No one really knows what drew the wise men to Bethlehem to visit a newborn Jesus, because we can’t really travel back in time, said Jacksonville State University associate professor Laura Weinkauf.
But Saturday evening, Weinkauf, an associate professor of physics and the university’s planetarium program director, took visitors on a virtual trip through time and space to see the night sky over the Middle East about 5 B.C. Once there, she showed them several potential Stars of Bethlehem.
“It’s kind of like mind-blowing to know that you can see and show things like 5 B.C.,” said Elizabeth Smith, 16.
She attended the Star of Bethlehem show with her friends, twins Tabitha and Caitlin Rayburn, also 16, and their parents. The show is part of an annual series known as Second Saturday Space Safari Series, shown at the planetarium December through April.
Tabitha Rayburn said she wanted to hear the different theories about the famous star. But it wasn’t the first time they’d been to the planetarium’s shows. The experience keeps them coming back, she said. “I like learning about the stars, feeling a part of space in the planetarium,” she said.
The show is generated from a projector controlled by three computers that the university bought about nine years ago, Weinkauf said. It replaced a projector that was basically a big sphere with holes in it with a light bulb inside, she said. The new projector is a “little more advanced,” she said with a laugh.
“When we bought it, we were one of the first that had it in the Southeast,” Weinkauf said.
That is no longer true, but the shows are still popular. Thirty swiveling chairs surround the digital projector in the center of the planetarium. The chairs are perfect for spinning around to get a full view of the night sky projected on the white domed ceiling. All the chairs are filled for some shows and she’s had to bring in folding chairs, Weinkauf said.
Saturday, 12 people attended the first showing and 18 were pre-registered for the second showing of the Christmas-themed show, she said. She enjoys doing the shows and has done six or seven showings if groups want to see the show.
“The country needs people to pursue science and engineering degrees,” Weinkauf said. “If I can help keep them interested in science and give them some good science vibes, if you will, I want to do that.”
Some of the people who came to the show had no idea what to expect and one five-year-old was a little worried about entering the strange room. Victor Sanders told his mom, Venus Smith, and sister, NaKayla Goodman, that he didn’t want to stay for the show. But he did anyway and during the show paid close attention.
Smith, a student at the university, said she had never been to the planetarium before. But she wanted to bring her children to the Christmas show.
“I had never been, but I thought that would be extra interesting,” Smith said.
As the 6 p.m. show ended, the group filed out of the room past the 7 p.m. attendees already gathered in the hall.
They seemed eager for their chance to discover how the Star of Bethlehem might have appeared and why it would have sent the three wise men down the road to discover where it led.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.