The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center on the Big Island of Hawai’i blends past and present with a focus on the night sky. Part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the center is a kid-friendly, hands-on sort of place where families can roam through various exhibit areas or enjoy a show in the planetarium.
My husband and I spent some time at the center over the weekend with two teen boys – one mine, one visiting from out of state. Before entering the exhibit area, we learned a little about Mauna Kea, a mountain significant to the native Hawaiians as well as the astronomers who count on Mauna Kea’s clear skies for some great views of the Universe. We got a chance to explore both inside the exhibit hall.
Polynesian voyagers arrived in the islands by navigating with the stars. As we stood on a mock voyaging canoe painted on the floor, we wondered at the ability of the Polynesians to survive on such a small vessel in the open ocean with no technology to guide them. Rather than technology, these voyagers used the stars in the sky to find their way, eventually making their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Interesting side note: This skill was nearly lost to the Hawaiian people as modern technology took over and voyaging with the stars as guides became unnecessary. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded to revive this lost practice, and with the help of Mau Piailug, or “Papa Mau,” this cultural practice has been successfully restored to the Hawaiian people. Today, two traditional voyaging canoes ply the waters around the islands: Hokule’a and Makali’i.
Moving into the present, a large photo mural gave us an up-close look at the high-tech observatories atop Mauna Kea today and a bank of computers allow us to take a virtual tour inside the Gemini observatory. The boys traversed the top of Mauna Kea and tried their hand at maneuvering a black hole (epic fail!). Throughout the room are big, clear columns filled with different amounts of sand. The grains of sand represent different items. One, with very few grains of sand, represented the known objects in the Universe. Another, full of sand, represented all of the galaxies in the Universe. This was accompanied by a placard that notified visitors that even if they started with the column full of sand, it would still take them 3,200 more years of counting grains of sand in order to tally the other galaxies.
There is plenty to see and do at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and it’s a favorite weekend spot for locals and frequented by visitors as well. The center has done an amazing job of integrating the cultural and the scientific. Beyond the exhibits, one thing I love about the center is that all of the placards throughout the facility include information in both the Hawaiian and English languages. Some of the exhibits, too, offer the option to listen in either of the official languages of the state of Hawai’i.
Of course, we couldn’t call it a day until we’d enjoyed the Planetarium show. We had two to choose from, and ending up watching Natural Selection, a 3-D movie about the discoveries of Charles Darwin. That is, three of us watched while one member of our party who’s famous for falling asleep in theaters took a little nap.
We enjoyed our day as guests of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.