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Worlds Collide at NY Natural History Museum


From the beginning of time, mankind has gazed at the stars for a sense of serenity. But as a new show at the American Museum of Natural History dramatically illustrates, our starry skies are a nightscape of explosive encounters.

Cosmic Collisions, narrated by American film star and director Robert Redford, is about things that go bump in the night sky. Terrifying, big bumps.

In a darkened theater, audience members gaze up at the ceiling, as a small planet comes barreling toward Earth, sideswipes it and explodes. Music swells and the seats shake.

Particles from the explosion attach to one another, forming a large globe. Thus, the narrator informs the audience, the moon was created, a process that took only one month.

"Cosmic collisions, dynamic and dazzling, have created so many things we take for granted: the glowing moon, the sun's warmth and light, our changing seasons, waves washing up on a sandy shore," narrated Robert Redford. "They have ended the age of the dinosaurs, and changed the very map of the cosmos."

Two years in the making, Cosmic Collisions boasts that the motion and placement of every single star in the show, even those in a massive cluster, corresponds exactly to space. The museum's curator of astrophysics, Michael Shara explains:

"We take billions of numbers out of super computers that do the simulations, not the cartoons, not the imagination of astronomers or graphic artists, but what computers tell us from real physical equations, and turn this into captivating images," said Michael Shara. "Things that really show how the universe works, and how the universe evolves."

The show also demonstrates how some life forms met their demise. Audiences watch a burning asteroid slam into the Earth, and learn how it set our world on fire, baking it for one hour at 500 degrees. The firestorm destroyed the dinosaurs. But among the survivors were man's ancient ancestors, who might also have been wiped out, if not for the extinction of nearly everything else.

It could happen again, Mr. Redford warns. Scientists predict an asteroid is headed our way in 2029, but say it is unlikely Earth will be struck. Visitors to the show witness a simulation of an ingenious solution for diverting a possible impact: a spacecraft flying near the asteroid gives it a gravitational tug, knocking it off course, and averting a collision.

The show is set to run for 10 years.