Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Planetarium Earmark

SSP logoAs former chairman of the Summer Science Program (SSP), an academic enrichment program for the very brightest teenagers, I know a bit about astronomy, the focus of SSP’s curriculum. I also know a bit about planetariums ["planetaria" is also accepted, but that sounds like a type of worm to me]. And since SSP once investigated, in concert with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, opening up a third campus at Yerkes Observatory near Lake Geneva, WI, I am passingly familiar with the Adler and its mission to bring science to the public.

Adler Zeiss projector
Adler Planetarium president Paul H. Knappenberger Jr. and the Zeiss Mark VI

So, when Sen. McCain chastised Sen. Obama’s earmarking in Tuesday’s relatively uninspiring debate, I was instantly awake when McCain said:

[Sen. 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?

What’s wrong with McCain’s statement?

• Obama didn’t “vote” for the planetarium earmark; he asked for it.

• The earmark was supported not only by Obama, but also by Dick Durbin,  Illinois’ other senator, and six Chicago-area congressman, three of whom are Republicans.

• The earmark was not funded, so the planetarium (Adler) got no money.

• By calling the piece of equipment an “overhead projector,” McCain trivialized the request, trying to make Obama look foolish for asking for $3 million for what every schoolkid knows is $300 device that projects sentence diagrams (remember those?) and geometry proofs onto a flat screen.

In a press release that came out the following day, the Adler explained:

[T]he Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere.  The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience.  The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer.  It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.

[T]he Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama’s efforts.

The day after the debate, in a Pennsylvania speech, McCain again mentioned this unfunded earmark, this time raising suspicions about Obama’s reason for asking for it:

Purely coincidentally the chairman of that planetarium pledged to raise more than $200,000 for Senator Obama’s campaign.

The Adler, and hundreds of institutions like it, strive to educate the public, to demystify science by presenting it in engaging, innovative, and entertaining ways. Former chairman Frank Clark, who worked as an unpaid volunteer, sought to upgrade his institution by requesting government funding; that is his job. The request was part of a $10 million project to overhaul the theater and projection system. The rest of the funds were to come from the state and municipal government and private contributions.

Thanks to Sen. McCain’s anti-science message, Adler’s public profile is now high. It is probably more likely now that those who value scientific literacy will step forward in support of the “overhead projector” upgrade.

*     *     *     *     *

What actually is an earmark? Evan Morris, The Word Detective explains:

earmarked pig“Earmark,” which we now use to mean “to designate” or “to set aside for a particular purpose” (“Congress has earmarked the new tax revenue to fund programs to convince voters of the need for higher taxes”) actually has a very simple origin. For centuries, farmers have marked their livestock as their property by cutting distinctive notches in the animals’ ears. “Earmark” in this literal sense first appeared in English around 1591, but the use of “earmark” in the figurative sense “to designate” arose only in the late 19th century.

(Planetarium photo: Chicago Tribune / Alex Garcia)

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