My husband took a photo of our kids at the Lowell Observatory that pretty much sums up our experience.
This was not even the first time we had had a miserable experience at the Lowell Observatory. Back in 2000, we had visited because of Mr Pict’s enthusiasm for astronomy. We attended a lecture that was, it seemed, being given by someone with as much knowledge of the solar system and its workings as I possess. And I know bupkis. The scant nature of the lecturer’s general knowledge was even more exposed when she started taking questions from the floor. A keen kid in the front row asked question after question and basically had to answer the questions himself because the lecturer could barely comprehend his question. It was dull but more so it was excruciatingly cringeworthy. We then took a tour of some historic telescopes through which I could see entirely nothing. Not the powerful nothingness of infinite space. Just nothing. And then we left the Observatory and tried to get some dinner only to find that all restaurants in Flagstaff had somehow apparently run out of food. It was such a miserable evening that it has now become our shorthand for referring to any sub-par travel experience: “Well at least it wasn’t Lowell bad”.
There was no way we were signing up for a lecture this time around. Our first stop at the Lowell Observatory, therefore, was a room full of interactive exhibits aimed at children on a Space Academy theme. Each kid got to create an astronaut name for themselves and that printed out a card with a barcode for them to then use on each screen. They actually found that quite engaging though I would say the quiz questions were pretty tough and even I as an adult with pretty strong general knowledge struggled to answer some of them.
We then headed outside to go and see the historic telescopes and actual observatory gubbins. We queued up to have a look through the Clark telescope and I was actually able to see Jupiter so that was an improvement on my previous experience. I could see the striped colours of the planet’s surface and two of its moons. That was actually pretty cool. The Lowell Observatory, founded by Percival Lowell, was where Pluto was discovered so it is a pretty important place in the history of astronomy – even if poor Pluto is now considered to not be a fully-fledged planet. Sadly, I didn’t get to look through the telescope that had identified Pluto because it was away being restored. Mr Pict and the littlest Pictling queued up to look through a few other telescopes and saw the moon and another view of Jupiter. The rest of us just tried to stave off our growing boredom.
We were supposed to be going on a guided tour of constellations at 8.30. We, and a whole load of other people, gathered at the designated spot and waited. And waited. The kids’ boredom had shifted into disgruntlement. I too was getting increasingly cheesed off with standing around in the darkness. Finally, some time after 9, our guide turned up. It emerged that they had cancelled the 8.30 tour because it was not dark enough (as astronomers, shouldn’t they know when it gets dark each night?) and we were, therefore, joining the 9 o’clock tour. Which was also late. Suffice to say, I was not in the best of moods when we set off on this tour and the kids were grumpy and tired. The idea of the tour was that the guide would use a laser pointer (which was admittedly impressively powerful) to draw out the constellations in the sky, like star dot-to-dot, while explaining the cultural history of the constellations. It should have been just the ticket for engaging the kids and me in astronomy since it was less about science and more about mythology and anthropology. Alas, it was turgid and amateur. The guide turned out to be doing her summer job as she was normally an 8th Grade science teacher. It was the problem of skimpy general knowledge again. We hung back in the crowd and found an opportunity to slope off in the darkness and leave.
I don’t think we will ever go back to the Lowell Observatory again. I am fairly confident I won’t. Percival Lowell spent a long time at his telescopes trying to find martians plus Pluto got downgraded from proper planet status. I think he may have cursed the place. It’s definitely cursed for me.