“I have a question for you!”  I looked down at the four-year old girl, accompanied by her mother.  I had just finished an afternoon planetarium show at The Science Factory, a local children’s hands-on museum, and I got down on my knees so our heads were at the same level, and asked what her question was.

“Who named the stars?”

“What a great question!” I answered.  The mother was a little embarrassed, I think, but the little girl demanded an answer.  “Why, they were named by the ancient Arabs, the Persians, and the Greeks,” I said, “who lived in places where it was clear at night and real, real dark, because there was no electricity.  I find some of the names beautiful, like Shaula, Adhara, Albireo, Nunki, and Denebola. What do you think?” She was fascinated but liked Regulus the best. She liked lions.   I think her mother enjoyed the interchange, too. The question made my day.  Maybe I made both of their days, too.

Examples like this are the reason I am writing in support of replacing the planetarium projector, which finally burned out, and I am willing to back up my support as a four figure donor, which information I normally don’t give out, but times are hard.

I’ve used a planetarium show to point out that escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad knew how to find the North Star, whereas very few Americans today can find Polaris.  Knowing how to find north mattered.  Nowadays, a large plurality of Americans would rather study astrology than find north.  I can think of three other ways to find north—without a compass.  Many think Polaris is the brightest nighttime star.  Nope.  It ranks 49th; Sirius is the brightest.  You learn that in the planetarium. I’ve discussed, during and after a show, how one can learn her way around the night sky, treating it like a map of a city, going from the major streets to the minor ones.  It’s easy in the planetarium, when all the major landmarks are on the dome above you, exactly as they appear in the night sky on any date, time or place in the world we choose.

I have volunteered in the planetarium the past two years. The Science Factory needs it as an anchor and Eugene needs it as a tourist attraction.  When I lived in Tucson, Flandrau Planetarium was an excellent astronomy museum, but it was on the University of Arizona campus, where parking was difficult. The Science Factory is easy to find in Eugene, parking is 100 yards from the facility, and a good planetarium is a major attraction, where parents and children together can learn science and the night sky.  The planetarium can inspire questions, teach people how to find the bright stars and planets and learn about the effects of light pollution on our ability to see the night sky.  We could use lectures, I suppose, but the ability to take people on a tour of the night sky in daytime can’t be done anywhere else but in a planetarium.  I’ve had fun turning the calendar forward 10,000 years to see what the sky would look like.  Or change the latitude and longitude and pretend I’m in New Zealand, where back in ’86 I was under some of the darkest skies I ever have seen, on the main road on the west side of South Island by Lake Moeraki.  I wrote two columns about the fabulous Southern sky down there.

I find it ironic that this year, when a long-awaited, exceedingly rare total solar eclipse will race across Oregon, the loss of the current projector makes some on the Board consider closing the planetarium. Boards don’t like to spend money or make tough decisions, I guess.  Boards like things simple, I think. I’m not sure, because other than medical societies, I’ve never been asked to serve on a Board.  I’m not an important person, except when it comes to donating money.  Then I’m courted by many.  But when it comes to ideas, experience, doing something differently, taking some risks, well, we need important people to do that, not some retired science nerd without connections.

Of course we need a planetarium in Eugene, and indeed, the eclipse this August makes it an excellent time to have a fund drive to replace the projector. Normally, I don’t tell people how much I am willing to donate, but since most of the good I’ve done in life appears to have been donations, I figured I would put my money where my mouth is and tell those important people on the Board what I was willing to donate, after I wrote a shorter, more polite, version of the above, so they knew that I had a brain and knew astronomy, planetariums, and the night sky, besides having money to donate.

I continued, writing I found it additionally ironic that literally in the shadow of Autzen Stadium, where no dollar is spared for athletics, we might let The Science Factory—and Eugene–lose an important educational and tourist attraction that will influence people far more and far longer than a football game.  The last coach was fired with about $10 million left on his contract.  The new coach’s strength coordinator, on the second day of the job, put three players in the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, caused by an over strenuous workout likely hurting their renal function permanently, since two of them stayed for nearly a week.  You need to be diuresed when this happens, in order to try to save the kidneys.  For all I know, they might have even had temporary dialysis.  Another assistant coach was paid $61,000 before being fired for driving drunk and hitting another car, two weeks on the job.  The first game isn’t until September.  The last president at the University had a million dollar severance package when he was let go early.  I’m not Mr. Personality, but I have more people skills than this guy had. I’m sure the Duck Athletic Fund Board and the Regents are full of important people, but with all due respect, I think their financial management and judgment could be improved. Who knows, maybe a nobody like me might actually make better decisions.  Mind you, I didn’t say all that in the letter, but I left a lot of lines to read between.

I ended my letter with the answer I gave the girl’s question, rather than putting it in the body.  I wanted them to read wondering who named the stars. Not knowing something is good for people.  It takes them out of their comfort zone, so they have to wonder.  I like having to wonder.  It leads to thinking, asking, or looking it up, all a reminder that none of us is as smart as we think we are.

I later wrote my contact at The Science Factory to count me in as a donor for the planetarium and a volunteer projectionist when she needs me.  But I won’t give one red cent to the Duck Athletic Fund.


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  1. Sally Wilson Says:

    Try a Go Fund me Campaign.

  2. Mike Says:

    It’s their banner, not mine. I support them, but it’s not up to me to fix it. Surest way I can kill a cause is to get out in public and support it. I’m also against the concept, mostly because of anecdotal misuse and 5% overhead.

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