Sounds of the Symphony Under the Stars

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Dr. Donald A. Lubowich is passionate about astronomy. Born in Chicago, and raised in Skokie, he first fell in love with the vast wonders of the sky during childhood visits to the Adler Planetarium.

Lubowich earned a B.A. in astronomy from Northwestern University in 1970, and has been teaching at Hofstra University since 1980. It was at Hofstra that Lubowich first brought stargazing to a public audience. His “Stars on Sundays” event, which launched in 2005, inspired “Music and Astronomy Under the Stars,” which brings telescopes to summer outdoor concerts.

The program comes to Ravinia on July 31 as part of "One Score, One Chicago," which features Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Science in Society spoke with Lubowich to learn more about his inspiring program.

Donald A. Lubowich has made it his mission to bring astronomy to a public audienceDonald A. Lubowich has made it his mission to bring astronomy to a public audience (photo courtesy of Donald A. Lubowich)

What inspired you to bring astronomy to a public audience?

I’ve been teaching astronomy for many years at Hofstra University. And I was inspired by Carl Sagan to conduct astronomy outreach. I’m passionate about bringing astronomy education and outreach to the public to explain the wonders of the heavens.

At a concert people have made a commitment to be outdoors at night. So, therefore, people are already interested in looking at the sky. Also, in many cases, people often get there one, two or three hours before the concert to get a good seat. Most times they have nothing to do. But my program is an education alternative before the concert for the public.

What do you hope to accomplish with your program?

The idea is to bring astronomy to an entirely different audience. So to bring it to the public so we can both inform, engage and inspire, both the children and the adults. What I was surprised at when I brought the telescopes to the concerts is how many families were there with young children. In many cases it’s often been the first time that the children have looked through telescopes.

The initial idea came from a local township and a program called “Music [and Astronomy] Under the Stars.” And I thought if people are actually out there at night under the stars, they should actually look at the stars. So I tested it by bringing a telescope to an event and 600 people waited about 45 minutes to look at Jupiter and its moons. I then expanded the program with a NASA grant to concerts in Long Island, where Hofstra University is located.

But I strove to test other areas as well. So I brought the program to Central Park, the Newport Folk Festival, Astronomy Night on the National Mall, Tanglewood Music Festival, and now to Ravinia.

What are some of the other activities that will be offered at the Ravinia event?

I expanded the program to be an astronomy festival, not just telescopes. So it’s a traveling, outdoor, museum-quality astronomy exhibit.

It includes large posters and banners describing 400 years of astronomy and beautiful astronomical images. There will be hands-on activities and astronomy demonstrations. People will be able to meet an astronomer, touch a meteorite and be provided with information about astronomy. People will be able to take their own images of the moon or Saturn through a telescope with an iPhone.

One of the highlights of the evening will be a suite of seven high definition videos shown on live stream from Ravinia accompanying the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. And the videos, images and animations will be timed and coordinated with the music.

The work is always done in collaboration with local astronomy clubs, and Northwestern University, which is the closest university with a significant astronomy program. The University of Chicago is also participating, as well as the Adler Planetarium.

Lubowich's Ravinia event pairs astronomy education with music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (photo courtesy of Donald A. Lubowich)Lubowich's Ravinia event pairs astronomy education with music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (photo courtesy of Donald A. Lubowich)

What do you hope people will take away from an event like this? What do you hope to inspire?

It’s a special opportunity to encourage childrens’ interest in science and math, and to promote public understanding of science. Gazing at the rings of Saturn and the moon’s craters and mountains captures the imagination no matter how old you are. The program is for kids of all ages.

When we did this program last year at Ravinia, a parent held up his 3-year-old son, and the oldest person was my 85-year-old aunt. People are fascinated with the sky and have been for centuries. There are cave drawings of astronomical events.

How do you hope the program will grow in the future?

I’m hoping to obtain funding to set up a national program with cooperation of local astronomy clubs and local astronomers to set it up around the country, because there are concerts throughout the country. Most of the concerts are free, but even at some of the festivals there are often low-cost general admission seats and, in most cases, students are free with their parents.

What do you love about astronomy? What inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

I believe it’s one of the oldest sciences. People have been interested in astronomy ever since people looked up at the sky. And since I was a child visiting the Adler Planetarium in Chicago I became interested in astronomy. According to my family, I was the only one of my siblings not to complain that my neck hurt when I went to the planetarium.

I’m hoping that the magical, musical experience will inspire the audience to learn more about astronomy as they explore the interaction between music, art and science.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Ravinia's website.

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