About that planetarium…

I’m with Phil Plait on this one, bigtime. When McCain carped a few weeks ago about Obama voting to give  earmark money to a “planetarium in Illinois”, I had to stop short. Then again in Tuesday’s debate, he made a snippy remark about Obama giving money to a “planetarium in Chicago”. Wait, I thought, wouldn’t that have to be the Adler Planetarium? Yes, actually, it would be.

The Adler Planetarium is a world-class educational facility, right on the water of Lake Michigan and one of a constellation of world-class educational facilities there including the Chicago Field Museum, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry. All of those are smack dab in the heart of one of the world’s biggest, busiest cities: Chicago, Illinois. According to the Chicago Office of Tourism, in 2006 over 45 million people visited Chicago, among them 32.8 million domestic vacationers and about a million foreign travelers. Those people spent $10.9 billion dollars in Chicago, on a top 10 list of visitor activities that include sightseeing and going to museums. Over 400,000 people visited the Adler Planetarium in 2006. Four hundred thousand people came to Adler and learned something amazing about their universe.

How many of those 400,000 were children, either in school groups or traveling with their parents from a small town in America or from a foreign country? How many will go on to a career in science or engineering, because they went to Adler – or the Field Museum, or the Shedd Aquarium – and learned something cool? When I was a kid I went to the Smithsonian Institution with my parents, and I still vividly recall being blown away by the dinosaur skeletons, the minerals and crystals, the dioramas of ancient sea creatures long dead. I went home to my small town public library and read everything I could about fossils and evolution. Today I’m a geologist.

I believe that government should support science education, not only in public schools but in museums and educational institutions. That doesn’t make me a Communist. That makes me someone who recognizes that having a civilization worthy of the name means we have to pool some of our resources to get valuable things done. Museums are a public good. Some museums are privately run, and they’re great places, but they have to charge admission to make ends meet. They’re forced to do that by necessity, and I can’t blame them for it. But I’ve lived in cities where museums are free, and in cities where museums charge $20 to get in the door.

Where museums were supported by everyone in taxes – yes, cringe in horror at the dreaded curse of taxes – I saw lots of poor kids looking at fossils. Lower-income families with kids could go to the museum without foregoing a day’s worth of groceries. A museum their mothers could afford to visit got those kids away from a TV for a few hours on a weekend. Maybe it helped those kids realize there’s a gigantic world out there, and they can do great things one day.

Where museums charged $20 a ticket (or more), I didn’t see those poor kids. I only saw nicely groomed, affluent kids. I’m glad those children of doctors and lawyers and business executives got to go to the museum, but it would be nice if the poor kids could have the chance, too.

When McCain snarls about spending money on a planetarium, what he’s really saying is that government money should only be spent on worthy things, and education isn’t worthy of his exalted favor. He’s saying that the richest nation on Earth can’t afford to promote science, innovation and discovery, even though we became so rich and powerful because of science, innovation and discovery.

Why pick on a planetarium, instead of some roads project, or military base, or power plant helped along by earmark money while Obama served in Washington? It’s because to McCain and his GOP ilk, education is a luxury to be reserved for the favored few. To them, bombs are better than books.

Well. To them I say shut the hell up and get the frack out of the way. There’s going to be a new and better President coming to Washington in January, and he used to be one of those poor kids whose mother couldn’t afford museum tickets.

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~ by Planetologist on October 9, 2008.

One Response to “About that planetarium…”

  1. […] got to hear about that overhead projector again. I’ve already dealt with that particular shard of McCain’s anti-science obsession, but it was still surprising to […]

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