Wednesday, October 8, 2008

McCain, Obama, and the Adler planetarium projector

Updated. (the 3 updates are must-read)

Second debate:

He 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?

McCAIN: I believe that we have to eliminate the earmarks. And sometimes those projects, not — not the overhead projector that Sen. Obama asked for, but some of them that are really good projects, will have — will have to be eliminated, as well. . .

(The next two quotes I have added to the post since writing it up after the second debate)

Jacksonville, Florida (Sept 15)

"And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn't be saying anything about Governor Palin." (AP)

Third debate

McCAIN: (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?
Live-blogging the town hall debate, I heard McCain mention Obama's support for some kind of "overhead projector" twice. But I had missed the word "planetarium."

At the time, I expressed my opinion that however bad funding some "projector" might be, nit-picking one's opponent for this or that earmark is not behavior worthy of a presidential candidate. Certainly not a time when the US government is quite arbitrarily about to distribute well over $1 trillion to failing banks. Yet McCain sought fit to mention a paltry $3 million federal expenditure twice. After the debate, I said that I did see any point in discussing "the projector" earmark.

However, Jotman reader Reginald set me straight, commenting:
What McCain called (twice) an "overhead projector" is a star projection system for Adler Planetarium. Yes, I care that McCain is derisively ridiculing science education.
Now that I understand the nature of the "overhead projector," I care about it too. AP reports:
In fact, the money was for an overhaul of the theater system that projects images of stars and planets for educational shows at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. When he announced the $3 million earmark last year, Obama said the planetarium's 40-year-old projection system "has begun to fail, leaving the theater dark and groups of school students and other interested museum-goers without this very valuable and exciting learning experience."
The above photo is from the prestigious science journal Nature. It shows the forty year-old Adler planetarium projector which served a generations of Americans. They went to the moon and shot spacecraft to the planets and stars. How does McCain plan to encourage a new generation of Americans to reach for the stars, when he ridicules spending that would enable today's children to see them?

UPDATE I: Zin Zhu, director of the Beijing Planetarium, reports that Beijing completed major upgrades to its 50-year-old planetarium four years ago. And, yes, Beijing is installing a new projector. And what a projector! Zin Zhu writes:
The 18 m Universe digital theater with 200 seats in the new building of Beijing Planetarium was the first planetarium dome in the world with digital laser projectors. In the nearby original 23-m dome, the newly renovated theatre with about 500 seats is being equipped with a Zeiss Mark IX optical projector and a Sky-Skan definiti system. Using 6 Sony SXRD Xenon-powered projectors, the definiti system is the most advanced in the world with nearly 40 MB in pixel resolution and brightness of 30k lumens. It uses 10 bit color, expanding the gamma range far beyond any other contemporary system, and realizes razor-sharp resolution in real time and dome masters of 7.8k x 7.8k at 30 frames per second. The new Beijing Planetarium definiti system is due for completion in early 2008.
Zin Zhu observes that "the year 2009 has been declared as the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations." I suspect John McCain may not have heard that 2009 is the "Year of Astronomy." Nevertheless, for the Chinese the occasion is a call to action:
Beijing Planetarium is taking a very important part in the preparation of IYA2009 events for mainland China. We are investigating the possibility of including astronomy as a normal middle school course in some cities and emphasizing the importance of planetariums in astronomy education. We are recommending that every middle-size city in China could have a large- or middle-size planetarium and every middle school in China could have its own middle or small-size planetarium. It is expected that hundreds of new planetariums will be built in the next several years, and IPS 2010 in Beijing will greatly speed-up such a process in China, as well as in some other regions of Asia.
In China and across Asia hundreds of new planetariums may get built in the next several years. But it remains to be seen whether the United States of America will celebrate the "International Year of Astronomy" by inaugurating a president too stingy to buy the country's third largest city a $3 million star projector -- a replacement for one that is forty years old.

UPDATE II: The Adler Planetarium has responded in "A statement about McCain's comments at the presidential debate." The Planetarium says the projector was never funded:
To clarify, the 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.
Unbelievable. The Adler Planetarium was apparently requesting funding for the same astronomy projector* that the Beijing Planetarium was to have had installed in early 2008.

UPDATE III: Unbelievable. McCain mentions Obama's so-called "projector earmark" a third time during the final presidential debate on Oct. 15 (which I live blogged).
* The above photo shows the new Zeiss Universarium model IX projector in Planetarium Hamburg. The latest model is good enough for Chinese and Germans, but a big waste of US taxpayer dollars according to John McCain. Jotman urges readers who care about the future of American science to donate to the Adler Planetarium or the Obama campaign.


  1. A. DiSimoneOctober 08, 2008

    On this note, an associate professor of astronomy at U of Chicago chimed in with his thoughts about it. Quite interesting, and it's great to hear from the source about this project that McCain dismissed as a piece of office equipment. (Originally posted on the Obama site):

    I am an Associate Professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago (the University that today has added yet another Nobel Prize winner in the sciences for the US). I would like to comment on Sen. McCain's statement during the today's debate that Sen. Obama has earmarked "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Ill. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"

    The way Sen. McCain has phrased it suggests that Sen. Obama approved spending $3 million on an old-fashioned piece of office equipment (overhead projector).
    The 3 million is actually for an upgrade of the SkyTheater - a full dome projection system, which is probably the main attraction of the Adler Planetarium and is quite sophisticated and impressive piece of equipment.

    I find it appalling that Sen. McCain would call a science education tool for public (largely children) for a historic planetarium with millions of visitors a year a wasteful earmark. The planetarium's focus, as stated on their website ( is "on inspiring young people, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in science." Is an investment in such public facility at the time when US competitiveness in math and sciences is a constant source of alarm a waste?

    "American's ability to compete in a 21st Century economy rests on our continued investments in math and science education," said Rep. Brian Baird, Chairman of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee in Congress, after the passage of The 21st Century Competitiveness Act of 2007.

    Considering such investments "wasteful earmarks" today, even in the face of the financial crisis, will severely cripple US economic competitiveness in the increasingly high-tech world down the road.
    — Andrey Kravtsov, Chicago, IL

  2. A. Disimone,

    Thanks for bringing this letter to our attention. I can't believe that the McCain campaign would have chosen to make an issue of such an earmark. It suggests McCain is getting bad advice.

  3. Reginald SelkirkOctober 09, 2008

    Oh Noez! The Chinese already have one. Perhaps McCain could understand if we phrased it in Cold War terms. Are we falling behind? Is America suffering from a star projector gap?

  4. So why exactly should the FEDERAL government pay for this?

    Why not the local Chicago/Illinois educational authorities ( the state or city government) or why not charge (increased) admission fees.

    Millions of visitors a year. Charge them all $1 (more) and you've got it paid for, No need to soak taxpayers from Alaska to Florida for something they won't use

  5. dirty dingus, you are a dying breed. Go ahead and vote for McCain and let the rest of us worship Obama, the Prophet of Big Government.

  6. My elementary school students know the difference between a star projector and an overhead projector!

  7. Arguing over the semantics of "overhead projector" versus "a theater system" is petty. The whole point is, defending the reasoning for federal taxes paying for it.

    How many people visit the Adler Planetarium annually? I read one figure of 2 million a year. at the $15 average admission with a show that museum it shouldn't be that hard for them to pay for it themselves with supplemental private fund raisers.

  8. Jason,

    I agree with you that

    Arguing over the semantics of "overhead projector" versus "a theater system" is petty.

    But even more petty than arguing about semantics is to question -- as McCain did on 3 occasions -- whether the federal government should pay for an widely accepted educational tool for a major US city that costs only $3 million.

    To think such a small budget item -- which we all seem to agree is useful for educational purposes -- was mentioned in a major debate during a time of national emergency.

    The man who mentioned the projector gives new life to the expression, "penny wise, pound foolish."

    As Obama pointed out, the whole obsession McCain has with earmarks accounts for only a small fraction of federal spending -- yet it's all McCain wants to talk about (aside from the principle of not raising taxes on some very rich people who got rich by being a lot wiser about money than McCain).

  9. I was watching CNN this morning, they cut to a live feed of a speech that McCain was giving. That idiot brought this up again and continued to call it an "overhead" projector, intentionally demeaning language. People, if you care about science, education, medicine and the environment, please raise this issue everywhere you can.



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