A new planetarium show created at Montana State University aims to bring a dynamic and multidimensional experience of Einstein’s theory of gravity and last year’s discovery of gravitational waves to the public.
The production, “Einstein’s Gravity Playlist,” will be shown three times a day in the Taylor Planetarium at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies from Jan. 14 to Feb. 24, and daily from Feb. 25 to May 26. It will also be offered to planetariums worldwide, with future showings already set for Seattle, Texas and Germany.
Two years in the making, the 23-minute show is a collaboration between MSU’s School of Film and Photography and School of Music in the College of Arts and Architecture, Taylor Planetarium and the eXtreme Gravity Institute. Work began on the show before the announcement of the first detection of gravitational waves in February 2016, a discovery in which the eXtreme Gravity Institute played a crucial role.
“The show tells the story of Einstein’s theory of gravity, the story of gravitational waves and the big news related to their discovery,” said Nicolas Yunes, associate professor in the MSU Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science and co-founder of MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute.
The institute was established in 2016 with the goal of deepening Montana’s involvement in extreme gravity research, education and public outreach, Yunes said.
“The show is a perfect example of what the eXtreme Gravity Institute is all about,” he said.
During the show, Yunes said, audiences will see what it looks like when black holes collide and neutron stars merge.
“They’ll also see stars exploding in supernova, an explanation of Einstein’s theory of gravity and the experiments performed to prove that the theory is correct,” he said. “And, they’ll experience the vibrations of space and time accompanied by a really cool soundtrack.”
Yunes said the idea for a planetarium show grew from two outreach events he organized at MSU: “Celebrating Einstein” in 2013 and “Rhythms of the Universe: Words and Worlds in Motion” in 2014. Both events combined science and the arts to capture the attention of the public while demonstrating the artistry and wonder that can be found in science.
“I thought it would be interesting and challenging to create a planetarium show, but I didn’t have the expertise to do so,” he said. “Fortunately, MSU is full of highly talented and enthusiastic collaborators who could join me in this endeavor.”
Theo Lipfert, director of MSU’s School of Film and Photography, directed the film, saying it was a “huge creative and technical challenge.”
“We were making visible a science that can’t be seen,” he said.
Lipfert worked with a team of 15 MSU students, staff and alumni, including graduates of MSU’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking program who work as filmmakers at NASA’s Goddard Space Center.
“We used every tool we could think of to tell this incredible story: 360-degree cinematography, live action, and 3-D animation,” Lipfert said. “The combination of those images with amazing music and sound helped us communicate the beauty of this science.”
Jason Bolte, assistant professor in MSU’s School of Music, worked with Music Technology program graduates Luke Scheeler and Jaimie Hensley to compose and realize the show’s musical soundtrack.
“We wanted the show to appeal to middle- and high-school students,” Bolte said. “So, we tapped two young composers to interpret this story musically. The score combines the actual sounds of gravitational waves with our electronic compositions.”
Eric Loberg, director of the Taylor Planetarium, oversaw the technical production, using his expertise to address the technical challenges of creating a planetarium show.
“Eric has a deep understanding of how to use this technology to put compelling content on the ‘dome,’” Lipfert said.
During the show, Alisa Amador, who plays the role of “Lucia,” a doctoral student in extreme gravitational physics, leads the audience through an exploration of how gravitational waves are formed, how they move through the universe and how scientists, like herself, work to hear them.
The planetarium team developed the script with the goal of breaking down the complicated science, making it more understandable for a wide audience. Yunes said he expects viewers will take away different things from the show.
“Some will get science out of it, some will get a better understanding of what gravitational waves are and how important they are,” he said. “Some will figure out why we do the science that we do and the many benefits that science has to society.”
Production of “Einstein’s Gravity Playlist” was funded by NASA’s Montana Space Grant Consortium, the American Physical Society, the Montana State University Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of Research and Development, the College of Letters and Science and the Department of Physics.
For show times and more information about “Einstein’s Gravity Playlist,” go to: https://museumoftherockies.org/taylor-planetarium/current-shows-and-showtimes/