The UAA Planetarium & Visualization Theater combines education and entertainment by hosting regular Friday night double features, frequently hosted by faculty presenters. (Photos by Chris Arend)
Ignore the name. Planetariums aren’t just for planets. The UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater, in fact, holds shows on everything from physics to biology, and even math (yes, math).
Used during the week for field trips, school groups and college-level astronomy classes, the planetarium opens its doors to the public most Fridays of the academic year. It’s second only to Athletics in the amount of people it brings to campus, and there’s good reason for that. Planetarium shows provide an unmatchable opportunity not just to meet a professor, but to ask them any question you have.
“Whenever we bring someone into the planetarium, whether it’s a school group or the public, we don’t jut press play and sit back and let them watch something that somebody else produced,” said Erin Hicks, planetarium director and professor of physics and astronomy. Instead, they run a regular show for 20-25 minutes, then fill the rest of the hour with a discussion and Q&A. Sometimes the entire event is explained live as well. Presenters rotate, and the conversations vary; some faculty talk about their research, others explain what NASA’s up to next.
‘Fractals Rock’ is a regular Planetarium production hosted by faculty from the math department. (Image courtesy UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater)
“Usually I will have to say, ‘Okay, we’re 15 minutes over. I’ll let you guys go, but I’ll be up front if you have more questions.’ And they just keep asking more and more,” said Hicks. That adds an extra energy to education. “Black holes are my area of research, and you forget how awesome that is until you get in front of the public audience.”