Monday, November 26, 2012

Making Science Fun

It’s been many years since I visited the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  I loved that place. It was designed for discovery.  No instructions. Just interesting things placed in proximity to each other and a tacit agreement from the museum designers that you could do anything you want without risk of blowing yourself up.

There was a huge powerful and heavy magnet near an old television set.  Nobody could resist touching the magnet to the screen and watching the distortion in the picture.  There may have been something else to do, but I was satisfied by sliding that magnet around on the screen and observing the crazy pictures it created.

There was a human-sized bubble cage.  And if you were in-the-know, you dipped your hands in soap water before entering the cage.  Soapy hands can go through a soap bubble without popping it.

And most startling of all, you’d be walking along and out-of-the-corner-of-an-eye, you’d see a glowing flower or a word.  You’d turn towards it and see nothing.  Turn back and again – in the corner-of-an-eye, there it would be.  Something lit-up that can only be seen in peripheral vision.  I was really looking forward to seeing that again.  I asked a staffer about it.  He’d heard of it, but he said it used too much electricity.  I find that hard to believe.

The attraction of the Exploratorium is hands on experience and discovery.  Plus staffers who can give ideas or ask questions than aim you towards answers.  Now, the wonder is gone.  Every display has step-by-step instructions and explanations.  

Plus, there’s a whole section wasted with soft-science.  Two people are supposed to think of a a third person they both know and then use words on a list to try to describe that person.  You can do that on a computer screen on a website – it is not worth valuable floor space.  There’s a political section with political cartoons.  Visitors are asked to write their thoughts on scraps of paper. Most of the posted thoughts have nothing to do with the material on display.  Again, a website with comments enabled would be better.

The dimensionally skewed house is still there.  If they want an idea for better use of the floor space, I’d enlarge that house and make it more like the houses built at Mystery Spots where water appears to run up hill and brooms stand upright at what seem to be odd angles.

The magnet section still has most of the good material, including the hot metal display where a piece of steel still turns red hot and loses its attraction to a magnet.  There’s also the gap between strong magnets where visitors can drop washers and create a special effects bridge.

I know – there are people who like instructions.  There are people who buy hint books for computer games.  I wouldn’t object if the museum had a hint book for folks who want it.  But the way it is now – it isn’t fun any more. 

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