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Planet Head Day celebrates 5th anniversary

Friday, 04 February 2011

The Northern Maine Museum of Science is looking for your head.

Winter in northern Maine is cold – very cold – but northern Mainers laugh at the weather: in the middle of the coldest month of the year, they shave their heads and have them painted as planets.

This February 19th is the fifth annual Planet Head Day. People from throughout Aroostook County and nearby New Brunswick, Canada, come to the University of Maine at Presque Isle to have heads shaved, or they don elastic caps, so their heads can be painted as planets, dwarf planets, moons and asteroids. And it's all to support science education and raise money for C-A-N-C-E-R.

The event has been organized by UMPI's Northern Maine Museum of Science to serve two purposes. The first is that the event serves as part of the museum's educational outreach to celebrate the Feb. 18, 1930, discovery of Pluto and the museum's partnership with NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and Beyond. The museum's contribution to the NASA mission involves space science and astronomy education support for the Maine Solar System Model, the largest such model in the Western Hemisphere.

The second purpose for the Planet Head Day gathering is to acknowledge the effects of cancer and serve as a fundraiser for the local cancer patient support group called Caring Area Neighbors for Cancer Education and Recovery (C-A-N-C-E-R). C-A-N-C-E-R volunteers serve multiple communities in northern Maine offering comfort, education, support, and travel funds for people in cancer treatment.

The first Planet Head Day was held when New Horizons was passing Jupiter in 2007. The spacecraft is now past the orbit of Uranus and is more than half the distance to its rendezvous with Pluto in 2015.

"The event has been a great success," said Kevin McCartney, museum director. He is especially impressed by the number of community leaders and children who participate, many to have their heads shaved prior to painting. The most popular planet heads have been Earth and Pluto, but all of the planets have been represented each year, as well as various moons and asteroids.

McCartney is an advocate of informal education, which is learning that happens outside the traditional school environment: "When I see fourth-grade students with planets painted on their heads, I know there is in their heads an appreciation of space exploration, cancer and community service that will be there for the rest of their lives."

McCartney, who is a Professor of Geology at UMPI, has had his own head shaved each year and painted as Pluto. He now has two haircuts each year, with the second haircut being a trim before school starts in September. From there, he lets the hair grow wild until the next Planet Head Day.

Jeanie McGowan, co-coordinator for the Planet Head Day event and outreach worker for the museum and the NASA mission, said the event has grown each year and offers a little bit of something for everyone.

"This year is our fifth anniversary. Each year we add new components, meet new Planet Heads, and learn a bit more about ourselves and our communities," she said. "Northern Maine is a truly remarkable place where people volunteer their services, money, and time for their friends and neighbors in need."

In the summer of 2006, McGowan was diagnosed with breast cancer and was just finishing chemotherapy when the anniversary of the February discovery of Pluto celebration was coming up. The museum and the Maine Solar System Model already were involved with the NASA team and other teammates around the country were planning their celebratory events.

McGowan remembers, "My long hair had disappeared with treatment and my head was a bald, spherical globe that I thought was rather uninteresting. It's a difficult thing for a woman to lose her hair, and I was facing a public venue with interviews, cameras, and the inevitable head shot. My thoughts roamed to using my head as a showpiece, rather than hiding it with a scarf or wig. Why not just be who I was—a woman with cancer recovering from chemotherapy? Why not take the opportunity to have fun and paint it like Jupiter to celebrate the New Horizons probe passing that planetary milestone on its nine and a half year journey? When my dear friend Kevin McCartney immediately offered to shave off his hair and paint it as Pluto, the plan was under way. I think Planet Head Day is a real success story of people volunteering in support of others. For one day in February, we just have fun and make our contribution to an organization of deeply committed and caring people who work the other 364 days to help people in need."

Each year, the Planet Head Day event is videotaped by Frank Grant, owner of Grant Visuals, a video production business in Presque Isle. Grant not only documents each year's event, but also creates annual YouTube Planet Head Day productions available online for those wishing to see local Planet Heads from past years or find a bit more information on the day's happenings. (To see previous videos, search for "planet" and "head" on www.youtube.com).

Other local businesses have repeatedly stepped forward in support of Planet Head Day. Caribou and Presque Isle Pizza Hut restaurants have been on board since 2007, supplying free pizzas for the event. The University donates space and the campus food service provides refreshments for the team and visitors. Again, this year, barber/owner Patrick Coughlin of Parson Street Barber Shop and hair stylists Donna Raymond and Amanda Durost from Great Beginnings Hair Boutique will join stylist/owner Denise Young to provide professional head shaving for all Planet Heads beginning with McCartney's shearing at 11 a.m. Theatrical "bald" caps are available to all participants who do not wish to avail themselves of a free haircut.

This year, volunteer Planet Head painters will paint each participant's bald or capped head like the planetary body of their choice. A new opportunity is offered to participants who wish to paint the heads of their children – or the heads of their parents or friends. Lynwood Winslow of Presque Isle will volunteer his time and money again this year, providing his laptop, camera, and printing technology to photograph each Planet Head and produce a Planet-Head hard copy certificate to take home.

"Cancer has touched nearly all of us in some way, and we need to support those 'caring area neighbors' who step forward and volunteer support for families and individuals who are faced with illness," McGowan said.

Planet Head Day is a free event for all those wishing to have fun in support of their local communities. Donation jars will be on site and participants are encouraged to donate whatever they can in support of the much needed work of the volunteer C-A-N-C-E-R organization. If you can't join the Planet Head Day festivities, donations can be sent directly to the group at P.O. Box 811, Presque Isle, ME 04769.

Planet Head Day will start at 11 a.m. at UMPI's Gentile Hall. For more information, contact Kevin McCartney at 768.9482 or Jeanie McGowan at 768.9747. Anyone wishing to help paint planets should contact Jeanie McGowan.