At San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the planetarium team hosts an event called the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lectures.

Here’s what I know about astronomy based on five months of lectures:

1. Most astronomy presenters, like most people, aren’t that good at telling stories.

Most of the time, when I walked out of a Benjamin Dean lecture, my companions would turn to me with excitement, and I would feel confusion. What was that about? If I could recap the lecture quickly enough aloud, some of it would stick.

Sometimes when I sit in one of these lectures, I become irritated with the presenter’s inability to guide the audience through concepts and their poor type design. I feel annoyed that they won’t say at the outset of the presentation what we’re going to learn. One presenter, coming near the end and just at the point of making a possibly useful summary, decided to skip ahead, because her talk was running long. All the spinning plates in my head drop to the floor.


I am not well-read on astronomy. Here are my astronomy-related non-credentials: I took an introduction to astronomy class in 1998, at the University of Arizona. One of my college roommates at UC Berkeley was an astrophysics student. I have seen Gravity once and Interstellar twice. I have watched most of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos but none of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I follow 4 astronomers on Twitter and Patreon-ize my spacealicious acquaintance Ariel Waldman. One of my best friends, who is a smartie and general geek, frequently sends me links to Sixty Symbols and Crash Course videos, about half of which I watch. So I can kind of explain what a Lagrange point is and describe the light spectrum. My favorite kind of star is the neutron star. Because that shit is tight.

So when I say I went to five astronomy lectures at the planetarium and hardly understood them, it might be safe to say they weren‘t that well-done. If I then say that I mostly disliked them, maybe you should be concerned. Because I have an interest in astronomy and want to find a way to relate to it, but I’m not finding a way to dig in.

I’m either not smart enough for astronomy, not curious enough — both possibly valid points — or perhaps astronomy still isn’t accessible enough to the public.

That being said…

Even video bloggers, the most engaging of science presenters, talk too fast, include too much information, and use too few visuals to give their presentations a good chance of sticking. Unless 10-year-olds have mutated new biotech for absorbing information at rapid speeds. Which I wouldn’t put past them, the rascals.

2. Astronomy departments don’t know how to grow their audience.

At the first astronomy lecture I attended, the host asked the audience, “It’s Monday night. Do any of you care that this is happening at the same time as Monday Night Football?”

Cue twenty seconds of laughter, groaning, and loud dismissals from the audience. “Okay, okay, thanks,” said the host. Great job, everyone. Our biases have been confirmed. Because everyone who DID care about Monday Night Football was not in the theater: they were watching Monday Night Football. So that poll was the least effective way to find out if any people had been considering attending an astronomy lecture but decided not to because it was football night.

Do I think there are lots of football fans who wish they could have made it to CalAcademy? Not really. But if CalAcademy wanted to reach football fans for their opinion, they failed and didn’t even notice they failed. So much for science.

Pop science content creators are still serving only people who seek knowledge. Nerds. And while there are many more nerds in the world than there used to be, thank goodness, few people consistently pursue knowledge for its own sake. Most people seek knowledge to aid them in an immediate purpose.

And I come in…how?

Okay, I’m slightly embarrassed at all the ignorance I displayed above. I’m hoping I get better at this. Because I want to help. It’s important to me that people care more about the space sciences, rocket science, whatever science gets us closer to building an off-world habitat. This post is me making a note on my way to figuring out how I can help.