Variables Are the Spice of Life

The Koshland shows how fun manipulating scientific data can be

November 22, 2011

In the Earth Lab, you set policies to mitigate climate change. It’s fun! Really!

At a conventional museum, you press buttons to call the elevators or play tinny recordings. At the Marian Koshland Science Museum, you press buttons to play God. By “play God,” we mean, “manipulate data to save/stabilize/destroy Chicago/Earth/everything.”

The Seeing Science exhibit straight-up asks, “What Is the Fate of the Universe?” To decide, start with the “Find the Dark Matter” exercise. Adjust the relationship between star velocity and dark matter — mass that can’t be observed directly — for a sudden and miraculous understanding of a brain-melting concept. For an encore, reprogram the Big Bang.

Backstory: Marian Koshland was an immunologist whose husband, biochemist Daniel Koshland Jr., came from a wealthy family. After her death in 1997, he gave $25 million to the National Academy of Sciences to create the Koshland, which opened in 2004.

Highlights: Talk to the friendly human at the table and she’ll explain the differences between incandescent, CFL and LED bulbs. The latter, relative newcomers to the lighting scene, are meant to last a few decades. The Infectious Disease Gallery elegantly answers bulky questions such as “What annual percentage decrease in vaccinations would leave Chicago susceptible to a measles epidemic within 20 years?” In the Earth Lab, soothing pastel touchscreens demand tough policymaking. Choose the priorities and tactics you think will lead to significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, then watch your scenario play out in graphic detail (as in “with graphs,” not “with realistic violence”) on the wall before you.

Gift Shop: None — and you really wanted to buy an LED bulb! (ZetaLuxes can be had for $10 to $15 on Amazon.) The Earth Lab sim lets you email your climate change strategy portfolio — a thoughtful present for any congressional rep.

Marian Koshland Science Museum, 525 E St. NW.; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Tuesdays), $3-$5; 202-334-1201. (Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, Archives)
Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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