When Madhulika Guhathakurta was a small child in Bengal, India, she was torn by what she calls her ‘artistic side’ and her love of math and science. “I painted, I sang, I danced,” she says.  Her father, Bengali poet Suchandra Guhathakurta, urged her to follow in his footsteps, but “I chose science, and he acceded.”



Ro Kinzler (Photo: AMNH)



Guhathakurta went on to become a top NASA researcher specializing in the life cycle of stars — especially the one humans rely on, the Sun — and is now Lead Program Scientist for the NASA initiative “Living With a Star” (LWS). “I always wondered,” she told us last week, “if there were some way to tell the story of the life cycle of a star in a way that is as dramatic and beautiful as what I see.”

It wasn’t until 2000 that Guhathakurta had a chance to begin to enact that dream at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, along with Rosamond Kinzler (right), director of the National Center for Science, Literacy, Education and Technology.

Kinzler and a team of NASA astrophysicists helped turn Guhathakurta’s ideas into a story and found Emmy Award–winning writer Louise Gikow to transform the story they saw into a script for the planetarium’s daily space show, screening continually for students, tourists, and millions of others.

Five  years later, Guhathakurta told WVFC, her original conception has finally come to life — with the July 4 premiere of the AMNH’s newest show, Journey to the Stars.

Journey, the Planetarium’s newest space show, immerses viewers in that story — a star’s life and death — using data coming in from satellites and probes such as Voyager 1 (left), extraordinary images from telescopes on the ground and in space, and physics-based visualizations that turn the motions of interstellar bodies into beautiful images.

Last week we caught up with Guhathakurta and Kinzler at the press screening of Journey and asked both about the difference between Journey and its 2006 predecessor, Cosmic Collisions, a Big Bang special featuring enough explosions and chases to be a summer blockbuster. Journey, on the other hand, with its theme of birth and death, seemed to have a distinctly feminist subtext.

Kinzler ruefully agreed and added that one might even guess as much from the shows’ titles. “I mean, Cosmic Collisions! How male can you get?” she laughed.

Perhaps with that in mind, the museum changed its tradition of male narrators for the space show, which have recently included movie-star astronauts Tom Hanks (Passport to the Universe, 2000), Harrison Ford (The Search for Life: Are We Alone?, 2002) and Robert Redford (Cosmic Collisions). This time, however, AMNH President Ellen Futter was able to recruit another Academy Award winner, Whoopie Goldberg, more often associated with families and women’s rights than astronomy. “While we were taping, she kept saying, “This is great. Who knew we know so much about the universe?” Kinzler said.

As the show opens, Goldberg’s raspy-yet-warm voice poses the theme of the show as a sort of paradox: “Without other stars—stars that lived and died billions of years ago—we wouldn’t be here at all. The Sun itself wouldn’t exist. Neither would the Moon. Nor would the planets of our solar system. You know, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.”  


After rattling off that list of old friends, she tells about the oldest of stars: “There was only an invisible substance called dark matter, along with hydrogen and helium gas. Dark matter’s gravity gathered this gas, forming the first stars. But these stars didn’t last long. They were massive. They burned hot, lived fast and died young.” Nonetheless, she adds, these massive old stars are your cousins. “Though it may sound incredible, your body actually contains about a teaspoon’s worth of this stuff, formed 13 billion years ago by the very first stars.” They also made possible the current system: clusters of stars that create new ones, including ours. “The brightest young stars in the Sun’s cluster lit and heated this pocket within its birth cloud.” Where there’s talk of birth, of course, there’s also an end to a life. “Five billion years from now, while the Milky Way is merging with its neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, the Sun will become what is known as a red giant. Nearly all stars do that at the ends of their lives.” But before the audience can rush the doors, Goldberg and the show’s narrative rush to blot out all those sun-is-dying-we’re-doomed movies: “Now don’t worry,” she says. “This will happen long after humans have moved on or evolved in ways we can only imagine.”  


The show emphasizes that meanwhile, in this life, humans are  busy collecting as much data as their instruments can gather.

The preview screening featured comments by two of the astrophysicists most responsible for what’s in Journey: AMNH astronomy curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, who studies the dynamics of circumstellar and interstellar gas in order to understand the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies (see some of the visualizations he’s created here); assistant curator Ben Oppenheimer, who’d just flown in from a California observatory after four days collecting data; and Guhathakurta, who assured the audience: “I see raw data — I mean, I see actual solar flares. I am not easily impressed. But this show is impressive!”

Museum president Futter told the assembled that their work in Journey speaks for itself: “Journey to the Stars offers visitors of all ages front-row seats to the brilliant and mysterious world of stars — their birth, life and death, and their essential role in the formation and sustenance of life on Earth. The show is magnificently beautiful, scientifically authentic and cutting-edge, and utterly thrilling in its revelation that we are all made of star stuff.”
What should the viewers make of this revelation? How will it affect the people who troop into the planetarium for 22 minutes? “At the end of the show, Whoopi asks a very critical question: “How do we know all this?” said Kinzler. “If I have one goal in this show, it’s  that audiences come away with a deeper understanding and an appreciation of science. How do we know this? Because we, people like Lika and Ben and Mordecai, we’re studying the stars every day. And learning new things. Every day.” 


In addition, NASA’s Guhathakurta pointed to a core philosophical theme, about the connections among the building blocks of the universe and their connection to human beings. “People will have now seen it with their own eyes,” she said. “And they will see that at a very deep level — a molecular level, really — we are all connected to each other.” To really get that, she added, “can only change your thinking in fundamental ways.”

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