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Kids Catching the Science Bug

Museum exhibit on microbes offers kids' games that explain the history and impact of germs.

June 11, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the folks who brought you Viagra, here's something else that will raise your excitement level: Pfizer Inc., the global pharmaceutical company, is behind a new high-tech, high-energy exhibit on germs--some nasty, some not so bad--at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Called "Microbes: Invisible Invaders . . . Amazing Allies," it's loaded with enough special effects and video games for kids to forget for a moment they're in a museum.

In one video game, they can fire antibiotic artillery, zapping the floating bacteria that have infected Microbe Woman with strep throat. It's a race against time--one minute--as the bacteria explode with a boom for every direct hit.

In a game called Gobble de Goop, oil has spilled from an old tanker and the spreading goo is threatening the coastline. But disaster can be averted if the player can accurately aim oil-eating microbes at the mess; if not, alarms go off as the oil oozes ashore.

Ken Evans and his son, Ben, 6, of Mar Vista, toured the exhibit the day it opened. They faced off at the 3-D animated video game, Race a Bug, where each took a joystick and learned how microbes propel themselves through our arteries.

"What he's getting from it I don't know," said Evans as his son exuberantly tackled the game. Compared to other museum exhibits on the subject, he said this one is "more of a plaything." But Dad was clearly impressed: "It's as good an explanation of microbes as I've ever seen."

The traveling exhibit, sponsored by Pfizer in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, will remain in Los Angeles through Sept. 4.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a number of microbe-themed events are scheduled through the summer. On Saturday at 1:30 p.m., bakers from the Westlake Culinary School will delve into the microbial mysteries of bread-making. The museum will also host weekend family workshops on topics such as germ-laden counter tops and the rotten smell of leftovers in the refrigerator.

Although the exhibit makes great sport of fighting cooties, it has a serious side as it takes visitors through the history of infectious disease right up to current research.

It starts dramatically with the bubonic plague, which killed more than 56 million Europeans from 1340 to 1420. Visitors walk into a dark, skull-lined Parisian catacomb and confront a macabre figure wearing a hood-like mask with a huge beak. He is a doctor from that time, and the headgear (it looks like Big Bird wearing a gas mask) was what people wore because they believed the plague was caused by poisonous gas from below the ground. To counteract the deadly stuff, the beaks were filled with pleasantly scented herbs and flowers.

The exhibit goes back even further, to the death of Egyptian ruler Ramses V in 1151 BC. The re-created mummy with its scarred face suggests to scientists that he died of smallpox.

Fast-forward to Main Street U.S.A., circa 1900. A boy in knickers shouts, "Extra, extra!," and waves a newspaper with more bad news about the ongoing polio, flu and tuberculosis epidemics. A child-size yellow iron lung sits in front of a huge picture of a polio ward with rows of the mechanical breathing machines. An early TV set plays the story of penicillin's discovery.

The exhibit's germ journey takes a bizarre twist in a darkened room where three-dimensional holograms seem to float in space. They are colorful blowups of the microbes behind some deadly stuff, such as malaria, which looks like a bunch of grapes, or HIV, which resembles a potato studded with peas.

"Herpes is very pretty," one woman exclaimed. The artist's rendering of the virus was a design of red, white and blue balls and spokes.

Anyone who thinks tuberculosis, malaria or cholera are diseases of the past can get a quick refresher by boarding Microbe Air, an exhibit that shows how disease spreads with worldwide travel. A world map pinpoints problem areas for everything from malaria to Africa's dengue fever. In the U.S., tuberculosis is still a concern in Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

"It's very informational--just knowing about the different diseases, where they originated and the hot spots," said Aelena Stanfield of Los Angeles, whose son was perusing the exhibit for a report he was doing on HIV.

We shouldn't be complacent about the safety of our drinking water either, the exhibit suggests rather graphically. Some 300,000 Milwaukee residents became sick six years ago when a parasite invaded the water.

But the exhibit is mostly fun, especially for children. They can walk into a simulated kitchen, open the refrigerator and hear cartoonlike cooties joshing about the work they put into yogurt and cheese. It's the same with the talking bread in the oven. And for those kids addicted to the big screen, they can watch the caped Microbe Man ward off the evil bacteria.

BE THERE

"Microbes: Invisible Invaders . . . Amazing Allies" will be at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through Sept. 4. The exhibit is included in the museum admission fee: $8 for adults, $2 for children 5-12, and $5.50 for students and seniors. The museum is located at 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. Information: (213) 763-DINO.

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