A Small Window on Big Science
Museum Tackles Diseases, Climate Change and More
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page HE01
For those who find the vast array of high-tech hardware that fills the National Air and Space Museum overwhelming -- not to mention the constant hordes that fill the cavernous expanse -- a more serene and equally informative scientific experience is available less than a mile away at the largely undiscovered Marian Koshland Science Museum.
The small niche museum, in trendy Penn Quarter, is part of the National Academy of Sciences, the prestigious advisory panel that issues thick reports about weighty topics ranging from medical errors to water quality. The mission of the three-year-old museum, named for an eminent immunologist who died in 1997, is to illustrate the content of some of those reports in an innovative and accessible way.
The light-filled space -- a scant 6,000 square feet, a little bigger than the size of a McMansion -- is home to several exhibits, the newest of which is a prescient and absorbing look at infectious diseases and their global impact.
Like the other exhibits, this show probably will appeal to a wide range of people, including those, from middle school on up, who think they are not particularly interested in science.
Best of all, visitors won't be caught in a scrum of tourists or find it necessary to wait in lines or crane their necks to check out a display. A recent midday weekend visit found fewer than six people in attendance, so there's plenty of time to linger, punching the buttons that allow a visitor to play public health officer and ponder the impact of vaccinating different portions of a population to control a severe outbreak of flu or measles.
A massive, movable mural featuring an international tableau of people and animals reveals potential microbes lurking beneath: the cute house cat that carries toxoplasmosis, a parasite found in cat feces; the chicken harboring bird flu; and the staphyloccocus on the doctor's hands, capable of causing infection in sick patients.
Another panel explores the emergence of methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus, or MRSA, the infection caused by the overuse and misuse of antibiotics and found most recently in some local high schools.
A chart documents the striking influence of basic public health measures, including vaccination and improving public water quality, that were responsible for the sharp increase in life expectancy in 20th-century America.
"People think [increased longevity] is about antibiotics," said the museum's deputy director, Erika Shugart, "but it's really about basic things" such as chlorinating the water supply.
Giant floor-to-ceiling plexiglass tubes containing iridescent cerulean blue marbles are vivid representations of the dizzying speed with which some bacteria can reproduce over a short period: 16 marbles at two hours, 256 at four hours, and after only eight hours: 65,536.
Other parts of the exhibit illustrate the importance of vaccinations for once-common childhood diseases such as measles and polio, and interactive demonstrations of the effects of lagging vaccination rates. It is a timely reminder at a time when some parents are eschewing recommended childhood immunizations on the grounds that they are "unnatural" or based on the myth, widely circulated on the Internet, that they trigger autism.
A companion exhibit on climate change, though not new, is worth a look given the growing interest in global warming.
Among its features: time-lapse photography documenting the alarming shrinkage of a glacier in the Cascades over the past 80 years; fascinating vignettes about previous episodes of global climate change during the past 1,000 years, including "the Little Ice Age" that occurred between the mid-16th and 19th centuries. That era endured bitterly cold winters that affected population migration in Europe, was a cause of widespread famine and is one reason the Vikings abandoned Greenland, now the focus of accelerating concern over the unprecedented rate with which one of the world's largest ice caps is melting.