In Flagstaff: Marketing at the edge of the universe(s)

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Kuiper Belt
Known objects in the Kuiper Belt in the far reaches of the Solar System

If we are fortunate to have a balanced life, it isn’t all work and no play. Yesterday evening, after a dinner at Flagstaff Arizona’s local fancy restaurant, I headed with Vivian to the Lowell observatory, the place where a Kansas farmer’s son who with just a high school diploma (he couldn’t afford to attend university), discovered Pluto.

Lowell_Observatory_-_Clark_telescope
The Clark Telescope at the Lowell Observatory. Recently it has been refurbished as a tourist visiting site.

The observatory continues to function as a research center, though the older buildings including the original Clark telescope now primarily serve as educational/tourist attractions. (The real cutting edge stuff generally happens at other locations, such as one operated in co-ordination with the US Navy — that are operated off-site and cannot be accessed even by the interpretative staff at the visitors’ centre.)

Not surprisingly, topics at an observatory focus on space, cosmology, and explaining sometimes really complex and arcane concepts to people with some intelligence, but who are not exactly rocket scientists. And so I listened with some awe about the scale of the universe (think of billions of light years), and then the possibility there could be many alternative universes, like parallel realities, which correlate with some really wild concepts such as the string theory.

These concepts can be explained mathematically, when you think of how dimensions are converted into mathematical terminology. There are the three physical dimensions (weight, height, volume) and the fourth dimension — time. But what if you add a fifth, six, seventh, or eighth dimension — or more.

Ok, I know we are getting far away from marketing and even what most people think about during a vacation (which today includes a visit to the Grand Canyon, and tomorrow for a few days and evenings in sunny and warm Scottsdale, AZ.)

So, let’s go back to the Lowell Observatory, Pluto and its discovery in 1930 by 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh.

Tombaugh was born in Streator, Illinois, the son of Adella Pearl (Chritton) and Muron Dealvo Tombaugh, a farmer. After his family moved toBurdett, Kansas in 1922, Tombaugh’s plans for attending college were frustrated when a hailstorm ruined his family’s farm crops. Starting in 1926, he built several telescopes with lenses and mirrors by himself.[2] He sent drawings of Jupiter and Mars to the Lowell Observatory, which offered him a job. Tombaugh worked there from 1929 to 1945.

The Lowell Observatory’s story has other wonderful improbabilities; why some rich guy from Boston would be interested enough in astronomy to build an observatory from scratch with his own funds; and of course the Pluto story raises other questions: Is it a planet or not.  (Consensus is it isn’t because it is now seen as one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt in the far reaches of the solar system.)

So, we have a planet that turns out to be not a planet, discovered by a Kansas farmer’s son who found a way to scrounge resources and design his own telescopes, and a privately funded observatory that has evolved into a tourist and genuine research centre; a mix to me which seems as far off the base of our normal expectations to fit right in with those alternative universes and perceptions.

Despite these points, we should realize in the real world (or at least the small part of the one universe we can see with our own eyes), the rules of the marketing game play out with amazing efficiency and predictability. Visitors like us choose our hotels, restaurants and tour activities through online reviews and crowdsourced ratings — no need for us to spend time hoping for the best or listening to “touts” promoting their own cause. Reviews and rating can be manipulated, and they may deny us the opportunity to discover and visit truly up-and-coming yet invisible attractions, while they may cause us to experience less-than-perfect results from sites and attractions where the ratings have been manipulated. But they still reduce the overall risk of the experience.

Clearly, it is better to be at the top of the pile, and in the five-star category, than it is to be one of the masses, but it isn’t easy to get there. I’ll explore some of these concepts in upcoming posts.  Now it is time to get ready for the Grand Canyon.

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