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Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2000/ 4 Elul, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Humbled by the Hayden -- NEW YORK | Bantam Books will soon reissue its updated--illustrated--edition of Stephen Hawking's wildly popular "A Brief History of Time." Beware. As part-time scientific food-taster for my readers, I can report that, having devoured Hawking's original book not once but twice, it leaves no trace. That is because it is entirely incomprehensible. Illustrating the book seems to me akin to tarting up hieroglyphics with Etruscan annotation.

Want an invigorating scientific experience? I have a better idea: the new Hayden Planetarium in New York.

The building itself is worth the trip. It is an immense 10-story cube of glass inside of which seems to float a huge sphere (which houses the sky show viewing room) surrounded by a curving walkway (tracing the origins of the universe) seemingly suspended in the void.

The intelligence of this design is as striking as its beauty. It is a brilliant metaphor for the attempt of the human imagination to wrap itself around the natural world.

Why? Because (apart from crystals) there are few straight lines in nature. Nature is more sinews: curves, waves, ellipses and, when we are blessed, perfect spheres.

Look up at the sky. It is a festival of spheres. It is we, the bipeds with the fat heads and opposable thumbs, who impose straight lines on nature. We connect the dots between the stars to make dippers, large and small. We take the human form--as in Vitruvian Man, the famous geometrical drawing by Leonardo and Cesariano and others--and fit it with axes, right angles and diagonals.

That is what we do to grasp the incomprehensible. And on a magnificent scale that is what the new Hayden building does. It wraps an enormous cube around interior curves and spheres, just as science creates the lines that give order and solidity to the bending ephemera of nature.

That is your impression from the outside. Inside is even more thrilling. The vastness of the empty space of the cube allows for demonstrations of scale by analogy. You stand on the walkway, look down at a display housing a small ball and a plaque informing you that if the ball represents Earth, the gigantic sphere hovering above you--the sky show auditorium--represents the sun.

Lessons in scale are everywhere. One corridor, for example, features wall-size composite photos taken by astronauts on the moon. You can see a hundred pictures of the moon, but until you've seen one the size of a storefront window showing an astronaut in his little dune buggy in one tiny corner of the immensity of a desolate moonscape, you have not quite experienced the vastness of the void and the insignificance of man.

And yet, oddly, that very insignificance adds to the glory of the creature that dares challenge such cosmic disparities. You feel it most acutely walking down the great floating ramp, where every inch represents 3.6 million years of the evolution of the universe; each stride, 75 million. You trace the story from the Big Bang through dozens of Hubble telescope pictures displayed along the way. Then you come to Now.

You've been walking for about 20 minutes; you've traversed more than 100 yards. And you come upon a glass case containing nothing but a human hair--and a little notification that, on the scale of the events you have just traversed, the width of that hair represents all of human history.

The Hayden Planetarium thus acts as a counterpart to the great Air and Space Museum in Washington. At Air and Space everything is on a human scale: The Lindbergh plane, the jets, even the rockets are approachable. You can wrap, if not your arms, then your mind around them.

It is the universe as seen and conquered by man; the Hayden is the unconquerable universe as seen by G-d. Air and Space is a shrine to human defiance; the Hayden is a palace of wonder. You come out of Air and Space exhilarated; you come out of the Hayden humbled.

Humbled in more ways than one. Some visitors are overwhelmed by the sophistication of the exhibits. The curators have chosen to talk down to no one. Be prepared to have Hubble's Constant (a mathematical formula that represents the rate at which the universe is expanding) thrown out at you without a puppet show illustration. Indeed, just a month after Hayden reopened, the New York Times ran a piece summarizing visitors' complaints that the museum was often too difficult to grasp.

In a culture where everything from textbooks to television to SATs has been renormed and dumbed down, one should be grateful for an intellectual challenge. A building devoted to explaining the cosmos that does not leave you scratching your head and humbled, has failed. The Hayden succeeds splendidly.

Comment on Charles Krauthammer's column by clicking here.


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