Coming soon to a planetarium near you

Seeking to popularise the broad research programme undertaken by the LHC experiments, three members of the ATLAS collaboration, Michael Barnett, Kaushik De and Reinhard Schwienhorst, had the idea of reaching new audiences through a planetarium show. Given the thousands of planetariums worldwide, this project could have an astronomical impact…


A snapshot from the ATLAS planetarium show looking distorted when not projected onto a dome (courtesy of Joao Pequenao).

"The full-length show will go from the Big Bang to galaxies to underground experiments and possibly AMS before coming to ATLAS for the final third or fourth,” explains Michael Barnett from Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL). While much of the media attention has focused on the Higgs boson, this project will show how an experiment like ATLAS can search for dark matter and explain other great mysteries in physics.

“We are working with George Smoot, experts from seven major planetariums worldwide, and many others. We have award-winning people who will do scriptwriting, narration, music, etc,” confirms Michael Barnett.

The first step was to produce a spectacular 55-second planetarium clip. “The biggest challenge was to develop the software to adapt an image for a dome,” comments Joao Pequenao, also from LBL, who was instrumental in the making of this clip. “What’s really neat is that now people can feel as if they are inside the detector or the LHC tunnel.”

The University of Texas in Arlington (UTA) has a full-dome planetarium located right next to the ATLAS Grid Tier 2 Centre. “Its staff has developed multiple shows for NASA, and is looking forward to working on their first project for the LHC,” says Kaushik De from UTA. “Tens of thousands of young students come to the planetarium every year. For the ATLAS show, a licensing fee is not planned, which I think will increase its outreach effect.”

A view of the LHC control room as seen when projected on a dome, but appearing distorted when seen on a flat screen. (courstesy of UTA planetarium).

A full-dome video projector is required to display this show, something not every planetarium has. Hence, a subset of those involved in this mega project from Michigan State University (MSU) led by Reinhard Schwienhorst developed in parallel a smaller scale initiative – a 35-minute feature titled “Relics of the Big Bang” that premieres Friday 7 October at the Abrams planetarium. “It explains the connection between the LHC and ATLAS with cosmology and the Big Bang, with a special emphasis on MSU’s involvement in this research. It will be made available to other planetariums having similar equipment,” says Reinhard Schwienhorst, a member of the ATLAS Collaboration from Michigan State University. This project involved students from the arts and sciences communication, professional writing and physics programmes.

These two initiatives will greatly contribute to bringing the physics of the LHC to new audiences and reaching audiences worldwide. Make sure to keep an eye out for it at your local planetarium.

by Pauline Gagnon