World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

October 9, 2008: Yes, John McCain, the world does need more $3M “Overhead Projectors”

During the October 7, 2008 U.S. Presidential Townhall Debate in Nashville, Senator John McCain claimed that Barack Obama “voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork-barrel earmark projects—including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”

A $3 million “overhead projector”!? Okay, I’ve been following the U.S. election intently since the beginning of the year. But, as former Senior Producer at the McLaughlin Planetarium of the ROM in Toronto, it just got personal.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, the “overhead projector” is not that suitcase-sized light-box we’re all familiar with from grade school that our teachers used to project transparencies of graphs and maps onto a screen. The “overhead projector” McCain refers to is a planetarium star projector: the complex, highly-sophisticated optical instrument that projects images of stars, planets, the Milky Way, and the Sun on the dome-shaped screen of a planetarium, simulating the night sky.

It is the odd-looking object in the centre of the star theatre that school children often refer to as the “giant insect”. It is the heart of any planetarium—the piece of equipment responsible for that transcendent moment in every show when the theatre slowly darkens and, one by one, the stars of the night sky magically appear. Star projectors can accurately portray the heavens as seen from any point on Earth—thousands of years into the future and thousands of years into the past.

As Chicago’s Adler Planetarium—the first planetarium in North America—clarified in its official response to McCain’s comments, the institution had requested federal support to replace their Zeiss Mark Vl star projector because it is so old (though not as old as John McCain) that the manufacturer can no longer provide spare parts or service for it. It is a typical request: planetariums around the world routinely replace aging equipment, or upgrade as new technologies arise. And museums and planetariums typically require funding as they don’t get by on box office receipts alone.

(The Adler also stated for the record that the funding was not granted, “that the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama’s efforts”, but that Obama has been supportive of their appropriations requests.)

So, it’s not an “overhead projector.” As for the question, “Do we need to spend that kind of money?”, McCain forgets that in 1957, the answer was a resounding yes. That year, the Russians put a scare into America when they beat the U.S. into space with the launch of the Sputnik satellite. Part of the government’s response was to fund the construction of hundreds of planetariums in schools across the country in order to bolster science education and join the space race. (Of course, McCain had graduated from high school by ’57, so he may not have known this was happening.)

In contemporary China—a country with its eyes set fervently, if somewhat maniacally, on the future—the answer is also, yes. Jin Zhu, director of the Beijing Planetarium, echoing Sputnik-era Americans, calls for “every middle-size city in China (to) have a large- or middle-size planetarium, and every middle school in China (to) have its own middle- or small-size planetarium.” It is the director’s hope that “hundreds of new planetariums will be built in the next several years.”

And so, for the same reasons as existed over 50 years ago, the answer is: yes. We need to spend that kind of money in order to ensure good science education. After all, science education is even more important today than it was half a century ago. It is key to understanding the social and political issues we face every day—whether it’s stem cell research, climate change, medical research, alternative energy, and so on. (Perhaps if Sarah Palin had received a better science education, she would understand that global warming is a real phenomenon with serious consequences, caused by humans.) And, it is critical to economic well-being and development at a time when the technology and knowledge sectors should be supplanting the resource and manufacturing sectors as the key drivers of our economy and key suppliers of jobs. Good science education ensures economic well-being and development.

If only corporate Ontario and the provincial government would show they understand what’s at stake and fund the construction of a new planetarium to replace the boarded-up McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto. Its last star show was in 1995, when the Conservative government of Mike Harris reduced the Royal Ontario Museum’s operating budget and the museum decided to cope with that cut by closing the planetarium. It is sad that there aren’t more “overhead projectors” to educate our children, to instill in them a sense of wonder in the natural world, and prepare them and us for the future.

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Filed under: planetarium, politics, science education, , ,

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