Baltimore City Paper

Fieldtripping: Staring at the Sun

The only thing I love more than a good coupon is a membership card. I remember gazing longingly at the ads in my Archie Double Digest as a kid, the ones that promised a four-color button along with a shiny new membership card. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a member, with the card to prove it? I started amassing Baltimore-based cards before I even moved here, just to get myself ready, and I showed up in town with membership cards to the Maryland Historical Society, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and season tickets to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Once in town, I added cards from the American Visionary Art Museum, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the B&O Railroad Museum, and the National Aquarium. When my ladyfriend and I started getting serious, I added her on a family membership to the Lewis Museum—because I know romance. When she got me a membership to the Baltimore Museum of Industry for my birthday last year, I knew this was the real deal.

And then there was the day we decided to take a field trip to the Maryland Science Center. Most of what I knew about the Science Center I learned from David Harvey's article, 'A View From Federal Hill,' which is in "The Baltimore Book," a must-read for any local nerds. The Science Center opened in 1976, but it was designed in the wake of the 1968 uprisings, and Harvey argues that the part where it's a giant brick behemoth with no entrances onto the street is no mistake: "The fortress design is deliberate; it is designed to keep out social unrest and minimize property damage." Basically, the building's there as a "strategic outpost" between what used to be the African-American neighborhoods of that part of South Baltimore and the revitalized Inner Harbor. In other words, it wasn't my first stop in the city. But when the ladyfriend invited me to hold hands at a planetarium show, well, who doesn't love getting handsy under the stars? A few calculations about how many visits I'd need to make to break even later, another membership card was in my wallet.

Like most of my memberships, this one has been pulled out rarely, once to use the bathroom during the Star-Spangled Spectacular and that's pretty much it. I mean, that place is for kids, and I only know one of those, and she's barely old enough to hold her head up by herself, much less care about dinosaurs and spaceships. But then the ladyfriend remembered it was there and we were members, so we headed down for a field trip with prepaid admission. As we walked in, I remembered what I know about the way this place got here on this particular corner, and that it's more than just a place to learn about science; it's everything that's dangerous about development as social control, and just because we've largely forgotten that history doesn't mean it's not still relevant. The questions that animated the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in the '70s and '80s are still here, as we figure out where to put our parking lots and public housing and transit lines. But the Maryland Science Center isn't just that history. It's also a place to learn about science, and, on this sunny Saturday, a place to look at the sun without burning your eyeballs right out of your skull.


The observatory is open on Saturday afternoons, so we headed straight there, up an elevator that felt like a historical relic here to teach us about the history of mechanical engineering and people transport. We took a right out the door and up the stairs, and it was a whole new view of the city, eye level with the park at Federal Hill and straight up from the volleyball courts. Because we have sand volleyball courts right there. The observatory is a basically a small room with a big telescope pointed straight up and at the sun. We took turns with our eye at the viewfinder as the guy in charge explained what we were seeing, which was a good thing, because all I saw was a red dot. A closer look, though, and I could see little wispy bits off the side—solar prominences, I was told (see: SCIENCE!)—and a dark spot on the edge of the red disc—a sunspot. That life exists at all is because of the sun, and for the first time, I was looking right at it.

We asked our guide how long he'd been standing up there showing people the sun. Years, he said. He never messes with the settings, and he never dusts the lens even though he really wants to. Can't mess with a 1920s telescope, apparently, just like you can't mess with the sun. It is where it is, it has its flares when it has its flares, and as dependent as we are on it, we have absolutely no say over what it does. It's nice sometimes, to feel like it's not up to us, like our own bullshit can't get in the way and turn a look at the sun into some ugly way for rich people to circulate money among themselves—and that's what the Inner Harbor looks like sometimes, redevelopment at its worst. We finished up our visit with a planetarium show about black holes and a presentation about the moons of the outermost planets, and the membership finally paid for itself.