The planetarium at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is not the world's largest, but a recent overhaul has given it the latest technology in the field. It's a journey not to be missed, says Nader Habib
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Clockwise from top: the planetarium's viewing screen is shaped like a dome; entrance to the planetarium; an Astrolabe from the Abbasid period; the science museum
When you see the bluish glow coming from the dome perched in front of the tilting disc near the Mediterranean coast, you might think of saucers and alien space ships. The guess is not so far off the mark. The Alexandria Library, or Bibliotheca Alexandrina, now boasts the latest in space technology, or at least in the technology of enjoying space from a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned environment.
The dome adjacent to the Bibliotheca today hosts one of the best planetariums in the region. It is still a small one, perhaps, but when it comes to simulating space, compact may be fun too.
Think of the many scientists who have helped to unravel the mysteries of the universe, much of which remains unknown to this day. Think, too, of the ancient Egyptians and their forays into astrology, a science they used to perfect their religious architecture. Now, think Alexandria.
The famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina, now seven years old, has re-inaugurated its planetarium, equipping it with the latest technology for display and simulation. Tourism Minister Zoheir Garana attended the inauguration, along with Alexandria Governor Adel Labib and head of the Bibliotheca Ismail Serageddin.
Two days before the launch, I visited the planetarium. All around me, workers were flitting back and forth, fixing walls and painting door frames. Technicians were reprogramming computers, in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the viewing equipment. The man in charge was Omar Fikri, chief of the viewing unit.
"The story of the planetarium began with the opening of the Bibliotheca itself," Fikri said. "The designers wanted the main building to take the shape of a permanently rising sun. The Bibliotheca's building resembles a disk leaning towards the sea, like an ever- shining sun. And when you have a sun, you tend to think of the planets that come with it as well. That's why the planetarium was built."
The planetarium is quite a spectacle. Illuminated with blue circles, it resembles the globe, complete with lines of longitude and latitude. According to Fikri, the first planetarium was built in Germany in the 1930s, just when scientists began to realise that the lighting of modern cities deprives urban dwellers from enjoying the night sky.
However, the ancient Egyptians had a similar idea, thousands of years before the Germans perfected it. "Historically, the credit for creating the first planetarium can be claimed by the ancient Egyptians. If you visit the Temple of Dandara near Qena you'll see a depiction of the stars used for navigation, clearly showing the well-known constellations." The ancient Egyptians' interest in the night sky was not just architectural, or mythological, however. They needed the stars to predict the Nile's flood and to perform basic agricultural functions, Fikri said.
The first planetarium in the Middle East was built in Cairo in 1951, close to what is now the Opera House. The planetarium ran on a German viewing machine called a Space Master, at the time the latest in such technology. This planetarium was closed in 1993 without any explanation being offered to the public.
Fikri recalls that he used to go to the Cairo planetarium during college. He even wrote research papers about it, he said. For him, a visit to the planetarium was more entertaining even than a visit to the cinema.
A planetarium takes the form of a cinema, only a more sophisticated one, with the viewing screen being shaped like a dome. The auditorium is arranged in semi-circular rows, with seats leaning backwards to allow a view of the simulated skies. The average show lasts anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes. While the Cairo planetarium had 500 seats, the Alexandria planetarium at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has only 100 seats.
The planetarium at the Bibliotheca was launched in 2002, the same year in which the library opened its doors to the public. However, its operating system at the time was five years older, having been designed in 1997. With speedy advances in digital technology, the system soon needed updating. Using a $1 million grant from the Ministry of Tourism, the Bibliotheca was able to buy a new system from Evans & Sutherland, an American company.
According to the contract, this new system, Digistar 3, will be updated in four months' time to an even newer system, Digistar 4, which is still on the drawing board. Even so, the planetarium's current technology allows it to offer shows in 3D quality, in which viewers can see the sky not only as it appears from earth, but also as it appears from selected points in space.
"The planetarium is mainly an educational and cultural tool. However, it is also a tourist attraction. We have a show at the moment called the Stars of the Pharaohs, and this makes you feel as if you're walking in ancient temples. The simulation is so real, you feel you've gone back in time," Fikri said.
The planetarium also uses Imax technology, which has applications in astronomy, navigation and medicine. "We have five shows using this technology, including a show that gives viewers the feeling they are journeying through various parts of the human body. We also have a film about earthquakes and volcanoes, another about the sun, and yet another about deep sea travelling," Fikri said.
All this new technology comes at a cost. The licence for operating one of the available programmes is around $20,000 per year, and in addition the Bibliotheca is also venturing into the realms of production.
"We have a production unit specialising in producing planetarium shows designed for our needs. We have produced a show called the Sky of Alexandria, for which I wrote the script myself and then gave it to Farouk El-Baz, the great Egyptian scientist, to retouch. The graphic design for this show took three years of work at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology. Now, having updated our production unit, we can produce a film every year or so, which is about the standard time worldwide. The graphics are the hardest part, as you know," Fikri commented.
One of the most recent shows at the planetarium is called Eyes of the Sky, an account of the history of astronomy from ancient Greek to Abbasid times.
The timing of the planetarium's re-launch has been fortunate, for in June 2010 the Bibliotheca will host the 20th conference of the International Planetarium Society, IPS. This is a major event and an honour for Egypt, which won the right to host the event over rival bids from France and China.
The IPS was formed in 1970 in order to bring together experts in promoting and improving planetariums. The Alexandria planetarium, one of the world's smallest, was nevertheless chosen to host the event because of the city's important cultural heritage, besides the fact that the Bibliotheca has offered to support more upcoming events.
Hanaa Hassan is chief of the programmes and activities unit at the planetarium's Scientific Centre, and she adds that the unit has an educational and entertainment programme for children of all ages, as well as a museum that records the history of scientific research in Egypt from Greek to Islamic times. The unit also organises science competitions for the young, together with awareness-building programmes, including one on recycling.
"Some of the children who used to come to the Bibliotheca in 2002 have grown up now and are working with us as volunteers. It's great to see them come back after all these years to help out. Many are now studying engineering, medicine, and pharmacology, perhaps having been inspired by what they saw at the planetarium," Hassan said.
For those who cannot visit the Alexandria planetarium soon, visiting the planetarium's website at www.neave.com/www.neave.com/planetarium offers a virtual journey through space. The site also offers pictures of the earth from outer space, close-up shots of various celestial bodies and satellite pictures, together with online games of the Star Wars variety.