U of T's Hidden Planetarium
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U of T’s Hidden Planetarium

The planetarium’s digital projector, which uses a fish-eye lens to render images on the inside of an inflatable dome.

In early 2009, the University of Toronto notably bought the disused McLaughlin Planetarium, attached to the south side of the Royal Ontario Museum, for eventual redevelopment—meaning probable demolition. Last summer, less notably, the university purchased a second planetarium, and then stuck it in the basement of 50 St. George Street, where the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is headquartered.

It fits comfortably down there; it’s a pretty small planetarium.
Unlike the mechanical star shows that have edutained generations of schoolchildren at places like the McLaughlin, the U of T basement planetarium is 100% digital. All of its stars and planets emanate from a digital projector produced by a company called Elumenati. Rather than a standard lens, the projector beams light through a fish-eye lens, pointed upright so that it can cast images on the inside of an an inflatable dome (think bouncy castle), also sold by Elumenati. The dome is twenty-five feet wide, making it large enough for about twenty-five seats. It takes up almost all of the classroom that has been allotted to it. The setup is used by U of T instructors to help astronomy students visualize important concepts. It’s also open to the public on the first Thursday of every month, except January. (See here for more information on the public tours.)
Michael Williams, a TA administrator with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, invited us down to the basement on a recent weekday afternoon, to see what there was to see of the universe.
Incidentally, the universe fits on a desktop computer. The planetarium uses a piece of software that is able to render a three-dimensional map of the parts of space known to humanity. Williams navigated this map using a gamepad. It was sort of like if God played Xbox 360, and was a controller hog.
(Williams later mentioned that he’d started his academic career as a student of Eastern religion, so that comparison is a tiny bit less specious than it must seem on its face. He sees no conflict between science and God. “Science and religion are trying to answer two fundamentally different questions,” he said.)
Our tour of the universe began on Earth, rendered on the dome as a Google-Earth-style rotating topographical map. From there we visited the moon, and then an astonishingly precise model of Mars—one created, said Williams, with the help of radar imagery. He twiddled something on the controller and together we climbed Olympus Mons, the Martian volcano that is also the tallest mountain known, in about two seconds.
Williams pushed a button and the furthest extent of the radio signals sent from the surface of the Earth since the invention of the medium were rendered as a blue wireframe sphere. Compared to the solar system, it was huge—in fact, it engulfed several stars. (Radio waves, remember, travel at the speed of light.) Then Williams zoomed out to galactic scale, with each individual galaxy rendered as a coloured speck. Before us was a multi-hued starscape, every point of light representing billions of individual stars. Even in simulation, the universe is a breathtaking place.
Here’s a video of the planetarium software being demonstrated, but it’s better in the dome, with a voiceover by someone knowledgeable:

Williams hadn’t heard about U of T’s purchase of the McLaughlin, and their plans to redevelop the land the old planetarium occupies. A man with the universe on his mind can be forgiven for not knowing about a real estate deal that took place a kilometre from his office. Not that such terrestrial happenings are too minuscule with which to bother.
“It would be a great shame if they do that,” said Williams.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.