Pathological Urges

January 10, 2009

As a follow-up to my previous post about planetarium seating, I want to talk about some interesting occurrences that I’ve observed over my days in the biz.

They say, “It never rains, but it pours,” whoever they are. But strangely, they’re right, about some things at least.

For example: as I’m ushering people into the theater, I try to tell them that the best seats are in the back, but often I get caught up in taking tickets or keeping count of visitors or looking for people trying to sneak in food, etc., and people don’t always get the message.

Call it mob mentality (actually, there’s probably some other psychological phenomenon that explains it better, but I don’t know what it would be called), but every once in a while, every single person will be sitting in the first few rows, and will leave the back half of the theater totally empty.

In a movie theater, from what I’ve seen, most people filing in will turn toward the back of the house (typically the stadium seats nowadays). I personally think those people are crazy- -I much prefer to sit in the front, maybe the 4th or 5th row, because I like the movie screen to fill my entire field of vision, from one corner of one eye to the other of the other. But it seems to me that most people, if given the choice, will sit toward the back.

So I have no idea why, but every once in a while, people will migrate to the front of the planetarium.

Typically, kids are the ones that try to talk their parents into sitting in the front. If I can catch them before the show starts, I’ll tell them that the show is best seen from the back of the house, and if there’s open seats, they should think about moving back.  Most of the time the parent looks at the kids and says, “See, I told you,” as the kids look disappointed.

Speaking of kids, there are a handful of other pathological urges that seem to be exclusive to kids. Like stanchions.

For some reason, kids are fascinated by stanchions. Especially boys. They stand on them, they lean them back and forth, they pull and snap the tape (canvas tape- -no more of the ol skool velvet ropes for my theater). If I have a young school group that has to stand out in the queue for longer than a few minutes, I always, invariably have to go out after the show and reset the stanchions, because they’ll be twisted and nudged and totally out of place.

I’m pretty picky about my stanchions.

(ESPECIALLY WHEN PEOPLE TRY TO STEAL THEM, but that’s another post for another day.)

One more thing kids almost always do: they’re obsessed with trying to find me.

Before the show, when I do my intro spiel (which I do from the control room, which in my theater is in the back of the house) , kids will stand up and look around the theater, trying to figure out where I am. It’s as if they expect me to walk out in front of the theater to do my introduction (which I admit, is a pretty common-sense thing to expect, but it’s still funny).

Once the kids in the back of the theater figure out that I’m behind them, they’ll stand and point out to their friends and whisper, “There he is!”

What happens next is a whisper-fueled ripple of kids’ heads, prairie-dogging out of their seats to look back at the control room, which travels across the entire theater from the back to the front.

Now I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy about this and whine about those darn kids not staying in their seats, but the problem is, when these kids are all looking around and whispering and pointing at me, they’re not listening to my instructions.

It was so much of a problem for school groups, that I’ve taken to doing my intro spiel in front of them, then telling them to follow me with their eyes as I go to the back of the theater, through my secret door, and into the control room.

Then I say, “Now, that’s all you need to look at me! You don’t need to look back here any more! The rest of the show is going to be above you on the dome, so sit back down on your bottoms and don’t look back here any more!”

Okay, maybe I am an old fuddy-duddy.


Where should I sit?

January 8, 2009

There are four typical seating arrangements in a planetarium theater:

Read the rest of this entry »


Dispatch: Eridian Birthday

January 6, 2009

erisdysThis is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the 9th largest known object in our solar system (besides the sun), and its moon.

Pluto, right?

Pluto, wrong.

It’s Eris, the largest dwarf planet, and Dysnomia, its moon.

I tell visitors that this is one of the reasons that “dwarf planets” as a new classification of planets was introduced–there are objects in our solar system that are bigger than Pluto.  Should that make them a planet?

Here’s a typical exchange that occurs when someone brings up Pluto/Dwarf Planets:

Me: Is Pluto a planet?

School Kids: No!

Me: What makes something a planet?

School Kids: It’s made of dirt!

Me: Ok, dirt– like it has a ground you can stand on.  But how about Jupiter, and the rest of the outer planets?  Do they have a ground?

School Kids: No?

Me: That’s right, they don’t.  They’re made of gas, that’s why they’re called “gas giants.”  So a planet doesn’t need ground.  If not, what exactly makes something a planet?

School Kids: It has to be round!

Me: Round like a circle?

School Kids: No, round like a ball, smart arse.

Me: Ah, then we call that “spherical.”  Ok, well, the Sun is spherical.  Does that make it a planet?

School Kids: Of course not, don’t be silly.

Me: So what makes something a planet?

School Kids: It has to orbit the Sun.

Me: But asteroids and comets orbit the sun, does that make them planets?

School Kids: No, it has to orbit the sun and be big.

Me: Bigger than Pluto.

School Kids: Yes, jeez!

Me: So our moon is a planet then, because it’s bigger than Pluto and orbits the sun.  Right?

School Kids: Uh… No?

Me: You’re right, the Moon is a moon, a satellite.  And it’s good that’s not the deciding factor, because there are seven moons in our solar system that are larger than Pluto: Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, Io, the Moon, Europa, and Triton.  So if they’re not planets, then what makes something a planet?

School Kids: Uh…  Just where are you going with this, wise guy?

Me: There are a handful of technical definitions for what makes something a planet or not, but to be perfectly honest, the only way to know for sure if something is a planet or not–a bunch of people get together and vote.

School Kids: Say what now?

Me: It’s true, the International Astronomical Union governs the naming conventions for astronomical bodies.

School Kids: So some dudes get to decide if something’s a planet or not?

Me: Dudes and ladies.  Pretty much, yeah.

School Kids: Far out, man.

Me: Word.

Ok, maybe that’s not verbatim, but fairly you get the idea.

Ultimately, the confusion surrounding the classifications of these things (dwarf planets, plutoids, TNOs, etc.) is just semantics: the words describing them don’t actually change what they are: small objects in the outer edges of the solar system.

Anyway, I digress.  A trio of astronomers scouring the sky for Trans-Neptunian Objects found Eris on January 5 of 2005, after studying photos taken in 2003.  (The sky is a big place to observe; often discoveries are made long after initial images are taken, because there’s just so much darn data to look at.)

The namesake of this dwarf planet is the Roman goddess of strife and discord, an appropriate association since Eris was one of the reasons the IAU decided to start thinking about new solar system classifications, an act that has led to a considerable strife and discord over the demotion of Pluto.

Astronomers love relating names like this, and Dysnomia is another perfect example.  Follow this train of geek-thought:

Eris was informally nicknamed Xena by the discovery team, and naturally Xena’s moon should be Gabrielle.  The meaning of “dysnomia” translates to “lawlessness” in English–And the character of Xena was played by actress Lucy Lawless.

And yes, that was totally on purpose.

I did make the mistake (once) of trying to explain this connection to a school group of 3rd graders in my theater.  Of course the teachers knew who I was talking about, but the kids had no clue.

I was half tempted to say, “You know, that amazonian lesbian couple from the syndicated psuedo-Roman TV show in the mid-90s…” but fortunately kept my mouth shut.


Sting and The Sun

January 4, 2009

A pair of too-cute-for-words moments from yesterday:

We’re running Peter and the Wolf right now, a laser show of the musical version narrated by Sting. After one showing of it, a kid, probably 10 or 11, stopped in front of the control room and looked in the window at me. He said, “Were you the guy that was talking during the show?”

I chuckled and said, “No, that wasn’t me, it was Sting.”

He said, “Who’s that?”

I said, “Sting, the musician, he was in a band called ‘The Police.*’”

He furrowed his brow, looked around the control room and asked, “Is he back there with you?”


Later, after the star show, a little girl, not more than 4 years old probably, came back with her dad. She started to ask me something, but then got shy (which happens lots… I must be intimidating or goofy-looking or something–scratch that, I know I‘m goofy-looking). She looked up at her dad and he said, “Go ahead!”

I asked her if she had a question, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I was just wondering… What are all the stars’ jobs?”

It was one of those questions that sort of caught me off guard. Obviously, something in the show got it into her head that the stars have jobs, but getting the proper context from very young visitors can often be difficult, and I’m still not totally sure exactly what she meant by her question.

So, grasping for a teachable moment, I asked her if she knew that we have a star close to us here on Earth, and smartly (and cutely) she said, “It’s big and bright during the day–it’s the SUN!”

I told her that our sun has a very important job; it gives us heat and light, and also it’s so big that it holds our solar system together with its gravity.

Which then led into a heated philosophic debate over the strong vs. weak anthropic principle.

But seriously, a four year old understands what we mean when we say that the Sun’s job is to provide us with heat and light, but I would never put it that way to a visitor with the capability to get the real idea: the sun isn’t there because we need heat and light and gravity–we’re here because the Sun just happened to be providing heat and light and gravity.

I try not to anthropomorphize things when possible, but there are times you just can’t get around it in a museum setting.

*Nowadays touring under their alternate name, “Sting and the Other Guys.”


Happy New Year, Etc.

January 2, 2009

I hope you enjoyed your extra second of 2008, though personally I couldn’t wait until that jerkwater disappointment of a year was off the calendar for good.

Now we can look forward to the inauguration of a hopefully pro-science, pro-reality president that has the ability to bring our country honestly and actually into the 21st Century.

I’m very optimistic about the coming year:

Firstly, I’m excited that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, as declared by the IAU, the IPS, UNESCO, and a handful of other important and noteworthy organizations. It’s the anniversary of a couple of pretty important events, not just in astronomy, but modern science as a whole, and planetaria, science centers, museums, astronomy clubs and the like, are celebrating with expanded programming meant to bring the cosmos home.

Unfortunately, the Blank Blank Planetarium hasn’t planned any extra programming, primarily because of monetary limitations, but if we get lucky and find some nice people willing to donate a significant chunk of grant money (and things are looking positive, but you really never can tell when it comes to grants), hopefully we can put together a pretty significant theater rehab that will definitely bring us up to industry standard, and maybe even a little ahead of the curve.

More details on that as they emerge.

On the personal front, my wife is pregnant, and just yesterday we (joyfully) learned that it’s another girl, continuing a tradition my maternal grandparents started (two girls: my mom and my aunt), and my aunt and uncle continued (two girls: my teenage cousins).

(I’m definitely going to have to do something to bring up the testosterone level in the house…)

Just before Xmas, my wife was laid off from her job, and there was much consternation.

Yesterday, my wife scored another job, and there was much rejoicing.

In a mixture of my personal and professional lives, I have some plans brewing that I’m positively atwitter over, and will continue to refine as they develop. One of them is a sort of harebrained idea for an industry-related social experiment that could either be really, really interesting, or fall flat without so much as a whimper. We’ll see.

As far as Bearable Skyglow is concerned, my hope is to continue to shape it into a non-traditional aerospace/media/museum blog. Remember, I Am Not An Astronomer™; if you want news about what’s happening in the night sky, there’s dozens of spots on the intartoobs that can give you the skinny better than I could ever manage (there’s a trio of them on the sidebar to the right–check them out and bookmark their RSSes, right now).

I will continue my dispatches of eclectic calendar and aerospace science factoids, and give more inside looks into the planetarium industry and non-profit museum life.

In the meantime, if you can, when you can, support your local planetarium and science center! If there’s ever a time when these kinds of not-for-profit instutitions need loyal and interested visitors, it’s now.

Happy New Year.


A holiday classic

December 14, 2008

Holy Gassy Giants, Batman

December 9, 2008

Woah…  uh, wow, ahhh, BUH.

This is outstandingly amazing.  And clever.  Philly P breaks it down (as he does best) for the non-technical:

They got a spectrum of the star and the planet at the same time, and then waited until the planet was behind the star and got a spectrum of just the star by its lonesome. By subtracting the star’s spectrum from the star+planet spectrum, they got the spectrum of just the planet itself.

Because I am Not an Astronomer (TM), I often tell people in my theater that astronomy is something that I really have to do my homework on, because there is literally new astronomy news every single day.  This is a perfect example of that.

I can only imagine that this technique will become more and more easy and prolific, and we’ll be learning lots of extra things about extrasolar planets in the very near future.