When its natural audience succumbs left and right to the siren song of water parks, thrill-rides, and actors dressed in dinosaur suits, what's a simple science center to do? Feeling the hot breath of theme parks at their heels, the creators of the newly expanded COSI (formerly the Center of Science and Industry) in Columbus, Ohio, have decided to follow the traditional advice for situations in which you can't beat 'em. In the words of Joseph Wisne, vice president of exhibits, "We use techniques from themed entertainment and apply them to learning." There's lots of good, imaginative work on display here, but frequently the result piles on sensations without explanations. Worse, it sometimes misleads.
For instance, one wing of the Ocean exhibit--a literal example of what Wisne calls an "immersive environment"--is splashy but scientifically unsatisfying. Moist, chlorine-scented air spills out the entrance. Duck in and you're surrounded by concrete boulders evoking a sea cave. The roar and chatter of running water fills the air. It's coming from Poseidon's Dreamscape, a cavernous room filled with jets of water, sandboxes, model fish, and other oceanic amusements--without any explanatory labels to distract from the fun.
In the center, a 25-foot statue of Poseidon brandishes a trident. Visitors can fire floor-mounted water guns at him and the surrounding rocks. "If they happen to hit the spherical targets we've artfully placed there, the water will arc out in a sheet, and they'll learn something about the physics of water," says Wisne. He calls the process "self-motivated discovery," arguing that "this is how the human brain has evolved to learn." But without any explanation provided, what exactly will people learn? Haven't a spoon and a faucet--or a drinking fountain, a thumb, and a little sister--already provided the same lessons?
The Adventure exhibit is even more disappointing. Inspired by computer problem-solving games like "Myst," it's a huge puzzle in the form of an archaeological quest. At the entrance, an actor with a bad French accent ushers visitors into a field station in the Valley of the Unknown. The Explorers Society, he explains, needs help unlocking the Observatory of Knowledge. Four "idols"--the spirits of Reason, Inspiration, Perseverance, and Questions--hold the keys that will open its door. Visitors seek the keys by threading through mazes, solving puzzles, and so forth. Egyptian, Mexican, and African motifs rub up against one another as if everything old were interchangeable. Once explorers have collected all four symbols, they enter the tower, where they're treated to a sermon about how scientific discovery is based on reason, inspiration, perseverance, and questioning. Well, true enough. But the exhibit's clichŽs, bad verse, and cheesy dramatics couldn't be further from the genuine inspiration and persistence in the face of boredom that science demands.
The Gadget environment comes much closer. Visitors can create their own gizmos from a cafeteria-style display of cardboard tubes, rubber bands, Styrofoam blocks, and other useful disposables. In the nearby CafŽ, they can take up a screwdriver and pliers to dismantle donated appliances--old irons, computers, hair dryers, mowers--even a car. A mechanic comes by on weekends to explain the auto's workings.
Other galleries have their share of pleasures. The second wing of Ocean, with an underwater-exploration theme, lets visitors retrieve treasure from the bottom of a tank by manipulating a robotic arm, or identify the calls of sea mammals by sonar signals, or fill their lungs with a blend of helium and oxygen that divers breathe, then talk in Munchkin voices. Life: Body, Mind, Spirit has moving videos of people discussing their diseases, an illuminating display of fetuses, and an excellent aural illusion which demonstrates how our brain creates a spatial image from sounds that we hear: Don a pair of earphones and listen to a barber giving you a haircut, scissors snipping up and down, right and left, barely missing your ear. And many displays are thoughtfully designed, with comfortable stools that can be adjusted for people of different heights and screens mounted overhead so a whole crowd can watch while waiting for a turn at the controls.
"We want kids to say, ÔGee, I can do this. If that's what science is, I think it's fun,' " says Wisne. cosi is certainly fun, but is that what science is? Scientists who visit may find themselves wishing that it were. But if kids who visit grow up to be those scientists, that might not be a bad outcome after all.
A production of the National Museum of Natural History and IMAX Ltd. running time: 40 minutes
By Jocelyn Selim
These days, a trip to the Galapagos Islands costs upward of $3,000 and probably won't bring you as close to a giant tortoise or a blue-footed booby as an under-$10 ticket to Galapagos. Opening this month at IMAX theaters around the country, the 3-D film transports viewers to Charles Darwin's old stomping grounds. On the huge screen, the archipelago's cooled magma cliffs appear close enough to climb. Frigate birds fly just overhead, marine iguanas peer out inches from your nose, and sea lion pups frolicking in tidal pools seem to splash water into your lap.
An endangered species, the Galapagos land iguana can reach more than three feet in length and survive to 60 years. Courtesy: Kimberly Wright/IMAX ltd.
Darwin came up with his theory of evolution after contemplating variations in the bodies of birds and land animals isolated for millennia on the islands. But the real focal point of this film lies deep in the islands' waters, where Darwin never got to explore. Because of currents flowing back and forth between the islands and the Ecuadoran mainland, the evolutionary separateness of the sea creatures (as compared to the land-dwellers) has been diminished, but they are marvelous nevertheless.
Cast as part adventure, part science, Galapagos follows marine biologist Carole Baldwin of the
Smithsonian Institution on her first collecting expedition to the islands. In Darwin's day, the only way to have a look at marine life was through a glass-bottomed bucket. Baldwin has it far better. Clad in scuba gear, she plunges a few hundred feet below the surface and brings viewers right into the middle of roving bands of hammerhead sharks, thick schools of shimmering fish, and oddly graceful troops of sea lions. Afterward, she treats the audience to a face-on encounter with five-foot-long spotted moray eels that unexpectedly dart out from rock crevices and utter menacing Darth Vader-like sounds before she quickly retreats.
Baldwin and her team dive deeper still in the Johnson Sea Link II submersible, a space-age contraption with a five-inch-thick acrylic bubble cockpit. The sub is capable of withstanding 3,000-foot depths, where the pressure is strong enough to compress a large Styrofoam drinking cup into a one-inch cube. Robotic arms attached to scoops, claws, and vacuum tubes collect what may be new species of crinoids, scorpion fish, and sea cucumbers, among other bizarre bottom dwellers. And the ocean floor--lit up by the film crew of Al Giddings, the underwater cinematography maestro behind Titanic and The Abyss--looks like the surreal topography of a 1960s comic book set on Mars. But there is something vaguely disturbing about seeing the alien landscape subjected to the team's presence, especially when a hapless, wide-eyed goosefish gets stuck to the end of one of the submersible's vacuum tubes.
Although the film is billed as an educational experience, it probably won't do much to increase knowledge of evolutionary concepts--unless you're in the age 8-to-14 set or a recent graduate of the Kansas school system. Baldwin and her team claim to have uncovered a dozen or so new species, but you never learn precisely what they are or why they might be important. Instead the script endlessly reminds us that species must adapt to survive in such a harsh environment as the Gal‡pagos. Still, seeing the results in action is worth the trip to the theater.
Secrets of the Dead Four-part pbs series produced by Thirteen/WNET and Channel 4 (U.K.) May 15, 16, 17; check local listings. By Wendy Marston
Every civilization believes it is permanent. Judging from the vast ruins they left, the Romans were quite sure they weren't going anywhere. So were the Greeks and the Mayans. So are we. In fact, we're making documentaries about why other civilizations first flourished and then vanished. The latest of these efforts, called Secrets of the Dead, relies upon the latest scientific findings, interviews with researchers, vivid graphic displays, special effects, and historical reenactments to weave together new and novel explanations of four cataclysmic events that have mystified people throughout the ages
A massive eruption of Krakatau may have begun the Dark Ages. Courtesy: Channel 4
The first episode, based on archaeology writer David Keys's new book, Catastrophe, methodically traces the beginnings of the Dark Ages to a massive volcanic eruption around the year a.d. 535. Among the evidence: Tree rings from Ireland reveal that in 535 and 536 winter never subsided, and subsequent years--until 550--were colder than normal. Three things could have caused such a precipitous climatic change: a comet, an asteroid, or a volcano. Ice cores from Antarctica and the Arctic show no traces of iridium, which rules out a cosmic cause. However, they do reveal sulfuric acid, an integral component of volcanic eruptions. Drawing on sketchy historical reports and new scientific evidence, Keys concludes that the likely volcanic villain is Krakatau. Snazzy special effects show how this tropical volcano spewed thousands of tons of ash 13 miles into the atmosphere, enveloping the globe and blocking sunlight for two years.
The resulting environmental calamity, Keys believes, led to floods, droughts, crop failures, plague, human migrations, and barbarian invasions. For example, the Mongolian Avars, who helped destroy the Roman Empire, moved west through Europe pillaging cities. They may have been driven from their land because the cold weather meant their horses had less to eat.
Episodes two, three, and four pick up speed, exploring the crash of the Hindenburg, the vanishing of Greenland's Viking colonists, and the suspected cannibalism of the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest. Paced like an episode of American Justice, the last makes for an especially gripping show. According to anthropologist Christy Turner, the Anasazi, long thought to be the spiritual peaceful ancestors of today's Hopi and Zuni, regularly ate one another in the 12th and 13th centuries. Turner, who is loathed by many modern Native Americans, shows how knife cuts on discovered human bones match those on animal bones. In a bloody segment, archaeologist Bruce Bradley, an expert in ancient tools, demonstrates how such marks could be made by using rock shards to hack apart a sheep carcass. And chemical analysis of coprolites--petrified feces--shows protein traces indicating that the person who left them behind ate human remains. Disturbingly, cannibalism seems to have occurred when the Anasazi had plenty of food and little warfare.
Secrets of the Dead shows again and again that society--and civilized behavior--is ephemeral: dependent upon luck, timing, and the good graces of the climate. A volcano erupting with no warning could easily catapult us into another two-, three-, or five-year winter, leading to another Dark Ages. Secrets of the Dead may be a harbinger of the future as well as an excavation of the past. For there but for the grace of plate tectonics go we.
Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier
Random House, $25.95.
Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity David Hurst Thomas Basic Books, $25.
During a trip to New Mexico a few years ago, I stopped into a private museum housing curios and artifacts. In one of the display cases lay two mummified bodies--an adult and child from the 3,000-year-old Basket Maker culture in the Southwest. Someone had placed straw around the curled-up forms, as if to make this case seem less like an exhibit and more like a nest. That fascination--whether noble or ignoble--for ancient human remains forms the foundation of two new books, Iceman by Brenda Fowler, and Skull Wars by David Hurst Thomas.
Ötzi is on view at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. Courtesy: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/J.Pernter
Readers may be familiar with Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old body found frozen in the Alps in 1991 whose belongings provided a window into Neolithic life. The ancient mountaineer wore a woven grass cape, a carefully stitched fur cloak, leather leggings, and leather shoes stuffed with grass for insulation. His copper ax demonstrated that metallurgy in the region was more advanced than archaeologists had thought. Meticulous analysis of his stomach contents showed that he had eaten a domesticated grain. Pollen grains revealed what terrain he had passed through.
That story is fascinating in its own right, but Fowler folds in a remarkable layer of drama. Her reporting describes questionable methodology in the excavation and the clash of science, politics, and greed in the interpretation of a highly marketable specimen. And Ötzi was indeed highly marketable: A brief weekend exhibit, for example, drew more than 16,000 visitors.
If Iceman is a lens into ancient Europe and the mercenary streak in scientists, Skull Wars uses Kennewick Man--the controversial 9,000-year-old skeleton found in a Columbia River bank in 1996--as a lens for scrutinizing the contentious history of American archaeology and its treatment of Native Americans. Native American remains--robbed from graves or taken from battle sites and massacres--were literally skeletons in museum closets across the country. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA), passed in 1990, such remains must be returned to the tribe with which they are affiliated--provided that a link can be established.
But Kennewick Man has no identifiable links to contemporary tribes. So his history seems to be up for grabs. Thomas argues that the skeleton, under the terms of NAGRPA, belongs in the custody of Native Americans who have ceded rights to the land on which he was found. Yet some scientists see it differently. They have sued for the right to examine Kennewick Man. They say it carries a "history written in bone" protected under the right to free speech. That struggle over access to the Native American past is what Thomas, an anthropologist and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, wants to discuss. Who owns the past? How do we interpret it?
Thomas provides a skillful overview of American archaeology's mixture of fascination with, and disregard for, Native Americans--both their skeletons and their culture. He reviews episodes demonstrating the often outrageous treatment of Native Americans by American archaeologists. Although he provides a scorching portrait of the reasons for Native American resistance to contemporary archaeological practices, Thomas also discusses instances in which the two groups stand to gain from each other. On Kodiak Island, for example, archaeological techniques have helped Native Americans learn more about their past.
Although Fowler's and Thomas's books illustrate different themes in scientific practice, they both speak to a fundamental human drive. Ancestor worship can take different forms. Some honor ancestors by leaving them in the ground; others honor their predecessors by putting them under glass.-- By Sarah Richardson
For more information about visiting COSI, see the museum's Web site: www.cosi.org. To find out where Galapagos is playing, visit the IMAX Web site (www.imax.com). The site has information about other IMAX films currently showing throughout the country as well as information about IMAX movies in the works. Schedules for airing of Secrets of the Dead are available at www.thirteen.org. More about Kennewick Man can be found at www.cr.nps.gov/aad/kennewick. For a comprehensive news site, see www.tri-cityherald.com/bones.