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Grope, twirl, and shock your way to science at San Francisco's cavernous Exploratorium

By Scott Kim
Sep 1, 1999 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:18 AM


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Museum visitors seem to grow and shrink in the distorted environment of the Ames Room (left). Filtered through prisms and mirrors and projected on a large screen, a directed sunbeam paints vibrant pictures (right). Courtesy The exploratorium

When blind people come here, they say it's like everyday life," says Xavier Diaz, the attendant at the Tactile Dome, an 18-foot-tall geodesic structure tucked into a corner of San Francisco's cavernous Exploratorium. Sighted visitors, however, are unlikely to have experienced anything quite like it since exiting the womb. First they must hand over shoes, wallets, jewelry, eyeglasses, and anything else that might fall out or slip off. Then they step behind a curtain into a lightless world. Padded walls close in, steering unseeing occupants through winding passages, up steep inclines, and in and out of chambers with curved object-studded ceilings. The museum-goers crawl through holes that fit snugly around the hips; they tumble down slides head first, then feet first; they pull themselves up a network of ropes that seems to stretch over emptiness. All around is creamy black. A plunge down a slide into a soft, clattering mass of mysterious granular objects, and it's over.

The Tactile Dome, one of more than 650 exhibits, highlights the Exploratorium creator's fascination with direct perception. "Perception doesn't require instrumentation: You are your own instruments," says Rob Semper, executive associate director. The museum's philosophy is "learner centered," he adds. "Not that teachers teach, but that learners learn. The Exploratorium provides the props."

Thirty years ago, physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer turned the traditional notion of a museum on its head. Instead of static, text-heavy displays, he designed a science museum that would allow people to explore the physical world through their senses. A fan blowing through a traffic cone holds a beach ball aloft, helping viewers understand equilibrium. To demonstrate turbulence, sand slides through water in a rotating glass column. A pile of wedge-shaped rubber-blocks holds a grown man, once he's arranged them in an arch.

Some of the most delightful exhibits let visitors play with light. The spectacular Sun Painting, for example, uses mirrors and prisms to split a bright beam of sunlight into its constituent colors, then projects them onto a large screen, where they form complex shapes that twist and dance as the sun moves across the sky. Explorers who have been through the Tactile Dome (call ahead--it's often booked) will get a bonus revelation when they undress at night. Stray pieces of those "mysterious objects" from that last landing will drop from their clothes, looking weirdly domestic in the miraculous light of the ordinary world.--Polly Shulman

The Exploratorium

GamesInfection, the Game Earwig Enterprises, $30.

My opponent is formidable: she has halitosis, acne, mononucleosis, trachoma, and hives. Five hundred dollars poorer after visiting the local clinic, she remains disease ridden and frustrated. I decide to give her rabies.

Rabid but undaunted, she passes scurvy to the player on her right, who is already fighting a losing battle with giantism. Down at the far end of the table, a disgruntled player mulls over his plantar wart: Should he seek alternative treatment? As for me, with my collapsed lung and scabies, I still maintain a fragile dignity. Plus, I am the Bank and have complete control over Medicaid checks. Players who fail to request their checks at the appropriate time must wait until they loop around the board again. I am stolid, unforgiving, even exultant when my compatriots forget their checks.

This is not a pastime for the fainthearted. Set up like Monopoly, Infection plays out its grisly game until a contestant gets rid of all his or her diseases--not an easy task. At the beginning of the game, each player receives five diseases and $500 in cash, augmented by the Medicaid checks. On every corner is a Medical Station, where patients can buy Cures Cards and get better--maybe. One such card reads, "Cure Any Disease," while another says, "Mix-Up With Your Pills, Catch One Disease." It's medical madness with a vengeance.

The game can drag a bit. "I'm bored," the young man with the plantar wart whines. "You don't do anything in this game but pretend to have diseases." Fellow players ignore his grumbling, but drama awaits when the guy with giantism lands upon an Information Center square. It calls for a question-and-answer session in which Mr. Giantism chooses another player (in this case, it's Mr. Plantar Wart), draws a disease card, and reads aloud the cause, treatment, or symptoms of a disease. Mr. Plantar Wart must name the disease correctly in order to foist it off on Mr. Giantism; otherwise he will be stricken by the malady himself. Mr. Plantar Wart fails to come across, ends up with trichinosis, and leaves the game in a huff.

Despite his premature exit, Mr. Plantar Wart did make a good point. Unless utterly obsessed with contagion, you may find yourself eyeing the Scrabble box longingly. Infection is saddled with complicated rules. In addition, the game seems to be manufactured with low production values. The game pieces, little circles of cardboard, easily get lost on the busy board, while the Disease and Cures cards have some typos. But Infection may be a placebo. After an hour and a half with gout, hemorrhoids, and cirrhosis, not to mention that collapsed lung and scabies, real life comes as a relief. --Wendy Marston

Earwig Enterprises

BooksMeasuring the Universe

Kitty Ferguson. WALKER AND COMPANY, 1999, $27. The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity.

Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin. THE FREE PRESS, 1999, $25.

When astronomers recently announced they had measured the distance to a faraway galaxy with a precision never before seen, their accomplishment was hailed as an advance not in our understanding of space but in our reckoning of time. That's a side effect of living in a universe where the speed of light is finite. To see the distant past, we have to look in distant corners; what's more, when we see galaxies that are hundreds of millions of light-years away, we see them as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. Eventually, though, there is a horizon: the microwave glow from the Big Bang. It's as far back and as far away as we can ever hope to see.

Two new books take on the horizons, both spatial and temporal. In Measuring the Universe, Kitty Ferguson looks at attempts to measure astronomical distances from the time of the ancient Greeks to the era of space telescopes. She has a particular affection for the ever-so-clever ancients, such as Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek scholar living in the third century B.C. who set out to measure the size and altitude of the moon using little more than a sharp eye and the ancient equivalent of scratch paper. He simply watched the moon pass through Earth's shadow during a lunar eclipse. His results, a moon that's about a quarter the size of Earth and that orbits at a distance some 60 times Earth's radius, were right on the money.

Just about every other major figure in astronomy takes a star turn in Ferguson's history. And while she does a fine job with her lucid accounts of the reasoning behind important leaps of insight, it's the little details that delight. For example, Ferguson uncovers quirky facts in the international effort to study the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus across the face of the sun, from the English team that spent half its budget on liquor to the Frenchman who waited in India for eight years only to have a passing cloud obscure the crucial event.

The book ends amid headlines concerning the Hubble constant and the controversy over the age of the universe. Ferguson cautions us to take all the hullabaloo with a bit of skepticism. Our understanding of just how enormous the universe is, she contends, has been muddled with human error and misplaced certainty: "We have groped, guessed, doubted one another, made missteps . . . fought for a hold. . . . The nature we've striven to understand has fought back by showing us our place."

In The Five Ages of the Universe, Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin have bundled breakthroughs in particle physics, stellar astronomy, and cosmology into a complete history of the universe running from creation's spark to a dark future some 10,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000, 000,000, 000,000,000,000, 000,000,000 years hence. It's such a mind-numbingly broad swath that the present-day state of the universe can be neatly summed up between pages 39 and 44 of the book.

Like astrophysical geologists, Adams, a physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Laughlin, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Berkeley, have grouped the history of the universe into five eras, each of which is dominated by a different process. In 99,999 times as long as the universe has been around, for example, we'll pass from the Stelliferous Age, the starry era we now inhabit, into a Degenerate Era like nothing we've ever seen, dominated by cold, dense corpses of stars like our own sun.

Much sooner, after only a few trillion years, stars will begin to form from stuff other than hydrogen and helium, so that less heat is needed to run their nuclear furnaces. "When the impurity level reaches several times the current solar value, stellar objects with only 4 percent of a solar mass may sustain hydrogen fusion in their central cores, while thick ice clouds condense in their atmospheres," Adams and Laughlin write. "These bizarre frozen stars can display effective temperatures near the freezing point of water." Imagine! Stars you can skate on. And after all these low-watt stars--and even the very atoms they were made of--have disappeared, the authors show how intelligence could continue: They've designed a computer using black holes as bits.

As Adams and Laughlin take us from one age to the next, it is difficult not to feel that all human experience is but a hiccup in a universe charging from a bang to a whimper. Yet here we are, able to make some sense of our place, both in time and in space. We are small, but our imaginations are capable of encompassing almost limitless expanses. --Jeffrey Winters

Measuring the Universe by Kitty Ferguson The Five Ages of the Universe by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy: Centennial Edition.

(packaged with a complimentary facsimile of the 1899 first edition) Coedited by Robert Berkow, M.D., and Mark H. Beers, M.D. MERCK & CO. INC., 1999, $35.

It was the world of my grandfather's medical-school professors, so different from my own: "sulphur" to treat "nymphomania when due to hemorrhoids," "blister to nape of neck" for "meningitis, to prevent effusion," and the sublime "true spirit of ants," a "counter-irritant" for the skin. How far we've come! These antiquated remedies are taken from the first edition of The Merck Manual, published in 1899 as a compendium of all the diseases and remedies known to medicine. It's included in facsimile with the current version--1999's centennial, seventeenth edition. In the years before every publisher put out a desktop medical guide, laypeople like my father used to consult the Merck religiously to get a handle on any malady besetting the family. Unbelievably, all known diseases and remedies fit into a 192-page booklet in 1899. In one respect, however, the handbook seems familiarly commercial: Three quarters of the drugs listed were produced by, you guessed it, Merck.

The Latinate multi-chemical mess of it all has a strange appeal: the 108 remedies for dyspepsia, the 188 for phthisis (tuberculosis). Anything born of mortar and pestle or beaker and Bunsen burner was thrown at afflictions from the mysterious abasia and mentagra to the notorious yellow fever. A few of the concoctions, like morphine and nitroglycerin, we still use today; the rest were useless, sometimes even lethal. Cocaine for heart palpitations and angina pectoris, for example, should have been listed under "fire, throwing gasoline thereon."

But beneath the quaint, extraterrestrial flavor lies a poignant courage. Under no illness is it written: "invariably fatal, no known remedy." An American doctor in 1999 cannot imagine the shock of untreatable tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis, or status epilepticus. People didn't fade away in those days; they writhed, screamed, suffocated, and shuddered to death. For every crisis, the slim handbook offers something more to try. "Post-partum hemorrhage, profuse: opium, one-dram dose of tincture, with brandy" strikes me as the quietly despairing cry of those who watched the childbed claim young mothers by the thousands.

Most jarring to my modern sensibilities is that symptoms are given equal billing with well-defined diseases, as if symptoms alone were what doctors treat. For every "diphtheria," for example, there is a "glandular enlargement," (a nonspecific symptom for which the book offers 32 remedies), a "debility" (33), or a "jaundice" (55). What were they thinking? By 1899, the Canadian physician Sir William Osler had introduced bedside clinical diagnosis to the American medical mind. Anyone from a charlatan to a homeopath can treat a headache, but it takes a doctor to determine whether the headache is caused by a migraine, a subarachnoid hemorrhage, or meningitis. The treatments for each condition have nothing in common, though the symptoms may be almost identical. What separates us from the dark ages is diagnosis, our ability to ferret out the underlying causes of symptoms, to resist being suckered by the superficial manifestations of disease. Symptoms provide the clues that lead to diagnosis. Diagnosis dictates treatment. The mind that skips the middle third belongs in the nineteenth century.

But are we really smarter now? Walk into a doctor's office with a cough, and you'll very likely be diagnosed with bronchitis and walk out with a broad-spectrum (and utterly useless) antibiotic. The real trigger for the prescription is the cough, a symptom. It's the same with kids and fevers. Half the antibiotics we modern docs prescribe are as laughably worthless as the nux vomica used 100 years ago. Feeling weak? Maybe you'll feel better after a course of steroids (popular in Florida). Sad? Then Prozac's for you. Accurate diagnosis is tough, often unpopular, and unachievable without excellent training. The temptation to treat symptoms--to cover the bases, to hope for the best--is, as we continue to prove, irresistible.

The 1899 Merck Manual offers a wonderful glimpse of where we've been. And, alas, still are. --Tony Dajer

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy (17th Ed) Co-edited by Mark H. Beers and Robert Berkow The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. Shepard Krech III. W. W. NORTON, 1999, $27.95

Remember Iron Eyes Cody, the weeping Native American in the 1970s advertisements for environmental awareness? A single tear, trickling down his face, burned like acid into the consciences of Americans who imagine that pre-Columbian Americans always lived in harmony with the land, revered their prey, and husbanded their natural resources. In The Ecological Indian, Brown University anthropologist Shepard Krech III questions whether this stereotyped view is accurate. He paints a picture of Native Americans who coupled a shrewd understanding of some ecological conditions with downright ignorance of others.

The brief but thoroughly detailed book (the footnotes are a feast for scholars) reminds us of how forcefully Native Americans altered their natural environments. Tribes throughout the country--from Indians in Massachusetts to the Chumash in the West--used forest-devouring fires to clear the way for new growth, creating habitats that attracted small prey. The Hohokam, who flourished in the arid Southwest 500 years ago, built the largest canal system in North America and irrigated an estimated 10,000 acres. After 1700, other groups, such as the Assiniboine, Cree, and Blackfeet, hunted buffalo and beaver so extensively that they contributed to the devastation of these populations. Native Americans did not tread lightly on the landscape, and Europeans who settled North America occupied a "widowed--not virgin--land."

One of the book's most startling passages concerns the buffalo. Groups such as the Piegan, Blackfeet, Mandan, and Crow hunted with the same avidity as Europeans, eagerly trading furs for European tools and supplies. But more damaging to the reputation of Native Americans as environmental savants is the extent to which they decimated their game. They killed hundreds of beasts at a time by chasing them over cliffs, yet sometimes harvested only the tongue, marrow, and hump, leaving 700-pound carcasses to rot. Not all groups hunted with such waste, however, and Krech notes that European hunters bear a far greater responsibility for the destruction of U.S. buffalo herds.

Krech tells similar tales for deer and beavers. Beavers--prized for their fur, commonly used as lining for felt hats--escaped extinction once hatters substituted silk lining and the fur-trading companies imposed well-timed hunting quotas. After 1821, the Hudson Bay Company stopped the trade in pelts of immature beavers and, over the next decade, created hunting territories for different Native American groups to use.

Krech's point is not that Native American groups were just like Europeans; they definitely were not. And they weren't just like one another, either. Overall, they practiced elaborate hunting rituals and tended to view animals as humanlike and worthy of respect. In many cases, they worried more about whether their prey had a chance at reincarnation than about whether it reproduced.

It's not surprising, really, to learn that Native Americans had no explicit understanding of game and land conservation. Why would they, in the midst of such abundance? While contact with Europeans--and the allure of trade goods--inspired Native Americans to hunt with more zeal than before, the difference may be more of degree than of kind. Still, their swift adaptation to a more commercialized culture remains one of the book's most poignant messages, and the impact reverberates today. Krech closes with a discussion of contemporary Native Americans and their differing approaches to land use and development. One Choctaw man remarks, "Just because I don't want to be a white man doesn't mean I want to be some kind of mystical Indian either. Just a real human being." --Sarah Richardson

The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech III

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