Look Up

Planetarium Hamburg, Stadtpark Photo: Tim Florian Horn

Author: Ryan Gresham. When you’re busy searching the supermarket baskets for a ripe avocado – or pecking out another e-mail at work, or ogling a chat show from the couch – it’s easy to forget you are living on a spinning ball of iron ore blasting through an exploding universe. And that’s just where a place like the Planetarium Hamburg comes in handy: an offbeat reminder to drop our humdrum routines now and then and just look up.

But craning your neck skyward, of course, might not only cause a few physical aches, but possibly some metaphysical ones in the bargain. Where did it all come from up there? If you turn to today’s experts for help, you might be left still baffled. Rock star physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, says the universe could have created itself from nothing. But that does, well, nothing to unburden us from the old ex nihilo nihil fit conundrum: how can something come from nothing? (It also brings to mind Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who noted awhile back that while Hawking is a fine physicist, his philosophical and theological skills really aren’t all that.)

But another celebrity physicist, Lawrence Krauss, thinks he has Hawking’s back. Krauss will tell you that things do, indeed, pop out of “nothing” in our universe. Just take a vacuum state in space, he says, throw in the laws of quantum mechanics – and poof: all sorts of things can pop into existence – and routinely do. But the semantic sleight of hand here is obvious: quantum vacuums – not to mention the universe itself and the physical laws operating in this cosmic recipe – are certainly not nothing; they are, in fact, a whole lot of something. Krauss’s linguistic misdirection involves using the word “nothing” the way one might in describing a quiet stretch of road in the Bavarian countryside by saying, “There is absolutely nothing here.” So much for certain experts. And so our star-gazing and head-scratching continues.

Designed by Hans Loop in the 1920s, the Planetarium Hamburg was built, presumably, to help foster public interest in just such cosmological quandaries. Engineers fabricated the planetarium out of a derelict water tower – which gives it the perfectly zany look of a comic book rocket ship ready to blast off – and added a reflecting pool that does a dandy job of doubling its otherworldly spookiness. Inside, you’ll find lots to help you on your scientific quest, including brainy laser shows about the cosmos to watch in the comfy theater – which uses a new-fangled Zeiss projector to unleash the celestial archipelago across its roomy dome. (If you don’t speak German, though, be sure to check the planetarium’s schedule to see if an accompanying narration is available in English; bring a Freund along if not.)

Planetaria like the one in Hamburg are great at getting us to redirect our gazes from the smartphones in our palms to something much smarter above our heads – at least for a moment. And for those less ontologically-inclined day-trippers, a visit to the beast in Hamburg’s beautiful Stadtpark can at least demonstrate just how much can be done with an old water tower.

 Planetarium Hamburg, Otto-Wels-Straße 1