Interactive science

As an adult I’ve learned to appreciate visual displays in museums better than I did as a child. But I have to agree with what my older son said yesterday, that the best science exhibits are interactive.

Since he hadn’t been with us when we went to the Mythbusters exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in March, I took both boys to Chicago this weekend. This time we stayed overnight Friday so we could have all day Saturday to see the museum.

I tried a few of the interactive portions of the Mythbusters exhibit that I hadn’t been able to do last time because the crowds had been too big. First I tried the airplane on a conveyor belt, but I never managed to get the airplane’s speed to match that of the car to start with, as the instructions said to do.

I also tried the blind driving, with unsurprisingly poor results. (I do think it would help if there were headphones so I didn’t struggle to hear my son’s instructions over all the other conversations around me.) I also tried “Cliff Hanger,” thinking that perhaps my weight training at the Y might have improved my arm strength. But my fingers failed me so fast that I landed almost immediately on my butt on the (fortunately very soft) mat below.

All three of us finished with the Mythbusters exhibit fairly quickly, and decided to go look for more fun elsewhere in the museum. Here are some of the highlights of our visit.

Dissecting a cow’s eye

To my surprise, neither of the boys was interested in this one, but I wanted to give it a try. (Zach did end up doing it also since we were there, but Al decided that since he had already dissected a sheep eye in sixth grade, he was just going to observe.)

I did think briefly, as we waited for the activity to start, how I had refused to dissect a frog in seventh grade because it seemed unethical to me to raise frogs just so they could be killed and cut up by students. I’m not sure how I felt, at the time, about medical students doing dissections, since that would serve a clear purpose, but I was sure it was a waste of a frog’s life for me to be able to cut one up.

The same principle clearly doesn’t apply with cows’ eyes, however, since the cows are no doubt slaughtered for food. There must be a huge number of cows’ eyes left over after the meat has been cut up. Not that I think they would go to waste if they weren’t dissected – I imagine they probably end up in pet food. (This list of animal by-products used in pet food doesn’t mention eyes – I don’t know if they would be included as part of the head…)

My first surprise was the outer appearance of the eye. Instead of a shiny dark brown, it was dull and bluish. The instructor explained that the cornea, clear during life, becomes dull upon death, and blue because there is no blood. I’m not sure why the lack of blood would make it appear blue; this link (which shows the dissection step by step) suggests that it has to do with how the eye was preserved.

I also was surprised just how tough the tissues were to cut through, even with a brand new medical-grade scalpel. And then I was really surprised to find out that the little roundish ball that looked like a misshapen blob of plastic was the lens. Again, the instructor explained that during life it would have been clear, and flattened rather than round like a ball, but death and the preservation process – not to mention being jostled around during transport – had taken their toll.

My final surprise was when we looked at the back of the eye, and saw a shiny surface that reminded me of the inside of some seashells. This is called the tapetum, and is what allows certain animals to see well at night. It is also why those animals’ eyes seem to glow in the dark, the color that they glow depending on the color of the tapetum. But why, we wondered, does a cow need to be able to see in the dark?

We didn’t ask the instructor, and she didn’t say, but naturally I checked it out online. The answer I found here makes sense: since predators such as wolves are nocturnal, their prey also need to be able to see in the dark to escape or to fight off their attackers.

What the instructor did tell us, which if I had ever heard before I had forgotten, is why humans’ eyes glow red in photographs. Since we lack the tapetum that gives good night vision, the light from the flash goes straight through to the blood vessels behind the eye, and red-eye is simply reflecting the color of our blood.

YOU! The Experience

The overview of this exhibit says that its purpose is to “showcase  the connection between the human mind, body and spirit in the 21st century.” I’m not sure exactly where the part about the spirit fit in, but there were plenty of interesting displays and activities related to the mind and body. 

As a mother I was particularly intrigued by a collection of human embryos and fetuses showing development from 28 days to 38 weeks. What I wasn’t sure of at the time was whether they were genuine specimens or reproductions, but the website explains that they are specimens collected during the Great Depression, and that they failed to survive to birth due to accidents or natural causes. (I wonder now if the reason some of them looked so scrawny is that the mother’s couldn’t get a lot of food, or if the developing fetus always looks like skin and bones until the last few weeks when it puts on a lot of weight.)

In the Your Movement area, I skipped the human-sized Hamster Wheel because there were too many people waiting in line. But we did try out the echolocation test. It was easy to hear the difference between the sound bouncing off a smooth, hard surface and off an uneven, “fuzzy” surface, but none of us could distinguish between metal vs plastic, or between one covered with short lengths of string and another with short bristles.

I suppose the one area that might be considered about the spirit was here in the Movement area, about people who don’t let severe injury stop them from intense involvement in athletic pursuits. I was particularly impressed by the double amputee who does rock-climbing. Ordinary prosthetic legs did not work well for him, so he developed a pair that are very short and end in a “foot” with saw-like metal teeth. (I don’t remember his name so I tried Googling double amputee rock climber and was surprised to discover multiple people who fit that description!)

The most memorable part of the entire exhibit, however, had to be …

Mindball

I generally skip activities where there is a crowd, as it means waiting quite a while in line, then being the focus of everyone’s attention while I am doing the activity. But Mindball looked too intriguing to let those concerns prevent me from participating.

The museum brochure said something about controlling a ball with brainwaves. That’s true in a sense, but in the same way that you can be said to control a car’s forward movement by pressing on a metal lever. Your car’s accelerator pedal controls when the car moves forward and by how much, but the actual mechanism to move the car is under the hood, not under your right foot. It took me quite a bit of Googling to find the mechanism for moving the ball in Mindball, but I finally found out that the ball is moved by a magnet mechanism under the table.

Which way the ball moves and by how much, however, is in fact controlled by a comparison of your brain waves and those of your opponent. Unlike most competitive games, you can’t win Mindball by working at it – unless you stretch the meaning of “work” to include its opposite, relaxation. It’s the most relaxed person who wins – or at any rate the most relaxed brain.

A headband on your forehead measures your brain’s alpha and theta waves. The less of that brain activity in comparison with your opponent’s, the farther the ball moves toward your goal, which is at your opponent’s end of the table. A graphic display shows the observers the level of alpha and theta waves of both players.

According to a sign accompanying the exhibit, the way to lower those waves was to close your eyes, daydream, or sleep. As I watched other people play, their alpha and theta waves jumping all over the place, I thought I should be pretty good at this type of “reverse competition.”

I think I would, in fact, have done well against most of the players I had observed. But my 20-year-old son is apparently as good at relaxing as I am – actually a little bit better. Once the ball had arrived at my end of the table and the game was over, the MSI facilitator pointed out that both of our levels of brain wave activity were quite low – the graphic displays for both of us looked quite low (and fairly steady). But Zach’s were evidently enough lower to win the game.

I had assumed, at the time, that Mindball was part of the Your Mind exhibit. (Based on the name, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?) But looking for it on the website, I was surprised to discover it under Your Vitality. Rather than putting the focus on how brain waves work, or how an EEG works, MSI chose to put the focus on learning to relax – which is in fact how Mindball is used in educational and medical settings.

As a side note, I also found it particularly interesting to read an evaluation done of Mindball specifically for MSI, several years ago. At the time, the museum was planning to build their own variant on the game, and wanted to see what level of staff involvement would be needed for museum visitors to get the most out of the game.

The preferred mode of play was going to be without MSI staff on hand, which worked out very well in testing, especially once a few minor changes to signage had been made. I am curious why, in the exhibit now in place, they do have a staff person directly involved the whole time.

What is not too surprising, however, is that people were not terribly interested in the science of the brain behind the game. They just wanted to get better at playing it. That, I suspect, is why Mindball is now situated where it is – near the display on the brain, but right on the way to the displays dealing with laughter and happiness.

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