Science is becoming ever more specialised, ever more difficult to understand without being an expert in the field. Science communication offers tools and platforms to make this challenging, yet interesting science accessible to everyone. One of these tools is a 360-degree digital dome. Mario Di Maggio, manager of one of the busiest small planetariums in the world at Birmingham’s Thinktank science museum, explains how powerful a dome can be as a medium of science communication. Lily Le interviewed him.
What do you think is so great about a planetarium as a medium of science engagement?
Planetariums show the breath taking magnificence of a dark sky. As 60% of the world’s population will be living in light-polluted cities by 2030, this public service is more important than ever. Digital planetariums (tilted and closer to eye level) immerse audiences in sciences other than astronomy – resulting in higher retention levels and improved learning.
Is it a challenge to make science engaging?
Indeed. Our brains did not evolve to think rationally but rather selectively and emotionally. Digital planetariums engulf people’s senses, block out distractions and engage minds fully.
How do you try and engage people to increase their interests in astronomy?
People love people. Our presenter-led sky shows demonstrate to audiences what they see if they step outside and look up. No hype. No sensationalising. Presenters ask questions to engage the audience, and answer questions using the digital planetarium. Their delivery is adapted to younger audiences, older audiences, audiences from different backgrounds. A digital planetarium makes it easy for us to create cultural shows [see e.g. Chinese art in the sky and Arabian stars].
How did you become the manager of a planetarium?
When television arrived in South Africa in 1976 I was captivated by The Sky at Night and Cosmos. Although I did well at school, my grasp of physics was not good enough to study astrophysics at university (I blame terrible school teachers). I studied biology instead and, on refusing military service (under apartheid South Africa), I was sentenced to community service in Durban Natural Science Museum where I established a science centre network and a ‘simulated’ planetarium. In 2000 I emigrated to the UK and worked at various planetariums.
What does being the manager of a planetarium involve?
A multitude of operational responsibilities like planning and helping deliver the school and public programme; sourcing and evaluating new content; marketing & publicity, and developing partnerships.
One of the highlights of working at Thinktank is that, unlike traditional planetariums, only projecting the ground-based sky (limited to seeing stars), digital domes demonstrate the three-dimensional nature of space, flying audiences from Earth to the edge of the Universe. Furthermore, digital domes double-up as experimental cinemas and unique entertainment venues and we have a range of after-hours Dome Club activities.
What other roles are necessary for the successful running of a planetarium?
Our current Planetarium Presenters are proficient science communicators, software programmers, video editors, and projector alignment experts. With only three staff, volunteers are important in delivering 2,200 shows to 96,000 people per annum, seven days a week.