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Has the Museum of Science and Industry gone to the dogs?
August 12, 2010 — part 2 of 2 parts

To the Teeming Millions:

In the first part of this two-part column, I and my faithful assistant TwoManyCats visited Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry to determine whether classic exhibits such as the Coal Mine had been recklessly tampered with. Establishing that these iconic MSI attractions remained largely intact, we turned to the museum's new exhibits to see whether they measured up to the standards of the past. Early returns were mixed. Net World, an exploration of the workings of the Internet, was a frustrating bust. On the other hand, Earth Revealed, in which a suspended sphere in a darkened room was progressively transformed into the Earth, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies, showed the old MSI magic — but on a small scale. Cats and I wanted to find out if the museum still had the chops for a major exhibit.

Two gallery-sized attractions launched at MSI in recent years are You! The Experience, which deals with the human body, nutrition, and related subjects, and Science Storms, all about the physical sciences. Cats was a frequent visitor to the old Food for Life hall as a kid, whereas I'd been more of a science and technology geek. We figured between us we were well equipped to compare the museum's current take on these timeless topics with what we'd seen as kids.  

We began with You! on the museum's upper level. Cats' benchmark for comparison was her vivid recollection of a gallery of memorable medical displays, reached by a "secret passage" starting near the walk-through human heart:

The "How Children Grow" sequence that started with a ceramic (?) purple-faced baby being yanked out of a cross-section of a vagina with forceps.

The March of Dimes birth defects exhibit where you could watch movies of thalidomide kids swimming like dolphins with their flipper arms.

An exhibit for rheumatoid arthritis that featured a huge holographic hand that changed from normal to crippled as you walked past. Creepy as hell. Oh, and somewhere along the way you learned that the Catholic papal blessing hand gesture was supposedly adopted when one of the popes couldn't move his outer two fingers because of arthritis, a factoid I've never heard anywhere else.

I recalled none of this — one of MSI's charming if sometimes disorienting characteristics is that you can make repeated visits and still not see it all. I did, however, remember the walk-through human heart (hardly anyone missed that) plus the unforgettable displays of preserved human cadavers or bits thereof. The Teeming Millions on the message board had reminded me of a couple of these: "deli man" — there was also a woman — whose thin-sliced cross sections strikingly illustrated the arrangement of bodily organs, and the collection of human embryos and fetuses, donated to the museum in 1939. 

One of the museum's most admirable features, I had always thought, had been its frank treatment of subjects that might cause the more delicate to blanch. This attitude remained evident in the You! exhibit.  The stratified torsos were still on display; I learned from an explanatory poster that they had come to the museum in the 1940s by way of the county morgue and a local medical school. Nearby them now were large upright display cases in which were suspended the complete human nervous system and, not far away, the circulatory system — donated remains saved from the usual fate by the process known as plastination.

I was fascinated, naturally. But a more riveting sight was at hand. 

A human fetus seen close up isn't a memory that soon fades. However, MSI's original installation of its embryo collection had been nothing special, a nondescript arrangement in an ordinary gallery. This had now been rethought. One entered a darkened round room, around the perimeter of which behind a glass wall had been chronologically arranged the 24 specimens, extending in age from a few weeks to almost full term. I viewed them, as everyone does, silently and in sequence, lingering longest at the last. What disaster had befallen this child wasn't apparent; it appeared perfect in all respects. But it had never drawn a breath. One doesn't think scientific thoughts at such times. 

From the Prenatal Development display it was just a few steps to Fantastic Journey, an animated narrative of the origins of life from conception to birth, viewed in a small theater. This upbeat presentation was an appropriate sequel to the somber display we had just exited. The two exhibits had been on view for a relatively short time when we saw them — the You! gallery opened in October 2009. But already they seem as central to the MSI experience as the Coal Mine. The museum had taken a remarkable set of artifacts and improved on it.

There was much else in the You! gallery, not all of which we got a chance to see. A sampling of what we did:

  • In Mindball, players wearing brainwave-sensing headbands strove to generate theta waves indicative of inner peace, thereby pushing a metal ball down a track and into their opponent's goal — competitive relaxation, as it were. Games had always been a big draw at MSI; this one was clearly a hit with kids and was surrounded by kibitzers of varying ages most of the time we were there.

  • The Giant Heart, a 3-D wall-mounted model that took your pulse and highlighted different aspects of cardiac function at the push of a button. The Heart replaced the walk-through heart last fall, surely upsetting traditionalists, but the wealth of information it engagingly displayed made the old version seem quaint.  

  • The also-quite-sizable Hamster Wheel was what it sounded like, with human visitors playing the part of the hamster. I recalled years earlier at the museum having ridden a stationary bicycle trying to make a light bulb light; now the idea was to advance a counter that showed your ... well, I'm not sure what, frankly. Calorie consumption or oxygen uptake or something — no doubt the kind of thing you'd get from a health-club exercise bike. But the big wheel was more entertaining. Here was a traditional notion given a novel twist.

Not every aspect of You! worked as well, I thought. In Future Forum, we sat around a conference table and watched videos of experts expounding on a medical controversy — the advisability of CT scans was the topic of the day. Then we were directed to use a console to indicate whether the argument we'd heard had changed our views, after which our responses were shown on a chart.

It was a high-minded concept, no doubt developed by people who drove Priuses and listened to NPR. But essentially you were listening to a lecture in a classroom — MSI vice president of exhibits and collections Kurt Haunfelner told me later that many of those participating in Future Forum were students on field trips. He said exhibits like this were aimed at an older crowd, pointing out that 41 percent of museum visitors were adults unaccompanied by children, a higher fraction than I'd have guessed. One appreciates that different audiences demand different techniques, and I'm sure there are those who like the sit-and-listen approach. Nonetheless Future Forum seemed to me at odds with the core MSI approach of self-guided personal encounter, and not an example of what the museum did best.  

Some parts of You! surprised me. One display enumerated the enormous number of artificial ingredients to be found in a Twinkie; another compared fast-food portions in the 1970s with the super-sized versions of today — a blunter treatment of corporate consumer culture than I was accustomed to seeing at the museum. I mentioned facetiously to Kurt that I assumed neither McDonald's nor Hostess Brands had been a You! sponsor, and asked how he felt about taking on the big companies. He replied guardedly, no doubt thinking there was no sense rubbing anybody's face in it.

Still, it seemed to me there had been a change. Sponsors like General Motors and AT&T had been a pervasive presence in the museum I had known as a kid; now corporate branding was less obtrusive. Whether that reflected any difference in subjects the museum felt comfortable talking about then or now I can't say; Kurt for his part said the influence of sponsors on content was minimal. But I had the sense the museum was pushing the envelope of acceptable discourse more than it had. 

From You! Cats and I strolled down to the Science Storms gallery, which I'd purposely saved till last. The driving idea behind the exhibit was evident from the moment we stepped into the hall. Straight ahead of us a miniature tornado swirled; to one side a multicolored sand in a 20-foot rotating disk tumbled into constantly shifting patterns beneath a video about avalanches. In the distance I could see and hear the crackle of artificial lightning produced by a huge Tesla coil hanging from the ceiling. Below that was a long tank filled with water shoved by pistons to demonstrate tsunamis. 

The idea clearly was to use natural phenomena to illustrate scientific concepts, a can't-miss notion for any child who's never quite grown up. Cats and I ambled about, pushing buttons and pulling levers. Here you could raise or lower a magnifying lens above a glass plate, focusing solar radiation entering through a skylight into a point of dazzling brightness that soon began to smoke. Over there you could move prisms through another shaft of light and cast the colors of the spectrum around the room. At every hand there was something to see or do.

You may say it was an obvious approach — true up to a point. Only gradually did the genius of the thing become apparent. I had seen the disk filled with tumbling sand on first entering and deduced that it had something to do with avalanches. However, it wasn't obvious exactly what. The disk contained two colors of sand, light and dark, which despite constant mixing remained separate. What significance this had I didn't know, and with so much else in the hall to see, I didn't have the patience to read the displays to find out. 

Some minutes later I noticed a nearby table on which sat several clear plastic boxes the size of cereal cartons, each containing a jumble of plastic beads of different shapes, dimensions, and colors. The idea was to flip a box over on its stand and push a button, which caused the box and its contents to vibrate. That made the beads migrate into characteristic patterns, some clumping in the middle, some stratifying at the top.

The purpose of the exercise, I deduced, was to show that different-sized particles never became homogenous, no matter how much they were mixed. Similarly, it now occurred to me, the different-sized flakes in a blanket of snow remained separated into layers, an unstable arrangement that given a sufficiently steep slope and enough vibration meant an avalanche. This interesting fact had been demonstrated entirely without words — although once I tumbled to it, I read the placards to confirm that what I'd figured out coincided with what I was supposed to learn. 

Science Storms was like that all over. If you were content to be dazzled by bright lights and noise, there was plenty of that; but if you cared to probe a little deeper, you could do that too. The result was that if you were of even middling curiosity you soon found yourself sucked into an encounter with basic science. 

One proof of how well this worked was a display case at the back of the hall with the periodic table of the elements depicted on top. Several small plastic rings lay nearby. If you set a ring atop a square representing an element, it immediately expanded into an illuminated panel giving the element's name, a picture of what it looked like, and a few related facts. This was accomplished by an ingenious overhead projector having some inherent interest; still, if the periodic table had been the first thing I'd seen on entering the hall, I'd have almost certainly passed it by. Instead, Science Storms had initially engaged me with simple concepts, then segued without my noticing to complex ones — and now here I was, reading raptly about rubidium.

Some parts of Science Storms worked better than others. One of the less successful, I thought, was a big walk-in cube full of lights whose intensity could be adjusted using sliders to demonstrate additive colors. I suppose it did that, but you had to walk outside the cube and see the colors diffused together on its surface to grasp that full-strength red + blue + green = white. Years earlier the museum had had a small countertop display with three overlapping beams of color that had conveyed the idea at a glance. And I saw nothing to clarify the difference between additive and subtractive colors (where the primaries are red, blue, and yellow), which had been an "aha!" moment for me in the sixth grade.

But I had few such quibbles. Science Storms epitomized the learn-from-experience approach to science exploration at which MSI had always excelled. Kurt Haunfelner was happy to confirm that my experience of the exhibit was the way it was supposed to work. I was reassured; the museum was in the hands of people who knew what they were up to. 

Cats and I had only a few minutes left before the museum closed. Time to check out one last classic exhibit: the cabinet full of unusual gears and linkages that had caught my attention as a kid. We'd glimpsed it on the quick tour we'd gotten from an MSI staffer that morning in one of the stairwells. Now we found it again. A placard informed me that it had been assembled by the Borg-Warner company for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. I pushed the button.

Everything worked. I watched for a few seconds, idly observing, just as I had at age 15, that two meshing elliptical gears converted constant into fluctuating rotational speed. (Too complicated to explain; check out the exhibit if you're interested.) That was enough — this was the museum I remembered.

We had to go; they'd soon be chasing us out. I never did get to see the Fairy Castle. Maybe next time.   

— Cecil Adams
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry

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