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A visit of San Francisco’s Exploratorium

I have to admit that my expectations for the 14th of February were pretty low: spending Valentine’s Day half a world away from my boyfriend, working towards desperately piecing together a decent presentation for the next morning… In the end, it actually turned out to be one of the most thrilling days of the trip.

The teachers had advised us to visit the Exploratorium on adults-only night. That evening had even more features planned due to Valentine’s Day. As for any activity that had been advised to us or even organized for us, there had been a days-long discussion among the students about whether they should all go or not. In the end, the natural gender segregation did its work, and only the girls went – all six of us.

I was the first to enter and waited near the entrance while the others were solving a small hiccup at the ticket office. My first feeling was a great deal of curiosity. I had no idea what this exhibition/museum would be about. Looking around, I quickly understood how it worked. There were a bunch of simple and interactive games or devices that would help one discover an unusual aspect of physics, in a way that induced either amazement or laughter.

When the girls finally got in, we started our journey further into the expo. Manon and I (the two engineers, of course) quickly went into hyperactive mode, jumping from one game to the next, and soon we drifted from the group. From the physics section, we entered a different world, that of words and thoughts. Many games had the purpose of discovering how we thought, how we worked in teams or communicated with each other. One particularly hard but thrilling game was a team snake. Remember the old 2D game where you had to lead your snake to the piece of food to grow it, but never let it crash into the wall or bite itself? Imagine just that, except that each player is in charge of one of the four directional buttons. Believe me, that’s not easy to coordinate.

A screen, where each pixel was a small circle of paper, black on one side, white on the other and flipped on command by tiny pistons. A wooden board, with thousands of nails that would draw the shape of your hand when you pressed them from below. An engine that propelled a thin rope so swiftly that it flied, making beautiful shapes in the air.

After what seemed like twenty minutes, the other girls took their leave of us. The magic of science apparently did not appeal as much to them as to us two. We kept on going, passing through various sections, discovering games about music, photography, math, statistics, geometry, sounds, nature, chemistry and so many more.

We joined a few other fully grown adults around a « zen » sandbox, playing with tiny shovels and drawing figures in the sand on a rotating board. We had our laughing-out-loud moment at a pitch-altering device, that had us sound either like a tiny mouse or a swamp monster. We tried our rythm skills at a fake drum kit. We found our birth dates in the infinite decimals of Pi.

And in these moments, we really awoke the child in us. The one we must silence during normal hours so that actual children can play. The one who cries out for freedom, for unbridled joy, for some innocent playtime.

After almost three hours of exploration, our hungry stomachs brought us back to reality and out of the museum. And as we walked away from this wonderful place in search of food, another hungry beast in us went back to sleep, satisfied at last.