Making the Stars: A Brief History of the Burke Baker Planetarium

In July of 1964, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened its new museum in Hermann Park with modest exhibit space and the Burke Baker Planetarium. A state-of-the-art Spitz Space Transit Planetarium dominated the theater’s center with its flat floor and a few slide projectors. Two star balls connected by cages, swinging in a yoke, generated the moving stars and planets. All programs were live star tours.

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That year the Houston Independent School District began sending students to the Burke Baker Planetarium. In the last 50 years, over a million HISD children have explored the starry night in an experience reaching every HISD student at least once.

For an idea of what the planetarium experience was back in the 1970s, take a look at my first Burke Baker Planetarium brochure. The brochure was a 3-fold with the front and back cover shown below. The address was 5800 Caroline Street. When you called for reservations, you only used seven digits. The museum was free, but the planetarium cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. We did two or three shows a day plus morning school shows and thought we were busy. Now we do 13 to 16 shows each day. Notice the map. The passage between the planetarium and the tiny museum was a glassed-in breezeway.  

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Inside the brochure was a description of the planetarium experience. Burke Baker’s gift has now brought the astronomy experience to more than 7.5 million people, including all upper elementary students in the Houston Independent School District since 1965.  

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Below is the fold over section showing our new Margaret Root Brown Telescope, which is still behind my office on the third floor. We need an access across the roof to open it up to the public once again as well as realuminizing of the mirror. The telescope tracked the sun automatically and sent a live image to the planetarium and the Energy Hall in the lower level. We created five new shows each year, but they were much easier to produce than the two new shows we do now. 

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In 1988, the Burke Baker Planetarium was one of the first in the world to go digital. In a capital campaign that funded the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, the planetarium’s Friedkin Theater became a space simulator with an Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1, the world’s first digital planetarium projection system.

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In 1998, a decade later, the Burke Baker Planetarium was first in the United States and second in the world to install a Digital Sky full-dome digital video projection system. This dynamic immersive environment was funded by a grant from NASA through Rice University. Now the planetarium could offer full-dome animations and movies with a new slightly tilted dome and seats. The planetarium’s Cosmic Mysteries and Powers of Time were among the first full dome digital films produced.

Eighteen years later, the Friedkin Theater of the Burke Baker Planetarium becomes the most advanced True 8K planetarium in the world. On March 11, HMNS will unveil an overhauled theater featuring an all-new, tilted, seamless projection dome and the main attraction, the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 digital projection system. This cutting-edge system brings the highest resolution, the brightest colors, and the most advanced spatial imaging technology on the market to the planetarium, restoring its status as best in the world.

Editor’s note: Keep your eyes peeled for more details about the Planetarium renovation on social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and right here on our BEYONDbones blog. Throughout the month of February and early March, we’ll be posting the latest information about the project until the grand opening March 11. 

Behind the Scenes: HMNS Birthday Planning

by Karen Whitley

People always tell me that I have the best job and that I must love it. My response each time? “Absolutely!”

Planning and hosting birthday parties at such an awesome venue as the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it doesn’t get much better than that. Of course, people think all we do all day is party, and while there’s definitely some celebrating going on, a lot more happens behind the scenes to make sure each and every party runs smoothly. It’s not all cake and presents.

Dinosuar centerpiece (Bollingmo Party)

Each year, the HMNS is host to hundreds of birthday parties. In 2015 alone we hosted more than 520 parties. That’s an average of 10 parties per week! We have even hosted up to 20 parties in one weekend! Phew, that’s exhausting just to think about. As exciting as parties are, though, it all begins in the office.

Every week we field dozens of phone calls and emails from parents interested in hosting a party with us. From parents requesting date availability and more information about our parties, to parents who are already booked and want to discuss their party, we are happy to talk to you and assist in any way we can. I have once even measured every single counter, table, wall angle, and even the freezer space for a parent.

Bunch of Balloons

Once a parent is ready to book, we try to keep the process as smooth as possible for them while we deal with the various paperwork. Who wouldn’t love a little less paperwork? After a parent is sent the confirmation email, they are all set to go. We will even send a reminder email closer to the date. Yes, parents have forgotten that they have their child’s birthday coming up, but no worries, we’ve got you covered! If you’re looking to add one of the entertainment options we have, we will facilitate the whole thing for you as well. My desk is a mess so yours can stay clean. That’s the story I’m sticking with.

Booking a party is just the beginning. Since every party comes complete with tablecloths and a craft, we have to make sure we have enough supplies on hand. That involves a word most adults wish to avoid — inventory! Did you know that for our dig pit craft where kids get to dig up small plaster dinosaur teeth, we make those teeth in house? Each and every tooth is made by one of our party coordinators during the week. We can use up to 200 teeth each weekend!

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So how many supplies does it take to run more than 500 parties a year? Here’s just a few numbers:

  1. 10,000 coloring pages. We used to print these in house too, but yay for outsourcing!
  2. Over 4,000 signs pointing guests the way to their party room. Yes, they do exist!
  3. 3,000 tablecloths. If you lay the tablecloths end to end, we use approximately 26,000 feet! That’s almost five miles, or 88 football field lengths for the football fanatics. Me, I prefer baseball. Go ‘Stros!
  4. Over 2,500 Ziploc bags, popsicle sticks, and plastic cups. Add a little glue, paint, and borax and what do you get? Slime!
  5. 1,700 plaster dinosaur teeth. Emphasis on plaster.
  6. 860 butterflies released into the Butterfly Center rainforest.
  7. 800 Pounds of sand. Did I mention the arm work-outs we get?

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When the day of the party arrives, we make sure we get here early. I once remember what is was like to sleep in on a Saturday. Fond memories. The signs go up, the tables are set, the crafts are prepared, and then we wait for the call from arriving parents. Once we get the call, the party coordinator will take a cart to the garage to pick them up. I think we can all agree that we enjoy the cooler months. We load up the parent’s supplies on the cart and take them to the room. Let me say to all the parents, you sure know how to pack an ice chest to *cough* maximum capacity.

After that comes the easy part. Two hours of a coordinator running the party, keeping the attention of about 20 children, giving a dinosaur tour that three-year-olds can understand, wrangling all the children and their parents through our exhibit halls and making sure we have no wanderers, and even getting to practice knife-cutting skills on uniquely shaped cakes.

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Do you know how many shapes a cake can come in? My personal favorite was the giant pyramid where all the kids wanted the flavor on the bottom of the pyramid. Who knew we would learn about structural engineering as well. Once the party ends and we help escort the party parents back to their car, we generally have about 15 minutes to clean and reset the room to do it all over again!

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In all actuality, hosting birthday parties can be a lot of work on our end, but we wouldn’t change a thing. The joy we get in being able to be a part of a child’s special day, it really is priceless. We have even had the chance to watch some children grow up in the museum, as they come back each year to have their party with us. Seeing a child light up as we walk though 100-million-year-old dinosaur fossils, a living rainforest, ancient mummies, and more… that’s what makes this job so amazing. Well, that and the cake.

Editor’s Note: Karen is Birthday Party Manager for the HMNS Marketing department.

Ready, set, STEM! 2016 HMNS Outreach programs focus on physical fitness!

Get yourself in gear this summer with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and our Science Start Outreach programs! It’s never too early to register for these super fun educational activities.

Take the first steps to physical fitness by understanding how the human body works and how it compares to other animals with our brand new Body Works programs! There will be three different programs, each focusing on a different portion of the body: Movin’ and Shakin’, Pump It Up and Head Honcho.

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How do the different parts of your body work in coordination to throw a football? We’ll discuss human anatomy in Science Start: Body Works!

Any discussion of sports and fitness needs to include a lengthy section on the human body’s skeleton and muscles, and we’ll tackle those topics in Movin’ and Shakin’! The components of our endoskeleton give our body its shape and stability; it would be pretty tough to shoot some hoops without bones! The muscles, tendons and ligaments allow for efficient and calculated motion that lets humans do everything from riding a bike to kicking a ball.

We’ll explore differences between our arms and the appendages of other animals that have different purposes, like a bird’s wing or a whale’s flipper. We’ll discover how our muscles work together to make simple actions like smiling possible. And we’ll do it all with museum specimens and a museum educator leading the way!

Next, it’s important to understand how the body gets the energy it needs to keep going. Pump It Up takes a look at the heart, blood and kidneys and how they work together to keep the body running smoothly. The bloodstream is vital for exercise, as our red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, supplying cells in muscles with important resources to continue working properly. Of course, the blood won’t get very far without the pumping action of the heart, and the bloodstream would not be as effective without the filtering power of the kidneys.

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In Pump It Up, we’ll compare the human heart with that of an animal much smaller than us (a rat) and an animal much larger (a cow). We will take a look at the rainbow of different colors of blood represented by various animals around the world as well as how human kidneys keep our blood pure. We’ll certainly get your heart racing!

Of course, to complete an action as complex as throwing a curveball, there has to be a manager, coordinating all of the motions to produce a consistent result. That’s the head honcho, so to speak, or the brain! The human brain has around 100 billion neurons, and many of those have hundreds of synapses (essentially connections between neurons). It’s estimated that there are over 100 trillion synapses in the human brain!

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In Head Honcho, we’ll compare our brain with animals of all kinds, from the ancient Tyrannosaurus rex to modern sharks. From there, we’ll look at the skulls and teeth of other animals and how we can figure out what that animal ate from what its teeth look like.

Each of these programs correlates to TEKS objectives and is perfect for young learners! Book now for these awesome programs, beginning June 1.

To schedule a presentation, contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758!

Sports Science: Football

The fourth Thursday in November is the perfect time to spend time with family, eat some home-cooked comfort food, and watch grown men throw around an inflated pig bladder.

That’s right, folks; the world’s first American football was actually an inflated pig bladder, hence the nickname “pigskin.” Don’t worry, modern footballs are made of leather or vulcanized rubber, but the shape of a football remains the same as it’s ever been, lending itself to an interesting discussion of physics.

My sophomore year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, my physics professor’s lecture the week of Thanksgiving featured two balls, a red rubber kickball and an American football. She asked us to predict how the balls would bounce. The spherical kickball was easy; the American football was not.

Football shape

The ovoid shape combined with the two sharp points at each end mean that the ball can bounce in just about any direction at any angle depending on its orientation as it is falling and what part of the football makes contact with the ground. That’s why every football coach I ever had drilled us on just falling on the ball instead of trying to catch it or scoop it up; it is extraordinarily difficult to predict just which way the ball will bounce! These bounces often manifest on plays when a bouncing ball is live, like a fumble, an onside kick or following a punt.

As the game evolved, so did the football itself. As you can imagine, inflating animal bladders can be inconsistent; now, the NFL football is standardized at about 11 inches long from tip to tip and a circumference of about 28 inches around the center. Those bladders could also be difficult to grip, so the modern football has a coarse, pebbled texture as well as white laces in the center.

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Because of its shape, the football cuts through the air most easily when spinning around its longest axis, called a spiral. This spiral minimizes air resistance and allows the ball to move in a more predictable parabolic motion.

A common misconception is that the spiral motion allows the ball to travel farther, but this idea falls apart with basic physics. When a ball is initially thrown, there is a set quantity of total energy in the system. That set amount cannot be increased or decreased, just changed from one form to another according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. The spinning motion of a football in the air requires kinetic energy, so every Joule of kinetic energy required to keep the ball spinning is less energy dedicated to the football’s motion.

Instead, the spiral is important because of a concept called angular momentum. A spinning football behaves like a gyroscope; a ball will maintain roughly the same orientation while travelling. This makes the football’s movement from point to point easier to track and predict for a player.step0So when tossing around the ol’ pigskin Thanksgiving Day, make sure you grip the ball with the laces as you throw! What works best for me is to put my middle finger, ring finger and pinkie finger on alternating laces at the front of the ball (as pictured above).

When throwing a football, it is important to generate the force for the ball from your legs. If you are right-handed like me, stand sideways with your right leg behind you. Push off against the ground with your back leg and turn your body to throw as you do so. Bring the football backwards and then forwards over your shoulder, allowing the ball to roll off of your fingers straight. No need for any wrist twisting, as the ball should naturally move in a spiral. (See proper form below.)step1Step one: feet shoulder width apart, hands meet on the ball.step2Step two: weight on your back foot, bring the ball back, wrist out.step3

Step three: throw the ball, wrist in. Allow the ball to roll off of your fingers, but keep your wrist straight and stable. Release the ball over your shoulder. Remember, it’s not a baseball. step4Step four: follow through after the release.

Whether you’re facing the New Orleans Saints or the neighbors across the street, the principles of physics are crucial to your football team coming out on top. May the forces be with you! Happy Thanksgiving!