Uncle Ben, the Museum of the Moon, and the Barnes

On Saturday, December 7, we set off on a trip to Philadelphia, to visit a housing of numerous busts of one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, and personal hero to many a science buff. We were from four astronomy clubs from around NYC, dubbed the New York Astronomers Group, and we landed at the Franklin Institute, where the first sight for us to behold was British artist Luke Jerram’s “Museum of the Moon” — a glowing orb. This orb was composed of numerous, extremely high resolution NASA images of the Moon.  It hung in mid-air, suspended above and in front of a statue of Ben Franklin. For me, the room had a nuclear-blue glow, in which we basked in the faint white light of the inflated lunar orb, while under the watchful visage of the man who made lightning strike at least twice. Ben Franklin was made even more prominent by the yellow light in the room, which illuminated him, and nothing more.

A high ceiling, a personal idol, views of all around the Moon, the presence of knowledgeable and friendly museum staff, and most importantly, the company of friends — it was beyond my dreams.
I walked all around the room, taking in the views, all but giggling at how Mare Oriental gave the Moon a look like Darth Vader’s Death Star, while Bart Fried, our organizer, and de facto MC, went about getting and distributing our tickets.

Once inside, some of us went to the air wing, some visited the steam engine, some visited the heart exhibit, and some of toured other exhibits.

Personally, I needed to be reminded that there even was even a rest of the museum, but once I got started exploring, I found quite a few exhibits. Bart and I went in like platelets into the Heart Exhibit. Mary Alford and I toyed with a flight control surface exhibit, toured a military jet cockpit, and I must have disconcerted Mary when I decided it would be fun to electrocute myself with what looked like the dome of a Van de Graaff generator. Of course, she was not so shocked [!] and perhaps a little amused, when I decided to try out other electrostatic discharge devices.

We then showed up at the line for the planetarium show, where we ran into Ken Spencer, my seat mate for the bus ride, who had just explored the section on steam engines.

Photo by Faissal Halim

Planetarium shows are always exciting for me, as I tend to sit in a way that the bottom edge of my field of view is at the edge of the projection screen. Since I am accustomed to the universe whizzing by at a certain speed through my telescope, the exaggerated “motion” of stars in a planetarium show induces in me a state of delirium and vertigo. I might have confessed to Irene Pease that I might turn into a planetarium junkie. Did I? Well, I should have, since I ran into her at the planetarium show. After the show we went to see the Foucalt Pendulum, after which we pulled out our pocket protectors…I mean, we went to our high school physics formulas and calculated the length of the pendulum’s string. I remembered Seven of Nine’s “religious experience,” from when she saw the Omega Molecule, since I was seeing a Foucalt Pendulum for the first time.

Michael, from the museum, showed us around, and showed us the institute’s telescope, which was being used for solar observing.

After that, it was a short walk across to the Barnes Museum, across the street, where Irene, Mary, and I toured the art exhibits. It was rooms and rooms of the Old Masters; I felt a little awed, and a little inadequate, since the photographs had tones that I have not mastered, and the paintings merely mentioned the artists and dates, leaving us to wonder what the expressions meant. To add to my agony, I overheard one of the curators/tour guides point out that the man in one of the paintings was kneeling, whereas I had been sure that he had been standing. Some of the paintings looked like amalgamations of events in different periods, but pressed for time, we had no way to know. I will admit, though, for me it was a special delight, for I had not had much in the way of conversations about European history since the sixth grade, and while the topics were dark, I was more than pleased to have those topics come up again.

Photo by Faissal Halim

After lunch our little trio took another walk back to the Franklin Institute, catching a glimpse of the Moon on the way. The clear sky and the rising Moon promised a nice time with the Franklin Institute’s telescope, later in the night. Back at the Franklin, we took a tour of the gift shop (because it was there), where I once again looked for an abridged biography of Franklin for a friend’s 10-year-old (to no avail), but I found an unabridged hardcover autobiography of the man (but I had already bought myself a paperback edition, some months back). We found a few cool toys, many glow-in-the-dark toys, among others things that could delight a child. I did get a tad bit annoyed at the plastic telescopes and binoculars, though, because my father has very religiously trained me never to hand a child an ocular device with plastic lenses.

We then went in for our IMAX experience, a documentary about the Apollo 11 mission. Months ago, I had attended a CNN screening about the making of this movie, when I was visiting the Intrepid Museum, in NYC, so it felt nice to have a followup. I sat with Irene and Bart; who knows what these poor companions of mine thought as my head went all over the place, as my eyes darted from one part of curved, domed screen, to the next. The footage showed the Apollo 11 mission in riveting detail, so riveting, in fact, that I could actually make out the details of the rocket engines of the Saturn V, right above the bell-shaped nozzles!

I may never be able to delight in watching documentaries about the Apollo missions on my phone again. Truly, I am getting spoilt. Of course, the curved screen made for some disorienting viewing, for after the separation of the Saturn’s first stage, right as the second stage was about to ignite, the curve of the screen made it look like the Saturn’s jettisoned first stage was at a higher altitude than the rest of the rocket. One of my primary bonding experiences with my father was watching a lot of documentaries of NASA’s Apollo mission, as a five-year-old (I have not asked my mother if I knew Armstrong’s name by the time I learned to talk). On top of that, I have read about the Apollo missions as part of my curriculum in the first and third grades, if not more. Besides that, I have spent countless hours watching lunar exploration documentaries on YouTube. Despite all that, when I saw Error 1202 on the screen, at the IMAX theater, my excitement was palpable! I even spoke about the error with Ken Spencer on the bus ride back, while we regaled each other with our anticlimactic disappointment stories about the first times each of us watched footage of the Apollo astronauts launching their ascent stage from the Moon (no launch tower, and a quick launch, as if the rocket forgot the part about building up speed, and reached high speed instantaneously).

After the IMAX movie we gathered around an  old, modified telescope, and Derek (from the Institute) gave us its history, before shepherding us all to the observatory. After his brief lecture, the roof rolled away, and the cool night air descended upon us.  Soon, we stood in lines to look through the eyepiece. Those lines were a great way to get acquainted with other members of the group, and to get re-acquainted with other members of the club. I ran into Steve there, whom I had met last year at NEAF.

It looked like our David Francis was having a ball, taking pictures of the people at the observatory. I have a lot to learn from his dedication.

The ISS (International Space Station) graced us with a flyby after we observed the Moon and Epsilon Lyrae. Looking through the institute’s refractor was a joy, and I had my eye roving all over around the eyepiece, observing as much of the Moon as I could, despite the high magnification. The weather was not as chilly as I had expected, but the seeing had deteriorated, making it toil and trouble to distinguish Epsilon Lyrae’s double-double.

Our time in Philadelphia soon came to an end, and we filed back onto our bus, homeward bound. The journey back was as delightful in conversation as the journey to, and we made it into New York City in good time.