TCS Daily


Cosmic Mash-Ups

By Erik Baard - April 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Cosmic violence makes Hollywood happy. Disaster films have slammed the Earth with asteroids and tossed us into the maws of black holes. Now astrophysicists, armed with supercomputers, are wowing audiences by bringing real data to life in a film called "Cosmic Collisions."

Premiering and largely made at the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, "Cosmic Collisions" celebrates the mash-ups to which we owe the synthesis of chemical elements, the flaring of stars from gas clouds, the formation of planets and moons, and so life itself. The show will also be shown by co-producing institutions, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, and GOTO, Inc in Tokyo, Japan. From there, distribution is expected to be wide: AMNH planetarium programs are currently presented throughout the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Australia, and even on board the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship.

The renderings are beautiful. And at times they'll scare the pants off of you.

Now a cosmic sophisticate might rightly note that we live in a quiet celestial neighborhood. Indeed, the cosmos is nearly entirely empty space and is becoming increasingly so. The universe's accelerating expansion is casting galaxy clusters further and further apart so that one day we'll quietly wink out of each other's view, leaving us alone in vast darkness.

"Yes, space is enormously empty, but time is long. You'll still get hit," Neil deGrasse Tyson, Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, told TCS Daily.

Whenever science is dramatized to reach a broader audience, there are those who'll sniff that it's being sensationalized. With a roaring and enveloping score and vibrating seats under a huge three-dimensional 100-diameter dome projection, "Cosmic Collisions" certainly does that. Thankfully. Science withers if divorced from wonder, and our senses lift us there.

"We wanted to capture a human perspective and for the data to be cinematic, not just demonstrative," said Anthony Braun, executive producer of the show.

The show features actual spacecraft footage of the riotous surface of the sun. After witnessing it so intimately, any human pyrotechnics seem farcical. And the show's triumph comes in depicting the formation of the moon. A ruddy and barren proto-Earth is slammed by a Mars-sized stray world, ejecting globules of molten material into space. There it cools, gathers, clumps. We see a familiar order assert itself, with the Earth steadied by its oversized lunar companion. What's astonishing is the beautiful temporal symmetry we observe in this creation, from impact to chaos to companion spheres: it took about a month.

One quibble with "Cosmic Collisions" is the film's over-reliance on whacking the Earth, or threatening to. This is despite AMNH astrophysics curator Dr. Michael Shara's statement that producers enjoyed "an embarrassment of riches" when it came to portraying space collisions.

The show, narrated by Robert Redford, opens with an ominously close comet passage that ends in a harmless rain of meteorites, shimmering in atmospheric burn-up. Naturally, the asteroid that 65 million years ago wiped out 70 percent of life on Earth, ending the reign of the dinosaurs, struts across the screen and chews up the scenery. And then yet another asteroid is diverted from its catastrophic path by a futuristic space program. Here audiences might have enjoyed an intimate look at the comet Shoemaker-Levy that in our lifetimes dramatically plummeted into Jupiter's endless, and cinematically gorgeous, storms.

But no one could begrudge the show's triumph, the formation of the moon 4.5 billion years ago. A ruddy and barren proto-Earth is slammed by a Mars-size stray world, ejecting globules of molten material into space. There it cools, gathers, clumps. We see a familiar order assert itself, with the Earth steadied by its oversized lunar companion. What's astonishing is the beautiful temporal symmetry we observe in this creation, from impact to chaos to companion spheres: it took about a month.

It's equally fascinating to note what didn't make the cut. Some ideas didn't make the cut because they aren't established well enough by data, which increases the risk that new discoveries will make the show seem dated within its five-to-ten year lifespan.

As Braun explained, "Part of where we started was finding good science, but we also asked 'who's doing good visualizations of their data out there?'"

In the reject batch are the clashing universes of so-called "Brane Theory," the possibility that comets seeded Earth with water (and perhaps microscopic organisms), and other extinctions that astrophysicists suspect might be laid to comets and asteroids.

Other research is less controversial, but the data didn't translate into strong images or was insufficient. Earth is surrounded by an ever-thickening belt of orbiting debris from our many launches and longer-duration stays aboard stations. Indeed, when the International Space Station hovered into view during "Cosmic Collisions," some robotic exploration partisans might have secretly wished to see that expensive tin can get gutted by a hunk of junk.

Fortunately, "Cosmic Collisions" is above the petty debates of today. How could it not be with a scope that includes our Milky Way galaxy's eventual merger with Andromeda? Shown in a swirling dance of 40-million-years-per-second swirling dance, this grand collision will birth a new elliptical galaxy.

The Earth will be long done by that point, but even if progeny living across star systems could face hard times, Tyson noted. "When those galaxies come together, all bets are off. At least for a while, it would be a more dangerous place. It's inevitable that the black holes at the centers of the two galaxies would merge -- they'll be attracted like magnets," he said. And that new, massive radiation center won't sit easily. "Just look a nearby elliptical galaxy, M87. It's got jets flying out like there's no tomorrow. If that jet is facing you, that's all she wrote."

Erik Baard is a freelance writer living in NYC.

Categories:
|

TCS Daily Archives