“Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Cue music, roll credits, and, oh yeah, inspire a generation of kids in the 90’s to look up at the stars and go “whoa”.
Needless to say, I was one of those kids. Star Trek (The Next Generation, specifically) was my first experience with science fiction and with space. Unlike the Galaxy-class starships in the show, however, space is real; we can see it, measure it, and, for those lucky few with space suits, immerse ourselves in its not-actually-vacuous vacuum. And, even though I never had any aspirations of being an astronaut, I did start looking at the night sky differently. I watched it with new eyes; really taking in its beauty.
Space really is an awesome thing and it’s that awesomeness (a word rendered more and more meaningless by the day) that inspired the creation of the Griffith Observatory. When Griffith J. Griffith looked through the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson he was deeply moved. According to John Ansen Ford, Griffith had said that “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!”[i] With that, Griffith set out to make accessible to the public and, in 1912, gave the City of Los Angeles one hundred thousand dollars for the construction of the observatory.
Since moving to Southern California in 2008, I’ve only been to the Griffith Observatory twice and it is the second trip of the two that is the impetus of this paper. Earlier this month, I went with my friend Lea to see the planetarium show “Centered in the Universe”. Now, I am a very science-minded person, so when you stick me in a building that is filled to the brim with that much science and awesome (this time used in the colloquial sense) I get… excitable. Going through the halls before the show time, I was, with no exaggeration, bouncing. Even though I had seen most of it before, having grown up wanting to be a scientist (but having no head for math), everything was just too damn cool. Thankfully, Lea is just as geeky and just as enamored with space as I, so at least I wasn’t annoying to her. I can’t speak for the other guests, though.
As energized as I was, though, I had a foe in that planetarium. See, most planetariums have two qualities in common.
- They are dark.
- The audience is meant to lie back in order to watch the show.
These on their own are not bad. However, combine that with the fact that I went to see the show on a Thursday (this same day I have this class and the same day I wake up at 7 am for another class) and the fact that I commute by bike, and, suddenly, the situation begins to become perilous. What tipped it over the edge was the seats… my god, those seats. Outside of a Lay-Z-Boy showroom or a Mercedes S-class sedan, those seats must have been the most comfortable seats I have ever been in. What began as an exciting and harmless trip to the planetarium ended up becoming a tooth and nail fight against the force of gravity against my eyelids. And, while I never actually fell asleep, there were, admittedly, a few moments when the narrator’s voice became… fuzzy.
“Centered in the Universe” is a film that transports you through time and space. From the Great Library of Alexandria, where we see Ptolemy charting the stars with an armillary sphere, to the surface of Mars, the film shows us how the night sky has shaped our cultures as a species. It shows us the stars and what our ancestors saw in them; shapes, creatures, people… stories. And, using the line that is both the stuff of poetry and science, it shows us how we fit into the universe and how the universe fits within us; that we are stardust.
When I say “it”, though, I am making a bit of an error. I really should be saying “they”. See, “Centered in the Universe” is not a traditional sort of film. It’s really more like a theatrical experience with the film and a live, in-person narrator acting in concert to spin the narrative yarn. And the technology behind the film is no slouch either. While most film makers are content with IMAX or even traditional movie theater projectors that use bulbs, the planetarium decided, “No, that simply will not do”. Instead, they use two digital LASER projectors and a dedicated, fiber optic star projector. [ii]
This massive array of technology does come with some unique issues, however. Due to the nature of the screen being hemispherical, the film had to be composed with its shape in mind. As a result a 180 degree fisheye lens was the only type that could be used during filming. In addition, the post production aspects were also challenging. With the image size of the film being nearly six times the size of traditional films, the computers used for editing and effects were pushed to their limits and beyond. [iii]
However, the combined efforts of all those who contributed to this experience is absolutely and emphatically not in vain. “Centered in the Universe” is a unique experience that can, in no way, be duplicated at home. YouTube will never be able to replicate it and you’ll never find it on The Pirate Bay. In many ways, this is like the experience of enjoying a theater performance where the actors go into the audience: it is an experience that must be enjoyed in its original form to be truly appreciated. In order to experience it, you must simply do exactly that. This film, even in my drowsy state, left an impact on me and I will certainly go back and view it again, Red Bull in hand.
[ii] Griffith Observatory. (2013, 11 18). The Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Retrieved from Griffith Observatory: http://www.griffithobservatory.org/bsoplanet.html#laser
[iii] Devor, M. (2007, Summer). “Centered in the Universe”. Frinds of the Observatory Update, pp. 4-9.
Curiosity is a strange thing. Some people consider it a curse. Others, a gift. Some, the means of feline demise.
Personally, I’m grateful for my inherent curiosity. To me, nothing is ever a black box; an unknowable device. Things work and they work for reasons and if I don’t or am not allowed to know those reasons then I am left a little more than slightly unsatisfied. This behavior, near as I can tell, started when I was a kid. I would always ask my dad or my mom to explain to me how things worked. “Where does electricity come from? Why does the car need gas? Why doesn’t the tape work anymore?” (I had pulled the tape out of the cassette.)
At one point or another, my parents game me a small screwdriver set and, perhaps unsurprisingly to them, most of my toys with any sort of electronic components were rather unceremoniously disassembled; parts strewn, wires haphazardly cut… the floor of my room began to resemble the bastard son of a Radio Shack and Toys’r’Us. These parts were then scotch-taped to various machines I had built from my K’Nex. Motors connected to wheels and various LED’s mounted to the front would turn a motionless, dull model into real car that drove! (And crashed!) Thankfully, my parents never discouraged my chop shop approach to learning and, eventually, I was even able to put things that I had taken apart back together as a functioning whole.
Though I didn’t know it, there was a word for what I was and am: a Maker. Not just a “maker”, as in “a producer of goods”, but a “Maker”. Capital “M”. As in a person who hacks things, making what was old new and new again. Chevrolet actually coined the term back in 1960, calling makers people who “build for use as well as building for fun”.(1) Makers, connected by institutions like hackerspaces and online communities like Instructables, have become a cultural force, prompting the innovation of technologies aimed at passionate hobbyists and tinkerers; technologies like small scale 3D Printers, suitcase sized CNC(2) machines, and portable 3D scanners. In 2005, however, one particular product was created that sparked a massive change in the accessibility of one of the maker community’s most powerful tools: the microcontroller.
A microcontroller is, simply put, a small computer on a chip and, despite their often limited computational horsepower, they provide the ability to imbue a project with some intelligence and even autonomy. For a person building a thing, this means they don’t have to manually change the state of their thing; they just have to program their microcontroller to do it for them. If you wanted a device to beep when a button was pressed or a light to turn on or a motor to spin, you could now do that with a few lines of code in which you could define the exact conditions that needed to be met before any action was taken; the microcontroller was bridge between the virtual and the physical world. The reigning king of hobby level microcontrollers since the early 90’s was Parallax’s BASIC Stamp but buying one was an investment: $100 for the starter kit. For most beginning hobbyists, including myself, this was too high of a barrier to entry.
All of this changed in 2005 with the release of the Arduino.(3) Designed to be learned on, the Arduino was small, easy to use, and, most importantly, cheap. Costing only $35, the popularity of the Arduino boomed and very quickly became the de facto microcontroller for beginning Makers. Not only that, but other types of people began using it too: fashionistas wanting to experiment with e-textiles(4), libraries wanting to run their own hardware(5), and even scientists in need of cheap lab equipment(6). The Arduino fostered a new age in interactive projects and opened doors to a world where anyone who wanted to become a Maker could do so.
It’s Christmas of 2010. I’m in college and, like most college students, I have more time than money and I had spent months reading about this new device that I had only just heard about. I knew of the Arduino and I had read about countless amazing projects that people had made that were powered by this little bit of blue PCB.(7) And, finally, now was my chance. My dear Aunt Emma, the saint that she is, gave me a gift card for Christmas; not to Target, or Walmart, or Barnes and Nobel (which I also would have loved), but to Amazon.com! No later than 5 minutes after I had thanked her profusely for her generous, thoughtful gift, I had hopped onto my computer and ordered my first Arduino: the Duemilanove. Standard shipping would have gotten it to me in 3-5 days but BY GOD I needed it now! I clicked “overnight” and the next day I sat in my garage on a lawn chair and waited for the rumbling of the big brown truck with my Arduino inside. As soon as I had signed his electronic pad, I ran to my room and set upon the box, rending it open and extracting its contents with the ferocity of a wolf on a lamb and the glee of a child with a signed affidavit of Santa Claus’s existence by the man himself.
Forget “new car” smell; “new microcontroller” was a smell that, at that moment, could only bested by the scent of a beautiful woman’s perfume floating in the air. Following the online tutorials, I plugged an LED(8), typed in some code, and sent the program to the microcontroller. It blinked! Igor had flipped the switch and IT WAS ALIVE! The LED began blinking every half-second and wouldn’t stop; just as it was supposed to. Taking a leap, I stripped an audio cable and connected the Arduino to a speaker, then sent it some code that I had found on the internet. Without fail, it had begun playing the “Imperial March” from “Star Wars”, one beepy, boopy note at a time.
From then on it was almost as if I was a kid again; hacking apart old printers for parts, my parents raising their eyebrows as I trundled up and down the stairs to my room with another victim to go under my screwdrivers. Whenever I had the money, I would buy another Arduino because I had very quickly learned that the optimal number of Arduinos one should own was N+1. I made devices that would monitor the status of the washing machine and send a signal upstairs when it was done with a load; I replaced the brains in my remote controlled cars and added sensors to make them little robots; there is an Arduino in my bicycle right now to control the turn signals on it! And it’s controlled by Bluetooth!
Without a doubt, I went a little Arduino crazy, but it’s a crazy I’m more than happy to live with because it opened up to me a whole world of creativity that I would never have been able to experience otherwise. Innovations like this are what allow us to push beyond what we know and peel away the outer shells of those closed systems. Take cellphones, for instance. They are, for most people, black boxes. But, recently, a man built his own cell phone based on a standard Arduino.(9) Why? Because he could. For me, the philosophy is the same. Arduinos, small 3D Printers, Tabletop CNCs, HackerSpaces… these are all products of the Maker mindset. Why should I have to settle for a mass produced product that doesn’t fit what I need exactly when I can make something that does?
The Arduino is a device that let me bring a bit of digital control to my analog world. It changed my understanding of what I could do with electronics and became a vehicle for me to learn more about science, technology, and engineering. But it also acted as a way for me to expand my creative horizons. It might be hard to understand if you’ve never done it yourself, but it’s not hard to find out what you’re missing. Just $35, some time, and a healthy dose of curiosity.
2. CNC: A common term for computer controlled manufacturing tools such as mills, lathes, saws, and drills.
3. Arduino. (2013, 09). Arduino Board - Serial Interface. Retrieved from Arduino.cc: http://arduino.cc/en/Main/ArduinoBoardSerial
4. Buechley, L., & Eisenberg, M. (2007, November 30). The LilyPad Arduino: Toward Wearable Engineering for Everyone. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 12-15.
5. YOUNKER, J., & RIBARIC, T. (2013, June). Beyond Open Source Software: Solving Common Library Problems Using the Open Source Hardware Arduino Platform. Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research.
6. D’Ausilio, A. (2012, June). Arduino: A low-cost multipurpose lab equipment. Behavior Research Methods, 305-313.
7. PCB: Printed Circuit Board, traditionally green.
8. LED: Light Emitting Diode – a semiconductor diode that emits light when a voltage is applied to it and that is used especially in electronic devices. (LED, 2013)
9. xiaobo__. (2013, July 17). ArduinoPhone. Retrieved from Instrutables: http://www.instructables.com/id/ArduinoPhone/