Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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“It’s not premature to announce that the planetarium has been saved.”

So proclaimed Alice Monet, president of the Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium, Saturday night as she wowed a crowd under the dome on Quincy Street at the upteenth fund-raiser to rescue a local treasure that some dismiss as yesterday’s toy.

It has been a remarkable tale of citizens making up shortfalls in the public fisc.

The draw this night was two new-age bands (Cigarette and Grumpy Swamp) composed of laid-back twentysomethings. They showed astronomical appreciation by playing – in the dark-original otherworldly reverbed melodies while the planetarium’s projector rolled stars and constellations overhead.

This followed a Wednesday lecture by astronaut and noted physicist John Grunsfeld, which followed sales of T-shirts, bumper stickers and on-campus drives-a poster by kids from McKinley School announces, “We did it!”

The Brown sky theater is the area’s only freestanding school planetarium open to the public. It is named for the Arlington native who became a naval flight surgeon and astronaut before perishing in the space shuttle disaster of 2003. Brown is also in the Yorktown High School Hall of Fame.

When this sky-watcher’s delight opened in 1969, it was a feather in the cap of an affluent school system. I recall as a high-schooler catching its holiday lecture on the celestial origins of Star of Bethlehem, and there I learned to identify Orion’s Belt. The planetarium went on to serve 25,000 students a year.

A year ago the recession-racked Arlington schools had to plan for its closing due to a $400,000 shortfall needed for upgrades and repairs. Superintendent Patrick Murphy agreed to hold off to see whether the new volunteer nonprofit could raise that sum by June 30, 2011. Monet announced Saturday that Murphy was suitably impressed with the $355,000 pulled in (including a major gift from Arlington builder and former school board chairman Preston Caruthers). She came away with the supe’s word he will give the campaign time to finish.

The money will help replace projectors, add new digital programming and supply comfy new seats-a necessity if you want to lean back, cradle your neck and get lost in the overhead vision.
Jonathan Harmon, the planetarium director of 12 years who ran visuals for the musicians Saturday, is keen to modernize the bevy of projectors used to vary his fare of prerecorded shows and interactive lectures.

Slight resistance to the rescue came from educators who argue today’s students can learn more off the Web and through the ease of their mobile phones. Counters Monet, “Who would say there’s no need to go scuba diving because we can view the wonders of the ocean on our screens?” she told me. “Under the dome of a planetarium, an audience can be transported in time and space, experience the heavens as they would if actually standing at the South Pole or at the summit of a Hawaiian volcano.”

Another dispute caused the parting last January of the brother of the late David Brown. Doug Brown told me he felt the top priority should have been educating students in science, math, engineering and technology rather than patching ceiling tiles. He didn’t want his brother’s name used as a “source of perpetual fund-raising.” But now he’s pleased with the group’s success.
Friends of the Planetarium will remain just that.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]

 

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