After Yosemite, we spent some time in San Francisco. One of the highlights of that stop was a visit to the Exploratorium. The Exploratorium is sort of the granddaddy of all modern science museums. It’s the institution which changed the paradigm from static exhibits featuring a bunch of stuffed animals to interactive exhibits. Lots of science museums now have interactive exhibits with buttons to press and whirring machines, but the Exploratorium’s exhibits still set the standard for cleverly demonstrating complex concepts in a way that anyone can understand them.
A typical example of an Exploratorium exhibit would be this thing. It’s a motor with a pulley with a loop of rope on it and a lever which changed the angle at which the rope goes off of and on to the pulley. When you change the angle, the loop of rope goes flying through the air in different ways and makes really interesting patterns.
Peter had a great time touching the flying rope and making it form different patterns. But it works on lots of other levels too. As Peter said:
So there was this little girl next to the rope. She was watching us play with it. And she decided to touch it. And when she grabbed it, it fell to the ground. And when it fell, she laughed really hard. I think she really enjoyed it.
What had happened is that when she touched it, it rope would slip on the pulley and stop flying. She was fascinated by the fact that she could make the exhibit start and stop like that. She kept doing it over and over.
One of the neat things about the Exploratorium is that they’re very transparent about how the exhibits are created. In fact, the workshop where they create them in is in the middle of the exhibit hall and you can watch people working in it.
At the Scratch conference, I met Luigi and Ryan from the Exploratorium who came to get conference participants to explore interesting hookups (using the Scratch board) between Scratch and physical gadgets like an old rotary phone dial, or a button from an old toy that has been taken apart. One of the things we worked on was hooking up an old ‘Do not Press this Button’ exhibit to a Don’t press the button Scratch project from the Scratch website. While we were at the Exploratorium,we saw the current ‘Do not press this button’ exhibit that updates a counter every time someone pushes the button you’re not supposed to push.
So when we got to the Exploratorium, we called Luigi and he showed us around the Learning Studio where they develop activities and new exhibit ideas. It was really neat to see their process and some of the cool ideas they’ve worked on. Peter couldn’t keep his hands off all the neat things he saw in there, and came home bubbling over with ideas of things to make.
Another of the Exploratorium’s great ideas are the explainers. Explainers are high school students who are on hand to talk to visitors and help them make sense of what they’re seeing. You can follow along with what the explainers are doing at their blog.
Two of my favorite exhibits include this one which dropped little chunks of dry ice into a pool of water. Some of the chunks stick together in irregular blobs, while others zoom off on their own. As the solid carbon dioxide sublimates it creates interesting patterns and motions as the gas jets out from random spots in the irregular clumps.
… and a really beautiful version of Doc Edgerton’s classic milk drop splash experiment. Doc would have loved this version with a 60 inch high-def TV and a digital camera with a knob to control what part of the splash gets captured in the photo as you adjust the delay. When I did the milk drop splash lab back in the 80’s we were still using film cameras and simply had to take lots of exposures at different delays so that we would be certain of getting one good splash when we developed the film. Now with digital cameras you can see the results instantly. The one part they couldn’t get with their set up is Doc’s trick for getting an image that is a perfect crown. As we were doing the experiment Doc came through the lab and told us that we’d get a better picture if we tilted the plate that the drop landed on up about 10 degrees. Sure enough we got perfect pictures. If you’d like to hear more stories about Doc, check out this talk by Professor Vandiver.
The Exploratorium was originally created by Frank Oppenheimer. The story of Frank’s life from the Manhattan project, through the McCarthy hearings, and to the creation of the Exploratorium is a truly fascinating one. If you’d like to learn about his story, I highly recommend this book by K. C. Cole. It also talks about Philip Morrison, who was a friend of Frank’s, and who was another of our favorite people.