I love science and travelling, so I often end up in the local science museum, or at an exhibit explaining the regional geography or flora and fauna. I thought it was time to open my scrapbooks and share some of my favourite science-themed places, starting with the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris.
When people go to Paris, their first stop is usually the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. Maybe a stroll past the Seine, or along the Champs-Elyssees, followed by a coffee in a cafe in Montmartre. I do all that, too, when I’m in Paris, but I also try to fit in a visit to Cité de Sciences.
The last time I was there was a while ago, though. It was the summer of 2003. Europe was hit by a heatwave, and over fourteen thousand people died as a result of the heat in France alone. It was too hot to be outside for long, so museums in general were an attractive destination. Science museums outside of the touristy part of town even more so.
Cité des Sciences is in Park de la Villette, a subway ride away from the centre of Paris. It looks nothing like the Paris you know from tourism flyers, and that’s why I like it. This is where the locals take their kids on Saturday afternoon. It’s more “real”, in a way, than picture-perfect postcard Paris.
The most notable feature of the museum and the park is the Géode: a big shiny ball next to the science museum. Inside is an IMAX cinema with surround screen. I don’t know when it was decided that science museums all over the world need an IMAX theatre, but this wasn’t the last time I’d see one. It may have been the first time, though. It was also my first time in one of those large scale open-space science museums, where the exhibits are laid out around an open space with the ceiling about three or four floors up. Wikipedia says it’s the largest science museum in Europe, and that sounds about right. It’s more like the ones I saw in North America.
Even though the museum looks like many other science museums, that’s exactly why I like it. I love that you can travel the world and see the same kind of science museums everywhere. Science is a global pursuit, and science-themed education, engagement and entertainment should be very similar in countries with a similar kind of research infrastructure. I love being able to go to Paris – a destination that I always associate with tourism and art – and step into a museum that could easily be in another country.
Not everything is the same, though. What impressed me in particular about the museum in Paris was the unapologetic difficulty level of some of the exhibits. When I was there, there was a display where you could play around with molecule models to understand the difference between chemical addition, substitution, and elimination reactions. That’s high school chemistry, and something I don’t remember seeing on prominent display in other museums. Molecular interactions are amazing, but very rarely featured in science museum exhibits. Usually the focus on chemistry is a bit more “zoomed out”, showing colours, materials, and other results of chemical reactions that you can recognize with the naked eye.
I particularly loved the chemical reaction display, as well as the room that had lots of familiar lab equipment in it (gel electrophoresis machines and table-top centrifuges) because to me that showed science in action, and wasn’t just an attempt to teach small children.
Ideally, science museums should be interesting to everyone: to kids for whom scientific discovery is just their natural way of discovering the world, but also to adults who may have a bunch of degrees in one field of science, but still know very little about everything else, or who just enjoy exploring different ways to communicate the science they know so well. Cité de Sciences had something for everyone, and it was one of the coolest days we spent in Paris during the hottest summer in history.