Exploratorium: Hippy Cool

OK, I’m sure you’re asking what I mean by that headline. It’s not Hip & Cool, but Hippy Cool. That was a snobbish term I used as a kid to describe this museum because at the time the Hippies didn’t have a lot of money, but had some cool ideas so as a kid the Exploratorium had the look of an unfinished museum that was run by people who were at the time, well, hippie-ish.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing I soon discovered. Finished proper upscale museums that attracted the type of people who wore $2000 suits to drink champagne and say how much they loved science while getting their pictures taken and then went home to their Pacific Heights mansions never to be seen among the unwashed masses didn’t used to come here. That’s a good thing because science is a dirty thing. Just watch an episode of Bones or CSI and real scientists deal with some very gnarly stuff on a daily basis.

I think I learned this at a young age when I went to the Exploratorium and got to meet up with a Scatologist who was showing off some animal poop and then tearing it apart to tell us all what the animal had eaten. Gee, you can actually make money doing this? Then there was the Ornithologist who actually got me to help him pull apart owl pellets [that’s what owls barf up after they’ve eaten] to see if I could guess what the owl had eaten [I was right, it was a gopher.]

This was science that you could touch and were encouraged to touch. The floor back then was unfinished concrete and the place looked like a warehouse, but each exhibit was something you were encouraged to interact with and for a kid I liked that. I didn’t like the lectures where a scientist would hold up bottles of enbalmed dead things and then talk for an hour or two. I liked it when the scientists invited me to come closer and touch the junk they were playing with.

In the early days a lot of the things were donated from people such as their audio section that had an old theremin that had been donated along with xylophones and harps. They weren’t always up to snuff, but when you’re a kid you don’t really care if it’s in tune or if one of the keys is chipped. You got to bang on it and that for a kid was fun.

I think the biggest thing that kept me coming back was the tactile dome where you’re put into a large dark room with stuff in it. You don’t know what the stuff is, but because you can’t see it you have to use your hands to figure out what it is and if you can’t you have to use your imagination to try and figure out what your hands are touching.

The Exploratorium gave kids examples of science that they could go home and try for themselves, much to the chagrin of their parents. I remember filling soda bottles with sugar, yeast and water and sticking a balloon on top to watch it inflate and that was cool. I remember using potatoes to make a battery. I also learned that if you mix hydrochloric acid and lye together that you would end up with salt water, though my mom wouldn’t let me try that at home. I think that the Exploratorium brought the sciences to the masses better than any other museum because it handed them to you in a way you could relate to.

While it isn’t cheap any more it’s still half the price of the California Academy of Sciences and you’ll get more for your money there and you might get to ride a bicycle until you can light up a bulb or at the very least learn why people fart.

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