Just what is a black hole? Why is Pluto no longer a planet? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? These are questions that come up regularly when astronomy’s the subject. There’s a wealth of resources to help us answer them, including the unique experience offered by the immersive shows presented at the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Have you ever asked yourself how the Planétarium staff goes about staging those shows, simplifying scientific content or creating universes?
The unique experience of a planetarium
Planetariums are very special theaters. Whereas a movie theater has a rectangular screen, a planetarium makes use of a dome screen positioned over visitors’ heads. By using high-performance projectors and computers, it’s possible to fill the screen with computer-generated imaging, with videos and with realistic representations. We thus can re-create environments like the starry sky, and navigate in space the way a spaceship would. This projection capacity coupled with the shape of the theater makes it possible to occupy the whole of the visitor’s field of view, and contributes to immersion and to the feeling of presence.
Immersion is the ability of a virtual environment to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sensory conditions that would be experienced in the real world, while the feeling of presence is the sensation a person has of feeling present in the virtual environment being reproduced in the theater. Meaning, the visitor attending a presentation in a planetarium does not have the sense of being in a theater, but rather outdoors, in a field, under the star-filled sky.
How do we learn?
When we put together new shows, our goal is to simplify concepts that may be highly abstract and out of the ordinary. We therefore have to ask ourselves the question, how do we learn astronomy? Humans are not machines that respond in the same way when presented with new information. Which is why there are a number of different theories and models of learning. In museums, one of the most recognized models suggests that there are three ways we learn: cognitively, emotionally and sensorially.
Visitors using cognitive mode will be more captivated by facts, dates, names, statistics and so on. These are the ones who, for example, like to read the texts of an exhibition. Those inclined towards emotional mode will be captivated by people’s lived experience, their way of life and their social context. They’ll prefer to have a human presence for their visits (guide, demonstrations, etc.). Finally, sensory mode defines those who need to act, to touch, to keyboard, to handle in order to understand. They’re primarily interested in how things work, in techniques and in materials.
Generally, a person can’t be identified with just one or another of these modes. It’s more likely that we’ll see a dominant mode and a secondary mode in someone.
Producing a show
So when writing and producing a show, these factors have to be taken into account. We strive to create realistic and credible visual and sound environments for visitors by using the maximum power of immersion and feeling of presence offered by the planetarium. We also see to it that the script touches on at least two of the three modes of learning by having participants physically take part, by telling stories and, of course, by presenting astronomic objects and phenomena. That’s how we create universes so that everyone gets to enjoy exploring the confines of the known Universe.