The American Museum of Natural History's new planetarium show finds the beauty in violence.

cosmiccollisions1.jpg In the violent aftermath of a collision four-and-a-half billion years ago between a young Earth and a Mars-sized wandering body, the remaining debris circling Earth quickly starts to coalesce into our Moon.  Credit: American Museum of Natural History

Going to the planetarium as a middle schooler in Boston meant staring up at pinpricked stars about 10 feet away, while listening to the giggles of stoned teenagers and a disembodied, God-like voice that intones the names of constellations as someone backstage flicked a switch to illuminate Orion or the Big Dipper. The music was soporific, and the room always smelled like feet.

As ingrained as that synesthetic response is in my mind over a decade later, the newest space show at the American Museum of Natural History‘s Hayden Planetarium jolted me from my preconceptions. “Cosmic Collisions,” a series of NASA simulations transformed into full-color reels and projected onto the cavernous globe of the domed ceiling, is so violent and visually astounding that I probably wouldn’t have blinked an eye if an entire squad of stoned Girl Scouts had sat down behind me and taken off their hiking boots.

Only a half-hour long, “Cosmic Collisions” slams a lot into a small space, beginning with a peaceful night sky and cycling through a series of significant and spectacular crashes from four distinct time bands: the Past, Ongoing, Potential and the This-Will-Almost-Definitely-Never-Happen.

The world as we know it, proclaims the shambling, good-natured voice of Robert Redford, wouldn’t exist were it not for the collision of a planet-sized object with the Earth, 4.5 billion years ago, that created our moon. Furthermore, we’d be unable to sustain our cherished existence without the regular collisions of neutrons in the Sun.

One of the most magnificent sequences brings to life the streams of magnetic current flowing around Earth—appearing like so many gauzy blue curtains—that protect us from solar winds of charged particles and help create the psychedelic mists of Aurora Borealis. Other highlights include a fireball-happy simulation of the asteroid impact that helped wipe out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and a sequence practically stolen from Jaws, in which an orchestral theme thrums ominously as an asteroid seems to ponder striking modern-day Earth.

Never fear, Redford’s voice says reassuringly: We are rescued at the last minute by the good folks at NASA, who lure the bad asteroid away using the gravitational pull of a 1,000-ton spacecraft, unmanned of course. “We are explorers,” Redford proclaims, as stars whip by dizzyingly overhead, dispatching from my brain forever the Lite-Brite universe of 7th grade.

Distracted by pondering the scientific validity of the NASA plan, I almost missed the show’s incredible denouement, in which we journey billions of years into the future, to a point where our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy brush past each other like flirting jellyfish, then pull irresistibly closer and finally rush together in an orgasmic flurry of stars and planets, forming a giant new galaxy. It’s a welcome bit of romance, coming as it does after billions of years of destruction, death and awesome explosions.

cosmiccollisions2.jpg 4. Graphic representation shows how most of the ionized particles from the solar wind are deflected off the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field.    Credit: American Museum of Natural History/NASA

Originally published March 21, 2006

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