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2010 December 31

SF mini-vacation

This week my family took a mini-vacation to San Francisco.  We followed our usual strategy of taking the Highway 17 Express to San Jose, then the Caltrain up to San Francisco.  Our favorite hotel (the Grant Plaza Hotel in Chinatown) did not have any rooms, so we had booked a room in a different budget hotel, the Hotel Bijou near Union Square.  Because of the hotel’s location, we took the N-Judah streetcar instead of the 30 Stockton bus that we usually take from the Caltrain station. After checking in, we took the N-Judah line again out to Golden Gate Park and had lunch at Park Chow, a popular restaurant for park goers.  The food was pretty good standard American fare, but seemed a bit over-priced (our other meals in San Francisco were better and cheaper).

After lunch went to see the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.  I have not been there for a while and wanted to see the new building.  I m not a big fan of modern architecture, and I was very sorry to see the beautiful old buildings for the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences torn down.  Neither of the new buildings is particularly good looking though I’ve been told that they are more functional.

The one good feature of the new California Academy of Sciences building is the green roof.

The green roof of the California Academia of Sciences as seen from the viewing terrace on the roof.

Inside the acoustics are terrible, with large spaces that echo and make the place very noisy.  The atrium has an intricate industrial look which is moderately interesting, but lacks the gravitas of the old lobby.  I’ve never cared much for bare concrete, and the interesting parts of the atrium are at the ceiling, which few people look up to admire.

View down into the atrium of the California Academy of Sciences.

The exhibits are pretty much as they were before the remodel, except for noisier, and without the interesting architectural details of the old building. The Steinhart Aquarium has been improved by the remodel, inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The coral reef tank is quite impressive, and I liked the leafy sea dragons and weedy sea dragons.

I took a picture of the weedy sea dragon (despite the "no-photos" sign), but I was careful to make sure that the flash was off, as the photography prohibition is to protect the aquatic animals from bright lights.

We did not visit two of the main attractions, as the Planetarium shows were sold out and the entrance to the rainforest had a line that was taking 30–45 minutes to snake its way into the exhibit.

Overall, I have to say that I was disappointed in the “new” California Academy of Sciences.  As a natural history museum it doesn’t approach my memories of the Field Museum of Natural History from my youth in Chicago, and the new architecture makes it look like it is trying to be an amusement park, but without the amusement.  Even the museum store is lacking in much of interest.

There was one special exhibit for the holiday season that we enjoyed: seeing the reindeer outside.

Two rather damp reindeer were on display in the graden. It was possible to pet one of them, but we were not particularly keen to get the smell of wet wool on our hands.

We took the N-Judah back to our hotel and went out for dinner.  We were planning to try a highly rated Japanese noodle place a few blocks away, but the lines there were terrible, so we went to Chaabaa Thai instead.  The food was quite good and reasonably cheap (better and cheaper than lunch). After dinner we went to see the holiday decorations at Union Square, but the rain and wind made walking a bit unpleasant, so we spent only a little time in Union Square before heading back to the hotel.

Although Hotel Bijou shows free films (with San Francisco settings), we were too tired to stay up for them, so we turned in early.  After a good breakfast in the morning at the hotel (included in the room rate), we split up, with my son and me going to the Exploratorium and my wife visiting various art museums, libraries, and bookstores.We took the 30 Stockton up through Chinatown and across the Marina District to the Exploratorium.  That bus is the one I have taken the most in San Francisco, and it has a rather scenic route.  It is astonishingly slow though, particularly going through Chinatown.  The bus is always packed in Chinatown, but is empty by the time it gets to the end of the line on Broderick.

The Exploratorium has a much lower entrance fee than the California Academy of Sciences, and there is much more to do.  It is in almost all ways a superior museum for children and teens (and dads).  We were not able to visit the Tactile Dome (sold out—I think you have to purchase tickets ahead of time on the web if you go on a busy day).  The Exploratorium has lockers near the entrance, so we stashed our luggage there for the day.  Unfortunately, I left my camera in the locker also, so I got no pictures from the Exploratorium.

Although the Exploratorium was very full (more so than the Academy of Sciences), there was no waiting in long lines:  there are so many things to do that people spread out fairly uniformly over the whole museum and no single exhibit had a line of more than 2 or 3 people waiting a turn to play. I think that the Exploratorium had more people per square meter, but it felt less packed, because people spread out so much more uniformly.

There were several new exhibits since we were last there, but a couple of my son’s favorites were gone (the teapot in a mirror exhibit was one he missed). I missed the bicycle powered by pneumatic cylinders, though I always had trouble coordinating the four button presses well enough to get a smooth cadence.

I was impressed by how well maintained the exhibits were.  Despite the intensive hands-on use (and abuse), very few exhibits were non-functional, and those generally fairly minor ones.

The museum store is one of the best I’ve seen, though I did not buy anything on this trip.

We stayed until closing time at 5, then took the 30 Stockton back to Chinatown and had dinner at the Hang Ah Tea Room (which claims to be the oldest dim-sum restaurant in San Francisco).  Eating at the Hang Ah is a tradition for us, and the food was as good as always, but there was only one waitress working and the service was rather poor.  After dinner we took the 30 Stockton back to the Caltrain station, and took the Caltrain and Highway 17 express back to Santa Cruz, getting home around 10:30 p.m.

All in all, it was a successful mini-vacation, one I would be glad to do again next year.  It would be better, perhaps, to go to the museums some time when school is in session, to avoid the crowds.

2010 October 9

USA Science and Engineering Festival

The first USA Science and Engineering Festival is 10–24 October 2010, but the main even seems to be the last 2 days, an Expo on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  This sounds like a nice event for that area of the country (which gets far more than their share of nice events, because everyone wants to impress the government).  They’ve managed to re-brand events scheduled and planned by others in other parts of the country (like the National Chemistry Week event in Oakland, organized by SEM Link and ASA Community Science Center), but basically this is an impress-the-Congress event put on by government contractor Lockheed Martin to get warm fuzzy feelings when appropriation time comes around.

Still, if you happen to live near the District of Columbia, it might be worth taking in the free entertainment.  They claim on the Expo website that it will be a lot of fun, and it sounds like it:

Explore science & engineering with over 1500 free, hands-on activities and over 75 stage shows featuring science celebrities, magicians, jugglers, rappers and more. The two-day Expo is perfect for teens, children and their families, and anyone with a curious mind who is looking for a weekend of fun and discovery. Build an underwater robot, chat with a Nobel Laureate, explore the science behind the magic of Hogwarts Academy and see a car that drives itself. From bugs to birds, kitchen chemistry to computer games, environmental monitoring to electronic music—the Expo has something for everyone and is completely free of charge.

They also have pointers to more participatory work that other groups are doing, like the Kavli video contest and’s teacher video contest.  (They list the contests they’ve managed to affiliate with.)  Interestingly, they do not seem to have involved the science museums much (other than a satellite event at OMSI), despite the years of experience the science museums have with informal science education.  Perhaps that is just natural reluctance of the museums to lend their names to an event that has no history and that is clearly associated with a single corporation.  [Caveat: I may have missed some science museum involvement, since the only list of satellite events I found was an awkward map—I did not click on every flag on the map.  The Witte Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass also have events, but OMSI seems to be the only one of the big science museums involved.]

I’m pleased to see some attention being given to science and engineering in the Capitol, even if the show is all flash with no substance. Others are less pleased.  Katherine Beals, in her blog Out In Left Field, asks

Do we want to cultivate a generation of technology appreciators and consumers, and of people who view science as performance? Or do we want to show people what science really is—its logical and experimental rigor; its narrow focus; the strong knowledge base and hard work it requires—and give those who relish these things the educational foundation they need to become scientists, computer programmers and engineers?

If we keep avoiding the harder, less showy route, the objects of our technology appreciation and consumption will be engineered increasingly by those who are educated in other countries, while our own students will be increasingly ill-prepared, both scholastically and psychologically, for what science really is.

These are good questions. There certainly has been a trend in science education toward flashier books and teaching styles, often at the expense of real content.  Two-day entertainment fairs are no substitute for science and engineering curricula in the schools.  The medium-sized high school my son attends has AP Chem only every other year (alternating with AP Physics), no AP Bio, no computer science at any level, no engineering at any level (training for automobile mechanics is as close as they get—not even machine shop for creating new things).

I would quibble with her about one noun phrase: good science and engineering does not have a “narrow focus”.  Although some science is narrowly focused, much of the best science comes from a bringing together ideas from disparate fields, and good engineering always relies on the combination of systems thinking and attention to the details (see my posts Specialists vs. generalists and Engineering vs. Science).

What do the readers of this blog think?  Are the dog-and-pony shows like this one Lockheed Martin is putting on good for the future of science and engineering (particularly from an educational standpoint) or not?

2010 July 9

Boston Museum of Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:38
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Yesterday was my last day before the ISMB conference started, so my son and I walked over to the Boston Museum of Science and spent the day wandering around the exhibits.  I was impressed at how well maintained the exhibits were—only a few of the interactive exhibits were not functional.  The math exhibit is very nostalgic for me—it is almost identical to the one I remember from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I was a child, almost 50 years ago.  Math is timeless (or no one has come up with a better informal education exhibit in 50 years—you choose the explanation).

Of course, the best thing about the Boston Museum of Science is even older: a 3-story tall original Van de Graaff generator and the “lightning” show they do with it.

Boston Museum of Science Van de Graaff generator

A little spark from the tip of her finger.

We enjoyed the show so much, we watched it twice (at noon and at 4).

2010 July 8

MIT Museum

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 03:48
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I’m in Boston this week for a combination of family vacation and the ISMB conference.  Yesterday, my family did a self-guided tour of the MIT campus and visited the MIT Museum. It was a mercilessly hot day (Boston is having an unusual heat wave), so my family was unwilling to do the usual guided tour, but we did do about half the self-guided tour (concentrating on the air-conditioned buildings, rather than outdoor stuff).

The high point of the day was the exhibit Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. These mechanical pieces were whimsical, beautifully made, and mesmerizing to watch in action.  Still photos do not do the sculptures justice, but it seems that there are DVDs available from Arthur Ganson’s website.

We had a decent lunch at a combination Thai/Szechuan restaurant across the street from musuem.  I’m not used to the high synchronization of East Coast lunchtimes:  the restaurant was jammed when we got there around 12:30 but suddenly emptied just before 1.

We ended up our MIT visit at the MIT Coop, where we bought a few fantasy books to tide us through the week here. The Coop is a decent college bookstore, though I tend to prefer Stanford’s bookstore.  I get a bit sad when I think about what an awful bookstore my campus has—I guess our students don’t read (or, at least, don’t buy books) and our campus is too isolated to get non-student shoppers.

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