An Open Letter to John McCain regarding Planetaria and Science Education


An Overhead Projector
I was recently contacted by Glen Gould, a reader who is also a relative regarding the repeated mention by Republican Candidate John McCain of the "Overhead Projector" earmark for a planetarium in Chicago. Glen, together with my sister, Bunny Laden, are very serious amateur astronomers. For instance, when Bunny and Glen bought a car a few years ago, the first thing they did on considering each possible model was to measure the vehicle to see if it would fit their telescopes. Glen is also an engineer and spends considerable volunteer time in areas of the humanities. He has the world's most important private collection of Arturo Toscanini recordings. Which is probably utterly irrelevant to this post, but I thought I'd mention it.

Anyway, Glen sent me a letter that he's sent off to John McCain regarding the "Overhead Projector." I've revised the letter and present it here as a joint-authored open letter to the candidate.

Dear Senator McCain,

After watching the presidential debates, we got to wondering if you know what a planetarium is or if you ever have been in one. From Wikipedia, we find this definition:

A planetarium is a theatre built primarily for presenting educational and entertaining shows about astronomy and the night sky, or for training in celestial navigation. A dominant feature of most planetariums is the large dome-shaped projection screen onto which scenes of stars, planets and other celestial objects can be made to appear and move realistically to simulate the complex 'motions of the heavens'. The celestial scenes can be created using a wide variety of technologies, for example precision-engineered 'star balls' that combine optical and electro-mechanical technology, slide projector, video and fulldome projector systems, and lasers. Whatever technologies are used, the objective is normally to link them together to provide an accurate relative motion of the sky.



Planetarium Projector
In the second presidential debate you mentioned that you had gone through "earmarks" and apparently the one that bothered you most was for a planetarium "overhead" projector. You have mentioned the multi-million dollar "overhead projector" on a number of occasions outside the debate context as well.

We would like to point out, as an aside, that most new voters have no idea what an "overhead projector" is, as this technology has been replaced at most schools and has not been used in a professional setting for years. But you are an old guy, so maybe you don't know that. (In case any of these youngsters are reading this and would like to know what an overhead projector is: It's that thing up near the front of the classroom that your professor puts her coffee cup on while she hooks up her laptop. For Senator McCain: A laptop is a small computer that can be carried around in a briefcase.)

Getting back to the planetarium .... We find it impossible to believe that you really thought that someone was trying to purchase an "overhead projector" of the type used in school rooms or offices of yore. You know, one of those things with the plastic sheets that you write on and project on the screen in the front of the room. Do you still use those things in the senate? You should consider modernizing. Computers are really good for this sort of thing.

Senator McCain, according to a number of different studies, roughly half of the U.S. population believes that the entire Universe along with the Earth roughly as we know it today was created instantaneously less than 10,000 years ago (source). However, there are some practical difficulties with this idea that go beyond the fact that it is simply incorrect. Certain very important and useful bits of information, such as where petroleum reserves lie and in what form, such as the distribution and abundance of all of the important minerals such as iron and gold, such as the nature and distribution of earthquakes, such as the nature and distribution of celestial objects that may at some point slam into the earth causing the extinction of our species, and such as the complex and delicate interrelationship between deadly cosmic and solar radiation and the earth's magnetosphere and atmosphere, are not explained by this Iron Age period model of history of the Universe and the Earth, but are explained by modern science.

By modern science we mean the way of looking at nature that has developed mainly in the West but with roots in the Islamic World and the East, which replaced Classical, Biblical, and Natural Theological interpretations of the world over the last four centuries or so. Again, we refer to Wikipedia:

Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge" or "knowing") is the effort to discover, and increase human understanding of how the physical world works. Through controlled methods, scientists use observable physical evidence of natural phenomena to collect data, and analyze this information to explain what and how things work. Such methods include experimentation that tries to simulate natural phenomena under controlled conditions and thought experiments. Knowledge in science is gained through research.


Now, the average person does not really need to know where the gold is, or how to plan for earthquakes. Scientists, engineers, geologists, and architects do these things. However, if the majority of the population do not believe that these things ... science, engineering, and so on ... are valid, then it will become difficult over time to continue to fund education in these areas, or to have proper oversight of these activities in congress.

In truth, we Americans do not need to know these things at all. We can have a society that does not accept modern scientific research and findings. Other countries will be happy to provide the necessary services to us, for a price. The Europeans and the Japanese, for instance, will be happy to loan us scientific and engineering knowledge as needed, just as the Chinese loan us the money we need to keep building our Alaskan Bridges to Nowhere, and other earmarks.

But we would like to ask you, since you are running for president: Is John McCain's America an America where our survival in the 21st century depends on the literal outsourcing of our science and engineering?


1 - Constellation Figure Projector (North) 2 - Star Globe (North) 3 - Mechanical shutter of star field projector 4 - Milky Way projector (North) 5 - Planetary projectors (North) 6 - Lattice ring for Sun, Moon and Vertical circle projectors 7 - Horizon circle projector 8 - Planetary projectors (South) 9 - Star Globe (South) 10 - Compass point projector (source)
We don't think so. Or at least, we certainly hope not.

Senator McCain, with this appalling lack of scientific knowledge, it is now even more imperative that we have these valuable educational tools such as planetaria available to the public, especially in urban areas where most people have never been able to see the night sky because of the extreme light pollution which, by the way, represents a terrible waste of energy (source).

We would have assumed that after mentioning the planetarium in the second debate, someone on your staff would have informed you that this was a very complex scientific educational device and well justified, but you brought it up again in the third debate. Was this just a cynical ploy to rally "the base" who you assumed had never been to a planetarium? Would it be your intention, we would like to know, to represent only those Americans who believe that the earth and the Universe were created almost simultaneously less than 10,000 years ago, implying that the scientific study of the history of the Universe and the Planet is not needed?

We would also like to let you know that the planetarium projector funds were in fact not approved for the Chicago projector in your opponents home state, yet federal funds for new projectors in New York and Los Angeles were (source).

Please support science education, as a Senator or, in the unlikely event that you are elected, as President.


Glen Gould, Amateur Astronomer
Los Gatos, CA

Greg Laden, Science Blogger,
Twin Cities, Minnesota


More like this

Where do I sign?

Shorter Letter:

Dear Senator McCain,

You sir, are an idiot and a lying scumbag. Please STFU and go home.


If McCain can't tell the difference between a running mate and "lipstick on a pig", why do you imagine that he would know the difference between an overhead projector and a planetarium projector?!

From another relative, who is an editor. Interesting comments, but please do not use Wikipedia as a source and check your grammar and spelling! Also a bit wordy, so I doubt many people will suffer through your comments until the end.

By Calderagal (not verified) on 20 Oct 2008 #permalink

How does one go about signing and sending off something like this?

Speaking as a New Zealander, we see overhead projectors all the time. They're cheap and effective, there's one in virtually every classroom even when the teacher is generally using a high-powered lecture-hall computer projector. Our little insurance policy against windows-melt (some lecture halls also have slide projectors, but those really are obsolete, built into the structure).

Caldera: You've been in the woods too long to spot the city slicker irony of sending a guy who thinks he is the next president of the United States of America references to the Wikipedia. The grammar too. It's all for John McCain, the Maverick, so he gets it. I don't make speling errors.

Kenyon, Glen sent this to McCain, I'm not sure how. I think one could always save this letter as a PDF and attach it to an email with a note saying you support it, or copy and paste it into the John McCain Web Site contact box, if he has one.

I'm wondering of too much is being made of his using the wrong term, something all of us do (though another possibility is that he used the wrong name in a somewhat sarcastic sense).

At the bottom of this dispute should be, not what he called it, but whether it's pork to spend 3M of federal taxpayer money (i.e. most taxpayers will never benefit) on what is essentially a (cool) museum display. Some thinking people might come down on different sides of this question.

Senator McCain, with this appalling lack of scientific knowledge, it is now even more imperative that we have these valuable educational tools such as planetaria available to the public, especially in urban areas where most people have never been able to see the night sky because of the extreme light pollution which, by the way, represents a terrible