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Summoning the heavens, Malden man at helm of revamped planetarium

Posted by Matt Byrne  February 14, 2011 10:04 AM

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Matt Byrne

Darryl Davis, 53, of Malden, is the veteran operator and all-around expert at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science, which will open this week after a multi-million-dollar refurbishment.

  With a single finger he summoned the heavens.

A flick of his wrist and he soared past the solar system, dashing out beyond our nearest celestial neighbors light years away, until our galaxy fades into a pointillist cloud of galaxies, numbering millions and millions themselves, each unfathomably distant and inconceivably large.

Out he soared farther, until the universe hangs at his whim. And Darryl Davis was just getting warmed up.

"That's the thing about learning how to drive," said Davis, who sat comfortably behind the two flat panel monitors that control -- for lack of a better term -- the known universe.

"Some people go zoom, zoom, zoom,” he said. “You have to learn to be smooth."

And smooth he is.

For 25 years Davis, 53, of Malden, has been the man behind the curtain at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science. Largely self-taught over several decades, he has been controller of the stars long enough to have become expert in the repair of the 72 slide projectors and the aging star machine that used to power the facility’s shows.


PlanetariumPortrait.jpgSo it was with boyish delight Friday night that he called up a digital sunset, its blue wintery glow fading to the west, diminishing to black before pin-prick stars shone in time-lapsed arcs.

It’s been more than 15 years since the Charles Hayden was last refurbished, and yesterday the museum flung open the doors to the public after a $9.4 million top-to-bottom revamp, giving Davis and his cohorts a slew of new toys to entertain and educate the public.

"For instance, right now, we're loading the universe," he said with a sly grin, standing behind the red-lit computer station near one of the sound-proofed walls. Settling behind the flat-panel monitors that display a field of buttons, sliders and attenuators, Davis manipulates the controls with a practiced ease, the product of years experience.

Unseen to visitors, the operator’s interface connects to the planetarium’s nerve center, a humming equipment closet packed with racks of super-fast computer processors that perform the immense calculations required to give the images their detail and fluidity.

And all fall under the watchful eye of the Hayden’s troubleshooter-cum-astronomer, Davis, who was initiated into the ranks of planetaria professional as a teenager.

At 17 he became de-facto director, operator, and fix-it man after repairing a defunct facility in his native Brooklyn, N.Y. After a stint at aircraft repair school, Davis settled into planetarium life, and has worked in facilities as far as Texas, he said.

As the planetarium begins to operate at full bore, details and quirks are still being ironed out. (During a recent show, an automatic closing door malfunctioned, and early in a special screening of the show a constellation hung stuck on the screen, but was quickly corrected.)

Museum officials are touting the 57-foot dome as the premiere place in New England to gaze upon heavenly bodies, even if they are the computer generated kind, boasting that the padded seats best even the most choice of natural vantages.

"It's probably better than the top of Mount Washington, and a heck of lot less dangerous," said David Rabkin, planetarium director, in a phone interview last week.

The new digital systems open a universe of possibilities for the in-house team of animators, programmers, and graphics artists charged with constructing entire digital worlds for museum-goers to visually feast upon.

“We love showing people the cool stuff,” said Davis after a brief demonstration of a planet with a surface temperature of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, lovingly constructed over several months by one of the animators who creates the flowing magma, swirling atmosphere, and cracking alien landscape.

The hellish vista is one of a handful that will be featured in Undiscovered Worlds, a 35-minute program about what astronomers call exo-planets, the distant bodies that orbit foreign stars and show evidence planetary features such as weather and landscape.

The images reach the screen through a sophisticated digital projection system tucked behind walls at opposite sides of the auditorium displaying moons, nebulae, and galaxies in crisp detail -- all with a few clicks by Davis.

But arguably half of the technology that engineers packed into the 209-seat auditorium is crammed into a sinister-looking, Death Star-esque device planted about five feet off the ground. (a sinister-looking device almost reminiscent of the Death Star)

The star projector, affectionately called "The Zeiss," after the name of the company who manufactured it, is powered by a single bulb at its core, and is literal centerpiece in the auditorium. The powerful light is sent streaming through fiber-optic cables, each beaming a single anthracite-colored point onto the screen above.

The system is so precise, Davis said, that every star in some of the cloud-like groupings is depicted individually; the German-made projector is resolute enough that in the future visitors will be invited on special nights to bring a pair of binoculars to admire the details.

Combined, they make for a fish-eye high definition experience flexible enough to simulate yesterday's sunrise over Boston Harbor or reveal the lattice-like web of every known galaxy.

The images are no set-piece renderings, said Davis, as he hop-scotched around the solar system, showing the bird’s nest of orbital trajectories of the Keuiper Belt, a group of meteoric matter swirling around the sun at extreme distances; or the whirling surface of Jupiter and its bevy of moons, each fully animated and controllable.

The celestial imagery, produced by a Nashua, N.H. company that specializes in visualizations for planetariums, is based on research data from astronomers who continually gather information by peering farther into space and time, he said. The data sets used at the Hayden will be updated regularly, Davis said.

“Things constantly change and you get new material,” he said, excited at the prospect of evolving data.

But for Davis, the true thrill comes when he can guide visitors through concepts and theories they rarely broach in daily life, which he said is the part of his job that he relishes most.

"It's being able to share your love of the universe.”


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