The Palais de la Découverte is part of the Grand Palais and a little known gem in the Paris museum circuit. It isn’t as flashy as the Cité des Sciences at La Villette, but it is accessible and fun – and quite educational to boot. There are sections for almost every branch of science: astronomy, biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, archaeology…you name it. It is also pretty much set up to please children of nearly any age as well as adults. I have only been there a handful of times – and only since I have had kids – but I think I have really been missing something.
Sunday, we took the kids there for a few hours and had a blast. As usual, my son headed up to the astronomy section (we missed the last planetarium show, shucks!). He loves the planets that he can spin around and the mockups of Apollo 11, the moon landing, the Mars rover, and all the other cool stuff there is to look at. For us adults, there are pretty interesting articles on all of the wall space about the planets, the solar system, and the stars as well as a short film. They also have a scale model of the solar system attached to the ceiling which is really cool. The interesting thing is that there is still a metal rod where poor old Pluto used to be, but since he was demoted to a dwarf planet or plutoid or trans-Neptunian object. And to add insult to injury, this demotion isn’t even mentioned in the various texts (including one on trans-Neptunians.) What I learned by checking wikipedia is that there were actually protests against the demotion (nerds of the universe unite!). It was all very uninteresting to my 5-year old but kept this nerd entertained for a while.
We then wandered around a bit through the math section. OK, I wandered around about because my son headed off to the dinosaur fossil section with my wife and daughter. There are lectures in a small auditorium (we were too late for them), but what I really loved (man, I should have snapped a photo!) was that over the doorway to this mini-lecture hall, the most amazing mathematical formula was written over our mortal heads:
Now, for the non-initiated, this just looks like a bunch of numbers, but the beauty of this is that three of the most important mathematical constants (e, i, pi) as well as the two binary digits (1,0) and two fundamental mathematical symbols (+,=) are all united in this incredibly equation. It is deceptively simply but hides unfathomable complexity. Such were the thoughts that floated through my head as I stared at all the various posters about pi (just realized I should have posted this on International Pi Day last week) before realizing that I needed to break out of my nerd daze and find the family.
Now, in a city of 10M+ inhabitants, you’d think it would be rare to run into folks that you know in such a curious museum. Well, it just so happens that when I stuck my head into what was a cross between a physics lab and a chemistry lab, I saw one of my son’s friends from kindergarden with his dad and one of his brothers. This other dad had discovered le Palais and loved the place and especially the lectures. I ran off to grab my son away from the dinosaur bones and we joined the beginning of what was to be a really interesting lecture and series of experiments. The young scientist that spoke to us was quite gifted in explaining some basic physics much to my surprise. I think he gave the clearest explanation of Brownian motion that I have ever seen. He also did some experiments with only water, a beaker, and a bunsen burner. He showed how to reduce the boiling point of water below 100 degrees C and – even more interesting – flipped over the beaker and demonstrated a vacuum with a nice clacking noise. Explanation necessary? Basically, all that was left in the beaker was water vapor on the upper round bit and liquid water in the nose of the upside down beaker. If the beaker is given a swift up-and-down motion, a clacking sound is heard. It isn’t ice – it is actually the water molecules in free fall in the microscopic vacuum formed between the beaker and the rubber plug. Yeah, its really, really geeky but super cool – and it fascinated my 5-year old. At least until he had to pee and we had to split.
By then, it was closing time. But, I was so pleased with my visit and with the fact that the lecture we did catch was really interesting and even creative. Hmm, I’ll definitely be back. Maybe even without the kids!