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Deconstructing cosmic puzzle at Adler

‘THE UNIVERSE: A WALK THROUGH SPACE AND TIME’

Where: Adler Planetarium,
1300 S. Lake Shore

Tickets: General admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors; $8 for kids from 3-11

Info: (312) 922-7827;
adlerplanetarium.org

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Updated: August 12, 2012 6:38AM



The universe offers a mind-boggling mix of clues and mysteries, which both scientists and laypeople have grappled with for centuries. With every new discovery comes another bundle of questions. And when developments are made, scientists often struggle to present findings in an accessible way.

“The Universe: A Walk through Space and Time,” a new, $1 million, state-of-the-art exhibit at the Adler Planetarium, which opened Tuesday, is designed to help visitors deconstruct the cosmic puzzle, museum officials say.

“We wanted to make this exhibit more approachable, something a little more fun and hands-on,” said Karen Carney, associate vice president for Visitor Experience and Learning at the planetarium. “We’re trying to fit 100 billion light years into a few thousand feet.”

The 3,000-square-foot exhibit has seven unique stations, including one that lets visitors explore dozens of galaxies via touch screen.

In “Walking through the Universe,” visitors witness an interactive history of time and space, with physical representations of the universe’s past and explanations of each chapter.

On the floor, museum-goers can simulate functions of outer space. Visitors can walk on small colorful dots that represent atoms, which “separate” as they pass through the clusters. After that, they can step on stars that “explode” to create supernovas, the end of a star’s life. And in the third element, visitors can make black holes, which are represented as purple streaks that swallow all surrounding matter.

“I like how you can interact with everything. It’s really cool,” said Isabelle Shanahan, 11, of Wicker Park, a member of the Adler Planetarium summer camp, who visited the exhibit on opening day.

Shanahan said her favorite stationwas “Postcards from Galaxies,” where visitors can ship letters at the speed of light — a process that takes just four hours from Neptune, but 2.5-million years from the Andromeda galaxy.

For Dennis Chase, 16, of Naperville, the use of advanced technology is what makes the exhibit work.

“I think it really helps people understand what’s going on,” said Chase, whose mother works as an astrophysicist at Adler, but was not involved in the project.

The exhibit explores age-old questions such as how the universe began, where it came from and whether there’s life beyond earth.

These are the questions planetarium visitors often arrive with, according to Michael SubbaRao, laboratory director for space visualization at the planetarium, who led the project.

“We’re in the Golden Age of cosmology and this exhibit can help visitors experience that,” SubbaRao said.

One of the challenges the exhibit faces, however, are the rapid developments in cosmology. Physicists last week discovered the elusive Higgs Boson, also known as the “God particle,” which many believe explains the origins of mass and will unlock key secrets to the universe. Scientists long theorized its existence, but could never secure concrete proof until now. The exhibit therefore uses extensive video, which features interviews with prominent astronomers. Those interviews can be updated to reflect momentous changes in the field down the road.

SubbaRao, who also has worked at the University of Chicago since 1998, expects more groundbreaking developments in the study of the universe to be made in the next five to ten years. He said the insights into dark matter, which comprise nearly 80 percent of the universe, are the next frontier.

“There are still big discoveries to be made — and most of the action is happening right here in Chicago,” he said.



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