Reviews

Thursday, February 01, 2001


When science centers BLOSSOMED in a fever of directed discovery and hands-on learning three decades ago, few foresaw that their energies would end up celebrating flatulence and vomit. Yet now making its United States debut in St. Louis and Portland, Oregon, is an exhibit that has children cranking a machine until it throws up and playing a set of pipes that blow gas in the key of their choice.

Like the Sylvia Branzei books that inspired it, Grossology, the show, targets the high-pitched single-digit set that often determines where the family goes on weekends. (See www.grossologytour.com for the show's four-year nine-city U.S. schedule.) At Science World in Vancouver, British Columbia, where it just finished an encore run, attendance soared 50 percent above normal, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

Grossology, designed by Advanced Exhibits of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, may be the salvation of science centers forced to compete with Hollywood, television, bowling, and other amusements, but its educational component is obviously lacking— unless, of course, kids are actually reading the factoids posted while waiting in line for Gas Attack, a pinball game in which the bumpers are musical foods.

Rob Lunde, Science World's curator and exhibit-content designer, says the show teaches science to children fascinated by the inner workings of their bodies. "We can have strong, classically pedagogical mission statements, and we do," he says. "But if you have dry exhibits, nobody's going to come. That's where the entertainment part comes in."

Some museum officers fret that's the only part. "It worries me that we are insulting our public and even our children," says Hooley McLaughlin, a senior adviser at the Ontario Science Centre, who recently moderated a panel on the marketing-versus-education issue at a conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. As science centers, which now number more than 400 worldwide, increasingly take what McLaughlin calls a comic-book approach, the thrill of intellectual discovery that comes from a challenging presentation may be lost. "We are forced now to entertain popular themes, hopefully hiding science inside them," McLaughlin observes. "So we do things on acrobatics, or we find a way to get the ever-popular sex in so people will learn something about genetics."

Institutions that hew to traditional content-rich, scientifically rigorous displays find fewer and fewer patrons. Martin Weiss, director of science at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, New York, points to Marvelous Molecules, the Hall's exhibit that underscores the shared chemistry of all living things. It includes a fluorescence microscope and a 35-foot-long glucose model. "It looks great," says Weiss. "But very few of our visitors know what it is." Unlike a growing number of centers, the Hall did not consult marketing experts about the exhibit's design. Attendance "didn't go up," Weiss says. Perhaps it would be best to think of a science center as a library, with both comic books and classics, suggests Annie Ghisalberti, director of Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, Australia. But she agrees the tendency will always be to veer toward surefire money magnets, even if they are disturbingly lightweight: "Many of us have as our motto 'Making science fun and relevant' or 'Making people love science,' not teaching people about cis-and-trans chemistry."

Questacon's Sideshow: The Science Behind the Fun falls into that category. Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at amusement parks, it ends up being an amusement park itself, with a simulated roller-coaster ride, a 20-foot free-fall plunge, and a scarily realistic guillotine. In the three months following its opening last April, the museum attracted double the number of visitors as the year before. Administrators raised ticket prices and still had to turn people away. But there was a surprise cost: Many volunteer docents found the exhibit so intellectually simple that they had little to do, and quit.

 


Books

Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age
Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin
Crown Publishers, $24.

Imagine you have a rare form of cancer. While treating you, the physician, without your knowledge, saves your blood and tissue, applies for a patent on a unique protein they secrete, and sells the rights to a pharmaceutical company for millions of dollars. You sue, but the courts rule you have no property rights to your own body. Far-fetched? That's what happened to John Moore of Seattle, whose blood was found to contain an unusual viral antibody, and it's happening to increasing numbers of Americans every day, warn health-law experts Andrews and Nelkin.

Biotechnology has launched a commercial rush that makes each of us a biological gold mine. Almost every element of the body— including DNA, skin, blood, brain, bone, saliva, sperm, eggs— is in demand by biotech firms, academic and governmental research labs, and state and federal tissue repositories aiming to turn them into medical therapies and research aids that can generate astounding profits. Today a barrel of human blood products is worth $67,000; in contrast, a barrel of crude oil trades for around $30. At the Web site SkullsUnlimited.com, biocollectibles like human skulls range from $250 to $650, depending on the condition and the number of attached teeth, and fully articulated skeletons go for as much as $3,000.

The body-part trade has created a morass of legal and ethical issues that have yet to be confronted. Few laws exist to regulate the buying and selling of human tissues, and courts have been hesitant to impose restrictions, fearing that they will crimp medical progress. Beyond that, there is the issue of privacy. Tissues contain sensitive personal information about an individual's medical history and future health risks. More than 282 million tissue samples from more than 176 million individuals are stored in U.S. repositories, and 20 million new specimens are added each year. Soon, everyone will have his or her tissue on file.

More profoundly, the body bazaar is encouraging us to think of ourselves in purely utilitarian terms. "Body parts are extracted like a mineral, harvested like a crop, or mined like a resource," observe the authors. We are in danger of becoming commodified and reduced to objects, not people.
Mirinda J. Kossoff

The Little Ice Age: How Climate Changed History 1300-1850
Brian Fagan
Basic Books, $26.

In the mid-1350s, the tiny Norse settlement of Nipaatsoq in Greenland winked out of existence. Its inhabitants disappeared, but they left behind signs of a grim last winter's occupation: The dairy farm's five cows had been butchered so completely that only the hooves remained, and even prized hunting dogs had been eaten. Scientists blame the settlement's death on a long-forgotten climatic era that is now drawing scrutiny: the Little Ice Age. Rippling through Europe for more than 500 years, the Little Ice Age was no deep freeze but a period of violent climatic swings. Frigid winters gave way to torrid summers, storms and floods to droughts, with brief relief from milder weather.

Using contemporary histories, diaries, and hand-kept temperature records, archaeologist Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara documents the far-reaching effects of volatile weather on human history. In the 17th century, water temperatures fell too low for cod to survive. Failing fisheries off Greenland and the Faeroe Islands drove English skippers to seek new fishing grounds along North America's coast. The Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620 with a charter to ''serve their God and to Fish."

New data from tree rings and ice cores dating to the Little Ice Age are adding to the debate over whether rising temperatures are the result of natural climate cycles or human activity. The current warming trend began around 1850, when colonialists began to cut down tracts of trees, thereby increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Temperatures continued to rise with the advent of the Industrial Age in the 1880s and its dependence on coal and petroleum. Our own era has been marked by use of chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer. Yet the Little Ice Age shows that extreme weather fluctuations are part of natural global cycles. Global warming, suggests Fagan, may exacerbate the sort of violent climatic swings seen in the Little Ice Age and increase the unpredictability of world weather.
Eric N. Nash

 


Television

Secrets of the Pharaohs
Produced by TV6 for Thirteen/WNET New York in association with Channel 4 (U.K.).
Three-part PBS series debuts February 13
(check local listings for stations and times).

The 18th dynasty was the most ambitious of all Egyptian royal families, carving out an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Sudan. Its pharaohs ruled for 200 years and through at least 12 generations before coming to an end with Tutankhamun, the boy-king buried with fabulous treasure at age 18. What caused the dynasty's demise has been an enduring puzzle, although Egyptologists have long speculated that it was the result of inbreeding. That supposition is the focus of the first episode of a fascinating new PBS series detailing how DNA analysis, X rays, bone and tissue sampling, and chemical profiling are helping reinterpret the world of ancient Egypt.

One key to answering the 18th-dynasty mystery is the mummified remains of two stillborn fetuses found in miniature coffins in Tutankhamun's tomb. The mummies, presumably the offspring of the king and Ankhesenamun, the half sister to whom he was married, were unwrapped and photographed shortly after the tomb's 1922 discovery but then ignored until recently. DNA from royal mummies in the Cairo Museum is also being studied to trace lineages and to see how closely connected the individuals were. Early results indicate that although the 18th dynasty began and ended with a brother-sister pairing, fresh bloodlines were introduced through marriage during the family's reign.

The second episode demolishes the long-accepted tale of the construction of the great pyramids of Giza. The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the Giza plateau 2,000 years after the giant structures were built, recorded the version given by Egyptian guides— that the Great Pyramid of Khufu was erected by 100,000 slaves laboring for 30 years. New discoveries suggest that Khufu's tomb was built by just 20,000 workers in 20 years. Laborers may have moved a two-ton stone block from quarry to pyramid site in two minutes. And far from being mistreated slaves, the workers were a privileged elite who lived with their families in a settlement, were fed the most expensive fish and meat, and received the same medical care as Egyptian nobles.

The final episode tackles the mystery of the blue lotus. The plant, now rare in Egypt, is prominent in tomb and temple paintings and is a dominant image in love poetry. Was it a hallucinogen or a narcotic? Analysis of ancient samples from garlands draped on mummies shows that the blue lotus is rich in phytosterols and has a chemical profile astoundingly similar to gingko biloba. Scientists believe it was used to promote general health and sexual vigor, and thus became a symbol of long life and rebirth in an era dominated by disease.
Anastasia Toufexis

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