August General Meeting Report
Wednesday 9 August, National Herbarium
Speaker Leanne McMahon, Education Officer Melbourne Planetarium
Syllabus item: The Role of the Planetarium in Education.

With National Science week coming up, the timing for a talk from the Spotswood Scienceworks was most appropriate. Scienceworks and the Melbourne Planetarium took part in the celebration of National Science Week from 12 to 20 August, and you could catch shows there like ‘The Problem with Pluto’, scientific activities, talks and much more.

A planetarium presents a simulated display of the night sky that allows people to enjoy the wonder of the heavens in a comfortable environment, regardless of the time of day – or the weather! While star maps have been around for thousands of years, recreating the motion of the planets is much harder because, unlike the stars, the planets move relative to each other. Moreover, each combination of planetary positions is unique and will never be exactly repeated. It wasn't until the 1920s that it became possible to recreate the position of the planets accurately for any given date. Pushing the boundaries of technology the first optical star projector was developed in 1923. The machine was called a 'planetarium', and the name stuck.

Melbourne’s first planetarium was the HV McKay Planetarium, which operated at the old Museum in Swanson Street from 1965 until 1997. It had a 10m diameter fibreglass dome and an optical star projector. When the Melbourne Planetarium opened at Scienceworks in 1999 it featured a 16m perforated aluminium dome and the first digital star projector in the Southern Hemisphere. In 2005 it underwent a major equipment upgrade to install a fully digital video projection system, DigitalSky. Still pushing the boundaries of modern technology it now utilises sophisticated computer systems, multiple high definition video projection and top quality sound recordings to provide a full surround experience. No longer limited to just representing the night sky, planetariums are places to explore all aspects of astronomy, from the search for life within our universe to the hunt for super-massive black holes. They have become tools of education.
Leanne McMahon, a poised girl comfortable in her role as a teacher in front of a receptive audience, listed (on hand of a well prepared slide show) the unique attributes planetariums bring to general education: The programs of the Melbourne Planetarium fulfil many parts of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS), meet curriculum guidelines and complement the frequent lack of teacher-expertise in this field; astronomy can be done during daylight hours in all kind of weather and is seen as entertaining education for the masses. From fundamentals such as night and day and the seasons on Earth to the characteristics of the Solar System, and how interaction of planets, Moon and Sun affect natural phenomena. Students learn how to identify major components of the Universe and become familiar with cosmological evolution. Last year around 95,000 school students visited Scienceworks. More than 50% of these attended a planetarium show. Of particular interest in Leanne’s presentation was the 10 point audience comments given on the planetarium’s range of experiences: Realistic, Entertaining, Unique, Absorbing, Memorable, Relaxing & Personal, Universal, Educational, Ongoing Learning and suitable for the whole Family.
Limitations to keep in mind are, that the experience is not real; it is an interpretation of what can be seen in the actual sky. There are no meteors, comets or space stations yet, and the shows are dependent on producers and presenter interests. While a great deal of theoretical knowledge can be presented it lacks the means to develop individual astronomy skills. But this current deficiency is more than made up by the promotion of logical / mathematical and musical intelligence, visual and spatial and verbal intelligence. By supporting VELS, traditional subject areas are linked to physical, personal and social development and to promoting communication and thinking skills.
In short, Melbourne Planetarium shows are informative and entertaining for a wide range of audiences. Each show involves a half-hour pre-recorded audiovisual feature that explores an astronomical topic from an angle that is occasionally humorous or quirky but always educational. Melbourne Planetarium shows employ the talents of some of Australia's most creative scriptwriters, actors, visual designers, composers and sound post-production professionals. Every show is followed by a live presentation of the current night sky and the major astronomical objects that can be seen. The information presented in these sessions aims to encourage anyone to go into their backyard at night and experience the joy of real astronomy.

The vote of thanks was given by the ASV Public Relations Officer, Linda Mockridge, with the traditional gift wrapped in a brown paper carry-bag.

The original GOTO optical star projector from the H. V. McKay Planetarium is on display in the foyer of the Melbourne Planetarium. It is still a sophisticated piece of optical equipment and impressive to look at.
A. Klink