Adler Planetarium: Contemplating the infinite

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Go to Adler Planetarium if you're feeling big in your britches, a little prideful about our species' role in things.

In Chicago's lakefront astronomy museum, there's no escaping what a little grain of sand on an enormous beach we are.

Video presentations take visitors on voyages to some of the billions of other galaxies. The information surrounding a scale-model Earth reminds us what a happy accident it is that our planet can sustain life.

Even Adler's layout, including a deep-basement theater, semicircular exhibit galleries and a nowheresville "Mid Level," conspires to teach visitors that it's hard to be master of one smallish museum, never mind of the universe itself.

It is ironic, then, that of the three institutions on Chicago's Museum Campus, Adler is the little guy, drawing fewer than 500,000 visitors annually, while the Field Museum tops 1 million and Shedd Aquarium 2 million.

Shedd takes on Earth's aquatic life, and Field its natural history. Adler handles merely the cosmos. You know, the place that is immeasurably, mind-numbingly vast, progenitor of such fundamental contemporary questions as what is dark matter and how did the universe begin?

In the middle of all this cosmological import is Grainger Sky Theater, the central dome that pokes up out of the classic 1930 main building. A star in its own right, the theater was retrofitted in 2011 with sound and video systems that have made it the envy of any theater or planetarium in the world.

It doesn't use 3-D technology, but thanks to an array of 20 high-grade digital projectors working in concert, images projected on the interior of the Grainger's 71-foot-diameter dome are so alive that the moon comes at you like a physical object, and seeing the sun's surface in vivid, festering close-up makes the room feel hotter. As I wrote in reviewing the first show in the rehabbed space, there are times when your eyes and your mouth compete to be open wider.

The planetarium offers the choice of two Grainger shows at any one time, keeping them fresh by rotating in a new one every year. Be sure to see at least one of them for the combination of contemporary science, cutting-edge intergalactic imagery and just plain wow factor.

There are two other theaters too. Where the film presentations at most museums steal time that could be devoted to browsing the galleries, Adler video — images brought back from deep and distant space and prepared for public display by the planetarium's own Space Visualization Laboratory — are essential.

"Our calling card is to see a show," longtime President Paul Knappenberger said in 2011.

"Night Sky Live!" — in Adler's second domed theater, the Definiti — has a live narrator give visitors a crisp demonstration of stars, planets and constellations that can be seen locally at night, even through Chicago's scrim of light pollution.

And "Welcome to the Universe," in the 3-D Johnson Star Theater on the lowest level, made a repurposed show from the Grainger come to life again. If summer campers aren't using them, try watching from the beanbag chairs right up front.

When you're not seated in a theater, the planetarium — thank goodness — has ample signage to keep you from losing your way in a building that definitely does not follow the same grid system as Chicago's streets.

"Yeah, but then I think we turned around and went back in here," a mother was overheard saying to her son.

The original Adler, the first planetarium in the United States, was endowed by Sears, Roebuck executive Max Adler and is situated on some of the city's best real estate, a point that juts into Lake Michigan and looks west toward Grant Park and the Loop and north to Navy Pier.

Clad in polished brown granite, the 12-sided art moderne building (dodecagon, if you're scoring at home, one side for each sign of the zodiac) is an architectural gem, like the main Shedd Aquarium building visible just to the west along the shoreline.

And like Shedd, it was augmented in the 1990s by a big, glass-faced addition that greatly increased the institution's user-friendliness and usable space without stifling the vintage charm.

In Adler's case, architect Dirk Lohan's C-shaped skirt of a building, which added galleries and a lakeside restaurant, also allowed the museum to do away with the unfortunate result of previous additions. Those saw visitors enter via a subterranean hallway rather than getting in by going skyward, up the dramatic, steeply pitched front steps, as the original designer intended.

Adler's exhibition halls have been greatly reworked in recent years too. Below the Grainger, in the main building, there's a fine survey of "Astronomy in Culture" and a stunning collection of ancient telescopes, said to be among the world's finest. If you love astrolabes and diptych sundials, this is the place for you.

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