The Kepler Story at CU’s Fiske Planetarium
Scott Rowland • March 30, 2016 • Lifestyle •
When academia split apart during the scientific revolution, its proclaimed benefits were derived from the ideals of specialization as laureates and alumni became renowned for their unwavering focus. Science began to divide into smaller and smaller bits as new discoveries transformed how society and nature are universally perceived.
The 17th-century German astronomer, mathematician, astrologer, visionary and well-rounded intellectual, Johannes Kepler, used the principles of nature to unveil the most critical discoveries of the scientific revolution. His legacy has inspired Nina Wise, playwright, performer and artistic director of Motion Theater, to develop The Kepler Story, an historical theater piece transformed into an immersive, multi-sensory, planetarium experience. The production emphasizes the universe as a dynamic system of interconnected parts and serves as a reminder that we have the strength to face reality during distressful times.
The Kepler Story is showing six times over the next two weeks (April 1-3 and April 8-10) at The Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, CO, with the help of the Motion Institute, to share a moving story about one of the last holistic scientists.
ALOC: Can you depict The Kepler Story as experienced by the audience at The Fiske Planetarium?
Nina Wise: The opening scene is about Kepler’s discovery of the six-sided snowflake. You see the stars like you would at another planetarium, and they start to fall. Then, you hear the music. There’s a ping here and a ping here and a ping here. It turns into this beautiful cello music as the snow falls in the dome. You are sitting inside the 3D environment inside the dome and not looking at it from the way the audience would normally see the theater piece. Here, the actor is still on the stage, but the visuals are above and around you. The music is all around you.
One of the things that we emphasize about Kepler is his mystical visions of the nature and harmony of the universe. We hope that what we can induce is that same kind of transcendent state in the actual mind of the audience. You are not just learning about it intellectually and emotionally.
The 360-degree view of the Fiske Planetarium and the 4k resolution projected across a 65-foot diameter scene provide an extraordinary environment, but The Kepler Story is a culmination of many integral players. Who’s been involved in creating this immersive experience, and what are their roles?
NW: I first worked on this piece in collaboration with Ralph Abraham, one of the founders of chaos theory. Then, I went to California Academy of Sciences to the planetarium there. I ran into Ryan Wyatt (Director of the Morrison Planetarium) and asked if he would be interested in doing a piece about Kepler. He agreed, so their studio created many of the visuals, along with two animation artists from Germany. They are these cigarette-smoking, super intellectuals and artists in East Germany: Stephen Burke and Yahn Zen who are doing the most cutting-edge visualizations. There is one actor [Wise herself]. Zoe Keating composed the soundtrack, and it was mixed by Christopher Hedge who is an Emmy Award-winning sound designer…They [Burke and Zen] worked directly with Zoe to create algorithms, so when you hear the music, the visuals are literally integrated.
Originally, The Kepler Story was to be performed as a theater piece, and now it’s become something reminiscent of theater, but predominantly an immersive, dome-projection experience. How did these two pieces fall in line?
NW: I developed it at first as an eight-actor play with 11 songs. We did four stage readings. The last one was in Santa Fe where 350 people came. It was a huge success. But to get a play from staged reading to production is quite difficult these days, so I thought, what if I did it in a planetarium? I went to Ryan Wyatt and he approved a 24-minute pilot. So I took my eight actor, two hour play and spent months trying to wiggle it down to a 25-minute frame. I thought well, we could do one scene. Then, I had this epiphany. No, just do it as a solo piece about Kepler.
What is different about The Kepler Story experience compared to other planetarium-based films?
NW: Most…planetariums are used for very high-end, very expensive educational films about the origins of life, ecosystems or planetary information about the universe. They are beautiful. But you are in this environment with symphonic music and this amazing 3D graphics and this voice goes “In the year 1848 there was…” It’s very pedagogical and pedantic. It’s a little bit like listening to a lecture on bio-technology when you are on acid. The brain can’t integrate this really intellectual material with this state you are in. We are trying to create a piece of work where we literally are using the capacity of the dome, and what it does to a person, to enhance the story telling rather than conflict with it. It effects the whole brain and body in a different way. You go into these slightly altered states.
What motivated you to produce The Kepler Story?
NW: What I was hoping to do, it was very ambitious. I didn’t know if I could succeed. Most theatrical experiences…are about family dynamics[.]… But I thought in this point in human history when we are likely on the brink of extinction as a human species, because of climate change and the irreversible things we are starting to set into motion through our actions, it seemed important to take on a bigger theme, and I thought, might it be possible to move people emotionally. If we are not moved emotionally, nothing will change. Most action, political action, social action, comes from emotions. Can I create a work about the universe and our place in it that will move people emotionally in the same way that a family drama would?
Tell me more about Ralph Abraham’s influence and his inspiration in this project?
NW: Ralph was the first person to download this story to me: the 17th century and the scientific revolution. This huge paradigm shift in human history[.]… We really kind of created a whole new way of seeing reality in the 17th century. It is incredibly interesting, the story of Kepler, Galileo and Tycho Brahe. Kepler’s mother was accused of witchcraft. He suffered all manners of challenges to his personal and professional life. He was coming up with these true and amazing theories about the structure of the universe. But you could get burned at the stake for that back in the day. How do we move from thinking the Earth was the center of the Universe to realizing its flying through space? It’s kind of inconceivable without instrumentation and satellites.
Why do you feel so connected to this story in particular? What is your intention for spreading the history of Johannes Kepler?
NW: It really comes from Ralph. One of things that chaos theory pointed out is this notion of a bifurcation point in history which is a moment when time is moving along, and there is a split. We believe that we are kind of headed down a dire route as a species, and unless we start to regain what was lost at the beginning of the scientific revolution (which was an understanding of the interconnected nature of everything), we can’t really come up with solutions to the problems that confront us right now. You can see it in the political speeches that people are giving. People talk about the economy and then they talk about climate change as if they are separate, but they are not separate at all. Like if you go to the eye doctor, they now ask what medications are you on. But they don’t assume that if you are having an eye problem and a kidney problem its one body going through multiple disorders that could have a connected nature.
Why do you think Kepler’s discoveries are relevant to conventional science and astronomy?
NW: Historically, it is a story of an incredibly courageous man who was very devoted to telling the truth the way he could see it, no matter what the cost. To watch somebody go through challenges, overcome them to a point and succumb to them at a point and not forsake his moral integrity is very inspirational. And I think that [there are] a lot of people today who are really battling what we might call a contemporary fundamentalism in the scientific community. Where people insist on things being the way they are even though the evidence suggests it’s not like that.
I think it is also relevant because when you are trying to figure something out, you might make mistakes along the way. Kepler figured out elliptical orbits and the sun exerts a force from a distance – the three laws of planetary motion. He wrote two laws up in a book called Astronomia Nova. It took him nine years to write, and he was correct. He sent it out to everybody and he was ridiculed unimaginably. So, I think it takes a lot of courage to be a pioneer, a forerunner to see reality in a new way and to not succumb to the ridicule of your colleagues and enemies alike.
In order to understand each part, we have separated everything. We have to bring it all together. Kepler was really the last scientist in history who had those two worldviews integrated.
You have described Kepler as having “a spiritual notion of the universe”. What do you mean by that statement? What parallels did Kepler, the mystic, draw from spirituality that helped advance science in such an impactful way?
NW: In the day, Kepler subscribed to the idea that by reading the book of nature, you see the mind of God. Like if you look closely at a plant and how it grows in heliotropism, you are seeing this intelligence at work and not from a fundamentalist point of view. He was looking at the evidence of this intelligence. That was his spirituality, that you could see this mind at work. I don’t think we have adequate language for that. It’s something else. We don’t really understand, but we see it at work, these patterns in the universe that are so extraordinary. There is some rhyme or reason behind it, but we don’t know what the reason or rhyme is. It is pointing to something. I think scientists are very afraid of standing that ground, that there is something going on here.
“Since the symmetry of the snowflake serves no discernible purpose, I further infer that nature implores this formative power for the pure sake of ornament. Nature plays by creating endless beauty.”
The Kepler Story has transpired into an interactive, immersive art and science experience from a collaboration of many creative minds. Why do you think this science-driven creativity (or art if you will) is important for society and culture?
NW: I think that the split between science, art and spirituality is artificial, and I don’t think it serves us. So I think any attempt to integrate is critical. Science has such a profound effect on our lives. Really, it affects the modern economy. It affects modern medicine. It affects food. The more we can start to see art, science, technology and spirituality as many hubs of a single thing (which is to honor life), we are gonna be in better shape.