The Low-Tech Charm of the Itabashi Science Eduction Center

The Low-Tech Charm of the Itabashi Science Eduction Center

I visited Philadelphia when I was little to visit my Grandmother.  She lived with a woman named Marilyn and the only thing I remember about Marilyn is that she served me an English Muffin with margarine for my first time.  I do not know if we visited the liberty bell, but we did visit the giant heart in the Science Museum.  It was wonderful and eerie — if my memory is correct, you walked through the heart, the thump thump thump echoing through the room.  There was something deeply human, vulnerable and sort of lonely about the experience.   It made me love science museums and I have gone to plenty.  In recent years, that human touch I fell in love with has been increasingly leached out of science centers as they have pursued a  hi-tech vision. The Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, in particular, is huge and extensive, set up almost like an interactive video game. The experience is overwhelming — over-stimulation at every turn, the whiff of corporate sponsorship running through the air conditioning ducts.  My son at age 10, left in a bundle of tears (blame the sensory deprivation tunnel for that one) and never wanted to return. Small surprise that I have found Liberty’s antithesis right in one of my favorite dens of humanity, Kami-Itabashi.

The Itabashi Science Education Center is a few minutes from the train station.  It sits alongside a gem of a park, filled with fountains, jungle gyms, and fountains.  The Center is free — not just for kids, but for anyone that comes in.  It is housed in a large, modern building.  The upper floors contain a small planetarium, a cool train set, some aquariums and I assume some lecture halls or classrooms.  The basement is where the action is.  The theme here is “Science of every-day life” and fittingly there are about 50 hands-on, interactive exhibits concerned with transportation, sound, energy, etc. There is a long tube hanging down from the ceiling, a drum head at the bottom.  Hit the drum and the tube lights up at various distances to show how fast sound travels.  There is a dowel attached to a magnet that tests reaction time based on how quickly you catch it when it drops. Another gauges how accurate you are at counting off ten seconds.  There is a car, with a “computer” graphic that seems from the age of “Pong” that allows one to simulate driving down the street. There is a large, empty water jug made of soft plastic that allows you to bang on the sides and hit targets with forced air.  The centerpiece exhibit is an “earthquake simulator” which is nothing less than 3 theater chairs that shake about while you watch a film replete with televisions falling off shelves. There are various Rube Goldberg type devices; magnet tricks; a table fitted with mirrors so that the illusion is created that you are just a head on the table.  There is no whirring, no digital beeps.  No loud music pumped through the hall. Everything is, seemingly, hand made — the product of some well-intentioned group of weirdos.  Off to one side, a group of old men tinker with ham radios — the mist of bygone hobby fads clinging to their excitement.  On one wall is a description of evolution, complete with drawings — made, no doubt, by someone’s cousin who was known as the “art guy” —  of the different stages of humanoid development.  The Itabashi Science Education Center may not be for everyone, but it is the most human science museum I have ever encountered.  My kids, 6 and 12, and fully part of the Ipad-internet-video age, totally embraced the experience.  They tried everything that there was to do and they did not want to leave.

Pedaling my bike back home after the Science Center, I pondered why I was so enamored by its low-tech charm.  What I realize is that, as of late, my relationship to science and technology has become fraught with anxiety: Whenever I see shoppers using a self-checkout center at a grocery store, I envision those grainy, weirdly-colored elementary school movies of lemmings throwing themselves off the cliffs of Norway.  It seems to me that embracing those automated technologies is sort of like raising your hands and saying: “I am totally replaceable and useless. I relish the day that I will bow to my machine overlords”  From everything I read, the coming disruption of AI, driverless transportation and so much else is set to explode like an atom bomb in the lives of working people.  While I love my iPhone, I feel the cold grip of fear when I realize how addicted and dependent we are to these devices.  I sense, via science and technology, that the value of being human is going into the crapper.  In some way, those handcrafted displays of pneumatic power, those groups of old men fiddling with crystals at the Itbashi Science Education Center made me recall a time when knowledge of Science seemed to be connected to the idea of offering a great service to humanity — a liberation from back-breaking toil, ignorance, and famine. Or maybe I just thought the whole thing is cool.  Either way, Kami-Itabashi rules and keeps on giving up the good stuff!

 

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