I am not exactly sure of the last time I had gone to the Fleet Science Center, the science museum in San Diego – it had been fifteen to twenty years or so. Like many museums, not much had changed over the decades, the building itself and many of the exhibitions and features inside. And, I came to find, that a part of me, had not changed either.
I was there on a private tour with fellow members of the science writing community (SANDSWA), and, by some miracle, I didn’t venture off the tour. Mesmerized by the simplicity of the unchanged exhibits, slightly faded and worn by innumerable interacting hands, I drifted, loosely attached to the trail of my peers that followed our tour guide through Retro-Active Science – the Fleet’s classic collection of hands-on science exhibits – on the main floor.
Overwhelmed with options, my eyes darted through timeless physics, engineering, and neuroscience demonstrations. My hands rushed to the thermal grill of tightly-wound, alternating hot and cold coils where they should have lifted off in shock upon touching from the illusion of pain – my hands have frostbite from years of handling liquid nitrogen to store cells and tissue samples for biomedical research. Behind it, in misty neon white-blue, a tornado a floor tall came into focus and, next to it, a giant, funnel-shaped black-hole surrounded by children waiting for their turn to slowly, spin a coin into the gravity well.
Surprised by the unfamiliarity of a giant box with a mouse-hole-like opening, I quickly shuffled over – really, I probably ran – to what I learned to be the phantom lightbulb illusion. Following the instructions on the box, I reached in and tried to grab a lightbulb that appeared to be sitting a little way into the box-—whiff. Baffled and laughing, my hand passed right through the image of the lightbulb.
Some of the most spectacular science demonstrations rely on surprisingly simple science. Throughout history, for instance, very simple physics has been used to great effect to amaze and, even, terrify audiences, such as the Belgian physicist and stage magician Étienne-Gaspard “Robertson” Robert’s use of optics in the 18th century with the Phantasmagoria—where one or more lanterns were used to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight.
Jogging past a soccer-goal-sized Rube Goldberg machine, I caught up with the group making its way through a door not accessible to the public, which opened to a staircase leading to the basement where we were got a behind-the-scenes view of the legendary IMAX projector for the domed Space Theater. Like a tape cassette the size of a pool table, the hundred-pound wheels of 70mm film whirred and spun, feeding the fish-eyed projector – the first of its kind in the world, premiering with the opening of the museum in 1973.
Before making our way back up to the main-level, public floor, we briefly gathered in the basement wood and machine shops used for crafting exhibition pieces and, perhaps more importantly, makeshift pieces for the discontinued IMAX projector.
Following a closed-door Q&A session with the President and CEO Steven Snyder as well as various senior staff members of the science center where we learned about the role of the Fleet in the communities of San Diego, I was free to roam the museum for half an hour unsupervised until it closed. And, as I slowly zig-zagged and touched my way through the exhibits until being escorted out by security, I did so with a thought in my mind: what is a museum?
A museum is a building, a symbol, and a force representing the tangible and intangible heritage of people – where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. Like a playground, it is a place where anyone can learn and study with the naivety, wonder, and joy of a child. And, as with looking up at the stars in the dark desert or lying back in a planetarium’s recliner chair, it is where we are reminded of what it is to be human.