Road Trip 2017 #10 – Woe at the Lowell Observatory

My husband took a photo of our kids at the Lowell Observatory that pretty much sums up our experience.

2017-06-26 20.41.08

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.

Road Trip 2017 #8 – Meteor Crater

One of the things Mr Pict really wanted to do on our vacation was take the kids to see Meteor Crater.  He and I had visited back in 2000 but, as an astronomy nerd, he is always looking for opportunities to engage and enthuse the kids in the subject of outer space.  We, therefore, set off early on the fifth day of our vacation to make the most of cooler morning temperatures and arrived at Winslow just as Meteor Crater was opening to visitors.


As its name suggests, Meteor Crater is a place in Arizona where, 50,000 years ago, a meteor measuring about 150 feet in diameter and weighing several thousand tons collided into the earth at 26,000 miles per hour.  Don’t ask me how scientists know such things when nobody was around to witness or record the event let alone measure it.  They do their scientific stuff and they know and I just learn the precis of their findings and trust their knowledge and understanding.  The result of the impact was a giant crater several hundred feet deep and 4000 feet in diameter.  An introductory video illustrated the scale by showing that 20 (American) Football games could be played inside the crater with room for 2 million spectators.  In the museum, we were able to see and touch one of the large fragments of meteorite that was left behind after the impact and explosion, which was rather cool.


The museum area had definitely improved since our last visit.  It was much more engaging and the kids were able to absorb information through interactive displays. They learned about earth impacts in ancient and modern times, including photos of meteorites that had fallen through people’s roofs and the famous images of the Tunguska Event, and that all the pock-marks on the moon’s surface are the result of similar collisions.  They also learned about Meteor Crater’s use as a site for training astronauts and for studying outer space geology.  There were experiments in magnetism and a game whereby they could “design” a meteor and see what its impact would look like on a particular planet.  Our youngest son celebrated when he managed to completely destroy Earth and Venus.



We stepped outside and were able to properly view the Crater.  I am sure the local indigenous population had a name for this vast divot in the ground but, if they did, we didn’t learn it.  We did, however, learn that it was first recorded as Franklin’s Hole and later it was named Coon Butte.  My children decided that they much preferred either of those epithets to the bland and obvious Meteor Crater.  At the very beginning of the 20th Century, a Philadelphia mining engineer named Barringer took out a claim on the land in the hopes he could locate and mine the iron from the giant meteorite.  He was disappointed but his efforts apparently resulted in much learning.  The evidence of this mining activity could still be seen within the crater – only just so with the naked eye but better with the available telescopes.  Other telescopes were trained on interesting features within the Crater, from a small boulder on the rim that turned out to be the size of a house to a barely discernible pin prick on the crater floor that turned out to be a model of a 6″ tall astronaut with an American flag.  This was useful in really conveying to the kids how colossal the crater was.

2017-06-26 09.20.06




Our visit to Meteor Crater was very interesting and I am glad we took the kids to see it but I just don’t get that excited by science or outer space.  The highlight of my trip to Meteor Crater was that I saw a mountain lion on the side of the road.  Much more exciting.