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Getting away from the textbook

Jacqueline Trescott
Special to the Daily/Marian Koshland Science Museum. An exhibit on global warming features Bessy the fiberglass cow, a re-creation of one of today's major methane producers. Bessy is among attractions at the new Marian Koshland Science Museum, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.
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WASHINGTON – Bessy, like other cows, chews a lot of grass and creates a lot of methane. Scientists count methane as the second greatest cause of global warming.

That’s why a realistic fiberglass model of Bessy and an explanation of her multiple stomachs, her diet, her chewing and emissions came to be at the new museum sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The Marian Koshland Science Museum, which opened downtown Friday, aims to demystify the scientific topics of the day.

The Koshland isn’t a step into the world of a scientific laboratory with its own language and isolation. Nor is it the kind of hands-on adventure of many new science museums, with dancing dinosaurs, solar-powered car simulators and IMAX films.

Instead the Koshland is a low-key, handsome presentation of topics that are in the realm of both ordinary conversation and public policy. The museum was organized by the academy, and the latter’s far-reaching work provides the content.

“We want to bring the academy’s reports to the public in an innovative way,” said museum director Patrice Legro, who researched scientific literacy for the academy, a private, nonprofit group created by Congress in 1863.

The museum was funded by a $25 million gift from noted biochemist Daniel Koshland, who wanted to memorialize his wife’s work and her efforts to promote public understanding of science. Marian Elliott Koshland, who died in 1997, was a groundbreaking molecular biologist and immunologist. The Koshlands were married for 52 years. “I wanted to show the academy policies and good science at a level where the public will learn and have fun,” Koshland said.

In the past few years, Washington has become a laboratory for niche museums. The Koshland doesn’t pretend to be anything like the cavernous National Air and Space Museum or the National Museum of Natural History. It has more in common with the International Spy Museum, the City Museum and the Newseum, which focus on narrower topics, but with a multidimensional treatment, and are all located in the reinvigorated Penn Quarter and Gallery Place neighborhoods, a few blocks off the Mall.

Tom Bowman, who specializes in entertainment graphics for museums and organizations, and Ed Hackley, an art director who has done exhibitions for the National Museum of American History and the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum, designed the museum. The goal was a balance among accessible language, fun gizmos and pertinent topics.

If the presentation had been left to the scientists, said Bruce Alberts, president of the academy, they would “paste textbook pages on the wall.” Instead, Bowman and Hackley have filled the relatively small, 6,000-square-foot space with super-size panels, electronic graphs and a limited number of floor displays. On one panel, they have condensed a huge amount of data, temperatures around the world for the past 100 years, into a chart that tracks how weather has changed. A visitor can trace how El Nino is born.

The space is divided into three areas. The permanent exhibition, “Wonders of Science,” revolves around the academy and research, with an introduction film about science. Beyond that are temporary exhibitions: “Global Warming Facts & Our Future,” which looks at natural causes and human impact on temperature changes, and “Putting DNA to Work,” which explores the use of DNA sequencing in finding the origin of SARS and solving criminal cases. The temporary exhibitions will remain for two years.

What to see

To explain the science behind global-warming headlines, the museum uses a number of approaches. There are descriptions of volcanoes, measurements of ocean coral, explanations about the way Earth wobbles on its axis. There are a number of computer-driven displays. One panel gives visitors several options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which are more prevalent than the methane created by cattle. Once the visitor makes a choice, such as planting more trees or improving commercial transportation, the panel shows how much impact that would have.

The DNA exhibit includes an electronic panel that allows visitors to follow the way DNA fingerprints are compared to a sample left at a crime scene. Visitors can try to find a match as thousands of combinations fly by, or they can press a “get me the answer” button.

Another panel asks visitors to guess similarities between their own DNA and that of yeast, a chimpanzee, a fruit fly, a mouse and Albert Einstein. When a button is pushed, the answer appears on the screen. Every human and Einstein share exactly the same genes, but the DNA sequences within the genes may vary, and could account for how Einstein differed from the rest of us.


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