Exploring at the Chabot Space and Science Center

One of my favorite science museums in the Bay Area is the Chabot Space and Science Center in and on top of Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park. It’s one of the newer–if not the newest–science museums and still has a shiny, polished feel as a result.

It was busier than I’d ever seen it before on this visit, which means the rest of the Bay Area has probably gotten around to discovering it, too. The Destination Universe exhibit became uncomfortably overrun shortly after we were there, so I took Neil and Kelly to the Discovery Room. It’s a simple room filled with hands-on activities for little hands, like making tracings or creating a structure with blocks. Neil enjoyed making a completely circular marble run:


Kelly, meanwhile, had discovered she could “paint” with a water-dipped brush on a big flat rock set there for just that purpose. My children could spend their entire visit there, in fact. But I had other things in mind, like seeing the exhibits upstairs.

The In The Dark exhibit, about sightless alternatives to sensing surroundings, didn’t impress me, but then I was chasing after Kelly. An attendant had several sticks in front of him which may or may not have been listening sticks: I don’t know because I didn’t ask, and certainly if I’d done so, I’d have enjoyed the exhibit more*. I ended up reading books about bats to Kelly in a living room like section of the exhibit.

The major exhibit room on the top floor used to have an exhibit on Chinese astronomy that impressed me greatly on my first visit. It was much more stripped down this time, but nontheless, Neil found a computer display on orbits that fascinated him. I took Kelly outside to the telescopes, which are the heart of the Chabot Observatory, and which in turn was the very reason for the science museum’s existence.

The Chabot Observatory came about in the first place in 1883, when an educator got it in her mind that Oakland schools needed an observatory of their own. (Given how many 1880s observatories I’ve seen, I have the impression that that decade must have had a star-seeking craze.) The Oakland school district actually founded the observatory, as well as its move when Oakland’s ongoing growth made for too much light pollution. The most current incarnation, as part of a science museum, is very recent: of this decade. But telescopes haven’t changed. They’re public telescopes and you can view the stars and planets through them every Friday and Saturday night, for free. In fact, you can even take a peek through them during the daytime when the center is open, but it was too cloudy today.

I didn’t mind. I just love looking at the telescopes themselves, with their classic beauty. This is Leah, the observatory’s first (and still perfectly functional) telescope, built in 1883:telescope-leah.jpg

The Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton still uses a bigger version of Leah, made by the same manufacturer. They’re both works of art, as well as of science, IMHO.

A movie in the planetarium is included with admission. We watched a cute educational movie called “The Cardboard Rocket” featuring a fictional trip around the solar system. I had to cringe a little though when the movie got to “planet Pluto,” just as I did when I read Chabot’s children’s books to Kelly, which also refer to the “9th planet.” Granted, it hasn’t been long since Pluto was demoted from solar system planet status, but the decision is firm. And if that fact isn’t being recognized at a center for science education, where is the science education supposed to begin?

During the movie, my mind wandered, and I realized that because of the rain, I’d driven in with my car lights on, and I didn’t remember turning them off. Neil wanted some more time to watch orbits on a computer screen, though I tore him away to theorize on why it is that metal balls roll into a “gravity hole” slower than plastic or wooden balls. I didn’t see any docents on hand to give us an answer, so I tapped some intelligent-looking middle-school aged kid to solve the riddle. He guessed it was because the balls’ extra weight made them spin faster so they had more centrifugal force.

And then, I went to look at my car, and indeed, I had left the lights on and drained the battery dry. Chabot on top of a forested hill, so I had no luck getting through to AAA with my cell phone, and I was doubly distressed because I know that, on rainy days particularly, AAA’s roadside assistance can take hours to appear. So I went to the security desk, and told them my sorry story. The security supervisor offered to give my car a jump. I felt like a dork for needing the jump, but deeply grateful Chabot had someone able and willing to help me.

So it was a great day, one that could have ended sadly, but didn’t.

*Neil, who did have the chance to enjoy the exhibit, said the sticks were filled with various gasses and you could see how the light spectrum differed though different gasses by looking in them.

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