You’re under the dome of the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium in Science City and its lead designer, Patrick Hess, has the entire night sky sliding above you, an accelerated version of what happens every night above you while you sleep.
Try not to be impressed.
Late on a summer afternoon, Patrick is managing one of the planetarium’s star tours and he’s reached arguably the most romantic part, the time-lapsed vision of a night sky quickly passing above.
It’s fun and functional: all the stars seem to spin around a central point, which, Patrick points out to attendees, is the North Star.
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“I have a question,” a young audience member says.
Patrick, the chief architect of the planetarium’s infrastructure and therefore master of the heavens, halts the rotating stars.
“Why does the North Star not move?” the child asks.
“That’s a good question. Let’s go to the North Pole,” Patrick says, issuing a set of imperceptible commands through a remote control he has designed for the dome. The view shifts slightly as the North Star positions itself directly above the viewers. This is the only place where you could get a view like this.
Shoot a line straight up from the Earth’s northernmost point and you have the northern axis, which connects almost perfectly with the North Star.
That’s an easier concept to process when you’re seeing it rather than just having it explained to you.
“This is a view that most human beings are never going to get to see,” Patrick says.
Shortly after, he points out the planetary constellation of Lyra, a series of light points arranged in a diamond with a tail. You can’t see it, but the bottom point of the diamond is an oilslick rainbow ellipse known as the Ring Nebula.
Again, try not to be impressed.
There is an unquestioned, casual magic in planetariums.
It’s the everyday sorcery behind electricity, cars and text messages. It’s both a source of fascination and, conversely, not.
It’s in the domain of shower thoughts. How are texts transmitted? Who cares: Are we still on for tonight?
Shower thought: How do planetariums work?
That’s a thought that comes after or before a visit to Union Station’s Planetarium. In the dark, with the planets zooming by and the rainbow puff of nebulas on display, your attention and cognitive energies are monopolized by the light show.
If you even know it’s a light show. Try telling yourself that’s not the universe the next time you’re under Science City’s dome.
Behind the starry curtain is Patrick, the lead builder behind Science City’s on-demand starry nights.
In just two years, Patrick has brought the planetarium from an unwieldy novelty to a responsive and powerful piece of Science City’s programming. To do that, he has had to become an advanced computer programmer, bootstrap his way into software engineering and custom-build some of the items that make the planetarium work today.
Ink welcomes Patrick to the “30 Under 30” series because of his initiative. He reinvented what was a dormant Science City exhibit into an educational asset, recognizing — and aggressively developing — its unrealized potential.
Most people just talk about delivering the stars and the moon. He has actually done it.
When he came to Science City as a part-timer in fall 2012, Patrick Hess was brought on to administer a planetarium program in what tech folks know as alpha stage. Its functionality was lacking.
“At this point, we could only watch movies, and people can do that anywhere,” he says.
Programming was cued manually, meaning audiences would watch the white arrow of a cursor move across a computer desktop screen and double-click the file for the movie they were going to watch.
“They didn’t know what was possible with this system.
“And I didn’t know anything about planetariums when I got this job, I’ll be honest.”
But Patrick kept finding resources, like Australian physicist Paul Bourke’s work with dome projections similar to the Union Station set up.
Patrick found software for the exhibit’s interactive space exploration software, which he integrated in to the exhibit. With a few clicks on a mouse or a remote, an operator can zip to a planet or an asteroid system.
The planetarium is built on a one-of-a kind set up, many components that work in unison, not something you can click on and off like an appliance.
Once the program was onboard, the question became how to adapt it from the flat computer monitor to the curved planetarium screen.
“And then it’s ‘Okay, how am I going to MacGyver a solution for this?’ ” Patrick says.
The short of it is that he created go-betweens for the programs to interact with one another. To the audience it looks like a smooth, integrated show, but behind the scenes, a menu of software is having a conversation, sometimes with an intermediary translating.
You’ve heard of “plug and play”? This is more like “plug and pray.”
“When I got this going, I had this like, ‘Shit!’ moment. Like, ‘There’s no way this is working right now,’ ” he says. “But it worked!”
In spring of 2014, Patrick brought interactive star tours back to the planetarium.
“So this solved the problem of it looking like something tacky to something professional, something that might be worth your six bucks,” he says.
Patrick brings a zeal to this highly technical problem-solving, one that blurs the division between work and play.
“I really love my job,” he says. “Three years later after getting this job I’m still excited to go to work, which is crazy.”
The planetarium was built with Science City in 1999. Now it’s run with a custom-built system using a projector and curved mirror. Back then, it’s key component was this thing called a star ball, a sphere with a system of slides and lights inside to give an impression of the universe.
Or at least it did while it worked. It retired suddenly in the fall of 2009.
When the star ball broke, “We kind of walked off a cliff,” Jeff Rosenblatt, Science City director, says.
Rosenblatt decided to explore building a custom projector system. Through work with the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, he was able to cobble together the existing system.
The planetarium was inactive for four months. Even with some updates to modernize it, Science City’s custom-built system still came in at less than $100,000.
At the low end, a brand-new planetarium would have run $500,000.
“When you don’t have much choice in the matter, then you sort of innovate,” Rosenblatt says.
The Science City director and Patrick met when the not-yet planetarium director was an educator with Wonderscope. The Shawnee children’s museum staffers brought a group to Science City for a sand festival. The two men had an informal conversation that turned into the beginnings of Patrick’s candidacy evaluation for a job at Science City.
“I remember he seemed intelligent, well-spoken, a little reserved but capable,” the director says. “He was versed in tech stuff and programming and that’s what we were looking for.”
Patrick began building the software Frankenstein as soon as he got the keys to the castle. He installed cueing software Qlab, a program frequently deployed in concert halls and theaters to execute the exhibit’s shows with precision timing. WorldWide Telescope, an open-source map of the universe created and essentially given away by Microsoft, was brought online for the interactive tours of the heavens the planetarium hosts.
Patrick was promoted to a full-time position a few months after his hire, well before Kansas City hosted the Western Alliance Planetarium Conference in the fall of 2013. Astronomers who saw some of Patrick’s work at Union Station were clamoring to know how the Science City was able to run the show, the director says.
To all inquiring, Patrick listed the software required to the create the professional-grade show on a budget.
The one thing other planetariums would need to mimic the Science City show: “You would have to find someone like (Patrick),” his boss said.
Science City was designed to fill the void left by the now-closed Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which was at the Kansas City Museum in the Northeast.
Kansas City’s was one of a number of space education centers opened after the Challenger shuttle suddenly failed in 1986.
The local Challenger Center opened in the summer of 1993. Lauranne Hess was its flight director. Her son Patrick had just turned 3.
“He visited while we were building it, and he was there at the launch,” she says. “He insisted that I sew him a little spacesuit with all the zippers.”
As a child, Patrick trafficked in obsessions. He had what his mother calls “a big dinosaur phase,” then he got curious about insects. Shortly thereafter, it was was snails.
She tried to meet him where he was. During his phase with escargot, Patrick celebrated his birthday with a snail-shaped cake.
Space always had been a presence in the family, though. Lauranne Hess’ dad was an engineer for NASA and worked with the Apollo and Gemini programs at Cape Canaveral, Fla. There’s still an original owners manual from one of the Gemini spacecraft in the Hess household.
Lauranne Hess says her son graduated from Legos to computer programming quickly. He was enrolled in the Shawnee Mission schools’ gifted program where he burned through their entire computer science coursework as an elementary student.
Christmas of Patrick Hess’ senior year at college, his mother gave her soon-to-be job-seeking son a telescope.
He adopted it with zeal and looked for opportunities to share his knowledge and the instrument with anyone who would let him. When he looked for a car, his mother remembered one of his requirements was a trunk with enough capacity for the telescope.
“I think everybody wants someone else to think what they think is cool is also really cool,” Patrick says. “With astronomy, there’s the perfect tool to share that with people. Also how many people would look through a telescope at Saturn and not think that’s amazing?”
As an undergrad in psychology at Truman State University in 2012, he took an astronomy class. He returned to his summer job at Wonderscope, committed to finding himself a spot in the museum world.
He wanted to grasp some of the more technical aspects of star study.
The course turned him on to something bigger: “I realized how important (astronomy) is through bigger concepts, where are we in the universe, you know philosophically.”
“It’s like (astronomer and science advocate) Neil deGrasse Tyson says: A lot of people who study astronomy and learn about it, it makes them feel small, that we’re part of this…” — he briefly loses the thread of the thought — “… this giant forever-ness.”
For Patrick, the vastness isn’t silence; it’s a large canvas, big enough for every color.
“It’s sort of the biggest science,” he says. The chemical reactions of substances, the rigorously studied dropping object needs a planet to exist on, a world in which to hold it all and the ideas built around how it’s all governed.
Even the transcendent?
To Patrick, astronomy is an enhancement to those larger concepts, not a replacement. His view is, the human narrative is richer with more explanatory content.
Take the origin story — a point on which science and religion may agree more than it would seem — in which humans are crafted out of earthen materials, “the dust of the ground.”
If we’re limiting ourselves to the science, that mostly checks out with one nuance: stardust. The chemical profiles of human bodies and cosmic bodies overlap significantly: the hydrogen in our physicality is the same as that burning in the sun, the carbon and iron they create in nuclear reactions is not distinct from the essential nutrients found in your garden variety multivitamin.
“I feel like thinking about the world by itself, us being made in the image of some sort of creator (as opposed) to thinking … we are made in the image of hundreds of millions of stars. I would think the creator would be even cooler because of that,” Patrick says. “So, how about a God creating trillions of galaxies?”
Patrick says he was given a proper Methodist upbringing, which like any thoughtful person worth his salt, he questioned rigorously. Growing up, he was drawn to the sense of history and tradition inside the faith. As an adult, the bigger fascination is the material and the physical world.
He added that “atheist” and “agnostic” aren’t words he uses for his worldview.
“The only ‘-ist’ I am is a scientist.”
“I see religion as just as important as the kinds of things I talk about in the planetarium,” he says.
“The feeling that I get … the connection with the universe when I think about astronomy, I really want other people to feel that,” he said. “I don’t want it to replace but I think it can augmented by that.”
“Religion is asking ‘Why?,’ and science is asking ‘How?’ ”
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