Yet another early start greeted us on Monday morning, as we took the opportunity to visit the Lindy’s on Times Square. It was this restaurant where I had breakfasted with my parents almost every day on the previous trip, so it was nostalgic to return there. Once again pancakes, maple syrup and coffee were the order of the day, and after a quick look in the Rough Guide we decided to visit the American Museum of Natural History. This is one of the largest museums in the world, and features the recently refurbished Hayden Planetarium, a suspended 30-metre sphere inside a lattice of steel and glass. As an architectural achievement it’s extremely impressive, and to have factored practical purpose into such a striking design makes it all the more so. Once at the museum we bought a multi-event ticket for 27 dollars all-in; this gained us access to both planetarium shows, a light show which promised to re-enact the Big Bang, two Imax showings, and a special exhibit which the museum was currently providing dedicated to the life and work of Albert Einstein. All in it promised to be an interesting and varied day, and the by-now-compulsory audio tour was available. After obtaining this and once again providing credit card information as collateral, we set off around the base of the main exhibit, dedicated to space exploration and astrophysics. The Scales of the Universe section was particularly interesting, orbiting the 30 metre sphere and using the massive centrepiece to give an idea of scale – the idea being, at the beginning we were supermassive and the sphere constituted the cosmic horizon, and upon progressing around the exhibit we gradually grew smaller. At each stage a point of comparison was made; for example a small mass in front of us constituting the Oort Cloud if the sphere was the diameter of the galaxy. The most memorable of these was the earth represented as a sphere the size of a football, and the 30-metre sphere the sun. Gradually moving further and further around until the sphere was a hydrogen atom and we were the size of a subatomic particle, we made our way into the Big Bang video, a sort of inverted planetarium with a concave display in front of us. This turned out to be short and more noise and show than information, but it was still an impressive preview of the planetarium itself.
Upon leaving the Big Bang film section a circling walkway took us down to the museum again. This walkway had a novel feature: from the beginning, time gradually advanced from fifteen billion years in the past to the present day at the base of the walkway. The walkway itself circled the planetarium and was studded with information, until at the base the entirety of human history was contained within the width of a single human hair – a great way of getting some perspective, and well in keeping with the theme established by the Scales of the Universe section. Afterwards we made our way to the queue for the planetarium. This constituted two short films, one explaining our place in the cosmos (narrated by Tom Hanks) and one considering the search for extra-terrestrial life (narrated by Harrison Ford). To use big-gun Hollywood actors to lend credence to what could otherwise have been quite a dour affair worked extremely well, and the films themselves were expertly produced. The star projector itself rose out of the centre of the planetarium once the audience was seated; the walkway retracted, and a hulking black lump of plastic and metal machinery gradually rose into view – all very Star Trek. The Zeiss projector itself was capable of accurately projecting more than nine thousand stars, and also reproducing the twinkling effect produced by the Earth’s atmosphere. To a habitual stargazer, the accuracy doubtless adds goosebumps to what is already a very impressive setup. The two films, meanwhile, did not stop at projecting the stars; added in was a host of information and visual aids to the commentary. The latter was certainly lost on one American girl sat behind us – upon hearing Tom Hanks comment “It gets me every time” at seeing the Earth in amongst its galactic environs, she responded “Oh shut up, Tom”.
These remarkable planetarium films completed, we went in search of lunch, and found it in the well-equipped museum restaurant. We realised we didn’t have long before our Imax films would start, so we quickly demolished some strange salad combination (mozzarella and cherry tomatoes?) and failed to notice the burger bar until we were leaving. The lack of beef on at least one occasion probably did Dave some good. So it happened that we left the museum café in a fair hurry to locate the Imax cinema in time for our film, a presentation about coral reefs which promised some outstanding underwater photography. I noticed as we took our seats that the projector was shining a series of information slides at a tiny central portion of the massive Imax screen, and sure enough, when the main event was showing large areas of uniform colour, that central portion had been discoloured by the uneven light exposure. One of the biggest movie screens in the world was a victim of screen burn! Get a screen saver lads! This aside, the coral film’s photography was everything promised and provided an informative account of receding corals. One of the participants in the film even allowed a tiny “scrubber” fish which normally would deal with the teeth of larger fish, to swim into her mouth and clean her teeth – amusing and mildly repulsive in equal measures.
Once the film was completed, Dave suddenly twigged he’d misplaced his audio guide unit, and we searched our seating area to no avail. We retraced our steps back to the restaurant, only to be informed that it had been found and returned to the kiosk. Double checking, Dave sweated slightly when he realised, had it been stolen or lost altogether, the full cost of seven hundred and fifty dollars would have been debited to his card. Promises of marriage to the kiosk girl were met with a deer-in-headlights expression, and I dragged the man Williams away before he could vault the desk and assault her. We realised after this that, as usual, time was marching onward and we had yet to cover the Einstein exhibit, so we found ourselves wandering through this comprehensive account of the man himself and his work. Relativistic physics is explained via a host of visual exhibits, including a series of clocks set to run from the time of Einstein’s birth, and running at relative fractions of the speed of light. As any fule knows, the more rapidly you travel, the greater the time dilation between you and any objects whose speed you’re exceeding. So an imaginary clock travelling at 99.9% of the speed of light relative to our stationary position (besides having the mass of a respectable number of galaxies) was frozen around six seconds after the birth of the man himself – Einstein himself would have been proud. The exhibit was navigated through a guided tour by a small elderly lady with a terrifying command of the theory of relativity and quantum physics. The crowd was a mixture of Joe Anybodies from the street and some men and women who were clearly academics or scientists, and in the midst of this company it was easy to get intimidated. However when she began asking questions of the audience and few people responded, I wondered about the real nature of the supposed scientists. I couldn’t resist piping up when she quizzed the crowd: “Who can tell me something about gravity?”, as Dave is my witness, I responded with “Every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force governed by their mass and the distance between them”. I actually managed to parrot out that line, although it’s not strictly accurate (I neglected to mention the whole inverse-square bit). She turned on me a gaze lit with Einsteinian zeal and said “Did all of Newton, huh”. I felt extremely small. Here I was quoting seventeenth-century physics in the midst of an exhibit dedicated to a man who had debunked portions of classic Newtonian theory. After the knowledgeable little lady explained at great length why I was not *quite* right, the tour rapidly and mercifully progressed to an interesting study of Einstein’s attitude towards nuclear weapons – to quote, this can be summed up as “The Allies have to build one before the Germans do”. As it happened, Nazi anti-semitism had ironically robbed them of a huge proportion of Jewish academics and scientists who might, under duress, have allowed them to obtain such a weapon in time to deploy it on the battlefields of Europe, and tip the balance in favour of the Axis. It seems evil does always contain the seeds of its own destruction.
The Einstein exhibit completed, we left the closing museum and took a gentle stroll along Central Park west. By now it was early evening and those familiar pangs of hunger had returned, and after quick showers back at the Pennsylvania, we made our way to a branch of TGI Fridays visible from our hotel; it was here that we had our first encounter with the wondrous 23oz beer glasses – for those who don’t have their metric/imperial calculators handy, this is more than a litre of beer squashed into a single glass. Over burgers, we had a great view of the Manhattan evening, eventually leaving and taking the opportunity to visit the Empire State Building by night, this time with well-charged camera batteries. Many, many snaps were taken, and Dave’s filthy weed habit meant that when I returned to where he was smoking a crafty cigarette he had befriended some dazed-looking types. These lads informed us they were from Orange County, and staying in dodgy hostel accommodation for which they were paying more per night than the ultra-bargain deal at our beloved Pennsylvania. Upon leaving the building we informed the guys where they could find us if they fancied a drink (Niles, naturally) and headed back to our favourite watering hole by around 11pm. Gently sampling the Maker’s Mark once again, we somehow lost a good few hours in this bar chewing the fat and exchanging thoughts on the trip, and it wasn’t until we were on our way out that we encountered the formidable Janice and Den. Both New York natives, these were a hilarious and charismatic double act, the calm and erudite Janice, and the Brooklyn native Den, who spoke more rapidly than anyone we have ever met. Somehow we ended up chatting with these fascinating folk for well over an hour, as they were interested in a British perspective on everything from the war in Iraq to comic and anime culture. It was during this time that Dave demolished the remainder of his whisky whilst standing in the street, which we later realised was an arrestable offence. But I suppose everyone breaks the law at least once a day, Dave just found the novelty of ostentatiously doing it in a foreign country. When Janice and Den and we finally parted company Niles had closed behind us, and it was around three thirty in the morning. Dave was forced to leave the whisky glass by the door, and we made our unsteady way past a now-blasé concierge.