Museum of Science, Boston, MA

Diana, MaceVindaloo, Diasala, Zit, SuSu

On rainy weekends, when the family may have planned a picnic or even a camping trip, you end up rethinking. You figure, the teens are grumpy enough when the weather is perfect, and the spouse may blame you for everything wrong which will happen on this "vacation." So the wiser among us will suggest an alternate, more town-oriented venue, so that at least one can keep dry and get soft drinks and lunch as the whims dictate. It's more expensive, maybe, but isn't your sanity and pride worth something?

The Museum of Science in Boston tries very hard to keep things "real" and "current," even partnering with engineering or manufacturing firms to improve or mount exhibits and displays. They run the risk of being too-dorky and hyper-educational, but parents and schools like it for those reasons. Let's face it, science is the subject favored by dorks, even in the technology and digital data era when knowledge of science isn't a liability. So, will the exhibits be dumbed down?

Yes, and no. The reality is there are limits to how much the "normal" person can understand; it's not necessarily that they're dumb. It's more about how the information is communicated. And the Museum tries very hard to connect "science" with something the average person already knows. Like, a recent Star Wars based exhibition, which attempted to connect the day-to-day realities of the Galaxy Far, Far Away with the her and now on earth: prosthetics, robotics, virtual mapping, transportation, etc. It was a good effort.

But, by and large, these displays cost a lot to conceive, then build. The usual model is that some dorks with woodworking skill volunteer to make a display with movable or motorized parts to "prove a point." For example, a Mobiüs strip is a two-sides object manipulated to produce one surface, and you push a button to run a motorized train along a continuous track. Or you drop balls down a pegboard, which falls into bins which illustrate the concept of the bell curve and probability.

Don't get us wrong — these things are way cool and sometimes way clever IF you understand what's going on. Most of the kids (and adults) at the museum displayed a sort of, "So what?" expression, or, "That's stupid!" especially if something didn't quite work fast enough. We encounter this attitude at work and school, especially from people who think they're too smart or too cool to be interested in anything.

So, it's not the display's fault that they aren't reaching those people. It's an attitude problem.

As for us, we are dorks ... and we know it. We spent a lot of time in "Mathematica," a gallery devoted to mathematical concepts and "jokes" from the ages. We actually read the articles and captions and commented on whether or not the builder/designer succeeded in getting their point across. We looked at the "stripped layered view" showing the musculature and stuff of a grasshopper, and admired it's low-fat legmeat and thought, "Mmm ... would make good brisket!"

We even admired the donated specimens, like a 42 lb. / 19 kg homarus americanus, or Maine lobster. It made us hungry enough to go to No Name Fish Restaurant later, too! And we liked the Naboo N-1 Fighter prototype mounted on the ceiling above the two-story display area in the center of the gallery. Far below it was a race car, of the type you expect to have run the sand flats of Daytona Beach.

We also liked the Archimedes screw, though it was weird that all it did was spew oil and it was tilted at a 30° angle. It was a right-handed screw, we discovered, but explanation might have been necessary for the average screwer!

We heard many parents explaining the display to their kids. Or try to elicit an explanation from the teen, who should have learned this stuff in school. (Even if they know it, being too smart is uncool, generally. Though you might get a show-off kid who does geek-out at this stuff!)

A lot of the parental explanations sounded like stuff they would have learned in school or college, which brings to mind the major criticism of Science and Technology Museums: there seems to be limited ways to display an idea, and some of the "classic" displays get very old and tired. We're not saying you need to change the way you represent an idea, if that way is successful. We're not sure how to handle this critique, since we understand that the displays can be bulky and pricy or difficult to build or move. It's the struggle just about every kind of museum suffers.

Of course, some things can't be moved ... like the original Van der Graaf generators, built in the 1930s. It's in the Museum, and it's the largest of its type (air-insulated). The double-globed monster is these days used to create sparks and lightning for the entertainment and edification of the masses. A guy in a red apron talks about the myth of Ben Franklin's kite-flying experiment, which was likely never done. For if it had, it would have killed Franklin, and he goes through the concept of an experiment, and evidence, and proof. In this case, Franklin was seeking some way to prove that lightning and electricity were the same thing. The guy did not talk about Michael Faraday, who proved in the late 1800s that magnetism and electricity were the same; nor did he even talk about Van der Graaf and what this generator was originally used for.

He did talk about safety during a lightning storm, and the best places to be or not be during such a meteorological event. He talked about why one is safe in a metal car during a lightning storm, and how it had nothing to do with the rubber tires. He talked about the "skin effect," but he never referred to it by it's proper name: the car, or birdcage, or any other enclosed object, is a Gaussian sphere. He allowed the Van der Graaf generator to accumulate enough charge from the building's 110V supply to smack some metal spheres, a kite with a key attached to it, a large birdcage with him inside of it, some plasma generators, etc. It was set to music as the show-ender. It was very loud and tough to photograph!

That room needed better ventilation. It was probably just humid in there (it was raining and windy outside), but the space packed with people to watch the show (included in the price of the ticket) was really too hot.

There was a food court adjacent to the gift shop. We'd come here years ago and had found interesting jewelry and toys with any hint of scienciness, and it was pretty much the same now. There were also things conneceted to exhibits and special IMAX presentations on sale here, including books and decorative items. There were not badly priced, recognizing that this is a souvenir ship, not an interior decorator's place.

The food was mostly the sort that would make kids and families happy. Apparently, on some evenings, there was live music and catering is possible.

The IMAX films are much like the museum, in that they tend to run the gamut of dorky nature or history or geography type of films. Occasionally, a big-screen Hollywood movie is converted to IMAX format and it's shown here, like Attack of the Clones or Harry Potter, or something related to the major new exhibit. In the latter case, there was a show about evidence of GFFA-type climates throughout our own area of the galaxy. The cost of admission is included with Museum membership; a family membership gets you multiple entries at a time. There are exhibition and IMAX coupons which can be redeemed. Otherwise, an additional fee is charged, though this is typically much less than for non-members.

For a full day out of the rain and out of the house, and perhaps more family time than anyone can stand, it's a nice option. And if you really can't deal, try signing up for a Duck Tour, which is an around-Boston sightseeing tour in an old military boat on wheels. The boat part becomes apparent when the vehicle plunges into the Charles River!

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