Ten Great Science Museums: Liberty Science Center

By John McPhee|Monday, November 01, 1993
It is not difficult for me to think as if I were ten years old, as the people I see at Thanksgiving are always ready to attest. So if I were ten again--here in New Jersey, my native state--what would I make of our new Liberty Science Center, and, to address its mission, what would it be likely to make out of me? Surrounded by open space, it stands near the Hudson River and not far from the Statue of Liberty, which, as every fifth grader knows, is also in New Jersey. The museum’s assorted architectural components--its great sphere, its pinnacled tower, its diamond dormers and multiple decks--are so compressed that the result is a cubed Mahal, Oz in a can, against a resonating backdrop over broad water: the compacted ridgeline of financial Manhattan.

The Liberty Science Center’s declared purpose is to combat what it sees as a general scientific illiteracy, to strike a spark in children in obvious and subtle ways, and then to draw them back and keep the spark aglow--ultimately, to educate many and, with luck, to inspire a few. And how does a museum do that? In the words of the management: First, don’t scare them off.

Up a ramp I go, fearless, and into the four-level atrium, my youth camouflaged by a gray beard. High in the center of the atrial space is a metallic sphere about four feet in diameter that bristles like a floating mine. It could be a model of a large implosion bomb. A work of engineering sculpture, it begins to expand on 1,700 hinges and--bursting in air--becomes a geodesic globe with a surface area of a thousand square feet. Soon, like a sea cucumber, it rapidly contracts.

The escalators have glass sides and visible working parts. They carry you up to the Insect Zoo--to the colonial displays of carpenter ants, Kenyan millipedes, pink-toed tarantulas, and Emperor scorpions. Close by, second graders are digging in a mound of dirt in search of weevils, pill bugs, springtails, scorpion-fly pupae, centipedes, and small local millipedes. Don’t scare them off.

The African millipedes are longer than hot dogs and call to mind segments of BX cable. Would I like to handle one? In this company, what choice do I have? Nina Zitani, of the museum staff, lays a Kenyan millipede on my open palm. Curled like an ammonite, it covers the palm. In a minute, says Nina, she’ll begin to move.

She begins to move. She uncurls, stretches from my wrist beyond my fingertips--her touch as tentative as an art restorer’s brush. She seems self-conscious. Understandably. People say she is a millipede, but she has only 250 legs. Leaving my hand, she crawls onto Nina’s.

Would I like to hold a Madagascar hissing cockroach?

My nod is meant to suggest that this has been a lifelong ambition.

The Madagascar hissing cockroaches, with their inquisitive and wormlike antennae, are flat and hard and of a size that could easily cover your whole mouth. They hiss because they think you are going to eat them. As I fondle one’s chitin, the roach responds with the sound of a camera automatically advancing, of a Visa charge printing out. My roach is covered with crawling mites. In symbiosis, the mite is to the Madagascar roach what the egret is to the Texas longhorn. The head, smooth and female, is of a brown so dark it is virtually black. Males have stubby horns on their midsection. Along the body, the color lightens through rich and varied cordovans to a hint of orange.

Central American cave cockroaches thrive behind glass on a walnut limb. The adults are three to four inches long. Their pronouncedly segmented babies are scattered about them like horseshoe crabs. Not by accident are cockroaches, in such taxonomic variety, the star attractions here. First, this is Greater New York, the roach utopia; moreover, the Insect Zoo was assembled by Betty Faber, an entomologist whose doctoral thesis dealt with roach behavior. Faber grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi. I grew up with cockroaches, she tells me. I was always scared to death of them. If you’re scared to death of something, you’re usually fascinated too. When I could identify the species of cockroach in my nightmares it wasn’t a nightmare any more. She shows me a bottle of Mississippi green cockroaches that she is rearing for eventual display. If roaches eat the excrement of other roaches, they mature more quickly, she says pleasantly.

Most of the creatures here were donated by Faber and started life under glass in her home near Princeton. The tarantula she now holds, of which she is especially fond, came from a friend at the American Museum of Natural History. It is a Venezuelan species that is eaten by humans and is said to taste like shrimp, she informs me, and quickly adds, But I have no intention of eating my critter.

Above her head is a 50-inch screen--the control visual display of a scanning electron microscope--in which orange paramecia are swimming about. Glancing up at them, Faber says, They’ve been eating carrots.

The museum is designed to consist of countless analogous moments. These are a few:

A skeletal arm and hand--the brittle phalanges wrapped around a doorknob. Put your own hand on a doorknob close by, and turn it. As your bones move, the other bones move.

Stand in front of the thermographic sensing camera. Your mottled image appears on a screen in colors relating to the surface temperatures of your body. That’s me! A perfect likeness: green beard, yellow mouth, pink nose, red head. The body’s surface temperature range can vary through 30 degrees. As I stick out my tongue, it licks like a white-orange flame.

At the Bernoulli Bench, you can pick up an air hose, blow it over the top of a ball in a cylindrical cage, and make the ball rise. You toss Ping-Pong balls and they stick like burrs to the sides of air jets you cannot see. You blow a jet between two bowling balls. Instead of scattering, they slam together. Bernoulli’s principle shapes the airfoil and lies behind the breaking baseball. Daniel Bernoulli was the Swiss mathematician who discovered, in the eighteenth century, that pressure is inversely related to the speed of moving air. Since air pressure acts from all directions, air flowing rapidly across the top of an object will make the pressure there lower than the pressure that is acting on the bottom and the sides. Enjoy your flight.

At the Stream Table, across the way, water flowing over crushed walnut shells forms oxbow bends and braided rivers, making point bars and cut banks while you watch. The staffer at the spigots is not the Betty Faber of the earth sciences. He says he has been given to understand that the subject he is presenting is known as geomorphology and mentions offhandedly that he is a member of the California bar. His knowledge of limnology is about what you would learn in a torts course.

In an aquarium of streaming water, you try to control various objects through the glass with magnets--page 1, line 1, fluid dynamics.

Competing with others at control panels, you cause little stock cars to move like bullets. You lose the race if you go too fast, though, because you run out of fuel.

The museum is a hum of chatter. Children 15 deep wait to crawl in total darkness through the Touch Tunnel maze or to negotiate the niches of the Climbing Wall, which is embedded with fossils both real and artificial. The elemental question is: How much of the science will stick? How effective is the jungle-gym approach to core curricula?

The Liberty Science Center helps to train elementary school teachers, sees a prime target in urban minority children (hoping that they will discover in science a possible career), and arranges research opportunities for high school students in New Jersey’s innumerable academic and corporate research labs.

The idea behind the museum’s various discovery rooms is that if something especially arrests your interest you can take it further. There are 25 staff members on each floor, ready to help you assemble bones, deconstruct a wasps’ nest, or work on a CPR doll. Equipment is here (the scanning electron microscope) that is not in most schools. In the discovery rooms, whether children are digging for weevils or disassembling computers, they are, in effect, making their own exhibits. They bring their toys or machines from home to the basement Swap Shop--things for taking apart. They bring their dichroic reflectors, their capacitors and reed relays, their pop pumps and solenoids and exchange them for hard-drive air filters, pancake motors, electromechanical scissors, and portable throwing stars.

As for me--the overall effect on me--if I were ten years old not even the feathery caress of a six-inch Kenyan millipede could coax forth a scientist from within; it would, on the other hand, tickle the hell out of the writer there.