Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Dream of the Stars: A brief look at the historic Rosicrucian Planetarium (Part 1)

In 1936 a small group of esteemed guests and eager members of the community watched as Dr. H. Spencer Lewis opened the Rosicrucian Planetarium and Science Center for the first time to the public. Since then thousands more have visited in hopes of learning the mysteries of our universe. This historic building is the fifth planetarium built in the United States and the first in history to feature an American built star projector. Before its opening, planetariums were just starting to come to public attention and most were out of the way and difficult to get to. The Rosicrucian Planetarium made strides to bring the public closer to the stars.

Harvey Spencer Lewis and Mrs. May Banks-Stacey were the co-founders of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC in 1915, a non-profit organization which was heir to the Rosicrucian philosophical and initiatic tradition dedicated to the knowledge, understanding and betterment of one’s self, humanity and the planet. Lewis had been initiated into the Rosicrucian Tradition in Toulouse in 1909, 100 years ago this year, while Banks-Stacey had been initiated earlier in India.

The decision was made in 1927 to bring AMORC's headquarers to San Jose in the hopes that it would blossom and flourish in this wonderful environment, and flourish it did. Soon Rosicrucian Park would become a city center for culture, science and art, a distinction we still hold today. As the park expanded so did H. Spencer Lewis’s dream.

One of the most striking aspects of our Planetarium is its unique design. The high arching doorways and windows along with the spired dome are all elements of North African architecture. This style is most commonly seen throughout the Near East and in other parts of the Islamic world. The Planetarium was designed by Lewis as a tribute to the Arab astronomers of old, widely recognised as the parents of modern astronomy.

Greeting you as you walk through the front doors is our Foucault's pendulum. The Foucault's pendulum's namesake was Jean Bernard Léon Foucault (1819-1868), a French physicist. While physicists had known about the rotation of the Earth for some time, Foucault's Pendulum was the first proof that people could duplicate it in an easy experiment, winning it much attention.

The Pendulum works in a very specific way. If you set the pendulum moving, the direction of its swing will change very slowly over the course of the day because of the rotation of the earth. This is called the Coriolis Effect. However, this is not the whole story. The pendulum is not actually changing direction... it is "trying" to continue swinging in the same direction as it started, despite the turning of the earth beneath it. If the pendulum were placed at the North or South Pole, it would continue swinging in the same fixed direction compared to the stars as the earth turned freely below it. The pendulum would therefore (as we see it) make one entire rotation per day. At other latitudes, its rotation is slower. A Foucault's pendulum does not work at the equator.

This is a wonderful experiment, but air resistance and the force of gravity will eventually stop even a large pendulum like ours. The Coriolis Effect will not help the pendulum keep swinging; it simply affects the direction of the swing.

That is where our clever motor comes in. At the very top of the pendulum is a magnetic ring. Every time the pendulum swings through the center position, a sensor determines its direction and gives it a gentle magnetic "push" in precisely the same direction--just enough to keep the pendulum from slowing down, without altering its direction and affecting the Coriolis Effect. You can swing the pendulum when the motor is turned off and observe precisely the same effect. The only difference is the pendulum will slow down and eventually stop swinging after an hour or two.

Please check back in the next few weeks for Part 2 of our Planetarium’s History and other articles dealing with Rosicrucian Park, the Museum and the ancient world.

In the meantime, please feel free to join us for our current planetarium show The Mithraic Mysteries. This show plays daily at 2:00 pm with an additional showing at 3:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to our show the planetarium is also home to the Rosicrucian Welcome Center, a fascinating exhibit on the history of Rosicrucian Park.

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