Legend has it that opening day for the late physicist Frank Oppenheimer’s “San Francisco Project” happened by accident. As told by the Chronicle’s David Perlman (himself a legend, closing in on 83 years as a science journalist), Oppenheimer forgot to lock the doors, and the Exploratorium’s first visitors simply wandered in.
But on the groundbreaking museum’s final day at its Palace of Fine Arts location on January 2, close to 10,000 people, spanning four generations, poured through the massive building cheek by jowl for one last romp in the world’s most famous, chaotic science playground.
Oppenheimer, deeply affected by the role he, his brother Robert and other physicists had played in developing the atomic bomb, felt a responsibility to give people the tools to understand the world around them. He believed people are perfectly capable of comprehending scientific phenomena, if you give them the confidence and tools to learn. And confidence and understanding, as anyone who’s tinkered with an Exploratorium exhibit knows, often come from fiddling about.
So Oppenheimer, with the help of a small crew of extraordinary tinkerers, created the first participatory, hands-on science museum in the world. From the start, he valued artists as much as scientists for their keen powers of observation and ability to help people understand nature.
Liz Keim, director of the museum’s Cinema Arts Program, started working at the museum in the late 1970s. Oppenheimer took her under his wing, she said, and encouraged her to follow her passion. More than three decades later, Keim, like the rest of her longtime colleagues, was feeling the history of the moment, coming to grips with leaving a place with so many memories, a place she grew up in.
“Everything that happened here belongs to all of us,” she said. “All of our work makes up the fabric of this place.”
One day, Keim met Chris Marker, the pioneering French filmmaker who died last year, near the lagoon in front of the Palace of Fine Arts. Marker was scouting the grounds as a potential location for his next film. It just so happened that Keim was showing two films by Marker that day, including his classic La Jetée. When Keim planned the Marker program, she had no idea he’d be in town.
Just another day at the Exploratorium.
Physicist Paul Doherty, a longtime fixture on the museum floor (or as staffers like to call him, a “roving brain”), spent the better part of the day stationed in front of an exhibit that he’d developed with artist Shawn Lani called “Floating in Copper.” Half teacher, half carnival barker, Doherty beckoned a young man puzzling over the contraption to have a go at the exhibit: “Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to lift up this magnet and make it fly!”
The visitor gamely complied, and slid a magnet along the top half of two sheets of copper separated by a gap big enough to give a hockey-puck shaped magnet room to levitate, or so it appeared. The bottom magnet performed as expected, rising between the copper casings, to the young man’s delight. “Now try to hold it in between,” Doherty said. “What the copper does is slow down the motion, allowing your mere human eye and brain and hand time to do it.”
“Ah, okay!” exclaimed the young man, unwittingly demonstrating a museum mantra that learning how things work is fun. And that magic, and real understanding, happens when you help people engineer their own “a-ha!” moments.
Doherty recalled how the exhibit was born, like so many others, through an accidental discovery. He was playing around in the machine shop one day, trying to make an exhibit with magnets and aluminum. He was using neodymium magnets, also known as rare earth magnets, the strongest magnets made. He happened to drop a magnet onto a piece of aluminum and noticed that it fell slowly. “And I thought, oh, that’s interesting, I wonder what I can do with a slowly falling magnet.”
After days of playing around and talking with resident artist Shawn Lani, the two settled on the notion of flying magnets. After all, what’s cooler than making something levitate?
“We switched from aluminum to copper because copper has twice the conductivity as aluminum, which means it will have half the speed,” he said. “Then Shawn came up with the beautiful aesthetic design.”
I put my hand in between the copper shells and tried to move the magnet, but found it surprisingly difficult. Copper is like a two-year-old, Doherty said. “It always opposes you.”
The exhibit, like so many Exploratorium offerings, manages to engage children while puzzling scientists. Having enjoyed a stint as a writer for this crazy, category-defying museum, I can assure you this is no simple feat. At their best, the 1,000 or so exhibits developed at the Exploratorium over its first 43 years first surprise, then delight, as you realize what they’re showing you. But the real magic happens when they challenge you to see the world a little bit differently.
After all the visitors had gone, physicist Thomas Humphrey recalled a day nearly 30 years ago, when the vast exhibition hall was empty save for Humphrey and longtime exhibit developer Dave Fleming, and Fleming started playing his banjo. Humphrey walked around the museum, thinking, as any flat-picking particle physicist might, that there are 3 million cubic feet in the building and every one of those cubic feet has music in it. Just as Fleming’s banjo filled the place with music on that day, Humphrey said, the building is full of Exploratorium spirit.
“Every one of those 3 million cubic feet is full of our spirit, of what we created. We gave it life.”
When the Exploratorium opens the doors of its new home on Pier 15 in April, you can bet that spirit will be waiting for anyone who wanders in.
For the next few months, until the museum re-opens on Pier 15 April 17, “Explainers” in orange vests will bring the Exploratorium to “pop up” spots around San Francisco every week. To find out more, follow @theexplainers on Twitter.