Science Made Fun

Oh to be a kid again! To greet each morning with youthful exuberance; to wander through the
day, buoyed by wonder. Then, at night, to beg to stay up just one more hour because you
have to be awake to learn — and learning, especially the stuff that’s “good for you,” is
fun. OK, maybe that’s not exactly the way most of us remember our youth; perhaps science
and math didn’t hold our attention the way mastering the curve ball or perfecting an apple
pie did. But during a recent visit with my father to the Oregon Museum of Science and
Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon, I wished that my appetite for knowledge as a child had
been as voracious as the kids and adults alike, who were throwing themselves into the
exhibits like midsummer revelers into a watering hole. The hard sciences, when I was in
school, were just that: hard. But in this 219,000-square-foot celebration of
why-things-are-the-way-they-are, the designers have taken the sciences out of the textbooks
and, through the use of hundreds of interactive exhibits in the five halls and eight
laboratories, have turned them into slices of truth that tomorrow’s leaders — and those
just out to have a good time — eagerly stand in line to experience. Before I arrived, my
biggest concern was how to get through the place quickly without boring my father, a
rocket-scientist (literally), and move on to all of the “real” attractions in the Rose
City. Forty-five minutes, I figured, tops. But five and a half hours later, there we were,
smiling our way out of this wonderment (to call it a museum is to call Einstein smart),
without getting a chance to experience the Omnimax Theater, the Murdock Planetarium/Laser
Light Venue or the motion-simulator ride. We did, however, take a break from stuffing our
heads by stuffing our faces in the OMSI Cafe, then stuffing ourselves into the utterly
fascinating USS Blueback, the 219-foot diesel-electric submarine docked outside in the
Willamette River. A tour of this vessel allows visitors to see that technology has
real-life applications, and we descended the gangway amazed by the harsh conditions
submariners must endure. But museum-goers needn’t sacrifice a thing to experience OMSI to
the fullest; they just need to be young-at-heart. So since most kids like to make paper
airplanes, the creators of OMSI figured that they would teach visitors a thing or two about
aviation and aerodynamics by allowing them to follow the on-screen instructions in the
Engineer It! section of Turbine Hall to create elaborate planes, which can then be tested
in a wind tunnel or heaved toward openings high up in the wall. Lessons in hydrodynamics,
shipbuilding and tectonic shifts arise out of splashing around in the water and playing
with blocks. Meteorologists in training (or fans of the Weather Channel) will enjoy the
KOIN6/OMSI Weather Lab, where station meteorologists broadcast live. We were caught
laughing in public many times, occasionally at our ignorance of the world we’ve spent many
years in, but mostly at the methods the designers used to educate us without our putting up
a fight. Probability theory was all numbers and standard deviations in school; at OMSI, its
complexities become clear with a giant Paccinco-like machine. The mysteries of childbirth
become much less mysterious with the help of the dioramas in the museum. Computers aren’t
just ones and zeroes anymore (which is how they were presented to me), not when the museum
provides screwdrivers and goggles so that the curious can check under the hood. Arches
become hands-on construction projects; fighting for the rights of endangered species
requires a sleuthing process; and sound waves turn into guest-written songs. One amazement
follows another. Who knew that sheep can be shorn of their wool by a tornado, yet not be
injured? Months later, we are still laughing at the Changing Exhibits Hall presentation
“Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body.” The exhibit has moved on (others
just as impressive will take its place), but suffice it to say that we’ll never look at
snot the same way again.

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