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December 2, 2009 > Tales of the Maya Skies

Tales of the Maya Skies

By Simon Wong

Image courtesy of Chabot Space & Science Center

November 21 saw the US grand opening of "Tales of the Maya Skies," a 33-minute, planetarium show produced by Chabot Space & Science Center with versions in English, Spanish and Maya. The show will play throughout the US, Latin America and worldwide.

The companion exhibit includes 10 graphic panels and two interactive exhibits that supplement the show.

"The immersive landscape of the digital full-dome format is characteristic of the Maya culture itself. It's a wonderful blend of science, art and mythology, which encircles the audience," said Alexander Zwissler, Executive Director/CEO, Chabot Space & Science Center and Executive Producer of "Tales of the Maya Skies."

"We worked on this project for nearly five years. After the National Science Foundation helped fund our 2004 'Dragon Skies: The Astronomy of Imperial China' exhibition, they wanted a really good exhibition on Maya astronomy," said Jean Quan, City of Oakland Councilwoman and Chair of Chabot Space & Science Center.

"So, we spent several years at Chichen Itza (a Maya city in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Yucatan state, modern-day Mexico) re-measuring and re-filming the site, working with archaeologists who use cutting edge techniques. This project is actually a scientific experiment. We tested, verified and re-established some of the alignments and underlying theories of Maya astronomy," Quan explained.

"The knowledge of the ancients was lost and subsequently rediscovered but the scholarship and research continues to emerge and evolve. We worked with a team of US and Central American scholars, scientists, archaeologists and others to assemble the exhibit. Alonso Mendez, one of the screen writers, is a Yucatan-based archaeo-astronomer," elaborated Zwissler.

"Typically, people learn about Greek and Roman astronomy but different cultural perspectives of the skies exist around the world, such as the Chinese legend of the Shepherd Boy and Weaver Girl aka the constellations of Aquila and Lyra. The Maya were the first to create and use the concept of zero in mathematics and, thus, count into the millions... We're telling the international story of the heavens," added Quan.

Quan has launched an "underwriting challenge" to bring thousands of Bay Area school children to Chabot, especially the "Tales of the Maya Skies" exhibit. As a former school-board member, she knows field trips are one of the first casualties of budget cuts. Approximately $300 will enable a class of 30 students to visit and $1,000 will allow an entire grade level at an underserved school to spend a day at Chabot. $12,000, raised at the exhibit's gala launch, will initially fund the underwriting.

Visitors will hear the Maya tales of how the earth, sun and moon were created. They will discover the influence of the moon, sun and stars in the lives of the Maya who created a powerful and complex culture more than four thousand years ago. What were their names for constellations Gemini and Orion? How many levels did the gods create in the Maya world? What role did maize play in their culture? What was the significance of Venus? How did the Maya civilization measure time? What causes the seasons? How did the Maya embark on scientific discovery? What did they achieve with their observatories without telescopes?

The Maya created a yearly solar calendar, counting in base-20. A month had 20 days; 18 months equated to 360 days; 5 days were added for ritual and celebration to give a 365-day calendar. The use of zero enabled them to count days into the millions. This combination of mathematics and astronomy led to a complex calendar system.

The science-fiction, disaster movie "2012" is based loosely on the Maya Long Count calendar, which spans 5,125 years from August 11, 3114 B.C. to December 21, 2012 A.D., and on 2012 phenomenon. The end of a complete calendar cycle was a time of celebration for the Maya but there is a New Age belief cataclysm will occur on or around December 21, 2012.

Production techniques for a dome show are different. The dome's concave surface actually consists of six screens, spliced seamlessly, with the images synchronized to form the overall picture. There are six different projectors.

"Typically, you look at the whole computer monitor when editing but this appeared as a fish eye stretched around the edges. We visited the planetarium two or three times a week, spliced the film, checked for distortion and adjusted accordingly. What was on the monitor during editing was not the way it would be seen on the dome so it was a constant process of visualizing size and color," explained Director Arne Jin An Wong and Producer Konda Mason.

"The digital full-dome format and technology is less than 10 years old. Live action is very difficult to show in this format but digital animation lends itself to the precise calculations required for the dome," stated Wong.

"A typical planetarium show is of the stars but "Tales of the Maya Skies" is the first to combine mythology, culture and science to give astronomy a historical, social and arithmetical context," Mason concluded.

For more information, visit, and To arrange school and youth group visits, call (510) 336-7381 or email

Anyone wishing to underwrite a class- or grade-level field trip should contact the Donor Relations Manager at or call (510) 336-7323.

Tales of the Maya Skies
Chabot Space & Science Center
10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland
(510) 336-7300

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