Educator Features

Cosmic Questions Exhibit
07.15.04
What is the universe like?
Was there a beginning to time?
How do we fit into the cosmos?


Begin at our own Milky Way galaxy and travel outward in space to billions of galaxies as far as we can see, and back in time to the Big Bang. The Cosmic Questions exhibition, currently on international tour at science centers and museums throughout the United States and Canada, takes you on this journey. From Our Place in Space and Time, through Observing the Universe and then to Great Cosmic Mysteries, the Cosmic Questions interactive exhibition takes visitors to the very edges of the universe and into the heart of humanity's connection to the cosmos.

Even if you can't visit or host the exhibit, you can learn more about your own cosmic questions at the Universe Forum or download activities and demonstrations related to the exhibit at the Universe Forum Cosmic Questions Web site.

Image shows a student visiting an exhibit component.  The student at the lower right is touching a physical model of the galaxy and listening to an audio description, while looking at the large black mural of our swirling Milky Way Galaxy in the upper left.  A light blue panel with pictures and buttons is in the lower left.
Image to right: Home is the Milky Way galaxy. Visitors can explore our galaxy through a tactile model, an audio narration, and a lighted panel display. Credit: Kevin Burke/SAO

Staff from the NASA Structure and Evolution of the Universe Education Forum at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) directed the creation of Cosmic Questions in collaboration with a host of talented space science partners. Mary Dussault, the CfA's project manager for Cosmic Questions notes, "This project involved the participation of dozens of scientists, Space Science Education and Public Outreach programs, and astronomy research centers - from the CfA and Chandra, to the Marshall and Goddard NASA Centers, to observatories and research groups from Mauna Kea, Caltech, and MIT, among others. Researchers contributed their time, knowledge, thoughtful advice, images and data throughout the development of the project, from early brainstorming meetings that shaped the conceptual framework of the exhibition to last minute proofreading and text review that helped to preserve the accuracy of the content."

What we have learned
Is like a handful of earth;
What we have yet to learn
Is like the whole world
- Auvaiyar, 4th C poet, India
Three years in the making, the 5,000 square foot Cosmic Questions exhibition is organized around four highly visual and interactive exhibit areas. In Our Place in Space, visitors are transported to the grand spectacle of our own Milky Way Galaxy and out to the billions of galaxies one by one. They can even launch from Earth and 'fly' through the 3-D structure of the universe. (To experience the 'Fly Through the Universe', click here.)

Image shows a view from above of the exhibit floor, visitors walk around the tiled floor between various components of the exhibit.
Image to left: Four exhibit areas lead visitors through the grand questions of the cosmos, and inspire them to explore their own questions, as well as build a new understanding of their place within the universe. Credit: CfA/ASTC

The Observing the Universe exhibit area give visitors the chance to 'be the astronomer' as they take interactive virtual tours of the Mauna Kea observatories and the Chandra X-ray space telescope. Using tools such as an infrared camera, a spectroscope and special multi-wavelength image viewers, visitors can investigate how astronomers piece together the story of the universe from clues provided by faint light from deep space.

In Our place in Time, visitors encounter the idea that although human thoughts have only recently arrived in the cosmos, the very atoms in our bodies date billions of years back in time. A unique Cosmic Kitchen animated theater production explores these ideas.

Image shows visitors in the Cosmic Kitchen Theater.  They are seated in a dark room in the lower left, and are viewing a stage set as a whimsical kitchen.  Lights flash over the kitchen like stars, while in the back a view screen highlights portions of what the narrator describes.
Image to right: In the Cosmic Kitchen Theater, visitors experience a whimsical multimedia presentation that explores Carl Sagan's famous remark, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Is there a recipe for the cosmos? Follow this 14 billion year culinary adventure in just 10 minutes! Credit: CfA/ASTC

The Cosmic Mysteries section of the exhibit highlights some recurrently unanswered cosmic questions about black holes, life elsewhere in the cosmos, and the basic ingredients of the universe, acknowledging that while we have learned much about our place in space and time, there are deep mysteries yet to be understood.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. -- John Muir, 19th C naturalist
A comprehensive set of Cosmic Questions education programs, created in partnership with the Museum of Science in Boston, extends and enhances the learning experience for school and public visitors to the exhibition and help host site museum staff to get the most out of the run of Cosmic Questions. Programs include a two character play (Girl Meets Boy: a Comedy about the Universe); a live stage demonstration about the idea that looking out in space is looking back in time (The 'Real' Time Machine); a set of activities, equipment, and background material for museum docents; an Educators' Guide for teachers of grades 6-12, resources for professional development workshops for teachers, and resources for lecture series and additional programming. In addition, a planetarium show - Journey to the Edge of Space and Time - is available to host venues that have a planetarium.

Image shows a theatre stage, black floor and background.  Two desks are set to face each other and two students, male and female, are standing, facing one another, and leaning on their hands on the desks.  Chairs are behind each of the students.
Image to left: The two character play, Girl Meets Boy: a Comedy about the Universe, is one of the many programs included that enhance visitor learning at the Cosmic Questions Exhibition. Credit: CfA

Cosmic Questions is at the Ontario Science Center (OSC) until September 2, 2004. In addition to the wide resources available in the education portfolio, OSC has designed a novel program - the Cosmic Questions Media League - that has engaged young people in making entertaining video shorts with titles like "Dark Matter," "When Stars Died" and "Where is the Life?"

Here's what visitors are saying about Cosmic Questions:

"The whole exhibit is space and the universe and a journey of discovery. We know a lot [but] we don't know a lot. The exhibit gets that across."

From 9-year old girl: "I learned that stars are going to explode some day, I thought they lived forever but they're going to explode... The exhibit helped me know what the universe was like because I didn't know it was so big, I didn't know there were so many stars... it made me really think about it."

"I didn't know about dark matter or energy, it's a fascinating concept to me, I thought it was staggering."

"It means so much to me as a teacher to have meaty exhibits."


The Cosmic Questions Exhibition was developed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics with generous support from the National Science Foundation and NASA. Jeff Kennedy Associates; Boston's Museum of Science; and Lesley University were the major development and evaluation partners.

If you are a museum or science center interested in hosting the exhibition call ASTC (Association for Science and Technology Centers) Exhibition Services for more details at 202/783-7200 or visit the ASTC Web site.

To learn more general information about the Cosmic Questions exhibition, visit:
http://www.astc.org/exhibitions/cosmic/wcosmic.html
http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/seuforum/exhibit/index.htm

If you want to explore more about your place in space and time, visit the Universe Education Forum at:
http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/seuforum/

If you are an educator interested in activities related to Cosmic Questions, you can download the pdf of the educator's guide at:
http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/seuforum/exhibit/resources/resources.htm

Other relevant educational activities are available from the Universe Forum:
http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/seuforum/learningresources.htm

NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day Web site contains images and links to exciting astronomical discoveries and observations. It also includes a searchable directory and glossary of astronomical phenomena.
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/

Similar to Astronomy Picture of the Day, this site has weekly updates of news and images from telescopes observing in ultraviolet, X-Ray and gamma-ray light.
http://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/objects/heapow/

Published by the Office of Space Science