Front and Center: John Whitmer, SFCC astronomy instructor
Some visitors who attend John Whitmer’s popular Friday night stargazing sessions expect insights based on the position of celestial bodies, as in “when the moon is in the Seventh House.”
But the director of Spokane Falls Community College’s planetarium is an astronomer, not an astrologer. He’s more interested in the age of planets than the Age of Aquarius.
Whitmer has taught at SFCC since 1998, and spearheaded the effort to include a planetarium in the college’s new science building, completed in 2011.
When planetariums were conceived a century ago, here’s how one scientist described public reaction:
“It matters not whether the audience be made up of children or adults, professional people or laymen … when the light is gradually diminished bringing on the darkness of night in the dome, and the stars are ‘turned on,’ the audience gasps audibly in surprise at the breathtaking beauty of it.”
And so it is today, Whitmer says.
During a recent interview, he discussed what led him to jettison his first career in favor of astronomy, and changes on the horizon for SFCC’s planetarium.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Whitmer: All over the Northwest. My dad was with the Forest Service.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Whitmer: I visited a planetarium in Minneapolis when I was about 8, and it made a big impression on me. But I didn’t think I could earn a living at astronomy, so I followed in my dad’s footsteps and got a degree in forestry from the University of Idaho.
S-R: Then what?
Whitmer: I had a midlife crisis early – in my 20s. After working for the Forest Service in Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake, I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I quit my full-time position, earned a degree in astronomy and physics from the University of Washington, then went down to San Diego and got my master’s. There were very few jobs for astronomers in the Northwest, so I was thrilled when this one opened up.
S-R: How did SFCC’s planetarium come about?
Whitmer: When we were planning the college’s new science building, I brought up the idea of a planetarium. The faculty was all for it. But it took a while to get the administration on board, and we were told we’d have to do most of the fundraising ourselves. On the chance that we wouldn’t be successful, the architects designed my round classroom with windows, which you don’t normally see in a planetarium.
S-R: How much money did you raise?
Whitmer: Close to $1 million. The major contributors were student government, which donated $200,000, and the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation, which raised about $500,000.
S-R: Who named the SFCC planetarium Eos?
Whitmer: The students did. In Greek mythology, Eos is the goddess of the dawn.
S-R: Who built your digital projector?
Whitmer: Spitz, an outfit in Pennsylvania. The projector and computer together cost $500,000, and the dome on top of the building was another $100,000.
S-R: Does the dome have any function?
Whitmer: No, but it’s become an iconic feature for the campus – it’s heavily featured in publicity photos. Unfortunately, it gives the impression of an observatory, so some people come here expecting the ceiling to open up to reveal a telescope.
S-R: How have planetariums evolved during the past century?
Whitmer: Up until the mid-’90s, they were strictly analog – the star ball turned, and everything was done with lenses and light bulbs. The advent of the digital projector introduced the ability to show movies and animation. I think the really good analog star balls produce a higher quality starfield than we can achieve, but the flexibility we gain is well worth the tradeoff.
S-R: Do apps such as SkyView make planetariums more interesting for today’s audiences, or less?
Whitmer: They’re wonderful learning tools, but to really get a sense of the entire sky, you need more than an app on your phone.
S-R: So there’s still a magic associated with planetariums?
Whitmer: Sure – especially with younger audiences. We have more than 200 K-through-12 students here every week, and they come out really excited. If that sparks some interest in science, all the better.
S-R: What’s the takeaway for SFCC students?
Whitmer: The class satisfies the science requirement for an A.A. degree. But I hope our students also gain a sense of awe. It’s so easy to get caught up in day-to-day stuff and forget that we’re just a tiny part of a really incredible universe.
S-R: Is the planetarium worth visiting more than once?
Whitmer: Our five different shows rotate weekly. And we always show what’s currently up in the night sky, so if you wait a few weeks, you get a totally different view.
S-R: What questions do audiences ask?
Whitmer: A very common question is, “Do you think there’s life out there?”
S-R: What do you tell them?
Whitmer: In the past decade, we’ve found a number of Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars in what we call the habitable zone – where water can exist as a liquid – and there are probably billions more throughout the galaxy. So there’s probably a good chance that there’s life out there somewhere. That’s not to say that aliens will be visiting us, which may be what they’re hoping for. But what was science fiction 10 years ago is now fact.
S-R: Are there career opportunities in astronomy today?
Whitmer: More than there used to be. Astronomers who got into this in the ’70s (when the Space Shuttle program was ramping up) are nearing retirement. And there are more planetariums. We were the second community college in the state to have one when we opened up in 2011, and now there are five.
S-R: Any changes ahead for your program?
Whitmer: Student demand is so high that we’re in the process of hiring another astronomy instructor. The hope is to also offer more public viewings and develop our own shows.
S-R: Do people sometimes confuse astronomy and astrology?
Whitmer: All the time. Students come in here thinking they’re enrolled in Astrology 101, so we address the difference right away. And during our public shows, I explain that most people aren’t the zodiac sign they think because of how the sun moves through the sky over time. Some people are indignant, saying, “I know I’m a Sagittarius!” But our software allows us to place the sun where it was the day they were born and show that it wasn’t in the constellation they thought.
S-R: That’s worse than a one-star horoscope.
Whitmer: If they truly believe in astrology, I’m happy to disillusion them, because it’s a field that does great injustice to science, preying on the naïve. And there are more astrologers than there are astronomers.
S-R: Speaking of science, did the movie “Gravity” seem authentic to you?
Whitmer: I actually haven’t seen it, so I couldn’t tell you. (laugh) It’s on my list.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.