The universe as never seen before

13 June 2017 | Story Natalie Simon. Photo Supplied by Iziko Museums of South Africa.
Guests to the launch of the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome were treated to display of how the new facility can be used for both research and edutainment.
Guests to the launch of the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome were treated to display of how the new facility can be used for both research and edutainment.

Iziko Museums has built a planetarium and digital dome facility that brings data to life in an immersive visualisation – and could be a model for planetariums around the world – as part of a partnership that includes the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“A digital planetarium enables the wonders of the natural world to touch our lives in unexpected ways,” said world-renowned astrophysicist, author and science communicator Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson in his endorsement of the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome, which was launched at the end of May.

“Whether we gain perspective of our place in the world experiencing the diversity of pan-African culture, its folklore and its art writ large in the night sky, or by witnessing the forces of nature and how climate change affects our planet, or by exploring the infinite universe we are not the same walking out of the dome as when we walked in.”

The revamp of the 30-year-old planetarium into the multifunctional Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome is the result of a partnership between Iziko Museums, UCT, the University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology, among others (see the fact box at the end of the story for the full list of partners).

Cape Town's Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome.

“The model created here in Cape Town – of the partnership formed between a public facility and the research community – is one I hope will be replicated around the world,” said Dr Mark SubbaRoa, director of the Space Visualisation Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and International Planetarium Society president-elect, speaking at the launch.

When the Adler Planetarium was launched in 1930, its founder, Max Adler, said that planetaria existed, in part, for the advancement of science. But, back then, that was a lie, said SubbaRoa.

“In 1929, Edwin Hubble had discovered that the universe was expanding, but in 1930 our planetaria were telling people stories about constellations made up by the ancient Greeks,” he said.

Today’s planeteria, however, with advanced technologies to create immersive visualisation facilities, really are in a position not only to help researchers rapidly advance our understanding of the world, but also to make that same information available to the public in an easily accessible, visual form.

Visualising big data to better understand our world

Big data refers to the large, complex data sets created and collected through technology. This can range from the data created in ‘big science’ projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) or the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), to social media data analysed by researchers in the social sciences, to the huge data sets in bioinformatics projects such as gene sequencing.

The planetarium and digital dome is a fully immersive visualisation tool that can be used across a range of disciplines.

Collecting the data is only the start: it still needs to be analysed and interpreted. And when it comes to data analysis, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

“In the world of huge data sets, some data can only be understood if you can see it, and some of those data sets are so big, you need to see them on a large scale,” said Emeritus Professor Danie Visser, patron of the Iziko Planetarium and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law in Hamburg, who, during his tenure at UCT as deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation, played an important role in bringing to fruition the digital planetarium project and ensuring the research community was on board.

“This is a powerful tool across all disciplines,” he added.

The SKA project is an obvious candidate for the digital dome. Massive data sets are already being created, as the precursor to the SKA telescope, the MeerKAT, comes online. Astronomers working on the project are looking at how to get the data onto the dome as quickly and easily as possible.

“Through the use of cloud computing we have already developed portals that can be accessed by researchers through web browsers as a way to get data sets onto the dome,” explained Dr Michelle Cluver, associate director of the Inter-University Institute of Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and Iziko Planetarium astronomer.

This has positive implications for the public at large, too. It means that, in time, they won’t only be reading about the SKA discoveries in international headlines, but will be able to see, in a fully immersive local environment, the secrets of the universe SKA astronomers are unlocking. And, as more researchers use the facility for their data analysis, more groundbreaking science will become available to the public in an easily accessible visual form.

Exploring our universe

Marvin Ratcliffe from SkySkan, the company that provided the technology for the digital dome, took guests at the planetarium launch on a trip through our local solar system and into the greater universe. Using data collected by astronomers over decades and rendered in real time onto the digital dome, he took the audience beyond the Earth-centred view of the universe to show them the full catalogue of galaxies gathered by astronomers, located in the dome exactly as they are in the universe.

Included in the tour was a trip to Saturn using the data collected by the spacecraft Cassini, which is currently touring the planet.

Explore the rings of Saturn rendered in real time.

Visitors were also treated to the real-time visualisation of a data set that looks at how galaxies are distributed around the universe, to get a better understanding of how they form and evolve, courtesy of Professor Tom Jarrett of UCT’s Department of Science and Technology and South African Research Chair in Astrophysics and Space Science.

Dr Ben Loos of the Neuroresearch Group at Stellenbosch University showed the audience how cells in a brain are affected by and respond to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. “I am incredibly excited to use this platform for teaching purposes, to inspire learners to go into the sciences, and for students already at university to engage with the data sets,” said Loos.

Bringing the sciences and humanities together

The value of this digital dome for arts and the humanities is clear, said Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, senior lecturer at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies.

“The most obvious capacity for the dome is in the area of digital media, animation and even fine art,” he said. “What I would really like to see is how artists develop innovative ways of using the space in the most immersive way possible.”

He also stressed the potential of this space to bring the arts and sciences together for productive collaboration, especially around science communication.

“There is a desire among scientists across the disciplines to better communicate their science and research to the public, to better tell the story of their research. This space offers real potential to build meaningful collaborations between the arts and sciences that will hopefully benefit the public at large.”

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