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An Exploratorium and Tactile Dome photo-tour!

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  • Trip Report An Exploratorium and Tactile Dome photo-tour!

    The Exploratorium: what's gotta be the coolest science museum in the world. I'd been here once before--23 years ago, and had been wanting to see it again ever since.

    I'm going to get to the point right off: the venerable Tactile Dome! The description is simple enough: totally dark inside; lots of things to touch, feel and find; navigating by touch. For the sake of not giving too much away, this is intentionally in the wrong order.

    And here it is!

    It doesn't look very big. What is it, just a couple rooms?

    Don't let the apparent size fool you. Before seeing the outside, I was thinking multiple levels and a convoluted layout, but that you'd mainly walk through. Afterward, I was thinking a few small but regularly-proportioned rooms, with various props. The reality is a combination of both, but far more interesting and entertaining.

    Looking up in the lobby. The entrance is the black curtain just below, the exit to the lower left. You start in a staggered manner, one or a few at a time, so you're not all crowded together in the same part.

    Now it's our turn: inside we go!

    The first room. Getting the feel of things, quite literally

    There's a passage up that way. But first, let's make sure we're not missing anything

    Some things on the wall. No other ways to go over here, so let's head on up.

    You find out right away that every surface is covered by every manner of textured material: carpet, floor mats, gratings, fur, polished metal, fabric, and much more.

    The passage is low: you have to go up on hands and knees

    Feel everything! With the small scale of the passages, I was able to get pretty complete mental imagery of everything. I wasn't clear on the big-picture layout of everything of course, but I didn't have any problem staying oriented. It all seemed ingeniously designed. In a short time, the fact that it was dark became absolutely trivial.

    There are many items on the walls and ceiling. Some sections seem themed.

    This might be the "garage": all the stuff on the wall seems to suggest it

    That list in the lobby is very incomplete. There's much more to be found if you search for it.

    A floor of coated canvas: this feels like a trampoline

    The "kitchen." Not only the rolling pin, but also at least two juicers, a bundt pan, skillet, jell-o mold, at least two muffin pans, and more things I couldn't quite identify

    Any lower, and it'd be almost like crawling under a bed, with a really furry ceiling

    A slide! Down to...? Let's find out

    I wonder if I can order take-out for later tonight. The receiver seems to be stuck, though. But this phone is upside-down on the ceiling...

    A young child's bedroom, I believe. A squeeze toy, stuffed animals on the wall...what's that thing?

    A keyboard! So this is what that light goes to. And this is where those musical notes I could hear earlier were coming from.

    You can stand up here. Wavy...plexiglass?

    More things on the wall and ceiling. A sack of marbles, it feels like

    Crawling again, up a rope net

    Oof! That is a tight squeeze--I had to pull myself up

    Now this part is awesome: it's at the very top of the dome. If you look back at the picture of the lobby, the ceiling you see is the underside of this part. There's a big doughnut-shaped platform with cushions over all of it, and a fabric "tent" above it. It's like the forts you made in the living room, only better. Something like this would make a terrific and very comfortable reading loft. (And I want one!) It doesn't show in the picture, but there's some intentional very dim red light below for safety reasons, so you know you're on a platform a couple feet off the floor. (Aside from this, the only other light was from a few small light leaks in the structure, but not enough to see by.)

    The passages into and beyond here are under the platform.

    Down this way...some sporting goods, a roller skate

    Another slide!

    At the bottom of this, koosh balls! And you finally start to see light again. The exit is just ahead.

    Several of the others were amused that it took me a while to get through, about half an hour. I allowed several others to pass me. You can breeze through in less than ten minutes if you want, but what's the point in rushing? I wanted to explore every cubic inch. Let's go through again!

    Now that I've experienced it, here are a few things I'd suggest:
    # Sessions last about an hour and fifteen minutes with a group of around 15. With about five sessions per day, space is limited and can sell out. If you'll be pressed for time, be sure and make reservations (see the website). You can chance it if you're early enough and there might be openings for later sessions. By all means, do it if you can. It's only $5 extra and absolutely worth it.
    # You can go through it repeatedly while time lasts.
    # Secure or store ANYTHING loose, including stuff in pockets unless they're very tight. You'll be crawling and sliding and laying down and all that. Better to avoid having an important item go missing to begin with. You'll need to take your shoes off too. There are cubicles in the lobby to put things in.
    # No lights. There was actually no explicit prohibition against it, but obviously you'd be cheating and missing the whole point of it being an experience in the dark. I was wondering if lights, camera flashes (goodness forbid), cell phone screens, etc, from others would be an issue. With my group they weren't; the only light source I saw anybody with was a glow-in-the-dark watch face.
    # It's not at all appropriate for those for whom claustrophobia is a significant problem, unless they're looking for some hardcore exposure therapy. A few areas are tight, low and narrow; combining this with it being dark and pretty stuffy, plus it not being practical to backtrack, a panic scenario is very likely. If you've been inside, I'm especially referring to:
    the tight part just above the rope mesh you climb up, where it's narrow, low, at a steep incline and going off to the right, and you probably need those ropes with the knots to pull yourself up. It's easily conceivable that a claustrophobic would become terrified here, especially considering it was pretty tight at the top of and on the first slide earlier, which means going back would be all but out of the question. (Getting up it, although not a big deal, was something of a grunt-fest for me. It's too low to crawl because of my height. The first slide was a bit of a b**** for me too: I had to lay down backwards all the way, shimmy ahead, and then pull up and forward on the grab bar to get onto the slide, because the ceiling and slide tunnel were too low for me to sit up.)

    To me it was trivial, but then again I don't get claustrophobic. I wonder if there are any auxiliary exits. I would imagine so, so the inside can be accessed to be cleaned and sanitized. Not a good idea to count on it though.

    And that's the Tactile Dome. Simply put, it was awesome.

    Here's some assorted commentary on a few Exploratorium exhibits. All this stuff's out of order; I had several hours to look at things before my Tactile Dome appointment.

    A giant kaleidoscope: simply three partitions in an equilateral triangle with mirrors inside.

    White, cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green, blue, black...

    And on the topic of color, I've wanted to to do what I'm about to do for probably 19 years now, as well as waited 23 years to see this again. This was one of the main motives of this visit. The following will be of particular interest to a certain Mr. W, science teacher extraordinaire from back in high school. If by some chance you see this, enjoy.

    This isn't original. Nope.

    THIS is the original:

    The Exploratorium-made Mix & Match. This is where you-know-what had its start back in 1987 when I first (and last) visited here. This might be an updated version on a more modern computer; at the least the console has been updated.

    Taking a technical viewpoint, even back then I realized there had to be some pretty high-end graphics hardware being used. Back then, computer graphics were usually capable of only 16, 64, 128 or 256 unique colors. Or maybe at the high end, 4096 (16 shades for red, green and blue components). Regular VGA cards, which can do up to 262,144 colors (64 shades per component) were introduced only in 1987. From what I recall, the version back then did more than 64 shades per component, as does the present-day version, possibly 256 like now-ordinary truecolor aka 24/32-bit. I've been wondering ever since what kind of computer it was. It was visible then, inside a plexiglass console, but I didn't recognize it later on. Possibly an Amiga of sorts. Or it could have been an SGI workstation or similar. (As an aside, at present there's an original Mac SE being used for one exhibit.)

    It became more commonplace pretty fast, though. VGA was long-since ordinary in IBM PCs just 4-1/2 years later when I was in high school and made my version shown in the top pic above; that just uses regular VGA mode 12h. Today, the idea of making colors on a computer by mixing red, green and blue isn't nearly so novel as it was then, considering that the color-selector tools in paint programs and Windows and such perform essentially the same function. And the exhibit itself could be easily done as a Flash app and could run fullscreen, or even a webpage using Javascript and CSS.

    There were at least two more exhibits in which you could use variable amounts of red, green and blue to make colors. A simple but nice one was a hollow box about a cubic foot inside, shaped like a house, white inside and with windows so you could see in. Variable red, green and blue lights allowed you to make the inside any color. This I would have especially liked to see back in 1987. In fact I was wanting to make something essentially identical using light bulbs and either potentiometers or graduated filters, after becoming fascinated with the Mix & Match exhibit. It never happened, though. I did make a set of graduated cyan, magenta and yellow filters meant to be used subtractively, which didn't really work.

    This is a cloud chamber, a vintage technique for observing ionizing radiation. It's a bit tough to see what's going on here, because this is a timelapse of a few seconds. There's a slow "rain" of droplets falling through alcohol vapor; these are all the vertical streaks you see. The radiation particles cause intermittent "shooting stars" a few inches long through this vapor cloud--they cause the vapor to condense, if I understand it correctly. You can sort-of see a few in this picture. Probably a shorter timelapse of .5 to 1 second would have been better, but "alone time" here was limited because it was pretty busy this day.

    The cloud chamber, front view. A bit off-topic, but so what: this just oozes vintage goodness. Neon indicator lamps glowing in the dim light, big variac knobs, panel meters... There's a "1965"; I'm not sure if this is the serial number or the manufacture date.

    This is probably one of my favorite exhibits, simply because it's a good example of how a real-world device, in contrast to a specialized experiment, can illustrate an important scientific principle. In this case the concept of frequency ranges in the audio spectrum is being illustrated with an ordinary 1/3-octave graphic equalizer. There's a microphone passed through it, that you listen to with headphones. There's another benefit here: those who have seen and wondered "what's that thing with all those sliders do?" and those who know what they are but haven't had an opportunity to use or just mess around with a big one like this, will have that opportunity here, and learn about audio frequency at the same time.

    A related exhibit involved (I don't recall the exact name) a tonewheel generator with about 20 harmonics (multiples of the fundamental frequency) with sliders to vary the amplitude of each. The result is an audible tone and is also displayed on an oscilloscope. The concept here is more or less identical to the tonewheels and harmonic drawbars on Hammond organs. It was somewhat limited in its usefulness, because the lower frequencies didn't have very pure waveforms and it was fixed-pitch with the fundamental at 70Hz, in other words hard to hear in a noisy environment. But you could try and get square, triangle and sawtooth waves by watching on the oscilloscope, or make weird sounds.

    I think a harmonic-drawbars exhibit, with a musical keyboard, would only make sense and would be an extension of this. It would illustrate how variations in harmonics and overtones affect timbre and tonal quality. If you're not familiar with how Hammond organs work, drawbars (the black and white knobs that slide out) are "custom-make your own organ stop" in a sense.

    This is looking into a curved mirror, at just the right distance so that the image is "re-flipped" horizontally and not too stretched or squeezed...

    which means when you turn around you see the same scene.

    Your admission media is a little sticker you put on your shirt. This is what you do with them as you leave, if you like.

    And right outside, of course, you have:

    The real one, that is.

    Although this one is naturally the best, I'm a fan of the "other" one, too.
    *nods that-a-way*
    This is almost at the end of a several-year, multi-phase and badly needed restoration project. The ground surfaces are being redone and are slated for completion and reopening later this year.



    Pier 39/Fisherman's Wharf area later in the evening

    Unreservedly recommended

    That's all the pictures I have from this visit. But I was here last October sometime, and took more then. Here's a few of those. It was clear and warm and awesome that time, compared to the equally-enjoyable moody costal-fogginess of this day.

    Last edited by HighLeveller; 08-03-2010, 12:18 PM.

  • #2
    Re: An Exploratorium and Tactile Dome photo-tour!

    Fun report! Your Tactile Dome pics remind me much of the album that Marcel Marceaul put out (the famous French mime). The each track of the album consisted of an introduction, about 3 minutes of silence, and then wild applause at the end!

    I've only been to the Exploratorium once, many many years ago, and at the time, I had the sense it was a bit run down. I'll have to give it another try sometime.
    Does anyone even bother with signatures anymore?


    • #3
      Re: An Exploratorium and Tactile Dome photo-tour!

      As a teacher, probably one of the best museums I've have attended. Excellent stuff and a riot to read!

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