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Space Show Takes Viewers on a Stellar Journey

The American Museum of Natural History's new movie focuses on what the stars have wrought
stars,American Museum of Natural History, New York



© AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

As moviegoers make plans to watch summer blockbusters this weekend, there is an additional choice for New Yorkers: Journey to the Stars, the new space show opening July 4 at the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Rose Center for Earth and Space.

Aside from the three years of planning and 18 months spent making the film, what's special about Journey to the Stars is the international effort that went into producing it, with leading astrophysics groups around the globe contributing the computer simulations derived from observational data. These simulations help scientists gain insight into faraway objects and events—a collision of galaxies, the progression of a supernova explosion, the formation of a planetary system—that they cannot see firsthand.

During its 23-minute running time, the film seeks to capture the entire history of the universe by focusing on stars.

Mordecai-Mark Mac Low and Ben Oppenheimer, resident astrophysicists at AMNH and the co-curators of the show, present a collection of convincing simulations that offer the viewer a state-of-the-art demonstration of astrophysics. "We want people to understand their origins and life-support system," Mac Low says, "and to look at the night sky with a new sense of its depth and variety."

One highlight is a simulation of the interior of the sun, showing its convection and churning magnetic field. The demo came courtesy of Juri Toomre's group at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and required about 14 million hours of supercomputer time spread across four major U.S. supercomputing centers. Hundreds of billions of bytes of data were processed, all of which went into the visualization of the solar interior.

Besides showing how our sun works, the film takes viewers back to the beginning, when, as astronomers understand it, the big bang created the universe some 13 billion years ago. Early on, the universe consisted only of hydrogen, helium and some traces of lithium. With gravity's help, these elements formed the first stars. Some of these early stars were huge, a hundred times as massive as the sun, and lived short, spectacular lives, dying in gigantic explosions known as supernovae.

All the other elements—from carbon to gold and the rest of the periodic table—were created in these cataclysmic stellar deaths. Supernova explosions blew these heavier elements into interstellar space, where they mixed with clouds of primordial hydrogen and helium and were recycled into subsequent generations of stars.

Our sun formed about five billion years ago out of such a cloud. Some of the material settled in a disc around the sun, coalescing into the planets, and eventually the inhabitants of Earth. As the film points out, each of us contains about a teaspoonful of matter made by the first generation of stars.

Given all the actual scientific data that went into the simulations, it is a bit of a tragedy that there is nary a mention in the script of the simulations and their challenging complexity. (Mac Low says that was inadvertently edited out in the final cut.) As our knowledge of astrophysical processes improves with new telescopes and as computers get faster, simulations will become even more detailed. Our understanding of the universe is bound to change, and a reference would have been appropriate.

That's a minor quibble, though, especially considering how much the AMNH's new space show has to offer. Scientists who may understand stellar lifecycles will still enjoy seeing computer-intensive simulations of astrophysical phenomena, whereas laypersons should find the material highly accessible. Entertainer Whoopi Goldberg's narration makes the complex topics seem like a thrilling tale told around a campfire. One suspects that for some younger viewers this 23-minute trip into the cosmos may lead to a lifelong journey into astronomy.

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