The Royal Greenwich Royal Observatory Greenwich Planetarium
Last Sunday I finally made it to the Planetarium. I know, I know, it’s been what – five years and I live – what – twenty minute’s lazy walk away? But yeah, it’s very easy to live near things people travel across the world to see and just never get around to actually going.
I was quite surprised by the price – £6.50 for adults. For some reason I had thought it was much more than that – my memory tells me around the £12.50 rate, but hey – I wasn’t complaining, and since I’d mentally already spent that, I decided to go to see both shows, back to back.
I don’t know whether it was because it was a rainy Sunday but the place was really quite busy. I’d been told to turn up about ten minutes before the show started to get a good seat, but by that time the queue outside was already snaking around itself several times. It wasn’t an issue – there was plenty of space, although I’m not convinced that with the configuration they’ve chosen – a conventional cinema style, with all the seats facing in one direction rather than the traditional rows in a circle round the edge – you’d get much of a view from the front. Maybe I’ll try it some time.
I confess I find that cinema-style seating a bit offputting. I loved the old fashioned circle-rows they used to have in the cute little planetarium upstairs and it just feels a bit odd to have a 360°, domed screen with directional seating. I was to find out later why they’ve gone for that style, but I’m still not convinced it works.
Still, it’s fresh and modern and they have saved what is to my mind the most important thing about the Royal Observatory Planetarium, the thing which made it stand out from the other, more commercial versions (including the much-missed London Planetarium – my, how the mighty have fallen there…) and makes Greenwich special.
And that thing?
Live commentary from real astronomers who will guide you through the sky and then answer questions afterwards. The first Greenwich Planetarium show I ever went to, there was a guy who looked like he had stepped off the set of Apollo 13 – short sleeved shirt, knitted tie, black-rimmed glasses – and I thought he was great. I couldn’t believe that someone that important had taken time off from being a scientist to talk to me.
I was a weird kid.*
These days the astronomers are much younger – and cooler. So trendy, in fact, that at first I did wonder whether they’d just got an all-purpose tour guide to run the show, but the fact that he was prepared to answer questions afterwards made me think they do still employ people who know what they’re talking about.
So – I was in for the long haul. Two shows.
The Sky Tonight Live is pretty much what you’d expect it to be, a guided tour round what you might be able to see if you go outside at about 9.00pm on the day you go to the show (if there’s no cloud and the light pollution’s not too bad). I love the immediacy of that – that it’s been tailored for ‘tonight’ (though obviously the night sky only changes slowly, so they do have time to change the spiel). I really loved the way it starts out with a projection of the Observatory during the day and gradually gets darker; it felt very specific to me and where I live. In fact the whole talk – clear, simple enough for everyone to understand but still with a nice amount of stuff I didn’t know (I was particularly impressed to know that Saturn’s rings are only about the size of a four-storey building) – and was specific to Greenwich – fair enough for tourists, lovely for locals.
The astronomer was personable, engaging and, if his gags were clearly of the variety he uses every show, why not. There aren’t going to be many people who do what I did, and, as they exit, immediately join the queue for the next show.
The next show was a new one (though since I didn’t know the old ones, I hadn’t been aware of that.)
Across the Universe is the story of the Voyager probes – sent to investigate the Sun’s planets and though now, having finished their mission, are spinning out into deep space still sending back fascinating data. This is more like a conventional movie. The resident astronomer is pretty much a glorifed usherette here – explaining the fire regulations and telling people not to turn off their mobile phones (“we’re underneath 45 tonnes of bronze here…”) so it’s a bit jarring, after having been used to human-level volume, when he turns on the film and a giant recorded voice booms out.
This is where the forward-facing seats come in as although they use the whole dome in an IMAX-y sort of way, it’s mainly stuff you look straight ahead to.
For me the strength of this show is the subject matter. I enjoyed it all because it really is amazing stuff, the figures, data and images are jaw-dropping – and, okay, I admit it, I like looking at big pictures, which is why I went to see Mission Impossible III at the Waterloo IMAX. But it didn’t engage me the way the live presentation did, and some of the CGI looked a bit like the sort of thing you’d see on a teenage Sci-fi fan’s bedroom wall circa 1980.
I guess that’s always going to be the problem with recorded shows – the human interaction just isn’t there. All the way through, despite the fascinating information, I was aware that there was a real live astronomer sitting behind me, twiddling his thumbs when he could be talking to us.
That’s not to say this isn’t a good show. I did enjoy it and I’d take someone else. But for my money if you’re only going to one show at the Planetarium, go to the Sky Tonight Live.
I have one last suggestion for the planetarium guys on the Sky Tonight Live. Given we live in such a badly light-polluted area, rather than just telling us that fewer stars will be able to be seen, perhaps you could show us, at the end, what we REALLY might see in the sky (if it’s cloudless), complete with sodium-orange glow, so that we can mentally eliminate what we won’t be seeing and concentrate on what we will?
Tell you what, though. The Planetarium is still really excellent entertainment, especially for a rainy afternoon and given the weather forecast for the foreseeable future, I highly recommend you take a trip, it’s not just for kids. Details here.
*I felt the same sort of awe when I went to the Kennedy Space Centre and was shown round by a real, live astronaut. No one I’d heard of, obviously, but an astronaut…
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