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Eclipsed by a Classic

Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center has lots of flash but doesn't enlighten like its neighbor, the Exploratorium

November 05, 2000|K.C. COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — As someone who's been hanging out at Bay Area science centers for 25 years, I was looking forward to meeting the new kid on the block: the Chabot Space & Science Center, which reopened in August in the Oakland hills in an elaborate new $76-million complex.

Advance word seemed promising. Chabot is a working observatory. It has a state-of-the-art planetarium and three telescopes open Friday and Saturday evenings for public viewing. Best of all, it hired artist Ned Kahn, whose inviting sculptures of wind, sand and cloud have captured fans all over the world, to create hands-on exhibits.

Alas, instead of reaching for the skies, Chabot settled for a philosophy of "Let them eat fluff." Despite an otherwise delightful stay in my favorite area, my companions and I left Chabot feeling unfulfilled.

I gathered a set of "experts" to join me at the new observatory. My friend Claudette flew up from the San Fernando Valley, while Paul, a science writer from the Bay Area, met us with his two grandchildren, Chloe, 7, and Wynham, 5.

Despite our disappointment with much of Chabot, Kahn's enthralling pieces let us see the fog, earth and sky in a whole new way--leaving us inspired and delighted nonetheless.

I flew up to the San Francisco airport one weekend in late September, rented a car and drove to El Drisco, a funky, 43-room hotel in Pacific Heights where 15 years ago I could get a room for $42 a night.

These days rooms in the newly spiffed-up El Drisco start at $220 (breakfast included), but Old World charm still oozes from every pore. Although there is now a bellman to take your luggage up in the elevator, I still love to walk up and down the narrow, squared-off spiral staircase with its carved wooden balustrades. The rooms are all dark wood and exposed pipes, with huge windows that open to overlook the city, the bay or courtyards draped with flowers.

"We could be in London," gasped Claudette when she walked into our two-room suite on Saturday ($220 plus tax for the first night, $325 for the second).

Best of all is the neighborhood. Ivy-covered mansions, steep garden paths exploding with wildflowers and--just two blocks away--the Presidio, where you can walk along trails draped with eucalyptus and breathe the cool fog.

So it was in good spirits that we set off for Chabot, tucked away in the winding hills above Oakland, but well marked and easy to find off Skyline Boulevard. The building is attractive and imposing, with domes set against the sky.

Upon entering, however, we were put off. Before we even walked in, we had to choose which "special" shows we wanted to see and when, and everything cost extra. Not knowing what else to do, we signed up for admission plus two shows, which came to a steep $19.75 per adult and $15.50 per kid.

Right away, we were ushered into the MegaDome for a 70mm large-screen movie of the sun. The images of the sun were impressive: glowing gobs of gas spewing into space, along with streaming filaments of fire.

But the thunderous soundtrack was too loud even for my old ears, and Wynham buried his head in Paul's lap in stark terror. A ponderous British voice somberly offered a hackneyed history of solar astronomy that was confusing and misleading. (Copernicus was certainly not the first person to realize that Earth orbits the sun. Greek philosopher Aristarchus had figured this out more than 1,000 years earlier; alas, nobody accepted his idea.) What's more, the film included only men--even though many women astronomers are prominent in the field.

"I didn't understand it," Chloe said. "Neither did I," Claudette added.

We grabbed a lunch--hot dogs and chips--in the Science Center Cafe.

We finished our sodas just in time for the show in the Ask Jeeves Planetarium. One by one, the constellations paraded across the sky to a Wagnerian score as the narrator told us their names. Trouble was, he never told us anything about them.

"What's a constellation?" Chloe asked. The narrator never said, but the images implied that the stars somehow line up into drawings of people, bears, crabs. "Why do the stars make shapes like that?" asked Chloe, understandably confused. "Many stars will be born here," said the narrator, pointing out regions of the sky.

"Do stars die?" Chloe asked.

Well, yes. The birth and death of stars is one of the most dramatic stories the sky has to tell. But Chloe won't learn about it here. This was a cartoon zodiac souped up with music--more suitable for astrology than science.

"Are we going now?" Wynham asked.

"Not after all the money we've spent," Paul said.

Luckily, we saved the best for last. The kids and grown-ups alike immediately got sucked into Kahn's enchanting "Planetary Landscapes" exhibit. Swirling fluids mimicked weather patterns, ocean waves, volcanoes; sculptures in fine sand gave a literal feel for the geological processes that build and destroy mountains.

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