Martin Ratcliffe spends his days in a world vastly bigger than the one inhabited by the rest of us.
Ratcliffe, former director of Exploration Place’s planetarium, trains the people who buy software from planetarium software designer Skyskan.
The company has supplied the software for 100 planetariums around the world. Ratcliffe travels once or twice a month, usually in the United States, and handles the rest of it remotely from his home in Valley Center.
He is an expert in operating the geewhiz software, swooping through the solar system or backing up until the sun is no longer more than an indistinguishable speck in a wispy outer arm of the Milky Way.
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One of the highlights of his career came just two weeks ago when he was asked to help out at a star party at the White House in honor of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first demonstration of the telescope. He set up his planetarium gear inside an inflatable dome on the White House lawn.
As he was narrating the show for 20 kids from the area, the Obamas ducked into the tent and sat next to him to watch and listen.
“It was inspiring for us, and obviously inspiring for them, because they stayed there for an hour,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe, 50, and his wife, Shawn, have six children between them.
1. What do you actually do?
“Once the equipment is installed, I go in afterward and arrive on the scene and work with staff: ‘Here is Digital Sky. This is the software you will be using for the production of your planetarium shows.’ This is a very powerful, real-time simulator, but it’s not only for astronomy. We can put molecules on the dome, the human body, lots of different things. I do the training, and how to produce shows.”
2 What makes the software so dazzling?
“It has a solar system in it. . . . If you tell me a date and time, I can take you there, look at the sky any time of day or night thousands of years in the past or the future, and because it is digitally based I can fly out to other planets and see what the sky looks like from there. I can fly beyond the solar system to see the constellations from other vantage points. Everything in Digital Sky is using real data. Everything is from NASA or large spacebased telescopes. Some of the large sky surveys that have been done, surveying millions of galaxies, that is in there. We have about a million galaxies in here, with their correct distances from Earth, so you can truly see the large-scale structure of the universe and our place in it.”
3 What do you like about this job?
“I find a nice match between teaching the software and improving the astronomical knowledge of people I’m teaching. That fits very nicely with my personal vocation, which is teaching astronomy.”
4 Tell me something cool about astronomy.
“We know that elements have to be created in the nuclear furnaces of stars.æ.æ.æ. It takes two to three supernovae (one after another) to generate the right proportion of chemicals that are in our bodies. So there had to be two to three cycles of stars before our sun was formed.” 5 What kind of fake astronomy gets out into the public?
“We will hear a lot in the next few years about the 2012 hoax, the Mayan calendar. The Mayans themselves didn’t actually predict the world ending. Their calendar just ended. It was just a paperwork, or stonework, thing. I lived through (several) ends of the world in my lifetime. There was the Jupiter effect in the ’70s, where the planets were going to align and destroy the planet. And there was the Year 2000 end of the millennium. Lots of people make a lot of money on this.”
— Dan Voorhis