The planetarium is an underground dome in an unassuming building on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. The night sky is projected onto the dome in an interactive show, and it’s been updated to play more like a movie than a slideshow. At the back of the room, behind the audience, is Edward, managing the show like the Great and Powerful Oz. Beyond the planetarium, he’s known for the “Daily Astronomer” email newsletters, which have become a local cult favorite. In person, he is deferentially polite and a brilliant thinker who is in awe of the capital-M Mysteries of the capital-U Universe.
WHEN DO YOU REMEMBER FIRST BECOMING INTERESTED IN SPACE?
I can pinpoint the time when I realized I harbor an irrational enthusiasm for this field. Many years ago, I wandered down into a subterranean video parlor in my hometown, Orono. I was then a delicate sixteen-year-old who was warned never to venture into that den of iniquity. Naturally, these admonitions compelled me to visit it at the earliest opportunity. Down there I found a gathering of smokers and roughnecks. I wandered through the smoky haze and found a video game in a dark corner. Next to it, I discovered a rather well worn solar system poster hanging limply from the concrete wall. Unaccountably, I experienced an immediate exhilaration, as though I had stumbled into a realm where I felt I belonged. Where I felt strangely connected to the universe. One might have considered this a transcendental moment. Had my body not been racked by paroxysms of coughing (owing to the mephitic cigarette fumes) that would have been a rather touching moment. Honestly, I can’t explain why I love astronomy so dearly. Like so much else, it remains beyond my comprehension and I think it’s best that way. I would worry that the sorcery would dissolve were I able to understand its grip on me.
HOW DID YOU BEGIN TO DO THIS WORK?
I actually volunteered at the planetarium as a college student. That is how it started in 1991. That is essentially the Elizabethan period. I am now hiring staff members who were born after this year and when I find out their birth date, I naturally weep inconsolably. I was a student worker until 1994 and then, when I went into the work force, I continued to do shows on occasional weekends. In 1999, the manager, Michael Neece, left to work elsewhere and I recklessly offered my services. In the summer of 1992, I worked at the Jordan Planetarium and Observatory at the University of Maine in Orono.
HOW DOES THE PLANETARIUM WORK?
The planetarium is merely the star projector in the theater’s center. It is our Jena ZKP-2, originating from Jena, Germany. Two rather powerful bulbs are enclosed in the mechanism. They shine through an array of precisely oriented copper foils to simulate the night sky. Included are planet projectors and a moon projector, all of which operate with separate mechanisms because their motions are independent of the stars themselves. The night sky simulation is projected onto the 10-meter diameter dome. So, too, are the full dome programs. We installed the full dome system within the last three years to replace the slide projector system, which went obsolete sometime during the Reagan administration.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT OR UNIQUE ABOUT THIS PLANETARIUM?
We are unusual in that we have retained our slide projector array, though we no longer use it. I intend to remove them this summer during the two or three hot days we’re likely to experience. Hot, sunny days are particularly slow for us, since people tend not to descend into tomb-like darkness when the weather is so clement. Also, we have developed programs that one tends not to find in most planetaria, like a Stonehenge lecture series, poetry readings, concerts, adult-ed classes, a time convention, and our annual St. Patrick’s Eve programs. Our continued attempts to be innovative have distinguished this facility. Along with these programs, we have a beautifully eclectic staff. These people are far more interesting than I am.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT SPACE?
I love that we could possibly know what we know about it. To me, the human ability to discern the nature of such remote objects strains credulity. One wonders how we ever managed to cultivate that ability. Evolutionary biologists tell us that we’ve developed this handy brain-to-body ratio essentially to survive on a planet teeming with formidable predators – the menagerie of stronger, faster creatures gifted with all manner of claws, sharp bicuspids, and nearly impenetrable armor. That this evolutionary pressure could have fashioned a mind capable of cosmic contemplations seems remarkable, almost nonsensical. Understanding the mechanisms of galaxy formations or ascertaining the means by which the universe was created does little to serve our survival instinct. Yet, we’re endowed with this insatiable curiosity about our origins and the structures beyond our Earth. This, alone, makes me think we’re ultimately spiritual beings.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU LOOK TOWARDS THE STARS IN THE PLANETARIUM?
That it still remains so magnificent in my eyes. You see, I have never attended any planetarium society meetings or yet visited any large planetarium facility. By avoiding such larger venues, I can sustain the delusion of grandeur that I think helps me as a presenter. I am like Sybil Vane who was able to so effectively feign love on stage to whatever actor happened to portray Romeo to her Juliet. When she finally fell in love with Dorian Gray, Sybil was no longer capable of portraying Juliet so brilliantly because she had finally experienced real love, as opposed to its simulation. Similarly, I can still regard our hobbit hole, small by American planetarium standards, as a spectacle, and I can still present a planetarium program as though it’s the greatest show on Earth. Yes, I’m a fool.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE FACT ABOUT THE UNIVERSE?
I don’t know if this counts as a ‘fact,’ but my favorite aspect of the universe is its ferocious, seemingly inexhaustible creativity. Within the last 20 years, astronomers have found more than 1,000 exo-planets, those worlds in orbit around other stars. From these detections, they believe the galaxy alone might harbor more than one trillion planets. Prior to these discoveries, the astronomical community was divided into two camps: those who believed the cosmos was a barren wasteland consisting of few planets and little, if any, extra terrestrial life and those who insisted that the universe was prodigiously creative. We have found that the latter group was correct. Within our galaxy –one of billions– we have discovered not a dearth of planets, but a proliferation. We see this inexhaustible creativity in the human mind: from novelists to artists to engineers to musicians. Vladimir Nabokov once described humans as, “spines with a divine flame at the tip,” since we’re all part of the universe and we embody its characteristics.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU LOOK TOWARDS THE STARS?
Mortality. I can’t think of a better answer that this one. The Orion we see looming over our houses once hovered above pyramid builders and will stand high above 35th century moon colonies. I am seized by both exhilaration and regret. The exhilaration resulting from the realization that this physical reality, at bottom inexplicable, is far more complex, wondrous than we once believed. The cosmos has stubbornly confounded our attempts to stifle it. The notion that we have so little time to experience it engenders the regret.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Here, you get the cliche answer: my son and daughter. Nicolas, 19, and Jacqueline, 16. They are the most important two considerations in my life. Of them, I could write volumes. However, people become tedious when they drone on about their children. Suffice it to say that they are two of the finest people I have ever been privileged enough to know and, for all its myriad wonders, astronomy pales to me in comparison.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE, OR HAVE LEARNED?
The thermodynamics of life. The world consists of elements that weaken and those that empower. I try to surround myself with the positive, empowering elements, including people. Life is far too brief and precious to be mired in negativity or to destroy the mind and body with enervating influences. Incidentally, the cheerful, positive philosophy I just espoused dissolves into air whenever it takes me 45 minutes to drive down twp miles of Forest Avenue.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Life. We’re all experiencing something supernatural just by existing. The older I become, the more I appreciate simple metabolism.
Continuing to innovate. The planetarium is just one of myriad venues in Portland. For a city its size, it abounds with wonderful cultural amenities. The struggle is to try to devise new, innovative programs. Personally, I want to one day finish the Ironman Triathlon. At my age, that goal is destined to be a three to five year struggle. This is likely an irrational reaction to middle age.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Conducting tours of the night sky, or our simulation of the night sky. One can immerse an audience in midnight black at 10 a.m. and, like a DJ, accompany people off Earth, at least figuratively.