This summer I had my first chance to take my children (8 and 5, at that time) to Boston’s Museum of Science while we were in Massachusetts visiting my mom. I say “first chance”, but that’s not really true. It’s just that Boston’s Children’s Museum is also great, and that tends to have a smaller window of ages where the kids would want to go.
So bright one morning we rode the commuter rail into Boston, and — ok, we had to go see the ducklings first…
…but that’s another story.
The Museum of Science has obviously changed a lot, but some of my favorites are still there from when I was a kid.
To me (because I’m such a math geek), my favorite room was always Mathematica. It’s full of great visuals of various math concepts, like using oddly-shaped wires to make oddly-shaped bubbles; a section about projections, where you see the side view, and it’s gibberish and noise, but look through the one properly aligned lens, and everything looks right; a working quincunx, teaching probability; and the best one – a giant Möbius strip with a little train mounted to it – you push the button and the train drives around one side of the strip, then the other. It’s just a great way to visualize the Möbius strip.
But they also have a large permanent exhibit called Science in the Park, which is highly interactive, and lets the kids use as much kinetic energy as they want, while still learning a thing or two. There are two swings set up, one with a higher bar (and longer rope) than the other. Kids are encouraged to try them and discover what’s different. They can have their fastball measured by a radar gun, they can run races timed by computer, ride on uneven see-saws… Physics in action!
For the fossil fans (and who isn’t?), there’s Cliff, a 65-million-year-old fossil triceratops, discovered in the Dakota Badlands in 2004. Cliff is one of only four nearly complete Triceratops on public display anywhere in the world. A few feet, leg, rib, and vertebral bones were made by model makers to complete the skeleton, but for the most part, he’s all there. There’s something doubly-amazing about looking at actual fossils, not castings of fossils that are somewhere else.
Some other, smaller items that bear mentioning were these:
- The infrared camera that we could play in front of – and for which the staff was smart enough to give us ice cubes. We’d make one hand nice and cold to see the difference (it would be dark green or even blue), then try to “transfer” the color to the other hand without the ice, just by pressing the two hands together
- An exhibit where one person picks one of 12 (or 16?) speakers out of which to play a sound, and a second person tries to locate the sound. Totally simple, and totally fun.
- The 1:400,000,000 scale model of the solar system that starts with a sun that’s 11.5 feet in diameter, and extends miles away from the museum – both the planets’ sizes and distances are all properly to scale. Little Pluto is over 9 miles away and only 1/4 inch in diameter!
- Part of a traveling exhibit on black holes had a very cool hands-on (and let’s face it, hands-on is key to the museum experience, but cool hands-on is sometimes a difficult target to hit) where there were two black holes to find in this particular area of space. And the way they did it was to have this big black table with two strong magnets beneath it. And you would roll large metal spheres down these different parallel tracks (one at a time), and see how the magnets affected the path of the balls. It was a great example of scientific inference, and it was something my 5-year-old could grasp and figure it out. Balls far away from the black holes would fly on through unhindered. Get a little closer, they get nudged off course a bit. Get too close, and their course completely changes, sometimes sending them 90° or more off-course. The only thing that exhibit was missing was a way to change the locations (and quantity?) of the black holes.
- All the extras you’d expect in a museum like this – 3D films, laser shows, planetarium… Honestly, way too much to take in for one day
But the absolute highlight of the day, for adults and kids alike, has to be the Lightning show in the Theater of Electricity. The entire room is dominated by the world’s largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator capable of producing 2.5 million volts. The generator was built by Robert J. Van de Graaff in 1933 for studying the atom. Now they use it for their lightning show, three times daily. With some Tesla coils along for good measure, they put on a great show that thrilled us all, and (of course) teaches you something, too.
(I believe the technicians are both saying, “Neener neener! You can’t hurt me in my Faraday Cage!”)
And afterwards, they even power up a small generator and let those with long hair get all strung out on static electricity…
What’s funny, though, is how some things that were so original and amazing and never-seen-anywhere-else when I was a kid have become commonplace thanks to our digital world. Take this for example.
When I was a kid, this wall-sized satellite photo of the Boston area was SO fun to look at. It had buttons for different places in and around Boston to help you find your bearings, but anyone who’s spent time with any online mapping program will not be impressed. It was nostalgic for me, but not much more.
So, basically, since this part of the museum is available to everyone — when do I get my Van de Graaff generator???
Honestly, I could go on for hours. Everyone had a blast, especially at the lightning show. And that just leaves us with one open question… Why was this guy (a museum favorite when I was a kid) moved outside?
I’ll just have to answer that in another article.
Note: Some photographs in this article are protected under various subsets of the Creative Commons License, specifically: