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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 28, 2007

Earth's first walk-through model of the Milky Way opens on Big Island

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Big Island resident Jon Lomberg's Galaxy Garden at Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary in Kona opened this month to the public. The 100-foot-diameter scale model maps the Milky Way in plants and flowers.

Jon lomberg

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The Galaxy Garden at Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary, 83-5401 Painted Church Road., Captain Cook. 808-328-8084

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

Admission: $5, ages 12 and under free. www.galaxygarden.net

Guided tours: Jon Lomberg leads tours at 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and by appointment. $25 per person, $60 per family (up to 5 people); $20 per person for groups of 10 or more. Children under 12 free. E-mail lomberg@aloha.net.

Also: Stargazing events, a lecture series and educational tours. www.paleaku.com.

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  • The scale is 1,000 light years per foot, which is about 83 light years per inch. The Galaxy Garden is set on 1/4 acre of lawn, whose gentle swell suggests the observed plane of the actual galactic disk.

  • Stars, dust, and gas are represented by flowers.

  • Crotons with red and black leaves symbolize dust and gas.

  • Hibiscus flowers represent giant gas clouds or nebulae, where stars are formed. They are among the most gorgeous objects in the sky; their similarity to floral forms inspired the original galaxy garden concept.

  • Hedges of croton and hibiscus define the spiral arms. Black cinder paths represent dark dust and fainter stars outside of the arms.

  • A Philosopher's Bench at the intersection of the Orion and Sagittarius arms is one of several quiet spots for pondering the mysteries of the galaxy.

  • The Milky Way is a "barred" spiral galaxy, meaning the arms wind down to a straight bar across the center. We depict this by a stone oval of the right size and orientation.

  • The black hole at the galactic center is too small to be seen in scale in the Galaxy Garden, but because of its importance, we have enlarged it more than a million times, and created a fountain to symbolize it.

  • The black hole itself is suggested by the "gravity well." The reflection of the gravity well suggests material can fall into it from both sides of the galactic disk. When the fountain is on, a circular "event horizon" appears in the disk marking the point of no return, where material is inexorably drawn into the black hole.

    Jon Lomberg

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    When Jon Lomberg worked with Carl Sagan on illustrations for "Cosmos," the late scientist's landmark book and 1980 television series, they chose an airborne dandelion seed to "launch a spaceship of the imagination."

    For years, the link between botany and astronomy lingered in Lomberg's mind: "The lives of stars, plants and humans is a pattern that keeps on repeating itself," said Lomberg, who wanted to give people a sense of where our solar system is in the galaxy.

    "I thought about building a walk-through galaxy for a science museum, but then a lightbulb went on and I envisioned the project as a garden instead a live garden representing the living universe that people could explore themselves."

    Lomberg's idea eventually took seed and his "Galaxy Garden" at Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary in Kona opened this month to the public. The 100-foot-diameter garden is an outdoor scale model of the Milky Way's spiral galaxy, mapped in plants and flowers and based on current astrophysical data.

    "The hardest thing to envision about the galaxy is its sheer vastness," the artist said. " ... A large garden seemed to offer better ways to suggest our place in the universe."

    To Lomberg, the Big Island was the obvious place for such a project; the island's Mauna Kea Observatory is home to the world's most powerful telescopes. When he described his idea for the garden to Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary director Barbara DeFranco, she immediately offered him the site to build it. Community volunteers turned up for Sunday afternoon work sessions and Konawaena High School students came weekly to help build and plant the galaxy while learning about it.

    "Students are the most important visitors to the garden, and we need a galactic perspective for the 21st century," Lomberg said. That galactic perspective conveying the size and relationship of celestial bodies to each other became the garden's mission.

    Until you walk in the garden, Lomberg said, you don't really understand your place in the galaxy.

    "Everything in space is so big. Even the distance to the moon is huge, and that is the shortest distance to consider. The garden offers a way to understand these distance and size relationships. When people later look at the real Milky Way, they can understand what they are seeing."

    Lomberg grew up in Philadelphia but after one short visit to Hawai'i, he decided to move to the Big Island in 1987. "The overwhelming beauty of land, sea and sky were irresistible," he said.

    And the astronomy, a powerful lasting inspiration for Lomberg's extensive work in film, TV, print, computer graphics and museum exhibits. His large, accurate painting of the Milky Way galaxy was displayed for 10 years at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and is now part of their permanent collection of aviation and space art. He's currently designing exhibits for the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center under construction in Hilo.

    It's not all Earth-based. Lomberg's design for a sundial decorated with the names of Mars in many languages, including in Hawaiian "Hoku'ula," will be aboard NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, planned for launch in fall 2009; his sixth object to fly to deep space.

    Meanwhile, he said the Galaxy Garden will keep on expanding. "We'll continue working on it, improving it, mapping additional celestial objects into the design, lighting it up at night, and developing student activities."

    Reach Chris Oliver at coliver@honoluluadvertiser.com.