Science in the Bluegrass — Planetariums are expensive but important

Chris Graney

There is less science in the Bluegrass these days. 

The University of Louisville’s Rauch Planetarium closed to the public during the pandemic; it has never re-opened. Likewise for Eastern Kentucky University’s Hummel Planetarium. 

These were the two largest planetariums in Kentucky. The Rauch dates to 1962; the Hummel to 1976.

Not so long ago, these planetariums were outfitted with new digital technology. In a Dec. 28, 2016, article in the Richmond Register, Kim Kobersmith wrote, “Hummel Planetarium … is the largest planetarium in the state and is on the leading edge of technology.” 

In a June 25, 2013, story, Louisville Public Media’s Rick Howlett reported on the Rauch reopening with an upgraded digital projection system, after being closed for the system’s installation.

But such systems are hard to keep running. Jill Price, associate vice president for outreach and engagement at EKU, told the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Monica Kast in 2023 that a planetarium is “a very expensive facility to maintain. … It’s a very unique structure, and technology out-dates so quickly.”

Not all planetarium technology, actually. Seymour Planetarium at the Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts uses the same “star ball” projector that was installed in 1937. That is a simple piece of equipment — an opaque ball with a light inside and holes and lenses to project stars onto the planetarium dome.

Perhaps stars will again be projected onto the domes of the Rauch and Hummel. UofL’s website says a decision is expected to be made this summer. But even if the planetariums eventually reopen, the fact is, for years now Kentucky has been without these two big tools for science education.

How do we sustain education, and especially education provided by a planetarium? It’s easy with job training or career education. The economy needs trained workers. It’s a matter of money, and money makes stuff happen. But knowing something about the night sky does not offer much monetary payoff.

Monetary pay-off and cool technology both play big roles in U.S. education. We often hear that our society is becoming increasingly secular; without something higher to direct education toward, monetary concerns and appealing technology can easily carry the day. 

Perhaps that is why we not only have planetariums that operated for a half-century now closed, but also why our night skies are awash with waste light, such that we cannot see the glory of the real stars. 

Consider Scripture:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place — what are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? (Ps 8:4-5)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft. (Ps 19:1)

That kind of thinking won’t cross folks’ minds if they can’t see what the Psalmist is talking about. It’s not that planetarium closings are a sign of some great, secular conspiracy; rather, they, and the washing out of the night sky, reflect what we now value, and don’t value, together as a whole. 

The night sky offers no high-tech flash. It is unlikely to offer a monetary payoff.

Yet it is more likely to help us think about what might have made it, and about our relationship to that Maker (like the eclipse last week on the feast of the Annunciation).

Planetariums, built to keep running, help with that thinking. So does nighttime lighting that is directed downward, and limited to only what is needed in terms of intensity and “on” times. 

Let’s give ourselves more opportunity to hear what the heavens declare, through a little more science in the Bluegrass.

Chris Graney is a parishioner at St. Louis Bertrand Church who is an astronomer and historian of science with the Vatican’s astronomical observatory.

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2 replies on “Science in the Bluegrass — Planetariums are expensive but important”
  1. says: Margaret Taffy Hill

    Thank you for this article. Likewise, I wrote Joe Gerth of the Courier Journal in response to his column on the Planetarium status.

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