try public transportation, a taxi, a vigorous walk across the park from the
(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services