Now it's McCain vs the universe - Short Sharp Science - New Scientist
The US election has been like a spectator sport lately, with all the drama of a tight race for high stakes. It's also the kind of sport where the spectators can suddenly find themselves part of the game - like baseball fans do when a foul ball comes rocketing their way.
Imagine the surprise for Sarah Beck, manager of public relations for Chicago's historic Adler Planetarium
, when she found herself in that very situation during this week's presidential debate. Beck was one of 63.2 million US viewers watching the debate on television Tuesday night when Senator John McCain unexpectedly singled out her institution during an attack on rival candidate Barack Obama.
As he accused Obama of voting for government spending on pork barrel projects, McCain cited, as his example, "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"
"I was really shocked," says Beck. "It was not what I thought was coming."
McCain was apparently talking about a new projection system the Adler is trying to raise money for to refurbish its 78-year-old Sky Theatre. No federal funding has been allocated to the project, although Obama, Senator Richard Durbin and Illinois congressmen from both major political parties have all supported the planetarium at various times in its efforts to secure federal grants for specific exhibitions and educational programs.
For the record, it will cost $3 million to 5 million to replace the Adler's existing projector, part of an overhaul that is expected to cost $10 million in total.
"Our goal is to offer Illinois children a 21st Century museum experience, designed to inspire them to engage in exploring science," said Paul Knappenberger, president of the museum.
Over 35 million people have visited the planetarium since it opened in 1930, the gift of Max Adler, an executive of Sears Roebuck and prominent Chicago philanthropist.
So much for the facts. The interesting question is why did McCain target, of all things, the first planetarium in the western hemisphere - a not-for-profit institution dedicated to increasing science literacy?
It was certainly a calculated move. McCain has already trotted out the Adler dig in earlier campaign speeches, referring to "planetariums and other foolishness" when listing federal appropriations - better known as earmarks - that congressional politicians have a tendency to insert into spending bills to benefit their home constituencies.
"We've been hearing flutterings about this since August," says Beck. "I felt there would be an earmark fact of some kind in the debate, but I didn't imagine this."
What may be most troubling to science educators is the fact that McCain clearly presumed that the wastefulness of spending money on a planetarium would be self-evident without any further explanation or context.
Despite the fact that McCain has taken pains to declare himself pro-research and innovation, and pro-space exploration in particular
, the comment suggests an effort to connect with a voting population that is not enamoured with science, and so would find the idea of funding a planetarium outrageous or amusing.
The Tuesday remark was reminiscent of another project McCain is fond of ridiculing, a study of grizzly bear DNA in Montana. Biologists say the study is essential for understanding the population of an iconic and threatened species. McCain has joked about paternity tests for bears. The research ruckus got weirder when Democrats pointed out that McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, had earlier supported a federal earmark to study the DNA of harbour seals in Alaska.
Whatever McCain was hoping to achieve on Tuesday, the move appears not to have worked in his favour. Science bloggers are up in arms about the comment
and the Alder has received nothing but supportive calls from the public since the debate.
"It seems to have touched a nerve," says Beck, "especially with those who have worked their entire lives in science education." Ivan Semeniuk, US bureau chief (Image: Adler Planetarium)