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Black Hole exhibit and show promises to entertain, educate

February 1, 2012 1:28 p.m.

Mary Dussault, Instructional Systems Specialist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Dr. Jeffrey Kirsch, Executive Director, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Related Story: San Diego Museum Offers Up Close And Personal Look At Black Holes


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Recently, the San Diego state university astronomy department announced big news about black holes. Their analysis of data essentially confirmed the existence of the Cygnus X1 black hole, and we talked about it on this show. But it's hard for nonscientists to get too excited about news like this because it's hard to figure out what the researchers are talking about. Now comes a new show at the Ruben H. Fleet science center which promises to shed some light on black holes, so to speak. My guests, Mary Dussault is instructional systems specialist with the Harvard center for astrophysics.

DUSSAULT: It's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Jeffrey Kirsch is executive director of the Ruben H. Fleet science center. Welcome to the program.

KIRSCH: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Why are we so fascinated with black holes?

DUSSAULT: Oh, I think black holes are a little bit like dinosaurs as natural phenomena. Dinosaurs are distant in time so we can't experience them anymore but they're mysterious, and they have all these wonderful features, and black holes are distant in space but they're mysterious and they have all these incredible features that we're curious about.

CAVANAUGH: Curious, and we're confused about too!


CAVANAUGH: I remember the discussion I had with the scientist at San Diego state university. And scientists do do their best to try to explain these things to lay people, but it is difficult, isn't it?

DUSSAULT: Yes, black holes are complex phenomena. So we really wanted in this exhibition to happen museum visitors to be black hole explorers, not feel that they have to know everything there is to know about black holes but that they're explorers, they're just there to find out some of the interesting properties and evidence that there is about black holes.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Kirsch, you're calling this black hole times two. Explain how visitors will experience this.

KIRSCH: Well, for the first time we're exhibiting a new exhibition for San Diego at the same time we're introducing a planetarium show which covers similar accident are not identical, ground. And we think that this offers the possibility of a learning experience for young and old alike that they can get this together into a day at the science center and come back with a much better understanding, almost a feeling for what black holes are.

CAVANAUGH: Tells about this extraordinary new projector that you have at the science center.

KIRSCH: Ah,, well, this has been a project that's been going on for five years at the Ruben H. Fleet, and the first two.5 years, we tore down the old dome, put up a new one, which is a high-contrast surface apparently without seams, although there is seams there if you look hard enough. And this makes the picture come Alive more on the screen. Imax is still there, and we're still going to be bringing some great films. But there's been a revolution in digital technology. We have four Sony projectors. It's not just one. Two of them are aimed at the front and two of them are aimed at the rear of the dome, and they blend together at the top. And again, in a seamless blending. And the net result is we have full-dome digital for the first time. This means we're able to do digital computer graphic presentations as well as classic planetarium shows. So the first show we have is actually tonight where we'll have a live lecture by Grant Miller from southwestern, and then we will have our first produced show, which is the black hole show, which is the other side of infinity with Liam nieceon as the narrator.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you say that this experience is for people experiencing these new projectors, they're going to feel like they're in space



KIRSCH: Well, we have a giant dome. So the giant dome is 76†feet in diameter. We were the first in the world. And that's the traditional size. So you feel as if you're surrounded by the image, and your neighbors are also surrounded by the same image. So it's a very theatrical and yet convivial type experience. So you can talk about it as the show is going on, although we often tell people with a dome you never can tell where your voice may show up. So you have to be wary of that. Then the ability to do what Mary and her team have done, and is this an interactive exhibit where they will seem and compare their performance in identifying where black holes are, what they do, what the effects are all compared to prior visitors. And they get -- and Mary should talk about this, I'm fascinated, they get also their own website.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I do want to talk about that. Mary, first of all, as this is a 2-parter, as we said. We have the projection, the black hole projection film or digital experience. And then we have the exhibit. What do visitors get to see and feel and touch at the exhibit?

DUSSAULT: Well, the exhibit I think makes a great compliment to the planetarium show which has fabulous visualizations of black holes that really give you an immersive experience of what it might be like. The exhibition puts you in control of testing features of black holes and collecting data. As you enter the exhibit, one of the things we thought was important to help people not feel confused as you mentioned earlier, was to try to make the exhibition experience personal. So as you enter the exhibit, you create your own black hole explorer's card. And this is a laser bar coded card, and you use it as you go through the interactive stations through the exhibit. And that card, the exhibit stations are networked, so as you go to an exhibit station called take a black hole's temperature, you look at X-ray telescope images of black holes, and these are real astronomical images of the galaxies that contain black hole, and you collect those images in your personal diary. And as you go around the exhibit, and you learn, you see these fabulous images and you can explore them and manipulate them and --

CAVANAUGH: What about your own website?

DUSSAULT: Yes, so as you go through the exhibit, you're collecting these discoveries, and the exhibit is networked to when you go home. That bar coded explorer's card has a little ID number on it. And if you go to, and you approximatut that ID number in the sign-in, you see everything you did at the Ruben H. Fleet center, so you'll see all the images you collected, and the ideas you learned about, and the conclusions that you made while you were in the exhibition.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Doctor Kirsch, you explored that this was a state of the art projection system. How much did it cost and what did it take to get this system in place?

KIRSCH: Well, it was roughly a million dollars a year for this project. So it's a $5†million project. The technology, it's like when you go into the store and buy your computer, you realize what you buy is going to change its relevance to technological advancement. But we did our homework on this and we had a great volunteer team of engineers that helped us specify what our system should have. And I understand that ATron mer, researchers might be able to use this equipment to see the data that they are producing sort of in reality, so to speak. Is that what you're hoping this might be used for too?

KIRSCH: That is exactly what you're hoping, Maureen. So this was something that guided us quite a bit. In our choice of materials. And our system integrator is Global Emergin, and they're from the UK, but they have plenty of people working in the states. It's been a pleasure working with them as well. It does present challenges as we go through the installation of something that's never been done before, and we are -- our team is working right up until tonight to make sure that everything is A1. But it will open up a new realm, I think, for visualization of pure science images. We're talkingerate now with the Baylor college of medicine about putting on a couple of public shows on their latest research into genics and chromosomal aberrations and things of that nature.

CAVANAUGH: So it's not just outer space. It's inner space.

KIRSCH: Not just outer space. And then the creative space of artists. And we have the theatre in the evening is our -- our schedule is fairly wide open. So we think we're going to fill a niche there for the community, and what researchers have not been able to see before given the detail that we can show on the big dome.

CAVANAUGH: Mary, you likened black holes a few minutes ago to dinosaurs in their popularity in popularity culture. Does it tickle you to see that this esoteric mathematical concept of black holes has become so engrained -- everybody tosses off that term as if they know what they're talking about.


DUSSAULT: Well, it's very true. In fact, they definitely have become part of popular culture when you -- people say, you know, your drier is a black hole because you lose your socks there.


DUSSAULT: And we try to touch on the popular culture aspects of black holes in the exhibition as well. In fact, we actually had some teams help us design a couple of the exhibitions in the show, and that also, I think helps make the exhibit more accessible and relevant to visitors because the teens had a particular perspective. They chose clips from television shows that featured black holes and then interviewed scientists about whether that clip was true, false, or partly true. And you as a visitor get to make your prediction of what you think and hear from the teens about what scientists say.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. So the exhibit itself is going to be trying to clear up some misperceptions that the public might have about the use of the term black hole and what it really means

DUSSAULT: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Now, the other side of infinity is narrated as you said by Liam nieceon. How long is that going to be up?

KIRSCH: We actually have it for a year. We are planning on a number of other programs to bring in. Upon but we will have that available for at least a year, and it'll probably play as our main show for the first three months starting tomorrow night.

CAVANAUGH: And the exhibit as well?

KIRSCH: The exhibit is there for three months, then -- it's a traveling exhibit. So it will go on. We're hopeful maybe -- if they don't have somebody ready to take it, we'll have it for a little extra time. Mary did a great job on it.

CAVANAUGH: That's a fascinating way to part with this new start of the art projection system. The other side of infinity with the new state of the art projection system, and black holes, space warps, and time twists both open I believe Saturday?


CAVANAUGH: February†4th. I've been speaking with Mary Dussault, she is instructionam systems specialist with the Harvard Smithsonian center for astrophysics. And doctor Jeffrey Kirsch of the Ruben H. Fleet science center. Thank you both so much.

KIRSCH: My pleasure.

DUSSAULT: Thank you, Maureen.