The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Arlington schools should fund the Brown Planetarium and expand minds

The Milky Way rises above the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Jill Babcock Kern is a member of the Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium.

I was overjoyed to hear a few weeks ago that the Arlington School Board had decided to fund the purchase of a new projector for the David M. Brown Planetarium because the company that manufactured the current projector has decided to end technical support for that particular model. Then came the stunning news that the superintendent of Arlington schools had decided to eliminate funding in the school budget for a new director, effectively putting off the reopening of the planetarium for another year.

Since it was closed three years ago while the Arlington Education Center next door underwent renovation , and the expected reopening was further delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, putting off the reopening for yet another year seems unconscionable.

A year might not seem long from an adult perspective, but from a child’s point of view, a whole year without the unique and very valuable experience of visiting a planetarium can eliminate a source of inspiration that would be difficult to find anywhere else.

The Arlington Planetarium can provide an experience that I took for granted when I was a child growing up in Arlington. Living across the street from the forested ravine where Interstate 66 was eventually built, I could marvel at a night sky spangled with stars whenever I wanted to. The Milky Way was easy to see, and I clearly remember my mother pointing out Sputnik, the Russian satellite, as it slowly made its way across the sky in 1957. Today’s children might be able to make out the International Space Station if they have a knowledgeable adult to help them, but they have to travel quite a distance from the center of Arlington to find a sky dark enough to reveal the Milky Way.

Why is this important? There are some experiences that are very difficult to duplicate, or even evoke, in the typical classroom or auditorium. On the other hand, for most people (whatever their ages), seeing the night sky replicated inside the dome of our planetarium evokes the same kind of wonder that was once available in the sky above our backyards.

That’s an experience that rarely occurs in the typical classroom: awe. I think Albert Einstein would have understood. As a child, he was a mediocre student who later came up with theories that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. He wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

The cost of hiring a new director for Arlington’s planetarium for this coming school year might seem high, but delaying that expense does not seem like a bargain when it means denying Arlington’s students a whole year of inspiration. Who knows? One of them might become the next Einstein — or another scientific pioneer.