Who Knew a Planetarium Was a Political Weapon?

I Thought it was a Place to Learn about Astronomy

This is an overhead projector. NOT a planetarium projection system.
This is an overhead projector. NOT a planetarium projection system. There's a difference.

To quote my friend Phil Plait,

“The stupid–it burns!!!”

I really don’t like to discuss politics on here, but sometimes something really stupid comes down the pike out of the mouth of a political contender and it begs for correction.

So, here goes:  apparently John McCain’s presidential campaign advisors don’t know the difference between an overhead projector and a planetarium projection system. And apparently, neither does John McCain, since he pretty much appears to have bought whatever they told him to say in his most recent debate. So, he ranted about an overhead projector at Adler Planetarium.


Most people who have been to a planetarium (and there are at least 110 million people who go each year) DO know the difference between the two, which makes them immediately much more experienced than both John McCain and his feckless vice-presidential partner. And don’t forget that the younger generation lives and breathes technology.  I figure a lot of them are laughing at this McCain technology gaffe right about now… along with the rest of us.

So, in the interests of schooling yet another clueless politician about reality, here are some pictures to help McCain’s crack team of researchers understand the magnitude of their ignorance.  An overhead projector is a piece of 20th century technology used in a classroom. It’s pretty old-fashioned, but it gets the job done in a pinch. It’s sort of the predecessor to PowerPoint. A planetarium instrument (or projection system) is used in a dark dome-shaped room to teach about astronomy and space science. The two systems are not the same thing. Period.

This is Evans & Sutherlands Digistar system. It also uses computers and video projection systems to create immersive environments.
This is Evans & Sutherland's Digistar system. It also uses computers and video projection systems to create immersive environments.
This is Sky-Skans Definiti system. It uses computers and video projection systems to create immersive science education environments.
This is Sky-Skan's Definiti system. It uses computers and video projection systems to create immersive science education environments.

There are various forms of planetarium systems, including computer-and-digital-video projector-based products from Sky-Skan, Inc., (based in Nashua, New Hampshire), Evans & Sutherland (based in Salt Lake City), Spitz, Inc., in Pennsylvania, Konica-Minolta (Japan), Global Immersion (UK), Digitalis Education Systems, e-planetarium, and the Elumenati. Of course there are also the beautiful opto-mechanical systems built by Zeiss (in Germany), and Konica Minolta and GOTO (based in Japan).

A Zeiss Universarium
A Zeiss Universarium-a blend of opto-mechanical and digital systems.

All planetarium projection systems are sophisticated instruments. Some, including one at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, are computer-based visualization systems quite far removed from the simplicity of the overhead projectors that are apparently Mr. McCain’s (and his handlers) perception of a planetarium instrument. I figure they either misunderstood what was purchased by the Adler Planetarium for one of its domes (and didn’t check it out before letting their guy make a fool of himself on stage) or they didn’t care as long as they had a weapon to brandish.

Let’s talk about what these systems do, shall we?

Sure, these systems cost a few bucks but they are worth it for what they can do to help kids learn about astronomy (which is a gateway science to other sciences). I would suggest that $3 million spent at Adler Planetarium is far more likely to benefit the education of millions of people over time, and that it will pay itself back faster than a bridge to nowhere or tax cuts for those who don’t need them.

And, $3 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what each American is going to pay (and future Americans will have to pay) to for the financial system bailout. At least with a planetarium, we will see a very big intellectual and educational return on our relatively small financial investment at Adler (and other science centers and institutions of higher learning that ALSO get grants (and no doubt some earmarks) to build science educational facilities, including some in Mr. McCain’s home state of Arizona).

Compared to bailouts, money given to such endeavors is well-spent in the long run. How so?

Planetariums and science centers are where students, parents, teachers, and members of the public go to learn about science. It may have slipped the attention of Mr. McCain and his handlers in their fumbling fervor to find “facts” to fling at his opponent, but many scientists (including astronauts, astronomers, physicists, doctors and so on) got their interest in science when they went to a planetarium. Many others, including writers, teachers, actors, and even some enlightened politicians, also got interested in science when they went to a planetarium.

In case the McCain campaign has missed it, the U.S. has been a technological leader for decades based on its dedication to science education and technology as a way to create jobs and get ahead. And traditionally planetariums in schools and colleges, as well as those in museums and science centers, have given people the basics about science and nourished their interest in the subject.

I’m just sayin’…

So, Mr. McCain and handlers, here are a couple of pieces of advice from a regular American citizen and voter:  1) an overhead projector isn’t a planetarium, so you might want to learn the difference before you show your technological ignorance in public again, and 2) slagging planetariums is pretty much slagging science education and the American voters who trust that science education is important (which comprises a huge number of us). And, by slagging Adler in your quest to attack your opponent, you’re slagging some good, hardworking people, the citizens of Illinois, and some high-tech companies that made science education a priority around the world as well as in the U.S. On top of that, those companies and the Adler are providing JOBS and technology.  So, good going on the insults and ignorance, McCainites.

And finally, here’s a question for you:  if you and your handlers got this one wrong, what else are you getting wrong?


(Note: U.S. citizens — have you registered to vote?)


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  2. Caroline, I knew you’d be among the first to blog about this! That smacks of an education system with negative momentum. I want to believe that whoever gets elected would actually want to reverse NCLB and try to undo the damage done by forcing children and teachers into the contsraints set by Bush’s master plan, but with statements like this all I can see is a Bush clone.

    But I have to wonder… why aren’t more questions about education being asked of our candidates?

  3. Pingback: McCain’s planetariophobia | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

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  5. Thanks for the picture of the overhead projector Carolyn. It is easy to get confused with such things. Last week, for example, I went to the local shops to buy an overhead projector and came back with a highly sophisticated Zeiss opto-mechanical planetarium system. Imagine my embarrassment on getting home and realising my mistake. Overshot my original budget (of £95) by an extra £80,000 too.

  6. David

    This is a Chicago issue. The nearly 3 million people in Chicago can’t raise 3 million for a new system? They have had 40 years to save up for it? Pay for it themselves.

    So let me see if I understand you. It isn’t the fact that McCain was calling out Obama for trying to get the rest of the nation to pay for something that ostensibly is going to be used primarily by Chicago and Illinois residents that bothered you. It had more to do with him calling the system an overhead projector?

    Talk about not seeing the forest because of the trees.

  7. ccp

    Did you actually READ the discussions about this here and elsewhere? I provided plenty of links in my blog entries about this.

    The issue, as I and others have clearly stated, is that McCain and his handlers got their facts WRONG on what Mr. Obama asked for and what was funded. They didn’t care that they got their facts wrong. They just blathered out talking points based on mistaken information. And still do so, refusing to take responsibility for what they say.

    You know, they could have looked it up (as all the rest of us did) to find out the facts of the matter, but they didn’t. And, that led their candidate to mouth off about an “overhead projector” and implying that federal funds went to pay for it. Ultimately the money wasn’t provided, and no earmark was made. So, that’s the point. I think YOU missed the forest by focusing on the wrong trees.

    And, I stand by this question: if they got this wrong — and by this I mean something as simple as a) the difference between a visualization system and an overhead projector and b) the funds requested weren’t provided and thus NO federal funds were spent on the so-called “overhead projector” — then what ELSE are they getting wrong? It goes to doing one’s homework and getting the facts correct — and being accountable for the facts one marshalls in one’s campaign. McCain and his handlers got it wrong. If I were their teacher, I’d ding them for reading comprehension as well as science illiteracy. And they want to lead the nation?

    No thanks.

    The issue of whether this is a Chicago issue is not relevant here and I suspect you already know that.

  8. A Chicago issue? Like any great museum or planetarium, I imagine (correct me if I’m wrong) that people come from far and wide to visit the Adler. London’s Natural History Museum may be in London but it attracts visitors from across the country and indeed the world. Providing for and enhancing such institutions is a valuable and meaningful use of federal funds. McCain;s comical mistake (one which he and his advisers repeated again last night) is merely an indication of a kind of willful ignorance of the scientific method. Shooting fast ‘n loose with such simple facts doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in how he might run the country…

  9. Pingback: Repost: McCain’s planetariophobia | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

  10. Pingback: “World-Class Planetarium Invests $39.50 on Overhead Projector” | Bemusement

  11. Pingback: Of Overhead Projectors and Planetarium Foolishness - Universe Today

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