Still a cool science museum

-September 07, 2006

Last week, I visited The Exploratorium in San Francisco for the first time in 13 years. After my first visit, I wrote a print column about this cool science museum and how exhibit creators used old test equipment. I was impressed when an exhibit designer told me that exhbits rarely used computers because they took away an exhibit's hands-on feel.

I expected that in 2006, exhibits would be much more computerized than 13 years ago. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see that exhibits still teach scientific concepts using hands-on, mechanical devices. After all, the science hasn't changed. The photo shows an example of an exhibit called an "Oscylinderscope." It lets you see the vibrations in a string in real time. Here's how it works.

(c) The Exploratorium / Photo Credit, Lily Rodriguez

To see the vibrations, you spin the cylinder with the black and white stripes. While the cylinder spins, pluck any string. The guitar body amplifies the sound and the cylinder's moving stripes let you see the vibrations of the strings. From this exhibit, you can learn that sound is vibration and that the faster the cylinder spins, the more vibrations you see. You get to see the effects of sampling rate on the vibrations as the cylinder slows to a stop.

Although many exhibits are mechanical in nature, they often use electronics "under the hood." Engineers often design user interfaces with embedded processors and ADC/DAC circuits. The user interface may still contain switches and knobs, but electronics determine how they control the exhibit.

Computers have made sigificant headway in exhibit design, though. One of the nice things about The Exploratorium's layout is that you can see the designers at work at their desks, in a machine shop, and in an electronics lab. I noticed project developer Bryan Connell using a laptop computer on his desk. When asked about using computers, Connell explained that "There's very little tinkering now. We can spend more time thnking about exhibit content." Connell uses an Intel-based Macintosh because it can run the Mac's design software and Windows-based engineering programs.

A significant difference from 1993 to today is the webcast stage on the exhibit floor. Here, scientists give live presentations to visitors that you can also view view live online or from an archive.

If you visit in San Francisco, take the time to see The Exploratorium–especially if your children go with you. If you live in the Bay Area, you have no excuse not to visit.

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