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A Room With A View
JMU Planetarium Puts Universe On Display

Posted with permission from the Daily News-Record.

Posted: October 22, 2011
By Joshua Brown

Shanil Virani and student volunteers stand in the planetarium
Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University Shanil Virani (center) stands with student operators junior Caitlin McDermott, 20, (left) and senior Chris Wolfe, 22, (right). A typical Saturday event at the planetarium includes an approximately 30-minute movie about astronomy, followed by a "star talk," during which attendees can ask questions of volunteers. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)


Shanil Virani standing near the star ball in the planetarium
James Madison University Planetarium Director Shanil Virani talks about the Chronos Star Ball, which uses 6,000 lenses and mirrors to project constellations.

HARRISONBURG - As they sit in the domed planetarium on James Madison University's campus, Shanil Virani and Caitlin McDermott turn their conversation toward dark energy, the stuff scientists believe make up about 70 percent of the universe.

The energy makes the universe expand at an increasing rate, a find from 1998 that won the Nobel Prize in Physics this year. Before long, that discussion leads to dark matter, another mysterious substance that emits and scatters no light but makes up about 26 percent of the universe, Virani says.

"So, 96 percent of the universe is this stuff we have no clue about," he said. "I think that's tremendously exciting."

Virani is the director of the John C. Wells Planetarium, which is run with the help of several student volunteers.

During a recent demonstration at the planetarium, he displayed the daytime sky over Harrisonburg as it would look without the sun's light overpowering the stars, then changed the display to how it would look later that night.

As eyes adjust to the blackness, Virani locates the North Star (Polaris), explaining that it appears differently today than it did to the ancient Mayans. Civilizations another 5,000 years from now will have a different luminary as their North Star, he says.

Then he points out several constellations and asterisms, or recognizable patterns of stars, that may or may not be part of a constellation.

The Big Dipper, he notes, is an asterism that is part of the constellation Ursa Major, Latin for "Larger Bear."

As bands of the Milky Way become visible, he explains that the "milky" look comes from stars whose light blends together, indistinguishable as individual light sources.

Theater Volunteers
McDermott, who is studying education, first became interested in astronomy in grade school, when her stepfather got her into stargazing. "I remember in first grade, he gave me two books on constellations," she says.

Now a junior at the university, the hobby stuck with her. She's an officer in the astronomy club and volunteers at the planetarium, one of the few in the country that contains both a "star ball" projector and a digital projector.

The theater offers shows at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. every Saturday, or private shows during the week that can be tailored to the group's needs based on the availability of volunteers.

The planetarium shows two astronomy movies monthly. One is geared toward younger audiences, while the other aims for more mature viewers. A typical Saturday event includes an approximately 30-minute movie and a 25-minute "star talk" afterward, during which attendees can ask questions of the volunteers.

During her "star talks," McDermott often discusses constellations and how different cultures view the night sky. But the real impact on viewers comes when she adjusts for light pollution.

"That's the real wow moment for them," she said of their amazed reactions. "Every audience reacts the exact same way, actually. It's so funny."

The experience also differs because each of the volunteers focus on different interests in their talks, Virani noted.

"This allows people to come back repeatedly and see different movies and different talks," he said.

Rewinding Time
During their conversation on the mysteries of the universe, Virani and McDermott turn to discussing neutrinos, a particle that seems to have traveled faster than light during a recent experiment that garnered global attention.

If neutrinos can indeed travel faster than light, time travel would be possible, in theory. But such a development defies all established theories.

"This is a fantastic claim, and we have to see a lot more before we accept that it's right," Virani says.

He points out that scientists believe some aspect of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity is incorrect. But the announcement of potentially faster-than-light travel, if true, would be such a radical departure from foundational physics that it would fundamentally change humans' understanding of the universe.

"I think it's doubtful [that it's true]," he said.

But, as scientists put the findings through the wringer, Virani and his crew of volunteers can transport visitors any time they want, thanks to a simple computer trick. Thanks to a star mapping program, viewers can see the stars as they looked thousands of years ago. Or how they will look eons into the future.

To book a private group show or for more information about the planetarium, visit www.jmu.edu/planetarium or email planetarium@jmu.edu.

Contact Joshua Brown at 574-6218 or jbrown@dnronline.com