When stars are harder to see, UWM's planetarium remains a gathering place to learn & be inspired
The Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus is celebrating a special centennial this weekend.
While the planetarium itself isn't 100 years old, the invention of the planetarium is. The Manfred Olson Planetarium, named after a UWM physics professor, was built to be a gathering place where people could learn and be inspired by the many wonders of space.
“I think he understood the value of having this kind of facility, especially in a city, where increasingly people are able to see stars less and less,” says Jean Creighton, director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium, about the professor.
Creighton notes the Manfred Olson Planetarium was built in 1965, during a time when people were fascinated by the Space Race.
“[The Manfred Olson Planetarium] was one of many [planetariums] that sprung in that time in the U.S. and around the world,” she says. “To give you a sense, about 200 were built around the Great Lakes at that time.”
Creighton notes that the projector at the Manfred Olson Planetarium is original to the building, and it’s actually the machine that gives the dome building its name.
The large round ball at the very top of the planetarium projector is called a star ball — the lenses protruding from the ball help display galaxies and very bright stars.
“[Special lenses] help focus the light, so that particular stars look brighter than the rest, but also if it has a color, you can put a little film and make it red or bluer, for example,” Creighton explains. “Most stars on that star ball will be invisible to us with a naked eye because they're too small.”
The bright LED lamp in the middle of the planetarium then projects point-like stars on the dome theater.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have gasped when that transition happens to a country sky,” she says, “when they feel like somehow I took off the roof and we’re outside.”
Creighton says the legacy of planetariums is to help people appreciate and learn how to care for the Earth as they learn about what’s in outer space. But she also feels planetariums also play a major role in bringing people together.
“We are losing city folk, especially that connection with how the earth fits into the grander scheme,” she says. “I think the key point now is to find spaces, where communities can gather together and be odd. I really think we need more of that in-person togetherness … and the sky is a great unifier.”
The Manfred Olson Planetarium at UW-Milwaukee’s Centennial Party will take place on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 6 p.m. You can find more information about the event here.