The Colgate Scene
January 2002

Solar and computer systems

Loretta Skeddle has the eye of an artist and the mind of a computer scientist.

Loretta Skeddle '95 has her head in the stars.

More importantly, she has her fingers on the keyboard and her mind full of the intricacies of Iron, the mammoth computer also known as "Reality Monster" that makes the universe and beyond come to life 12 times a day in the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.

As a senior systems administrator at the Upper West Side museum, Skeddle oversees all the hardware and software that runs the show.

"I fix it," she says. And well. "We've only been down one day in two years, though sometimes there is a glitch that stops one show."

The old planetarium, which was an historic landmark, has been replaced by a freestanding sphere within a glass structure without beams in the Hall of the Universe.

The show begins with the night sky we are able to see, thrown across the dome by a Zeiss projector that rises slowly from the theater floor. Then the digital program fed by the supercomputer takes over, with seven monitors tiled together as we move through the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Super Cluster and then, zooming out beyond our universe, to the cosmic strips and the foaming creation of new galaxies.

In addition to making sure the show runs, there are engineering duties. Skeddle creates software, supports users and specs new equipment.

After hours, the planetarium becomes a laboratory where astrophysicists can see their research. Using an application called Virtual Director, the production crew loads a scientist's data set into what is essentially a flight simulator.

"With information about a million stars, we take a snapshot of the data set as they would look to a telescope, animate it and throw it up on the dome where we can see it in three dimensions. We are trying to push it as far as we can."

The Museum of Natural History has traditionally been a research facility, but the educational aspect has really taken off in the last five years. Skeddle feels the planetarium show is "interesting" and "nice to show the public," but finds real fascination in providing astrophysicists with an environment where they can make their work more understandable. It was at the Conference on Stellar Collisions that the staff first put data sets in tangible form.

A problem arises one night after the museum closes to the public, and Skeddle finds a keyboard in a small, computer-lined control module of the planetarium. She begins furious bursts of typing, the keys clicking and the directions flickering on the screen. In less than five minutes there are countless points of light overhead and we are somewhere beyond our universe, in the midst of the incomprehensible.

"There was an edit to a file on a disk that crashed," explains Skeddle, "so I was manually editing the file."

It is difficult to determine what is more unfathomable -- the stars above or the computer wizardry here below. For Skeddle it is all a natural progression, from a passion for art to this Star Trekkian console where problems millions of virtual light years away are solved by the astonishing knowledge of a supercomput-er.

"I always wanted to be an artist," says Skeddle, who was drawn to Colgate from Ohio largely because of the opportunities the study groups offered. On campus Skeddle also discovered crew. Her two passions merged on a study group in Venice, when she was exposed to masterpieces and learned to row a gondola.

Skeddle had arrived at Colgate with an old portable Apple computer, a finicky antique that proved an invaluable learning tool.

"I spent a lot of time in the computer lab trying to fix it." All the while she was growing as an artist. Drawing led to printmaking, and soon she was using computers to make prints.

Following graduation, Skeddle coached rowing and took courses at the Toledo Center for the Visual Arts. Eventually moving to New York, she continued her studies at the School for Visual Arts.

Skipping out on her 101 classes, Skeddle began spending more and more time in the computer lab, first fixing machines and eventually serving as a de facto systems administrator.

Students from first-year seminars, the core/scientific perspectives program and geology, with their professors, outside the Hayden Planetarium. The group made the trip to New York in October as part of the Beyond Colgate Initiative. [Enlarge]
Her masters thesis reflected the merging of art and technology. Skeddle's "The Rosary Project" was a group of Macintosh computers that spoke the words of the rosary and were able to recognize where the user was in the prayer cycle.

"The rosary was an easy way to express a larger idea," she says, recalling that at the time she was "playing with some sort of social aspect for computers" and expressing her concern that, with the advent of artificial intelligence computers would likely have the corporate mind.

"Can I take an art piece and make people talk about it?" asked Skeddle then. "Is prayer meditative, or are we going through the motions?"

The project toured Europe and became something of a shrine where people left artifacts.

"It came back with candles, rosary beads, flowers -- offerings at the Macintosh altar."

Art and the idea of eliciting a response remains with Skeddle, who is working on a project in which she can telecommunicate with her dog. The pet would trigger a pedal that would page Skeddle and send a response that would give him a treat.

"It's a fun way of playing with conceptual ideas of computers and art."

Skeddle started at the museum as an intern and "got lucky from there." A series of personnel changes left a void and she "was in a great position to rise to the occasion. If someone else was willing to accept the risk I never would have gotten where I am without a computer science degree."

Surrounded by an excellent staff that she assembled, Skeddle feels "part of a community where everyone is excited and willing to share information.

The quest is, beyond keeping everything running, to make the material more hands-on while maintaining the integrity of the science.

"We are trying to get the information out to kids and classrooms -- and not just in New York City, but wherever we can reach them."

There is also the constant job of reaching further, taking the research into new areas while providing an illuminating entertainment for the public.

"It is refreshing to be involved in the science, art and education," says Loretta Skeddle.

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