Science at a science museum

Yesterday C and I took the kids to Sensation Science Centre in Dundee, and I was blown away. Sensation is a great science museum, but the highlight for me was one exhibit on science itself.

Most of the time science museums, science displays, and science programmes are about “cool stuff” – explanations and demonstrations of how things work, illusions and what’s behind them, the latest technology, and so on. Dundee has plenty of that. But it also has this:

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s one of the best science exhibits I’ve seen. It’s about what science really is – not “cool stuff”, but questioning and finding answers. It’s in four parts.

The first part is about precision – about lab work, really. Scientists have to measure and record very precisely and very carefully, so their experiments are repeatable. There is a precision scale, a collection of tiny beans, and a pair of tweezers. The challenge is to measure out exactly 1.00g; when you’ve done that, the super-challenge is to measure out exactly 2.38g.

The second, the key for me, is about how scientists know things and what that means (epistemology, though it never uses the word). There are three sealed boxes. The challenge is to work out what’s inside each without opening the box. You can shake the box, listen to it, feel it, weigh it, tap it; you can discuss your ideas with your friends and colleagues; but you can never open the box. It’s real science: you have observations, you have the opportunity to discuss and clarify your ideas with others, but at every point all you have is the best theory so far: there’s no way to open the box and find out the real answer. I thought this was absolutely brilliant – when you realise there is no answer available and you can never truly know whether you were right, it makes a big impact. (It’s well worth checking out the videos on the Mystery Science Boxes website.)

The third part of the exhibit is about observation. There are three items in the display: a drinks bottle with a sachet of HP Sauce in it, a glass panel with a magnet on a string, and a black circle. The aim is to look carefully, taking the time to see everything that there is to see, and to try and work out the reason for what you see. The sauce sachet behaves oddly, there are patterns in the glass, and the black circle is more than it seems – though to some people more than others!

The fourth part is about ethics and application of science. We are developing technology – the example used is geoengineering – how should we proceed, and what should we do with it? Each visitor is asked to rank a number of statements from strongly agree down in steps through to strongly disagree. While some statements are easy to place, others require hard thinking.

Together, but especially the second part, this made a powerful and accessible presentation of what scientists actually do and what science really is – beyond the tricks and demonstrations of the typical exhibit. Well done Sensation!

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