Washington, D.C.: Sophisticated Science

The Smithsonian deserves its reputation as Washington, D.C.’s mecca of museums. But a recent visit reminded me that the city hosts many alternatives to the crowds and sensory overload.

A few blocks from the Mall, the Marian Koshland Science Museum escapes many tourists’ notice. Named for an immunologist and molecular biologist who conducted groundbreaking research in the behavior of antibodies, its small footprint belies an ambitious mission.

Its centerpiece, Earth Lab: Degrees of Change, comprises dozens of interactive displays that unflinchingly highlight the risks of climate change and the many ways we can apply the brakes before it’s too late.

I have to admit that seeing “interactive” on the Koshland’s website tripped my glitz alarm. Museum directors’ fear of losing their future audience has generated a lot of dumbed-down exhibits for the attention-impaired.

But while the Koshland’s sleek technology may suggest video games, its content reflects a different emphasis.  Launched eight years ago as an arm of the National Academy of Sciences (itself founded in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln), the museum is expressly intended to advance NAS’ mission of providing objective scientific information.

I wandered into Earth Lab to see a 20-something couple at the Mitigation Simulator, the exhibit’s flagship attraction.

Photos courtesy of Marian Koshland Museum of Science

I watched them thumbing virtual slide bars and tapping radio buttons to combine various remedial measures — CO2 emission ceilings, home-insulation standards, higher or lower proportions of nuclear-derived electrical power — into comprehensive climate policy. Their tactics registered outcomes on a ten-foot screen on the opposite wall.

When my turn came, I chose steps that seemed feasible given the difficulty of subsidizing conservation and preserving industrial competitiveness. The big screen frowned: my grand design cut greenhouse gas concentrations to about 620 PPM — 150% of the generally recognized “safe” level.

It took a dozen tries and ten minutes before I got anywhere close. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know it was this hard.

Deputy Director Erika Shugart and a panel of noted climate scientists planned Earth Lab as an enjoyable but educational experience. “Our surveys show people are very interested in climate change,” she says. “We want to help people realize they have lots of choices, and the choices they make have real impact.”

I walked out of the exhibit freshly determined to turn down the thermostat and opt for paperless bank statements. But guests will find more than compelling climate science here. Other galleries beckon, including a fascinating showcase of medicine’s farthest reaches and a suite of video screens highlighting the frontiers of astronomy and cellular biology.

The Museum’s website advises visitors to plan on a one-hour stay. That’s plenty of time, but I’m ready for a return visit. The Koshland proves that it doesn’t take a three-story emporium to unleash your imagination.

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