Feb. 6, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 9

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    Cosmic exhibition: DASI research travels from South Pole to New York City museum

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    John Carlstrom, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, stands atop the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer telescope, which is located at the South Pole. The array of telescopes are collecting data on the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the big bang.
    A film crew from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City recently traveled to the end of the Earth to make a film about the beginning of the universe.

    The seven-minute documentary film that resulted focuses on the work of University astrophysicists who work with the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer telescope at the South Pole.

    Titled Cosmic Microwave Background: The New Cosmology, the film opened this month at the museum’s Lewis Cullman Hall of the Universe and will run for approximately six months.

    Complementing the film is a temporary planetarium exhibition built by students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Both the film and the exhibition focus on the work of Chicago astrophysicists who have used the DASI telescope to produce landmark studies of the universe when it was only 400,000 years old.

    Randy Landsberg, Director of Public Outreach for the University’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, who works with scientists at the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, had over the years cultivated working relationships with the American Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He conceived the cosmology in Antarctica project in 2000, and saw it through by helping to secure interest from all parties, including arranging a trip for museum staff to the South Pole and serving as their guide there.

    Landsberg received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education Program.

    “I don’t think it’s very common to have an educational project end up at the highest level,” said research astrophysicist Orsola De Marco, the museum’s Asimov Fellow. “It’s a proper exhibition in a major hall in a major museum. I don’t know that it’s ever been done.”

    The planetarium even broke its own rule against displaying research instruments, usually preferring instead to focus on scientific results.

    “I got really excited when they sent me the drawing with their original ideas, and so I pushed all the way to Neil Tyson, the head of the planetarium,” she said. Tyson initially nixed the project, but De Marco persuaded him to relent. The Pittsburgh students and their instructor were glad he did.

    “They were elated to an extent that I haven’t seen in students in a long time,” said Bill Farrell, the industrial design instructor who oversaw the class that built the exhibition.

    The exhibition, which went on display in November, is 8-feet wide, 8-feet high and 3-feet deep. Two side panels contain graphics and information, and the center panel houses a three-foot model of DASI and a video screen.

    Landsberg had worked previously with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh on two other projects of interest to the University’s Antarctic astronomers: designing high-quality cold-weather gear and the “Ice Prowler,” a bicycle for use in ice and snow.

    The film crew managed to maneuver the frigid conditions of the South Pole and encountered no technical problems while gathering high-definition footage there. The filmmakers, who also shot footage on the University campus, did however find the elusive subject matter presented a challenge, said producer Vivian Trakinski.

    “It’s a tough content area. You’re making a film about something you can’t see,” she said, referring to the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the big bang. But the DASI team, led by John Carlstrom, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, helped make it possible.

    “It really is phenomenal that people like John Carlstrom, who are doing this kind of work, were so generous with their time,” Trakinski said.

    The American Museum of Natural History will distribute the film to other institutions as part of the AstroBulletin series. The film also will be shown at Boston’s Museum of Science, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Science Museum of Virginia, the National Science Center’s Fort Discovery in Augusta, Ga., and at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Johnson Space Center, Houston; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; and the Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.