Category Archives: science

The Exploratorium, or playgrounds for the mind

In this post about visiting San Francisco, Devin Reams wrote:

We also enjoyed walking around the Marina area and
visiting the Exploratorium. I’ve been to some pretty good science
museums (Denver, Smithsonian) but this place is amazing. The energy
and exhibits possibly could’ve kept us there all day.

Ah, the Exploratorium.

When I was in grade school, one of my most-loved books was the Explorabook: A Kid’s Science Museum in a Book. I read it until it was tattered and falling apart. No, I did more than read it – I did stuff with it. I used the included Fresnel lens to burn holes in leaves. I looked at streetlights through the diffraction grate. I pulled paperclips along paper using the magnet. (Hence the falling-apart thing: I disassembled the book to get to my favourite tools.) My only regret about the book: I wish I had worked up the courage to make agar jelly.

I remember reading and re-reading the blurb about the Exploratorium, the San Francisco science museum that helped develop the book. When my parents were planning our backpacking trip across the United States, there were two things I dreamed about: being tall enough to ride the rollercoasters at Disney World, and going to the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium was every bit as scientifically magical as I imagined. I could’ve spent days there. We also visited the Smithsonian, which I also loved. (They had a replica of Babbage’s calculating machine!) The Smithsonian probably takes weeks, even years to properly explore. But to a kid without all the deep background one needs to appreciate all the history, what was that compared to the giant soap bubbles and interactive exhibits of a science museum?

Whenever I have time in a new city, I make a trip to its science museum. I went to the one in Odaiba in Tokyo, where I saw a kinetic sculpture that simulated SMTP mail delivery. I went to the one in Boston and the one in Montreal. When I was in San Francisco for another trip, I dropped by the Exploratorium again. The exhibits were a little smaller than I remembered (I’d grown a bit since I was nine years old, but not by much), but it was still magical. I checked out one of the new science museum in Manila when I visited, and I’m looking forward to yet another one that I’ve heard is being built. We’ve been to the Ontario Science Centre a number of times, of course. We’ve even made a trip to a place specifically to see a science museum (Sudbury, Science North).

What keeps me coming back? Many of the exhibits are similar across different science museums, but sometimes I come across an interesting surprise, a clever way of turning a concept into an experience. And even with the familiar exhibits or in the less-endowed museums, there’s always the wonder of someone encountering these ideas for the first time – the kids on school trips, the parents and teachers and other visitors puzzling things through…

For me, science museums are like direct connections to the wonder of discovery. Love love love. I think science exhibit designers must have one of the coolest jobs around. Science museums and libraries are my favourite ways to imagine my tax dollars hard at work.

Share a science museum with someone!

Every teachable moment


What is it like being a geek? It means being surrounded by opportunities to teach, even at the dinner table.

One of the LEGO magazine issues had included a pair of 3-D glasses. The issue had been tossed out due to a large number of jam stains, but the 3-D glasses were still on the kitchen table.

I put the 3-D glasses on. Things around me shifted from red to blue-green, depending on which eye dominated that part of my mental picture. I could influence which color I saw at a point by mentally favouring one eye or the other, but I couldn’t get the scene to be one colour unless I closed one of my eyes. Interesting.

I explained my observations to W- and J-. Curious, J- borrowed the 3-D glasses and put them on.

“Cool,” she said, looking around, as I told her about eye dominance.

Then I took a red pen from the pen holder and rolled it towards her.

“Wow! That looks white!” She switched eyes. “Now it looks black!”

Then I showed her a blue pen. She tried looking at the pens with both eyes, then with one eye, then the other.

W- and I explained a bit of colour theory along the way.

What is it like being a geek? It means recognizing that every little thing has a mystery that can be unfolded and explored.

Exploring the senses at the Ontario Science Centre

A friend from university was in Toronto for the week, so that was a good excuse to go to the Ontario Science Centre. The current special exhibition is about Mars exploration and worth a visit, but the highlight of my trip was a challenge posed in the Weston Family Innovation Centre.

The science centre assistant explained that we were going to be blindfolded, and we had to find our way from a random point in the room back to the stairs where we began. Before the blindfolds were put on, we had five minutes to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the room and the different sounds and textures. (No smells to work with, and I certainly wasn’t going to taste anything!)

J- and I went first. We were blindfolded and taken somewhere, led around a few times, and sent on our way. Gino accompanied me and W- accompanied J- – not to help, but just to make sure that we didn’t bonk our heads on something. When it came to finding our way back, we had to work by ourselves.

I heard the faint tones of a piano keyboard to front-left, and I knew that was the oil-bubble exhibit. (I’d played with it a number of times.) I also knew that the exhibit was close to the center of the room, so walking away from it would get me to some kind of wall. On the way to the wall, I felt the tall plastic poles of the craft center in which I’d once spent an hour or two creating random things using felt and fuzzy pipe cleaners. I knew where I was. Finding the wall was then easy, and I knew which way to go. After that, it was just a matter of tracing the wall (which took me into a little-used maintenance area, apparently) and getting back to the stairs.

As I stepped on the red floor that marked the goal area, the science centre assistant noted my time and said he was blown away. It turned out that the science centre had been running the challenge for five months, and at 4 minutes and 29 seconds, I was just a few seconds behind the first-place record established by a guy who was actually blind and who had done the challenge twice. I laughed and told him that my background in computer science meant that I’d written my share of maze-solving problems. Also, I’d been into assistive technologies in my senior year, so navigating blind didn’t scare me–I knew totally awesome people who could do it. =)

I didn’t mind navigating without sight, building the map in my head. In fact, I enjoyed listening to the different sounds and figuring out where they were, guessing my location and confirming or adjusting my mental model with each thing I ran across. The experience reminded me of the Tactile Dome in San Francisco’s Exploratorium (another wonderful science center!), where I had a lot of fun figuring out what objects were embedded into the walls.

If I were to do it again (which is unlikely as this was the last day of the challenge), I would use just one long cardboard tube instead of trying to navigate with two, as I liked having a free hand to feel the textures and make sure I was on the right track. I would sweep the tube in front of me like the way that blind people use their cane to quickly check their path, and I would walk faster because I could trust it to tell me where the wall was.

That’s what it felt like, and I encourage you to give it a try if you encounter this challenge yourself. =) (Maybe your local science centre might find it interesting!)

Boston Science Museum

I cannot resist science museums. I am endlessly amused by models and
hands-on experiments. As a reward for good behavior or just for fun,
my father and I would take the motorcycle to a dusty building that
contained much-loved exhibits: an echoing shell that stretched between
floors, a wooden catenary arch, a rotating platform for demonstrating
the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel… I had fun
rediscovering everything, running my fingers over the impossible
figure of the Penrose triangle and boggling again at how visual
illusions tricked me into seeing things even though I knew what’s
going on.

The Boston Science Museum is, of course, far more advanced than the
underfunded science center of my youth. This one had augmented reality
displays, lightning shows, and liquid nitrogen demos. The Star Wars
exhibit was fascinating, drawing plenty of connections between the
fantasies of the screen and the realities of current technology.
Scattered throughout the exhibit were hands-on engineering challenges:
build a magnetic levitation train from LEGO(tm), plan a Tatooine base,
experiment with robots’ facial expressions… It was fun to see adults
eyeing the interactive areas, probably also wishing that the kids
would hurry up and put the pieces back already!

It was a lot of fun, and I wish that I had more energy today. I had to
miss the MIT museum and a few other museums because of cramps, but
that’s okay. Maybe I can take the second circus. =)

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