About Project Planetaria

Project Planetaria was founded in 2011 by UCSD faculty Adam Burgasser (Physics), Tara Knight (Theatre & Dance) and Michael Trigilio (Visual Arts), with the goal of investigating astronomical phenomena outside traditional modes.  We seek to engage multiple senses, embody experience, explore social analogs, break down time and space barriers, and incorporate participatory behaviors.  Our work is funded by the UCSD Center for Humanities and an Open Classroom grant from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA).

Core Objectives

Re-imaging, re-imagining – the transsensory experience


Radio image of the Crab Nebula: an example of astronomical information that cannot be directly experienced.

For almost all of human history, our experience of the Universe was facilitated only from the light we could see with our eyes – visible radiation. Technology now allows us to image the Universe across the electromagnetic spectrum: high-energy gamma ray and X-ray beams from exploding stars; infrared heat from giant clouds of dust and gas; the feeble radio waves cast from the most distant galaxies. Moreover, these data Astronomers routinely remap this information into visible images, like that of the Crab Nebula above.  But how else can we reimage – or reimagine – these invisible photons of information?  What would it be like to listen to sound constellations, find new stars by touch, feel the heat of stellar death, taste the feeding of the Galaxy’s central black hole?

Project Planetaria aims to investigate new transsensory experiences of our Universe: remapping astronomical information into different sensory pathways and aesthetic modes to extract new meaning and understanding of the cosmic environment.

Look up and trip over things

Do you know what the current phase of the Moon is?  The sea anemone does, as do thousands of species (including humans) whose reproductive cycles are tuned at the genetic level to the “moonth”. Our earliest steps toward a global human civilization, from agricultural (timing crop planting to seasons) to migration (Polynesian voyaging), required intimate knowledge of the stars and their patterns.  Yet most people in today’s society no longer sees the Universe – we have no need for the moon when we can look at our watches (or phones), and our electric lights, meant to supplant the moon, can obscure even the brightest stars. Our scientific understanding of the Universe may exceed our ancestors, but our aesthetic appreciation is being lost. What is the utility of the cosmos in our modern culture? How does our scientific knowledge enrich our aesthetic experience of the Universe? How do we regain our biological connection with the night sky?

Project Planetaria aims to encourage appreciation, awareness and reconnection with the Universe through participatory performances, virtual experiences, and integrating new artistic modes into traditional astronomical venues (i.e., the planetarium).


Is the Universe beautiful or ugly?

A simple question really, and one you might imagine trivial: the twinkling stars, streaking meteors and inconstant Moon are adored in prose and poetry – at a distance.  But when the details are filled in, what is the aesthetic quality of a planet or a galaxy, or even of the data we collect from them?  Can we appreciate the Universe  in the same way that we appreciate a Van Gogh or a Shakespeare sonnet?

Project Planetaria aims to critically analyze the aesthetic nature of the Universe and of our measurements of it, blending qualitative and quantitative techniques, as well as scientific and artistic perspectives.


A Brief History of Project Planetaria

Project Planetaria began over coffee in early 2009 when new UCSD Profs. Adam Burgasser (Physics) and Tara Knight (Theatre & Dance) began thinking of ideas on how to do cool things at the fluid border of science and art.  We brought in Prof. Michael Trigilio (Visual Arts) because he had better ideas than we did and would do all the work (at least we thought he’d do all the work…). Really, we mostly just wanted to have an excuse to hang out together.

In late 2011, we received seed money from the UCSD Center for Humanities to formally initiate research into our objectives.  We began this blog as a venue for ideas and insights, and explored local resources for projects, such as the recently renovated Palomar College Planetarium.

In May 2012, we received an Open Classroom grant from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA) to produce a new class that would train students to explore the scientific and aesthetic qualities of astronomical information; this class (TDDE 131: Project Planetaria) is scheduled for Spring 2013.

In September 2012, we produced our first installation, “Solar Variations“.  A sketch of the ideas we have been exploring up to date, this project merged electronic sensing, transsensory mapping (light -> audio, UV->visible) and participatory feedback over the course of one sunset. Performed in the new Experimental Media Lab in UCSD’s Visual Arts Department, the setup for this installation can be seen in the Vimeo link below

We recently proposed to produce and perform a 45-minute exploration of the stellar lifecycle for the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls series in 2013.  Wish us luck!


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