Friday, December 9, 2016

The Marvelous Museum of Science and Industry

When I was 7 years old, my parents took my brother and me up to Chicago for a short visit -- it's one of my most vivid childhood memories. We visited all of the Chicago museums, but the one that made the deepest impression on me was the Museum of Science and Industry. I can't honestly claim that this was the single experience that set me on my path to a career in science, but it was certainly a major influence. We don't always appreciate the huge impact that apparently trivial experiences have on young children.

What was exhibited at the museum back in 1966? We walked through the German WWII submarine, but I didn't particularly like it. My favorite was a nuclear physics exhibit sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission. It included a large push-button map that allowed you to "prospect" for uranium, a mock-up of a "hot cell" manipulator for handling radioactive materials, and screen with a dial for producing images of atoms with various numbers of electrons. (The last of these must have made a deep impression -- I later authored a textbook on quantum mechanics). A dive through Google determined that this exhibit was called "Atomsville, USA," and it was presented first at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and then made a brief stop in Chicago for a few months in 1966. Remarkably, you can see a video of it (in its World's Fair incarnation) here.

And what else was at the museum 50 years ago? I vividly remember the "World of Hardwoods," which included the giant face of Paul Bunyan staring back through a window, and a push-button board under a gigantic light-up globe: you could push each button to see where in the world a particular hardwood tree could be found. The AT&T exhibit had three phone booths, from which you could call someone in another booth or talk to a cartoon character. AT&T also sponsored a video phone linked to the science museum in Philadelphia -- my brother and I were too shy to use it.  (It took 50 years for this technology to become a computer-aided everyday reality). There was the famous walk-through heart, and a bizarre theater with mechanical parts of a cell (or were they molecules?) sliding in and lighting up. An internet search revealed that this exhibit was called "Chemical Man."

What has become of these old exhibits?

Gone, every one of them (except for the submarine, which will be there forever). The nuclear physics exhibit was temporary anyway, and also temporary, it turns out, was the Atomic Energy Commission that sponsored it. But you can get a taste of this exhibit just up the road from me in Oak Ridge, at the American Museum of Science & Energy -- definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. Paul Bunyan is gone (it's hard to imagine a museum today sponsoring an exhibit called the "World of Hardwoods"), and the walk-through heart was dismantled a few years ago and replaced by a digital equivalent.

I didn't get back to the Museum of Science and Industry until five years later, and by then some of the glow had faded.  (When you experience something for the first time at the age of 7, it's never going to be quite as impressive the next time around). Later, when I was working on my PhD, I lived just a few blocks from the museum and could visit frequently -- and it was still free at that time. And then, as I mentioned in my previous post, a cancelled flight from Midway (thank you, Southwest Airlines) gave me the opportunity to make a quick trip with my daughter last Sunday.

So what's there today? The museum remains, I think, the best science museum in the world, and I've had the opportunity to see corresponding museums in Boston, London, Munich, etc.  (The only major science museum I've never visited is the Exploratorium in San Francisco). I was really impressed with the "weather" exhibit, which is partially about meteorology, and partially an exhibit on physics and chemistry. You can generate a tsunami, watch lightning from a giant Tesla coil, manipulate a magnetic fluid, and play with a magnetic levitation train. My daughter liked the chick hatchery in the genetics exhibit (the chicks used to be housed in a food (!) exhibit) and the Boeing 727 that hangs (minus only one wing) from an upper gallery, ready to explore.

There are a few exhibits that date back to my early visit 50 years ago. Besides the submarine, there's the walk-through coal mine (which I think goes all the way back to the founding of the museum), the famous "body slices" (which I found vaguely disturbing when I was 7), "Yesterday's Main Street," and a curious ensemble of gears and linkages that has always lived on one of the stairwells (I hope they never get rid of that!). The mechanical exhibits have a longer shelf life than the computer screens -- not surprising, since computer technology changes so rapidly. The museum tried a disastrous experiment back in the 1980s, basing an entire set of exhibits on Commodore 64 computers, which became embarrassingly obsolete a few years after they were installed. I do miss the unabashed corporate cheerleading that was so prevalent at the museum in its earlier years (hey, it is the Museum of Science and Industry).  But corporations have largely gotten out of the science museum business, just as they've shuttered their large scientific laboratories, and for basically the same reasons. Monopolies (AT&T) and quasi-monopolies (IBM) can afford to hive off money for both scientific labs and museum exhibitions. But in a more competitive environment, both of these are frills. So say good-bye to Bell Labs, and to those wonderful exhibits on hardwoods, petroleum, and steel manufacturing. A little bit of this spirit survives at Disney's Epcot, but that, too, is gradually disappearing.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I was last at EPCOT in 2006 and determined to make it my last visit. IT's been Disneyfied too much for my taste. I don't think Uncle Walt would have approved.

If you ever visit Vegas, I recommend the Atomic Testing Museum. Science-wise there was nothing I didn't already know, but there are items of historical interest (and Disney's movie about atomic energy, the one with the mousetraps and Ping-Pong balls to illustrate a chain reaction).

One bit that grabbed me was a photo map of a portion of Nevada, divided into neat squares labeled "Area 1," "Area 2," etc. Yup, there was one labeled "Area 51." The numbers go quite past 51,too.

More interesting historically, though, is the Mob Museum (officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement).

Yes, I go to museums while in Vegas (don't worry, I also gamble for low stakes).