When you visit the Charles W. Brown Planetarium at Ball State, one common refrain you will hear, from students helping patrons with hands-on science experiments to the show presenter, is: this is the largest planetarium in Indiana.
The Brown Planetarium seats 150 and welcomes more than 20,000 visitors annually. In an academic year, more than 8,000 school groups attend over 180 events hosted at the planetarium. And it only gets better for would-be patrons: all the events put on by the planetarium are free. The catch: arrive early to secure a seat.
You can think of this planetarium as a “specially-designed theater” 1 , but instead of a giant screen placed in front of you like in a movie theater, the dome-shaped ceiling is the screen. The experience of gazing at the stars, by looking up and rotating your neck, is replicated in the planetarium.
Throughout the year, the Brown Planetarium puts on a number of shows for the public. Shows usually have a common theme, the celestial and planetary systems, and frequently feature popular topics such as Halloween and Christmas. The popular Halloween: Celestial Origins immerses patrons in the history of Halloween and how it fits into the seasons as a cross-quarter day, which is halfway between the equinox and the solstice 2 . This show in particular is unique to the Brown Planetarium because it was created and produced by the planetarium’s director, Dayna Thompson, and her team in collaboration with other Ball State departments. Halloween: Celestial Origins, created in September 2016, joins a growing list of intellectual property products owned by Thompson and the University.
The planetarium is part of Ball State’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “The planetarium is a space where we can talk about observational astronomy and coordinates and how to point telescopes to do those observations,” said Thompson. She believes that planetariums can inspire, educate, and help build community.
Shows at the Brown Planetarium are designed to be educational and enriching. Patrons can join in hands-on experiments relating to physics and astronomy. When the show starts, the presenter explains the experience the audience is about to behold. For the presenters, setting context also means allowing for questions about what they have witnessed.
This sort of interaction can be beneficial to both the presenter and the patron. Daniel Brossard, a second-year master’s student, finds the experience rewarding. “Getting to teach a diverse range of people about something I am passionate about has been an incredible experience,” he says. “Also, knowing I am helping get more people interested in science at a young age is very rewarding.”
Planning a trip to Ball State soon? Add visiting the Charles W. Brown Planetarium to your to-do list. If you want to be inspired and educated, or simply have a relaxing time learning about black holes, then the planetarium is a good place to start.