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Exploration Is a Science at Park in San Francisco

November 09, 1986|MARVIN MARON | Maron is an Encino free-lance writer.

SAN FRANCISCO — If you and your children are convinced that trying to understand the stuff you find in science books is dull, a visit to the Exploratorium will change your mind.

No dusty and cheerless museum, the Exploratorium is an energy-charged, super-science fair where a team of practical-minded showmen have created a zany, mad scientist's laboratory complete with flying sparks, flashing lights and bubbling test tubes.

The curious can see, hear, smell, manipulate and marvel as those once-dreary laws of science, nature and physics come alive in a spellbinding magic show.

It takes about five minutes inside the doors to turn even the shy and skeptical into dedicated scientific enthusiasts. And within an hour, your perceptions of the physical world can be altered forever.

No Code of Silence

Unlike its traditional cousins, this museum enforces no code of silence, no hands-off policy. Explainers, enthusiastic high school students in bright orange jackets, will explain an exhibit or stand back and just as graciously let you explain it to them.

At last count, more than 600 exhibits invited visitors to dust off their inhibitions and explore. Children are encouraged to pound, wiggle and poke to their heart's content. And if something breaks, the Exploratorium takes the rap.

The only hard and fast rule: No bicycle riding inside.

The unlikely setting for this warehouse of scientific intrigue is San Francisco's grandiosely neoclassical Palace of Fine Arts, which dominates a public park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, the semicircular edifice, with its distinctive colonnade, has served as an indoor tennis court, airplane hangar and U.S. Army garage.

But it's the electric sounds, dancing lights and the fascination of discovery inside this Roman ruin-style building that draw visitors.

Large signs suspended from the ceiling designate the sensual or scientific arena explored by the exhibits in each area.

Amid constant hubbub and laughter, eager students learn in do-it-yourself fashion about light and color, sound and music, patterns of motion and electricity, and other aspects of science and nature that have been the domain of scientists and artists for centuries.

Dark Passage

Although exhibits are constantly updated and improved, some have endured as perennial crowd pleasers. One all-time favorite, the Tactile Dome, is so popular that it can't be experienced without making reservations.

Tactile explorers crawl on their hands and knees into a geodesic dome with an interior environment devoid of external stimuli. Once inside they have to feel their way out in darkness.

The Exploratorium is crowded with more than 450,000 visitors a year, 60% of them adults. It is common to see school groups, families and hand-holding university couples fiddling with the hands-on exhibits that demonstrate, with wit and ingenuity, principles varying from electromagnetism to anatomy and computers.

The no-frills atmosphere, with full visibility workshops where the exhibits are made, evokes a fun-filled, garage workshop informality.

The Exploratorium was created by Frank Oppenheimer, a nuclear physicist and brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb." Frank also worked at Los Alamos, N.M. Jokingly, he referred to himself as the "uncle" of the A-bomb.

During the McCarthy era, however, he was blacklisted and retreated to Colorado where he became a cattle rancher. Eventually he was drawn back to the classroom, first as a science teacher in a rural high school and later as a physics professor at the University of Colorado.

Oppenheimer put together a "library of experiments" for his students. He believed that teaching science without giving students props was like teaching swimming without letting students near the water.

His method of teaching often led students to discover only what he had in mind. So he varied the parameters of his experiments and props, and watched, with great interest, as the variables altered learning behavior. His teaching experiences convinced him that a dangerous gap existed between scientists and laymen.

In 1969 he set up office in a trailer and, with a grant of $50,000 from the San Francisco Foundation, three borrowed exhibits and one explainer, began working to fill the gap.

No Tours or Guides

Oppenheimer insisted that there be no tours or guides at the Exploratorium. He did not want to tell people what they were supposed to get out of an exhibit or make them feel silly or stupid because they enjoyed it in a way that was perhaps not intended.

Children and adults who wander the building's long, curved exhibition space--crammed with hands-on echo tubes, wave simulators, steam engine models and gyro chairs--have experienced wonder and enlightenment.

Among the scientific artworks commissioned over the years are such permanent fixtures as the Aeolian Harp that greets visitors with its eerie, wind-powered music.

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