Outside your comfort zone

(Greg Weiss)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / March 19, 2011

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As a 6-year-old who is, by definition, vertically challenged, Ava is highly aware of who’s sitting in front of her at plays and movie theaters. So when she took her seat at the Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium, she immediately griped that she wasn’t going to be able to see.

“Don’t worry,’’ we told her. “Look up.’’

In the plush reclining seats that fill the auditorium — which reopened to the public last month after a $9 million renovation — everyone gets a stunning view of the 57-foot dome. Alas, on the day we attended, the planetarium’s state-of-the-art, $2 million Zeiss Starmaster projector was on the fritz. We relied on a digital backup system, so I’m not sure what we missed. But what we saw made an impression on a child who is newly aware of what lies beyond her planet.

The planetarium offers several different shows, but we chose “The Sky Tonight,’’ a basic primer of the planets and stars on view in Boston. It was geared toward young audiences and astronomy beginners, with live narration from an enthusiastic astronomer. She called out for answers, made a few jokes, and used some nifty digital magic to outline some of the famous constellations.

But where things really got exciting — for Ava, at least — was when we “left’’ our perch on Earth, zoomed up for a close view of Saturn and its rings, then continued past the solar system and beyond the Milky Way. Ava swore it was we who were moving, not the screen, and when we stopped short at Saturn, she let out a shriek. (Apologies to the patrons behind us.)

The 40-minute show was perfect for limited attention spans, and we exited to an interactive exhibit on the solar system, featuring scale models of the planets and the sun. The last planet was Neptune, not Pluto. So much for my elementary-school education; this new stuff is up to date.

Tickets to the Planetarium are separate from those to the main exhibit halls, so you could go for a quick visit if you wanted. But we were lured to the museum’s other bells, whistles, and cheery volunteers. The stars and planets made an impression on Ava, but so did an exhibit on the workings of the human body, which had her building a “pulse detector’’ out of Play-Doh, a straw, and a bottlecap. She walked out of the museum with a stack of spoils — and an inclination to study the nighttime sky.

Tickets $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 children. Admission to main museum exhibit halls not included. For schedule and ticket ordering, go to

WHO: Globe columnist Joanna Weiss, her brother, and her daughter, Ava, 6

WHAT: Visiting the planets

WHERE: Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science

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