The best show in New York City is not on Broadway. It’s the spectacular three-dimensional film Passport to the Universe at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a surreal sphere-inside-glass cube recently erected behind Manhattan’s crusty old American Museum of Natural History.
You take the elevator up three floors to the upper half of what’s called the Hayden Sphere; the lights go dim, you lean back in your plush seat and the latest cinematic technologya one-of-a-kind Zeiss Mark IX star projector and digital dome projection systemtakes you on a tour of the cosmos, opening with Zodiac figures superimposed upon images of the night sky. That’s the last thing that’s familiar. We are not the center of the cosmos, narrator Tom Hanks remarks, we are part of something much bigger.
From there on, you are positioned in reference to successive scales of cosmic space. First you zoom around our solar system, past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and then hurtle out beyond our sun some 100,000 light years to other star systemsto see our spiral Milky Way galaxy displayed as a whole. Star factories, Mr. Hanks reminds you, manufacture all the heavier chemical elements, including the carbon from which your body is madeyou are the fallout of stars. Then you move out farther still, to the 2,000 galaxies that form the Virgo supercluster to which our galaxy belongs. Finally, after descending into the gravitational vacuum of a black hole, you find yourself swimming around in the midst of hundredsno, billionsof other galaxies, our Milky Way galaxy the merest dot in a vast sea of black space and exploding supernovas.
The numbers are numbing; the universe is too much, one huge excess.
The film is short, scarcely 20 minutes, and I can hardly claim that my own reaction will be yours. But my first response was close to that of Rilke’s before the ancient Greek statue of Apollo: You must change your life. Next was this: I’ve got to redo all my theology! Even though I’ve just written a book about the new cosmology, it is now clear that I’ve barely scratched the surface. The God of this universe must be a lot stranger than anything I’ve yet conceived. The Muslims, the Book of Job, have it rightGod is great! God is wild! And not to be tamed, confined, or encapsulated in the formulas of the world’s Eliphazes, Bildads and Zophars. The policemen of orthodoxy don’t think big enough.
Of course one also thinks of Pascal’s fright when he saw the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after...the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me. Indeed, some of my friends have found themselves disconcerted by the Rose Center’s film; they felt belittled, as if it were attacking the doctrine of the Incarnation.
For my part, however, perhaps because I’m bewitched by my own chatter, it’s occasionally a great relief to be left speechless. Moreover, being placed in the cosmosand hence dwarfed, reduced to nothingness in comparisonis somehow purifying. The film reminded me of the way I’ve felt after hiking in the High Sierras or running rapids in the Grand Canyon. It’s a paradox, but feeling you’re a small part of something so big quickens the sympathetic nervous system.
It was only with Edwin Hubble’s discoveries in the 1920’s that astronomers recognized that the universe as a whole has a history. The museum’s attempt to show this history uses a spiral 560-foot walkway that starts with the Big Bang and chronicles the 13-billion-year evolution of the universe, where each step represents 75 million years and all of recorded human history amounts to no more than the width of a human hair at the end of the ramp. What is needed is another film that does for time what Passport to the Universe does for space.