Perlus Delivers Immersive Lecture at Adler Planetarium

Perlus in planetarium
Perlus in front of one of the panoramic images of the Jantar Mantars. photo / Jose Francisco Salgado
Perlus and Subbarao
Perlus with Mark Subbarao, director of space visualization at the Adler Planetarium. photo / Jose Francisco Salgado
March 18, 2016

Between 1727 and 1734, Maharajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five astronomical observatories in west central India. The observatories, or Jantar Mantars, are the subject of recent research by Barry Perlus, associate professor of art and associate dean of AAP.

On February 23, Perlus delivered an immersive lecture titled "Jantar Mantar: The Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh," to a sold-out crowd at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. The event featured 35 panorama images of the observatories projected digitally inside the planetarium dome.

"It was unlike any lecture I've done before," says Perlus. "Having a 360-degree projection of each image was a first, and the images had to be scripted into a series that couldn't be altered once it started. And, because the Adler is almost always in use, we didn't really have time to rehearse — we had one run through the night before the lecture, and that was it."

Another first for Perlus was integration of a tool called WorldWide Telescope into the presentation. The tool functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from ground- and space-based telescopes around the world to allow for the exploration of the universe.

"WorldWide Telescope made it possible to seamlessly integrate Barry's photos and the 3D models created by his students," says Mark Subbarao, director of space visualization at the Adler Planetarium. "Starting in orbit above India, we could zoom into the city of Jaipur. Then we brought up the 3D models of Jantar Mantar over the satellite imagery of the city, where we flew to the top of the giant sundial and then crossfaded to Barry’s spherical panorama taken at that location. Using WorldWide Telescope to transition between the photos and 3D model allowed us to put all of Barry’s photography in context."

Perlus's Adler Planetarium talk, which was part of his appointment as the Archaeological Institute of America's Webster Lecturer in Archaeoastronomy for 2015–16, explored the sites' relationship between astronomy, astrology, mathematics, architecture, design, politics, religion, and art. Two musicians playing traditional Indian music accompanied the lecture.

"This lecture had to be tailored not just to the environment, but also to the audience," says Perlus. "The Webster lecture is typically an academic lecture, but I knew that the subject and venue would draw a much wider audience, so this presentation had to serve both. At a few points in the presentation I stopped talking altogether, and just let the music accompany the imagery. That really helped bring the drama of the site to life."

The Webster Lecturer activities are an extension of the project The Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh, for which Perlus received the Einaudi Seed Grant in April 2014.

By Rebecca Bowes