Shanil Virani is the new acting director of the John C. Wells Planetarium, a JMU fixture since 1974. Virani is also the physics specialist in the Math and Science Learning Center and a professor of physics and astronomy. Originally from Canada, Virani graduated with a physics degree and worked for more than five years as a data analyst for the Harvard Smithsonian Center for astrophysics.
The Breeze sat down with Virani to discuss his background and his plans for the planetarium this year.
Have you always been interested in stars? I’ve always had a strong fascination, a strong interest in wanting to understand. This is the story that my mom relates to anyone who asks her about me: From when I was very young I saw the moon and told her that I wanted it. This was her sign and I have very distinct recollection of being in kindergarten and going to the library and looking at pictures that observatories take and asking, “What does this mean? Why is it that way?” and trying to understand what the beautiful colors that you would see mean.
Tell us about the upcoming shows you have planned. The shows on Saturday are delivered by four undergraduates, two of [whom] are interdisciplinary liberal studies majors, one of which is a math major and a fourth is actually a physics major. There are few universities, if any — I’m not aware of any — that allow you to do this kind of thing at the undergraduate level. So these shows are great for students.
We change the shows every month, and the 2:30 show is more intended for families with very young kids.The 3:30 show would probably be more intellectually meaty for students. Every full-dome show is followed by a 25-minute “star talk” about what you can see in the Harrisonburg sky for that night and that week. Planets that are up, any special objects like comets and using constellations to navigate your way around the night sky, I think it’s really neat.
Any other upcoming events? One I started last spring is the Bad Science Movie Night. You’re familiar with movies like “2012,” “Day After Tomorrow” and “Armageddon”? Really bad science-fiction movies [are] trying to depict something that is likely to happen or will happen. They give you this feel of being scientifically authentic, but it’s not.
Last semester I showed “The Core.” I mean this is all nonsense, right? And so we show the movie on the dome, it’s at 5.1 surround sound, you have comfortable seats, but then we spend 15-20 minutes after the movie debunking the science.
The second thing is right around the week before Thanksgiving we actually have a Christmas show. It’s called “Mystery of the Christmas Star,” and it’s a scientific, astronomical exploration about what possibly could have been the star of Bethlehem that you hear about in biblical stories. So it’s an astronomical exploration — of course there’s no answer, it just explores what possibilities that the three wise men could have seen.
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