Friday, September 12, 2008

Chapter Three - Brian: From a Galaxy Far, Far Away

At one time long ago in a galaxy far, far away there was a crew, traveling on an endless voyage of discovery aboard the starship, “Gengras.” Guiding that ship on its journey into the void of interstellar space were several adults with a crew composed of children.

When I first met Brian he was a “rugrat” crewmember who inhabited the planetarium at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford. I think he lived there behind the dome with the special effects projectors. (At least that how it seems.) Brian was one of about half a dozen other teenagers who were as integral to the planetarium as the Spitz star projector, which was the backbone of the facility. The projector was fondly called Stella.

There was Brian and Ken, Andy, Lenny and John, and two Steves, all were avid astronomy, science and science fiction fans. All of them were members of Starship Gengras which was their “pet” name for the planetarium. They were all part of the Planetarium Club which formed a basic structure for their activities.

When I became a crewmember of the starship, at the invitation of planetarium director Jeff Bouchard the starship was an entity in itself. Originally I had been asked by the museum director, Harry Ryder to run “the Little School.” Harry said, “I want you to just be there and just make your crazy inventions and bring the kids in to build imaginative things.” But before that came to be, Harry ran into some trouble with his board of directors and he headed out to Martha’s Vineyard where, as Harry put it, “Folks were still civilized.”

So I kept my “full time” work at Wesleyan. Instead my part time “job” was to arrive at the planetarium once a week to repair stars, fix the orbits of the planets, adjust electronics and to create new comets, cosmic explosions and, in general to keep the universe in good running order. What I didn’t expect when I signed on was that my crew was composed of “star” explorers ranging in age from 12 to 14 and all knowing they knew more than I did about the place.

I have to admit though that even at the beginning I was charmed by the kids who deluged me with technical questions. Referring to the Spitz Star Projector, or Stella, and associated equipment and special effects gear, they wanted to know how everything worked, or how they could modify it to make it work better. (Sometimes with disastrous results as they experimented, knowing little of the equipment.)

There was little, actually nothing that I could teach them about astronomy, but the mechanics of the star projector and special effects projectors was something else. Brian had more questions than the others: “What’s the theory behind “Stella?” “How does she work?” “How do you make a comet move across the dome?”

As I recall Brian seemed to be the leader, of sorts. Gang leader might be too coarse a word; maybe crew leader would be better. And though Brian seemed to be the leader, each of the group members was an independent entity in himself.

As previously stated the kids knew more about astronomy and science than I’ll ever know. But, I did have an advantage in knowing practical electronics, like how to reconfigure the star lamps and make them work when they wouldn’t fire. I certainly had their respect and interest for that.

As a group, what seemed to hold them together were their intense curiosity and limitless imaginations and their need to know virtually everything about everything. The boys were constantly carrying on conversations about star ship propulsion systems, technology of the future and robotics. Brian, even then, was the expert of the group on artificial intelligence.

Our Wednesday evening gatherings would begin by trying to diagnose the most recent technical problem with the installation. At first it was star bulbs which had become, over time, unstable, sometimes refusing to start at the beginning of a show. Riley, who worked as janitor for the museum did his best to “fix” things but those were only temporary fixes.

When we worked on the star bulb problem the conversation was constantly moving from warp drives to the question of when robots would become household creatures. “It won’t be long before they’re living with us,” said Brian, “Everybody will have a pet robot. You’ll see.” Every technical subject, and some not so technical, remember they were teenagers, were grist for the mill.

Just imagine trying to adjust the complex mechanism of an orrery planet projector with six pairs of eager hands “helping” you. As you can see the word “helping” is in quotes.

To the kids Stella was a “real” personality, who had moods and peculiarities. In other words the star machine was a “living” robot of sorts. Operating the console and giving star shows, whether real or “canned,” was a chief accomplishment and source of pride to all. Joel Gordes tells of how Brian loved to run Stella’s controls during star shows, in the dark, with his bare feet. Of course the audience was totally unaware of such a unique performance.

One day Brian suggested that we construct a model of what we thought Starship Gengras should look like, if it was an interstellar spaceship. There were several major problems, space itself, inner space which was at a premium. Secondly most of us were together for limited times during the week and the whole group hardly ever met as one. So most of the work would have to be done on maintenance night when I was there.

We began designing Starship Gengras on paper and some preliminary models were started but nothing finished. So when I suggested that I might begin construction on a model in my home workshop the boys accepted the offer.

Then, each Wednesday when I arrived at the planetarium they asked how “the ship” was coming. “Very slowly,” was my reply. And, indeed, the ship came together over years, actually, piece by piece, design change by design change. It shifted from rocket engines to ion propulsion to positronic ram jets and then to Bussard drive. .

Each of the planetarium club members held a position in the ship’s log, Brian being the commander of course.

Questions! Questions! And more questions? Will robots of the future have free will? Will they have personalities? When will they begin to appear? How soon? In what form? How long before we actually develop star travel? How can we do it? What kind of engines will we need? What kind of fuel will they use? How? Why? When? What will life be like if we find it out there? How will we react? How will they react to us?

Often our impromptu seminars took us, on coffee break from maintenance, to Pizza West, which undoubtably had the greasiest pizza in the universe. But, the place was close and it was run by “crazy” Nick, who was a pirate-like character, sort of a Zorba the Greek which made him fit in nicely with our “Star Wars” crew. There the conversation continued unabated on the whole range of subjects, carried over from the planetarium dome.

As time went by the director Jeff was replaced by another director. Jamie came on board about then. Soon Joel Gordes, whose imagination paralled that of the kids became director. Joel was full of ideas and eager to try them out. Joel, unlike the kids was more interested in life on Earth than beings from other planets and he was eager to find new ways of making life more hospital for Earthlings. “I want the museum to be more than just a babysitting service for parents,” he said, of the kids who were dropped off for shows.

Joel, with the help of the planetarium club designed and built a solar collector for the roof of the planetarium. When finished and installed the “crazy” device worked much better than expected and when the “new” museum director Barney, tried it out by turning on the tap and running his hand under it, he was unpleasantly surprised by being burned. The kids all thought it was hilarious that he used his hand to check an unknown temperature – very unscientific.

So Joel and the boys went back to the drawing boards and redesigned the collector to be the right size for the liquid they wanted to heat up under a given amount of sunlight. According to Joel the redesigned model worked just fine.

The list of stories that came out of the museum and the planetarium and nature center is endless. Each time I came up I was met with a new tale of how Stella’s spheres were damaged by an overzealous nature director when the planetarium director was away on seminar; or how the beautiful aquarium was demolished to make way for a temporary computer games exhibit. And then there is the little known tale of how the “crew” would enter the planetarium, through the dome roof, after hours, to run their own planetary shows and to design new ones.

Then one by one, as they grew up, the kids faded away, into worlds that were waiting for them. Eventually Steve Ambrosini and I were the only ones left, then only Steve, for a while, after I left, until Lenny took over.

Brian’s vision of the starship, “Starship Gengras” was eventually complete and was installed in the Science Library at Wesleyan University, where it has resided, in full view, for the past 15 years.

I didn’t hear again from Brian or any of the others, besides Joel, and Steve Ambrosini until one day, as I was retiring from 35 years of service, running the University AV center and teaching computer graphics. Out of the blue there was the voice of Brian on the telephone. “We hear you’re retiring from Wesleyan. Why don’t you come to work with us?”

Since all of you know Brian, you can understand how I could not refuse his invitation. And it’s been an interesting seven years, being friends with Brian and Sarah and other members of their extended family, especially those exciting evenings at their home for Superbowl games.

I began this journal with Chapter Three since that’s approximately the time frame when I met him. I don’t know the first two chapters in his life and there are many chapters after chapter three that I missed as well. Hopefully his friends and his wife Sarah can fill in some of those missing pages.

If you are interested in adding your reminiscences of our friend to the “Book of Brian” (a project that I’m working on with Brian’s wife Sarah) please send them on to Sarah .

Rob White dit LeBlanc – Computer Science at CCSU or Tel: 860-685-1435

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