Photo by Morning Calm News on Flickr.
As a young boy my parents gave me the wonderful book The Way Things Work by David Macaulay. It’s the mammoth book that explains, well, the way loads of everyday and not so everyday things work. I owned a nice collection of similarly themed books, but I guess this was my favourite (although the cover design of Gödel, Escher, Bach had an enormous appeal to me as well).
Most of the machinery explained by Macaulay was far from common in an 80s household to an eight year old. Pulleys, wedges, switchboards, corkscrews. Also, mammoths were not a common sight in our streets. Neither were dinosaurs, one of my other passions. And nobody in my street had ever been an astronaut.
In a nice blogpost on the Smithsonian blog the question is asked if science museums will disappear now that science is either invisible or impossibly far away. The Higgs boson and Nasa’s Curiosity are given as examples of things science museums, apparently, cannot give their audience access to. I say that science museums will never ever disappear. Not in a million years, unless we have one of these extinction level events Hollywood keeps warning us about.
Science has always been either invisible or impossibly far away. It’s pretty darn hard to explain a pulley without experiencing it and I don’t really see the moon as a viable holiday option, or CERN for that matter. Regardless, science museums have been showing the world what goes on in these places and how they work for decades, making tons of people enthusiastic about science.
The fact that we, scientists and professionals, understand lifting, have seen our fair share of dinosaur bones and hardly grasp the Higgs boson doesn’t mean the audience thinks alike. OK, they won’t be blown away by a 20-year old computer interactive that is beaten in everything by angry birds (itself a source of much science). The stuff people don’t have at home and that triggers their curiosity, however, will without a doubt continue to interest new generations.
Science museums aren’t only about the latest and coolest stuff from NASA and CERN, they’re also about answering a basic need of a lot of people: How does stuff work? What does and did this world and others look like? I can think of a gazillion ways to build the Large Hadron Collider to tell the story of subatomic particles that will engage people, using only stuff I can buy in a DIY market. With a good story and enthusiastic staff, that’s 99% of what you need to be successful.
You need little more than a book, mammoths and imagination to open up the wonderful world of science to people. Add some stuff people don’t have in their homes and you have a great destination for a rainy day. As long as there is curiosity (with and without the capital letter) there will be science museums.