Lights out. Suddenly, the blackness came alive with stars.
I found myself hurtling 100 million light years from Earth, engulfed in cosmic clouds and dust.
This was the Dark Universe 14 billion years ago, after the Big Bang, an extremely hot, dense, roiling mass, expanding fast then cooling, its energy condensing into protons, neutrons, electrons, making up atoms and even smaller particles – dark matter, scientists called them.
Together with dark energy, dark matter comprises 95 percent of the universe’s total energy and mass.
The scene shifts. I’ve almost forgotten I’m in Hayden Planetarium, in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, watching a space show, Dark Universe.
Next, I’m onboard the Galileo spacecraft, zooming away again, this time, 365 million miles into the solar system’s biggest planet, hunting for evidence of the Big Bang, in a huge orb of gas – Jupiter.
Its ringed massiveness fills the screen, with a dozen moons dangling over its face. Jupiter has no solid surface but flybys of four other spacecraft in the 1970’s revealed it holds the secrets of the galaxies’ origins.
My eyes locked on to a 750-pound robotic probe as it broke free of the Galileo orbiter and plunged into the Jovian atmosphere. Speeding at 170,000 kilometers per hour, it transformed into a fireball descending for 57 minutes in the thick sea of swirling gases.
Just before it disintegrated in the planet’s intense heat, the probe radioed Galileo its findings about the chemical composition of the atmosphere, how much sunlight it gets, wind speeds, cloud types, temperature, plus measurements validating the Big Bang theory.
Data transmitted showed meteorite collisions created Jupiter’s dust-grain rings, that its moon, Europa, has a salty ocean under its frozen surface. And it churns out thunderstorms, with lightning strikes a thousand times more powerful than those on Earth
When the lights came back inside the planetarium, I was breathless, as if I’ve taken an intergalactic journey, indeed.
But I’ve three more shows to catch. I have no time to waste.
In a shot, I was off to see Nature’s Fury, an interactive exhibit of natural disasters, from earthquakes and volcanoes to tornadoes and hurricanes, what causes them, how they shape the planet, how people adapt in their aftermath and how scientists help out.
Already, kids and adults packed the hall. Everyone tinkered with knobs and controls. In the interactive stations, I manipulated a model earthquake fault, generated an eruption from a virtual volcano, stood in the still eye of a roaring tornado and assessed the power of Hurricane Sandy via an interactive map of New York City.
On a sandstone slab, I touched an actual fault line then inspected wines made from vineyards fertilized by Mt. Vesuvius, pumice foot scrubs, volcanic ash processed into tooth polishing paste, St. Helen’s soaps and cat treats.
My third ticket allowed me inside the Butterfly Conservatory – one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. What a welcome respite to have butterflies brushing against my cheeks, alighting on my shoulders, searching my fingers with their proboscis, hoping for nectar, even though keepers have put out sugared water and orange slices in their feeders.
Butterflies and moths are members of the Order Lepidoptera (Greek “lepido”, scale, and “ptera”, wings) from the tiny scales that cover the adults’ wings and body. Over 250,000 known species of Lepidoptera inhabit the earth, of which about 18,000 are butterflies. They dwell from the Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests, living up to two weeks, though the migratory ones, like the Monarch, live up to ten months.
Monarchs travel incredible distances from Canada and the northern United States to overwintering sites in Mexico, some 5,000 kilometers, where they roost together in vast numbers. After surviving the winter, the adults return northward in spring. But in many cultures, butterflies meant much more – emissaries of the spirit world, symbols of rebirth, life beyond death.
Lastly, I watched Tiny Giants – two heroic rodents, a chipmunk in a temperate forest and a grasshopper mouse in Arizona’s Sonora desert, growing up in a big hostile world.
Donning 3D lenses, I shadowed the young chipmunk scurrying over the forest floor, dodging and then pouncing on falling acorns – food he must stash away in huge amounts if he’s to survive his first winter.
Comically, the chippie stuffed nuts in his cheek pockets, three at a time, until he looked like he had a bad case of mumps. Then he dashed to his underground burrow to store them before bolting back for more, unaware that an older, much bigger male has discovered his nearly full larder and is raiding it.
The young male catches the thief too late. His hoard has almost been emptied. They fight, but he loses.
Furtively, the battered chippie tries to replenish his stolen cache. A moose munching on acorns almost tramples him to death. Still panting from the close call, he fails to see a prowling rattlesnake. I screamed with the rest of the audience as he escaped by the skin of his teeth.
Still, he has no more time to store nuts for winter. He faces a slow agonizing death by starvation. Again, he confronts the thief.
Fur flew as they battled, somersaulting and corkscrewing in mid-air, screeching, biting, scratching. This time, the young male wins. He retrieves his acorns and curls up in his warm, well-stocked den, tucking his pink nose in his bushy tail as the first snow falls.
Fade-in to a grasshopper mouse hole, a mom tending three babies under a scrap heap in the desert.
Desperate for food, mom sneaks out and attacks a giant scorpion. She wasn’t originally called scorpion mouse for nothing and is immune to venom. Victorious, mom rears up on her hind legs, vocalizing, a shrill territorial call.
Her first born son stirs. Restless, he wanders away from the den as a storm threatens. Inevitably, the rain overtakes him and he hurls himself from rock to rock while the water beneath him rages into a flashflood.
But his troubles have just begun. A great horned owl spots him and swoops in. He has barely escaped her talons when a pack of Harrier hawks chased him into open ground. He darts inside a bleached animal skull, the only hiding place he can find.
The hawks converge on the skull, trying to prise him out through the eye sockets with their talons. Then they pick up his hiding place and drop it repeatedly. Cramming himself tight in the remotest crevice, the terrified mouse manages to stay out of reach. Before nightfall, the hawks fly off and he staggers out.
On his way home, a giant centipede crosses his path. The mouse snaps off the centipede’s head and feeds. At last, he comes into his own and cries his shrill, territorial call in the night.
The audience applauds and I clap with them, rejoicing in his victory, as the credits roll out.
But it wasn’t over for me yet.
(To be continued…)