Last week’s post was about our first forays—individually as a child for Anna and together as a couple for Doug—to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. We’re returning to the MSI for this week’s post because we squeezed in a three-hour visit on our recent trip to the Midwest to see family. As we often do when we have limited time while revisiting a favorite haunt, we set out to make sure to see old standbys, while also taking in at least one new experience.
We hadn’t been to the MSI in five years, and things have changed there. What we noticed especially in the 2010 version of the museum is best summed in the words of its President and CEO David R. Mosena in the current issue of Momentum, the MSI members’ magazine: “Everyone is a scientist.” The new interactive—experiential and experimental—stations throughout the museum, as well as lab-coated docents and guides, echo this mantra that science really is for everyone.
As soon as we oriented ourselves with the museum’s paper map, we wound our way into the Henry Crown Space Center, a relatively new exhibit—an array of space-age artifacts and narratives—that opened in 1986. The featured artifact is undoubtedly the Apollo 8 capsule, in which astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders (Time magazine’s Men of the Year) were flung toward the Moon and captured by its orbit, then returned to Earth. Apollo 8 was the first to use a Saturn V rocket, and its Christmas Eve broadcast was, at the time, the most widely viewed television program. It’s easy to become overly awed by the capsule and by the audacity of the space program of the 1960s.
But Jim Lovell’s watch—an Omega Speedmaster—is a reminder that these were real people. That the watch displayed is Lovell’s matters to us especially because he’s the one who wasted time. He fooled around on the computer to realign the module for a better view of several stars—experience over necessity, or perhaps beauty over function? He had to fix the alignment mistakes his dalliance created, presaging his crucial role on Apollo 13.
There’s a lot more in the Crown Center, of course. Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes is an amazing collection of digitally enhanced photographs from interplanetary probes. It’s on display through August 29. And driving the replica of the Mars rover is a new favorite pastime!
We also made our way to the Baby Chick Hatchery, a favorite of Anna’s sister, our driver for the day. Standing stock-still in front of the hatchery, his face pressed against the glass and his eyes preternaturally wide in wonder, was a boy roughly seven years of age. His fingers were poised, unmoving, ready to tap the hatchery’s glass to attract the attention of the half-dozen chicks sleeping in a downy pile, the entire lump gently rising and falling with the animals’ breathing, just inches from his face. For whatever reason, the chicks woke and rose en masse, momentarily becoming a teetering yellow whirl of fluff, lurching unsteadily towards the boy’s face. He jumped backwards with a look of delight, and quickly scanned the room around him, looking perhaps for his parents or siblings, witnesses, or anyone who might join him in his rejoicing. We imagined him trying to convince an incredulous older sister that he had willed the chicks to rise and move as a single chirping unit. The boy didn’t find any familiar faces, so he returned his attention to the chicks, only to find that they had settled into a downy lump once again. His concentration and his expression of spontaneous joy undoubtedly have been recreated on that very spot, dozens of times a day, for the more than fifty years that the exhibit has been in place. The hatching chicks are part of the larger Genetics: Decoding Life exhibit, so that the images we remember from childhood—the memory that boy took with him—now have fuller contexts.
In the distance, somewhere above Doug’s head, he heard a buzzing, ripping sound. It conjured memories of the special effects sounds used for death rays and otherworldly paraphernalia in science fiction movies from the 1950s. After following the sound to its source, Doug found himself standing directly beneath an enormous Tesla coil, white-purple lightning bolts arcing between a stainless steel central hub and surrounding rings.
In the car ride home from the Museum of Science and Industry, Anna’s Aunt Maggie—who’d babysat for the Crown family as a teenager—commented that, during her own Catholic school education, the nuns seemed uncomfortable with science, so science instruction began twenty minutes before the school bell rang at the end of the school day. Now, as a retiree visiting the museum, she wished that she could be a 7th-grader again: “Science seems fun!” That’s the role of science and technology museums: to nurture the curious, creative, inquisitive 7th-grader inside each of us. That’s the experience worth the price of membership—and the promise of return visits!
Not MSI, but good Big Tesla Coil: