Reviews

Tuesday, August 01, 2000


A museum that bills itself as a showcase for technology and innovation sets a pretty high standard for itself. Everyone will expect whiz-bang state-of-the-art interactive gadgetry, and the thinking behind it had better be fresh. The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose, California, delivers on both counts. The Tech is a place where a kid - or a fun-loving adult - can climb into a simulated NASA jet pack and make the thrusters sidle up to an errant satellite. He can design his own roller coaster and then test-ride a virtual version of it. He can try his hand at keyhole surgery, grasping an artificial artery with endoscopic tweezers while a tiny camera shows his efforts on a monitor. He can use crime lab forensics to solve a murder, create his own multimedia presentation, or try on the latest steel mesh shark-attack suit.

One might expect a museum located in Silicon Valley and blessed with $32 million in donations from local tycoons to mainly celebrate computers and the Internet. Instead this museum is a testament to human ingenuity - how people use technology to improve living on Earth.

The Tech raises complex questions and answers them with an experience. How do bioengineers insert the genes of another species into a corn plant? Find out by handling a gene gun identical to the ones scientists use to fire microscopic bullets into plant cells. How do geologists monitor earthquakes? Jump up and down on a special platform and see seismographic renderings of resulting tremors on the wall above your head. All of the exhibits are designed in keeping with the principle that telling informs, but doing makes it stick.

The Tech excels at simplifying technologically complex things without making them simplistic. I was skeptical when Kris Covarrubias, a museum spokesperson, told me, "Here's where you design a virtual building and test it for earthquake safety" or "These kids are transmitting a live feed of their news broadcast to that satellite dish up there." My immediate thought was, "Right, and when I get home I'm going to rig up a fiber-optic toaster." But when you actually step up to do these things, they're engaging and pleasingly doable. The mentally cumbersome details have been stripped away, leaving behind the essence and, more important, the fun and power of the technology at hand.

When I performed mock laser glaucoma surgery, for example, the only thing that hung me up was the step labeled "Place a paper target into the slot." I couldn't find the slot. The surgery itself was a breeze - and a revelation. I discovered how and why lasers are used to treat glaucoma. Burning a tiny hole in the iris lets the jellylike fluid within the eye seep out, reducing pressure on the optic nerve. By holding a paper eyeball up to the light at the exhibit, I could even see the size of the hole: smaller than a pinprick.

A sizable corps of expert staff and volunteers is stationed throughout the museum to teach and explain and to encourage Grandma to take a turn on the jet pack or to fix the mock Mars rover after sixth graders ram it against the rocks one too many times. The day I visited, a staffer pretending to be a Peanut Butter and Jelly Robot made sandwiches for museum goers. The idea was to show why it's necessary to be specific when giving commands to a robot. "Scoop the peanut butter out of the jar," instructed one boy, whereupon the "robot" picked up the boy's hand and began using it as a scoop. That's one lesson a kid will surely remember.

 


Books

The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control
Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, and Colin Tudge
Farrae, Straus, and Giroux, $27

News accounts of the 1996 birth of Dolly the cloned sheep made the process seem so simple: Remove a nucleus from an egg, slip into it the nucleus of a cell taken from the adult animal to be reproduced, and apply an electrical charge as the fertilizing spark. Of course, that summary belies decades of laboratory tinkering. Less boastful than its title suggests, The Second Creation, written by Dolly's human genitors, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, with science writer Colin Tudge, is an exhaustingly detailed yet coherent chronicle of the century-long project to divine the basic machinery of life.

Wilmut and Campbell didn't dream up all of the techniques that produced Dolly; they built upon a large body of experimental work done on frog eggs. Scientists had known since the 1950s, for example, that sperm isn't needed to activate the nucleus of an egg and start cell division. But mammalian eggs, unlike frog eggs, are scarce, small, and fragile. Among the crucial innovations that made mammalian cloning possible was the use of a chemical that softens the egg's cytoskeleton - its internal scaffolding - so that its nucleus can be removed and another one introduced without lethal harm.

Most important, however, was figuring out the correct timing for the entry of the imported nucleus into the egg's cytoplasm. This fluid carries instructions that can reset the genetic program of an adult cell and take it back to the state in which it can develop into a whole embryo. But only if the imported nucleus is at the right point in its cycle can its genetic material revert to a primeval state. Similarly, the cytoplasm has to be at the right stage in its development to promote the success of the operation.

Unlocking the keys to the cell cycle and its role in reproduction is part of a strategy to create animals with superior traits. Most recently the folks at PPL, the research institute with which Campbell is now affiliated, made headlines by cloning a pig. They hope that colonies of these animals will serve as organ donors for needy humans. Cloning, coupled with advances in freezing eggs, could also transform our ability to preserve endangered species and their genetic diversity.

As for cloning humans, eggs could be used to coax the nucleus of an adult cell into a malleable genetic state; from there it could perhaps be nudged into regenerating injured or defective organs. Some ethicists have deemed this use acceptable as long as the embryo doesn't survive more than 14 days. That is well before it starts making a nervous system.

For ethical and other reasons, the authors do not condone the most unsettling use of cloning: to create human genetic duplicates. In the authors' experience, clones are 10 times more likely to die in the womb and three times more likely to die after birth. They are also more likely to have deformities. Then there's the large-fetus syndrome: Cloned calves, for example, are one-third heavier than animals produced through sexual reproduction. In addition, the gestation periods of cloned animals tend to last longer than normal. Nobody knows why all this occurs.

The Second Creation is by no means a light read, but it offers a close look at our own beginnings and a future in which neither conception nor cloning will ever seem simple again.
-- Sarah Richardson

Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos
Sindney Perkowitz
Walker & Company, $24

The Dutch brewer Heineken expects the foam that tops a mug of its lager to last five minutes - 30 seconds under or over and the entire batch of suds gets scrapped. And that's not all. Brewmasters measure foam height with infrared lasers and calculate bubble size through light refraction. This high-tech scrutiny would have baffled ancient beer makers like the Mesopotamians, but today's brewers know that any change in the delicate balance of grain-protein surfactants that hold bubbles together, or in the long molecular chains of sugars that regulate viscosity and bubble life span, can diminish a foam's ability to trap the compounds that define a beer's aroma, and hence its taste.

But it's not just beer makers who are serious about froth. As Sidney Perkowitz recounts in a delightful new book, foam is essential to soufflés, shaving cream, polystyrene peanuts, the insulation of the space shuttle's fuel tanks, and more. No simple state of matter, foam is not a true solid, liquid, or gas but bubbles of gas within a liquid or a solid. Early researchers, notes Perkowitz, whose day job is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University, were hampered by foam's transient nature. Nineteenth-century Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau, who came up with some geometric laws of bubbles, had to develop a special mixture of soap, water, and glycerin to produce foam that lasted long enough - up to 18 hours - to make precise observations possible.

Happily, modern researchers have computers and advanced imaging techniques to help work out surface tension and bubble shape and behavior. Perkowitz enthusiastically ticks off such recent innovations as fibrin sealant, a foam spray that controls bleeding in trauma victims, antiterrorist foams that can immobilize attackers, and the most amazing thus far, aerogel. This silicon-based substance, an ounce of which can cover the area of several football fields, holds world records in 14 different physical properties. NASA, its developer, has great plans for aerogel. The loftiest: deploying panels of the foam 240 million miles from Earth to corral comet particles that could yield clues to the birth of the cosmos.
-- Jocelyn Selim


Television

Game Warden Wildlife Journal
Syndicated 30-Minute Weekly Show Produced by Creative Street
For Listings, See http://www.gamewardentv.com

Wild Things
Syndicated 60-minute weekly show produced by WT Productions Inc.
For Listings, See www.wildthings.paramount.com

Growing up, I watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I recall clearly Marlin Perkins, the show's patrician host, but when it comes to the animals, the image I have is of a lion chasing down a hapless zebra. Wild Kingdom ended its run in 1987, but its tradition lives on in a variety of series, including Game Warden Wildlife Journal and Wild Things. Neither has as refined a host as Perkins, but both offer a strong conservation message with down-in-the-trenches footage of professionals and citizens working to preserve animal species and their habitats.

Game Warden, which like Wild Things features multiple stories per episode, is the more sober and folksy with its tracking of government officers as they go about their duties. U.S. forest service officers recruit Idaho residents to pluck from the river spawning salmon disoriented by pollution, cleanse their scales, and set them off in the right direction. Wardens in Churchill, Manitoba, intercept migrating polar bears before they lumber through town and start treating pedestrians like bacon. Officials shoot the white giants with tranquilizer guns and load the 900-pound bodies into trucks for transport away from the city limits.

Wild Things features more raw excitement and exotic locales. At a watering hole in Botswana's Savuti plains, an impala thirstily laps up liquid even as a lion approaches. Geological shifts have caused many rivers to dry up, so safari guide Mike Penman races his jeep across the plains to refuel pumps that will deliver water from healthy rivers. In South Africa, an animal lover has made her house into a refuge for endangered giant otters that have been displaced by construction projects.

Both series avoid gratuitous violence, but they don't hesitate to document gruesome abuses. Wild Things, for example, details the plight of Chinese grizzly bears kept immobile and fed intravenously their entire lives so that profiteers can extract their bile for use in folk remedies.

Although more worthwhile than most of what's on TV, both shows can leave viewers wanting fewer segments and greater detail. How, for instance, does the otter-woman sleep in a house full of chittering animals?
-- Rebecca Reisner

 



For more about The Tech Museum of Innovation, including a virtual toue, information about educational programs, and operating hours, see www.thetech.org or call 408-294-8324.
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