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Exploratorium

Started: 2022-06-25 17:12:36

Submitted: 2022-06-25 18:21:02

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator revisits the Exploratorium with his kids

Last weekend, while Kiesa was gone, I took the kids to San Francisco on an expedition to the Exploratorium.

As a kid growing up on the peninsula, I remember visiting the Exploratorium multiple times, back when it was still located at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District. (One of the random things I remember was parking in the narrow curved parking lot that clung to the outside of the curved building, then going inside to the cavernous indoor space filled with weird and wonderful hands-on science and engineering experiments.) While I was living in Colorado, the museum moved to a new location on Pier 15/17, a few minutes' walk north of the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. We took Calvin to the museum in 2016 while we were moving to San Francisco (here's a picture of us in the distorted room, using forced perspective to make it look like we're almost the same height), and took the kids once or twice more; but Julian was still too young to get very much out of the interactive exhibits and it was much too loud for him.

(Kiesa spent the weekend in Hood River, Oregon to attend the funeral service for her grandfather's second wife, who died earlier this month at age 88 after catching COVID-19.)

Sunday also happened to be Juneteenth, so I took the opportunity on the hour-long drive to Daly City BART station to play an episode of the NPR Code Switch podcast talking about Juneteenth, which included a brief catch-up explanation to help people like me (who only learned of the holiday two years ago) and my kids (who might have been learning about it for the first time today) to understand the history and context of the holiday.

Julian and Calvin ride BART
Julian and Calvin ride BART

We caught an inbound BART train at Daly City and rode to Embarcadero Station, then found a bench outside the Ferry Building to eat lunch before walking along the Embarcadero to the museum.

Julian in a sundial
Julian in a sundial

The first thing we saw outside the museum was a sundial marked on the sidewalk. I told Julian where to stand to serve as the gnomon (on the far end, next to the marker for June 20 because we were two days before the summer solstice) and he cast a shadow in the direction of the marker for one in the afternoon, daylight time. (This picture is from our way out of the museum, and Julian's shadow is pointing in the direction of five in the afternoon, daylight time.)

Inside the museum we saw many weird things, including a bunch of optical illusions that Calvin complained made his brain hurt. The weirdest of the illusions was a relief sculpture of a face; if I looked at it with two eyes open I had enough depth perception to clearly see that it was indented, but if I closed one eye I immediately saw it as if it were facing outward towards me — until I moved my head and it didn't move in the right way and it looked really weird.

The next most interesting optical illusion was a rotating table designed to highlight the blind spot. If I looked at the dot in the middle of the table I could see a bunch of stickers in different places around the edges of my peripheral vision, but as I rotated the table under them the stickers vanished and reappeared in my vision, which was deeply weird.

Calvin, Julian, and Jaeger with a big mirror
Calvin, Julian, and Jaeger with a big mirror

Then we found a big curved mirror that was originally used in a flight simulator and had some special optical properties that I can't remember. (I read the sign on a prior visit, at least four years ago, and I don't remember what it was.) When I kept both eyes open the mirror would present different images to each eye in ways that my depth perception was not expecting, and the images in the background would move in exaggerated fashion behind me. I seemed to be centered in the mirror ahead of me, projected as if my mirror-image counterpart were floating only a meter away, even though there was only empty space there and the real mirror was much further away. With only one eye open (which happens to be equivalent to the view in the photo above) the effect was somewhat diminished, but it still shows the weird distortions in the images behind me.

In the picture below, this is Calvin's mirror image lurking over my shoulder. I'm standing with my back to the mirror so I can get a selfie, and Calvin is actually standing by my side, out of view of the selfie camera, but clearly visible in the mirror.

Calvin and Jaeger with a big mirror
Calvin and Jaeger with a big mirror

Then there was a kaleidoscope, large enough for us to duck inside and see ourselves reflected off into infinity. This was quite fun but almost mundane compared to the mind-bending curved mirror.

Jaeger and Julian inside a kaleidoscope
Jaeger and Julian inside a kaleidoscope

We found our way around a back corridor with a bunch of mechanical engineering sculptures. This was was labeled as a self-destroying machine: it's an electric motor held inside a vice that's gradually being closed by the very long train of gears reducing the speed of the shaft to less than one turn per year. in this picture the first gear is moving so fast it's blurred; the next couple of gears were moving at a visible speed, and the second half of gears did not appear to be moving at all. The sign indicated that the vice would close enough to destroy the machine within two years, so I figured I should get a picture while I still could.

Self-destroying machine
Self-destroying machine

We walked past the Exploratorium's machine shop, open to view where the museum's exhibits were prototyped and developed. Julian did not want to give me time to sit and gawk at all of the equipment; he was more interested in proceeding immediately to whatever he saw was next.

The Exploratorium's machine shop
The Exploratorium's machine shop

What was next happened to be the interactive bubbles, which Julian watched for a couple of minutes (but didn't seem to want to actually try out for himself). Around the corner was the pinscreen, which I remember from visiting the museum as a kid: thousands of pins hanging in a screen that would reflect the relief of whatever was under the table. Julian seemed dubious about this at first until I demonstrated it, then he got the hang of it.

Julian with the pinscreen
Julian with the pinscreen

Next was a high-speed photography exhibit with a dropper set up with a camera and flash that would drop water into a glass then capture an image at precisely the right time to capture the pattern the drop made. There was a window at the back of the setup that one could open and place one's self in the picture, and Julian did that. The exhibit then displayed the image on the large monitor next to the apparatus, giving me a chance to quickly grab a picture of the picture before it showed the image it captured next.

Julian watches a drop of water at high speed
Julian watches a drop of water at high speed

In the last gallery we visited, Julian flitted about between exhibits building marble trackways and wheeled vehicles to roll down an inclined slope. He occasionally asked about leaving or about a snack but then he saw something else that interested him around the corner, leaving me to scurry behind him to make sure he didn't get too lost inside the museum. Calvin wandered around on his own some of the time then reappeared; I figured he had a phone so we ought to be able to catch up if he couldn't find me. Both kids seemed to enjoy themselves at the museum, so I counted the expedition across the mountain and into the city as a success.

We left the museum shortly before it closed at 17:00, after a brief bit of confusion where Julian tried to go to the first exit sign he found, which led to the emergency exit on the wrong side of the building, stepping out from the darkened interior of the museum into the bright sun on the Embarcadero. We headed to the Ferry Building for a snack and waited in a very long line for Humphry Slocombe, then headed outside to eat our cones on benches perched above the bay.

Waiting for Humphry Slocombe inside the Ferry Building
Waiting for Humphry Slocombe inside the Ferry Building

We caught BART back to our car at Daly City (which involved weaving through the fences set up in Embarcadero Plaza for the reviewing stands for tomorrow's Golden State Warriors victory parade; the plaza was still mostly open but we had to find our way to Market Street through a maze of fences), then stopped for supper at Mod Pizza in Daly City before driving the rest of the way home. Highway 17 slowed to a crawl heading past Lexington Reservoir where a tree had fallen on the road and blocked the right lane; by the time we arrived the tree was mostly cleared but the lane was still blocked, delaying our return home by half an hour.

I distrust few things more deeply than acts of literary explication.
- William Gibson, foreword to _Dhalgren_