Mr Tuttle’s Orbit

Once a year when I was in elementary school our class would take a field trip to the local planetarium. We’d get to the planetarium on a school bus — a novelty for me since I was a “walker”. The bus would drop us off in front of the planetarium and we’d file into the domed white building. Inside the planetarium, it was cool and dimly lit, almost church-like. We were instructed to find a seat on one of the pew-like benches that encircled the large star projector. The backs of the benches were tilted to make it easy to lean back and look at the dome over our heads on which the projector would project the stars and planets.

Once seated, the planetarium teacher, Mr. Tuttle, would step up to the podium and welcome us to the planetarium. He’d slowly dim the lights and take us on an amazing journey that involved sunset, moonrise, constellations, planets, and an uncountable number of stars. For several years all I saw was a blur because I was nearsighted but had not gotten glasses yet. Once I got glasses, I was awed by the number of stars on the screen. The huge star projector seemed to move (perhaps it did) and sometimes I’d pretend it was a monster.

I don’t know that I ever talked to Mr. Tuttle when I was in grade school, but I vividly remember him and his lessons.  I did have the opportunity to talk to him when I was in high school. I’d signed up to walk for the “Hike for Hunger” in the early 1970’s with my best friend, Cindy. Her father was a teacher and a friend of Mr. Tuttle. Because of that connection, Mr. Tuttle walked with Cindy and me for most of the 25 miles that day. I felt honored beyond words that of all the other students in the crowd, he chose us to walk with.

I never really got “into” astronomy and although I can name all the planets and a handful of constellations, I don’t know where they will be in the sky on any given evening. However, I love looking at the night sky. I get updates from telling me when something cool is going to happen in the sky and sometimes I remember to watch for it and when I stand outside looking up to the heavens I always think of Mr. Tuttle — even though I’ve known other planetarium directors, having taught elementary school.

A few days before I set off on my trip to Illinois I read on Facebook that Mr. Tuttle had died the previous Sunday and that a memorial service would be held for him the following Saturday. I wanted to go to the memorial service because it was for a man who I thought about several times a month.

I did go to the service and am glad I did. I discovered that he was more than a planetarium director. He was a loving father and husband, a musician, a maker of quilts and an active church member (of the church in which I was baptized).

I did not know, as a child, that Mr. Tuttle was religious. It never occurred to me to think about it. If I had thought about it — years later — I would probably have thought that since he was a scientist, he probably was not very involved in a church. Sitting in the church on Saturday during Mr. Tuttle’s memorial service, I was struck by how similar being in the planetarium was to being in a church. The benches were wooden pews. The atmosphere was serene. If I recall correctly, there was even a “pulpit” of sorts where Mr. Tuttle would stand and tell us about the stars.

Courier News Article

Daily Herald Article

9 thoughts on “Mr Tuttle’s Orbit

  1. Nice. Lots of scientists go to church, actually.

    That building looks familiar. I wonder if I ever rode by it (on my bike)? I wonder if I was ever IN it. I’ve been to a few planetariums, but couldn’t tell you where each one was…


      1. I represent the teachers of U-46 and just this past spring I was given a tour of the planetarium by the teacher now in charge of the planetarium. It’s a wonderful instructional space and such a great asset for the children of the district. It’s history is connected to the Elgin watch company as the official time at the factory was set by tracking the position of the stars.

        Images from my visit can be found at

        And the planetarium is located here:,+il+&sll=41.981953,-88.580017&sspn=0.555338,1.318359&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Elgin,+Kane,+Illinois&ll=42.030159,-88.273526&spn=0.001084,0.002575&t=h&z=19


  2. In today’s Writer’s Almanac, for the line “If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism.”

    It’s the birthday of evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould, (books by this author) born in Queens, New York, on this day in 1941, the son of an artist and a court reporter. He’s known for his essays on natural history, and for explaining really complicated scientific theories in a way that most people can understand them.

    He’s the author of about a dozen volumes of essays subtitled “Reflections in Natural History,” including The Panda’s Thumb (1980), Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995).

    He campaigned against the teaching of creationism, but wasn’t anti-religious. Gould once said, “If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism.” He argued that science and religion shouldn’t be viewed as opposed to each other, but simply distinct from each other: non-overlapping disciplines that shouldn’t be used to try to explain aspects of the other. The National Academy of Sciences adopted his stance, saying officially a decade ago: “Demanding that they [religion and science] be combined detracts from the glory of each.”

    Among his best-known works are the treatises The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Full House (1996), and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998). He taught at Harvard for most of his life, and later at NYU.

    Stephen Jay Gould died from cancer in 2002 at the age of 60. Published posthumously were his books The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities (2003) and Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (2003).

    He once said, “Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information; it is a creative human activity.”


  3. What a great post. And I love the way you compare the experience to being in a church. Even though I’m not religious, in some churches (usually large cathedrals) I feel some sort of transcendence, similar to the magical feeling I used to get as a child when I went to the planetarium (I still might today, but planetariums seem much less common these days).


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