New Delhi, India
September 25, 2011
The best-known of the exhibitions, shows and activities organised by the Nehru Planetarium are their daily shows: two in Hindi, and two in English. The shows in English are at 11.30 AM and 3.30 PM (in between are the shows in Hindi, and also special shows – if any are booked – for schools). While the ongoing exhibitions at the planetarium are free, you do have to buy tickets for the shows, at a reasonable Rs 50 per person. And you should be at the planetarium at least half an hour before the show is to begin. This, as it turned out, was convenient – we arrived at the Nehru Planetarium at about 10.40, bought our tickets (at the counter next to the entrance), and had enough time for a leisurely stroll through the small exhibition that forms part of the planetarium.
The exhibition is a mix of good and bad, imaginative and oh-so-boring. The boring bits are the typical ‘old-fashioned Indian government museum’ displays: the scaled-down models, the boring text, the not-terribly-lucid explanations. For instance, there are models of the Jantar Mantar observatories, built under the aegis of the 18th Maharaja Jai Singh: massive instruments (a sun dial whose top you reach by climbing a long staircase!). The models here at the planetarium have been explained to some extent, but in language that’s so technical, it’s virtually impossible for a layperson to understand. That is, unfortunately, the case with the bulk of the exhibits, even where they’re embellished with amazing photographs of star clouds, galaxies, planets and so on: the text reads as if it had been written by a physicist for an academic paper, and that too one that frowned upon frivolity of any kind.
Other exhibits involve the world’s earliest space scientists (Galileo, Kepler, Newton, et al – including copies of their letters/notes, even replicas of instruments they invented or used); astronomy through the ages and across the world (there’s a replica of an Inuit moon spirit; a question about whether the caves at Lascaux could’ve been the earliest observatory; early representations of the skies and of Earth); and a largish section – of course – on the history of astronomy in India. There’s even a model of Soyuz T, the first spacecraft (part of an Indo-Soviet mission) to carry an Indian astronaut into space.
There are explanations of space phenomena, many of them hurled as scientific facts (and in highly academic language as well – I haven’t studied physics for the past 20-odd years, and was pretty much at sea here). Since the planetarium is a sort of memorial to Nehru, there’s also a small section on Nehru’s interactions with science and scientists (photos with Einstein, Homi Bhabha, and other scientists; Nehru visiting Indian research labs; and – most endearing of all – a letter written by Nehru to his 10-year old daughter Indira, trying to explain the concepts of Earth and space).
A handful of exhibits are more hands-on and interesting: for instance, there’s a weighing scale which you can climb on to, and press buttons on the panel in front to see how much you’d weigh on each of the planets. And there are a few interesting little facts: "Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach you; thus you see the sun as it was 8 minutes ago. It might have blown up 4 minutes ago and you wouldn’t know about it!" or "The atmosphere on earth is proportionately thinner than the skin on an apple", or "A teaspoonful of neutron star would weigh more than the weight of all the people of the earth".
But: the best part, by far, of the planetarium is the show. We watched an English show called ‘The Astronaut’ and were enthralled throughout – it was informative, but at the same time lots of fun. The show is held in the Sky Theatre, a circular, high-domed auditorium with a digital projector that projects the show onto the inside of the dome. ‘The Astronaut’ is a CGI work, embellished with sound and other effects, to show viewers what it takes to be an astronaut: the training required, the daily schedule of an astronaut in space, what an astronaut’s living quarters are like, what the space suit consists of, and so on. And – very importantly – why. Why the space suit, the strict exercise regimen, the rigorous training, and so on – all of this was shown with the help of an animated character named Chad, who becomes a guinea pig for a scientist who subjects Chad to all that space flings at intruders: high radioactivity (Chad gets cooked); sub-zero temperatures (Chad becomes a pile of ice), space debris (Chad gets knocked down under a pile of it), and so on. The visual and audio effects throughout were superb – for example, the effect created to depict takeoff, made us so dizzy we had to shut our eyes briefly.
The show lasted for half an hour, and rarely have I seen half an hour go by so soon. It ended with a 10-minute session on what that day’s night sky would look like in Delhi (if one could see past all the particulate and light pollution in the city, that is). The planetarium’s resident astronomer showed us how the stars would move, which constellations would rise when, where they could be seen, and which important stars and planets to look out for in which part of the sky.
The planetarium itself is so-so. But the show? Well, it certainly makes the planetarium worth visiting!
From journal Delhi: Some Museums, Some Memorials