By Ruthanna Gordon
There’s not necessarily a lot of art, or a lot of science, in moving. Possibly the science of calculating exactly how many boxes it will take to hold a book collection, or the art of packing everything neatly enough that it won’t collapse in transit.
Hi. My house is full of bubble wrap, my e-mail is full of well-meant advice about DC area housing, and I’m trying to figure out how to say goodbye to the Chicago science scene.
I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and unwilling to settle on just one of Chicago’s many bits of scientific coolness to write about, so I’m going to mention a few favorites. Whether you live here and haven’t seen everything yet, or are just thinking you might visit some day, these are my recommended highlights from seven years of sporadic sampling:
The Field’s Evolving Planet is, bar none, the best museum exhibit I’ve ever visited. The visitor walks through the history of life on earth, from the first organic compounds to modern Homo sapiens, all illustrated by selections from the Field’s massive fossil collection. At intervals, floor-to-ceiling red slashes mark mass extinctions and tell you about their possible causes. Fossils are supplemented with models and multimedia—I’ve linked in the past to their amazing Burgess Shale aquarium. There’s also a mock-up Carboniferous forest with giant dragonflies. The fossils themselves are impressive. I’m particularly fond of the Tully Monster, which is Illinois’s state fossil for the simple reason that it’s never been found anywhere else. (And there’s a Sesame Street pun that I missed entirely when I was a kid!)
Also in the Field: the unpresupposing Rocks & Minerals exhibit includes a sheet of fossilized rain.
On my last visit to the Shedd Aquarium, I discovered something that I’d somehow managed to miss previously: the Wild Reef exhibit. The Caribean Reef, just behind the entry hall, gives the impression that reefs are mostly about fish. The larger downstairs exhibit, by contrast, shows off their full diversity. I found these guys the coolest, and creepiest:
They’re called garden eels.
The Notebaert Nature Museum is smaller than the Field or MSI, and aimed largely at kids. But unlike the Field or MSI, it has a butterfly house. And it has a window where you can watch the cocoons that will eventually produce new butterflies. Usually, one or two are in the process of hatching.
Beyond museums, there are many places in Chicago that get at the joy of discovery that’s at the heart of science. The North Park Village Nature Center is a great place to learn about, and observe, the local ecology. They hold regular events and classes, and in the Spring they have a maple syrup festival. Much like butterflies, maple syrup is something that I appreciated for years without ever getting to see it produced. At the nature center I got to see all the steps of the process, and taste the very faintly flavored, almost rainy sap as it came out of the tree.
You wouldn’t think a giant ferris wheel had a lot to do with science—careful calculations are needed to keep it from falling over, of course, but they don’t really enter into your experience riding it. The ten-story wheel at Navy Pier, though, is one of many leftovers from the 1893 World’s Fair, a hugely optimistic celebration of scientific potential that still permeates the city’s culture. Like many of the fair leftovers, this wheel is not the original, having been rebuilt 100 years later along stronger, more modern, and more corporately sponsored lines—as well as smaller ones. Similarly, several of the city’s museums are modeled on fair buildings, but made from more durable materials. Although 21st century Chicagoans are more aware of technology’s pitfalls, we haven’t let go of the hope that science can still create a better world.