EXPERIENCING SCIENCE For 30 years, the Lawrence Hall of Science has been helping people experiment for themselves

Scientifically speaking, 30 isn’t a glamorous number. It’s no mathematical constant or unit of measurement (except for the pace, which is 30 inches, but who really uses that besides treasure hunters and expectant fathers in the delivery room?).

The number 30, however, does take on significant mathematical proportions when it comes to birthdays. Perched high in the Berkeley Hills along the winding Centennial Drive, the Lawrence Hall of Science launches its “Whales: Giants of the Deep” exhibit today to begin a yearlong celebration of its 30 years.

By all rights, LHS should have thrown a rousing birthday party a year ago when it turned 29 on May 20. That was the young age of UC-Berkeley professor Ernest O. Lawrence when he managed to make a workable cyclotron, a massive machine that two years later whipped an atom’s protons into such a frenzy, they collided with the nucleus and disintegrated it.

His invention contributed to enormous advances and horrible realities, from atomic energy to the atomic bomb. The educational center, though, carries on another legacy: that of passing on the joy of science and mathematics through personal experience.

While most of the 6 million children and adults who have visited get to see everything from the inner workings of the cerebellum to the configuration of the planets, they don’t get to see very often just how the hall works. Now it’s time to find out just what makes up the Lawrence Hall of Science.

What is the Lawrence Hall of Science and what does it do?

The hall is actually a two-level building, with three main exhibit areas on the main floor and laboratories on the lower level. It opened May 20, 1968, as a place to engage high school students and teachers in science. Nowadays, LHS gears its interactive exhibits and classroom curriculum to kindergartners, high school seniors and everyone in between.

Did you know teachers can be students, too? Last year about 22,000 continued their professional development to help invigorate their own classroom instruction.

The hall is more than its physical location. It develops and publishes educational research, books, projects and kits. LHS staff members also visit schools throughout Northern California and to the far eastern reaches of Nevada. In one of its six vans, these ambassadors arrive bearing games, live creatures and other embodiments of science.

All this revolves around its mission to spread the word (and numbers) of science and mathematics in a fun, interactive and meaningful way.

What do the following have in common?

  • Ice cream
  • Music
  • Treasure box
  • Siberian tiger
  • Bubbles
  • Footprints

Give up? In one way or another, LHS has used these to teach scientific principles. Identifying footprints is a step toward understanding patterns and forensic science. Bubbles introduce the difference between solids, liquids and gas. The tiger embodies animal biology, the treasure box holds the secrets to sorting and classification, music resounds with acoustics and the sense of hearing, and ice cream delves into chemistry and the senses of taste and smell.

These mundane objects (except maybe for the Siberian tiger) provide accessible avenues into science. Such approaches diminish the principle’s seeming esoteric aloofness and return it to its rightful place in everyday life.

This concept underlies LHS’s mission: to remove mystery and instill excitement. Sometimes simplicity conveys the concept, like its small exhibit “Math Games of the World.” Sometimes sheer overwhelming awe does it, like the massive robotic creatures in its “Whales: Giants of the Deep” display. The hall tries to make the unfathomable fathomable, but without sacrificing its immense wonder.

Why does the hall have a name?

The center commemorates a Nobel Prize-winning professor who spurred the study of atoms and nuclear physics.

Ernesto Orlando Lawrence was a first in many fields. He built the first university radio station at the University of South Dakota with Dean Lewis Akley of the school of electrical engineering. Hired at age 27, Lawrence two years later became the youngest full professor at UC-Berkeley. He disintegrated an atom’s nuclei with an artificially accelerated particle in October 1932 before any other physicist in America. His invention of the cyclotron, with the aid of his assisting graduate student Stanley Livingston, won him a Nobel Prize, the first for a Berkeley faculty member.

The proposal for a living memorial came from two individuals, Glenn T. Seaborg and Harvey White. Seaborg, of Lafayette, besides being a professor emeritus, author and Nobel Prize winner (in chemistry) who added a few elements to the periodic table, currently serves as the LHS chairman.

Did you know:

* The plans actually called for an additional wing, which was never built?

* Many exhibits are too large for loading dock doors? When the design was conceived and approved, people never imagined how complex and mammoth some exhibits, such as “Whales: Giants of the Deep, ” would be. So critters like the giant insects, marine animals and reptiles come in the front door like everyone else.

* Television was considered the future of classroom instruction, so the hall had a studio to prepare for closed-circuit education. That prediction never fully materialized, and now the studio has been converted to the computer nerve center, from which wires connect to all areas of the Hall. LHS is now fully networked, which means each computer is hooked up to one another as well as to the outside world.

* When LHS first premiered, people thought it defined the mod futuristic look so much that two filmmakers used the hall as a backdrop for their science fiction movies. One is the forgettable 1969 “Forbin Project, ” which you may not remember as “Colossus 1980, ” “The Day the World Changed Hands” or “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” Film hobbyists may recall a 1971 picture that featured the amphitheater and Memorial Room. “THX 1138” was the directorial debut of a young man named George Lucas.

Why is the plaza a funny shape?

That funny shape is called an octagon, an eight-sided geometric figure. A San Francisco architectural firm called Anshen and Allen entered its “futuristic” design in a contest. The eight sides represents the eight disciplines of science: astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, nuclear science, geology, physics and space science.

The lobby and front entrance will undergo some renovations beginning June 1, to be completed in early fall. Visitors needn’t worry about Pheena, a 50-foot fin whale replica in the plaza. She’s already found temporary quarters in the lower level by doing something most whales could only dream of: She flew via helicopter airlift.

How do all the exhibits get put together?

Many, many individuals become involved in the thinking process alone. Advisory committees comprised of university faculty, community members, educators and staff ponder concepts, then figure out how to translate it to a broad audience. The activity must engage a diverse spectrum of Bay Area visitors and students with their differences in age, cultural exposure and scientific background.

The staff also has to do research to make whatever scenario it creates look realistic. One of their last exhibits was ChemMystery, which let people act as amateur forensic scientists to solve a case, such as that of the missing teddy bear. The participants receive a description of the suspects and then examine clues, such as powders and liquids, in a miniature laboratory.

Once an idea gets to a concrete proposal stage, money becomes the next consideration. While the university does subsidize part of the budget, projects get their money from sources like grants, contracts, fund-raising, admission, publication sales and products. ChemMystery received most of its funding from the National Science Foundation. The exhibit, developed from a classroom project, proved so popular, it’s now traveling around the United States.

Once the accountants are happy, research forges ahead. In ChemMystery, for instance, the LHS team in charge went to the Contra Costa Sheriff’s office to see how forensic scientists work. Workshop staffers begin constructing the actual pieces. Complementary classroom workshop and teacher programs are developed. When the pieces are assembled in an exhibit hall, visitors critique the setup.

This whole process takes, on average, three to five years. Sometimes the hall incorporates traveling shows, such as the exhibit opening today, “Whales: Giants of the Deep, ” created by the Pacific Center in Seattle. That brings in its own set of logistical challenges, even though these shows come with their own instructions. For instance, the staff added backdrops to foster the illusion of entering an underwater environment.

LHS also wanted to make visitors aware just how immense these creatures are by measuring how much they eat (half a million calories in one day). That’s why the exhibit staff spent two hours folding 250 fried chicken boxes donated by Lake Merritt Restaurant in Oakland and stacking 100 empty milk cartons courtesy of Berkeley Farms (which had to stop the production line briefly to gather up the half-gallon containers) to represent just some of the intake.

Speaking of maintaining whales, even robotic ones need attending. They need to be pumped up with air compressors. Then their tanks need to be filled with about 150 gallons of water. Electricity enables them to survive and do their twists and turns, so those vital hookups are made. Even after the whales move in, they need to be watered every day that is, the staff checks the tank and replaces the water lost due to condensation and all that blowhole spouting.

Just what kind of math and science is in this activity?

Building the exhibits involves erecting a two-dimensional schematic into a three-dimensional reality. The staff employs logic and problem-solving in setting up a display such as its current one. The robotic nature of the marine re-creations means finagling with mechanical engineering and computer technologies. The sheer mass of the robot whales requires quite a bit of geometry, physics and calculus to figure out how they will fit and how they will function. Sometimes exhibit manager Brooke Smith finds herself scribbling with pencil and paper to calculate the ideal arrangement. The workshop staff members, she admits, exercise spatial visualization faster than she can finish her computations.

So does the hall really help you learn?

The people who responded to the Lawrence Hall of Science’s Web site anniversary survey (www.lhs.berkeley.edu) believe so. Darryl Lee didn’t realize he was only two years younger than the hall. “I loved the tangrams (geometric logic puzzle), the planetarium, but especially the teletypes in the basement where you could print out ASCII pictures of Snoopy and Charlie Brown, ” he recalls. Now as a Silicon Valley system administrator, he’s surrounded by the Unix successors to those mainframe computers.

“When I was still in high school I joined the Friday Group, ‘” recounts Brian Smith, a 20-year veteran at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. As a “Frid Kid, ” he and other students showed up one day a week to use the minicomputers that were off-limits to the general public.

The effort to make the hall engaging for both boys and girls worked for Kim Polese, chief executive officer of Mountain View-based Marimba Inc. If you’ve ever navigated on the Internet, you’ve probably encountered her handiwork; Polese was part of the team who created the Java programming language at Sun Microsystems.

“I loved the hall because there were so many different activities and exhibits to choose from, ” she says. “I especially loved the computer labs, the planetarium, the rocks, the exhibits about earthquakes and tectonic plates, and the outside area with the ponds and the wind organ.”

She credits its influence for awakening her interest in science and technology, a field that she believes still lacks women and minority workers. Yet now, more than ever, this is where people need to be.

“Technology surrounds us. It is important that it is demystified and explained and that we feel we understand it and we control it that it isn’t something cold and foreign that controls us, ” Polese says. “A place like Lawrence Hall of Science makes science an adventure because you get to experience it.”

Crunching numbers

At any one time, about 300 members run the hall. Part-time employees and students make up half the staff.

The exhibit space on both levels measures 35,000 square feet. No wonder just one exhibit room, like Pauley Hall, can hold three whales and some human beings.

Last year, the hall welcomed more than 300,000 people that’s about how many people live in Pleasant Hill.

Every state in the union and 27 other countries use LHS-developed teaching materials.

A $12 million annual budget runs the science hall’s three programs: public science center (exhibits and public events), center for school change (school programs), and center for curriculum innovation (kits and curriculum material used throughout the country). That amounts to $1 million a month.

Whatever magnetic properties LHS has to attract federal, state, local and private grants, they’re potent: The hall has received more than $83 million in the last three decades.

The biology lab has 140 individual animals, from the minute milkweed bug to the 5-foot-long king snake Linky. The heaviest is the endangered desert tortoise, weighing 8 pounds, 12 ounces.

Science Exhibit

Just in time for the International Year of the Ocean, “Whales: Giants of the Deep” returns to the Berkeley hills at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Through Aug. 30, some of the world’s biggest mammals will be spending their summer break in Pauley Hall. The guests include orca, gray, humpback and sperm whales, as well as the “unicorn of the sea” narwhal. Human beings will get to listen to their underwater calls, learn about echolocation and figure out just what a half-million calories per meal really means.

The hall is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is $6 general, $4 ages 7-18, students, seniors and disabled, and $2 ages 3-6. Call 510-642-5132 or consult www.lhs.berkeley.edu for information. As parking can be difficult at times, especially on the weekends, consider traveling to the hall via A.C. Transit and the U.C. Berkeley shuttle.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features