CAPjournal article - Five Years On

It has been five years since I last posted on this site, and it is with very great pleasure that I add this postscript to my experiences. I was asked to write an article about my experiences for the IAU's Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, and I encourage you to take read it here:

Astrotour 2010 Summary

Well, it has been an incredible summer - 20,000 miles and several facilities, all the planets and a small amount of this one. Mostly though I have to say that it's been an honour to meet so many people and see behind the scenes of some truly world-class science communication hubs. I want to summarise in this post what I felt makes a great centre and a good experience, but if you want more information please do contact me.

Firstly, and most importantly, staff: if the staff are happy, this immediately translates to the visitor that this is a good place to be. To make the staff happy, they need to be involved, to have a sense of ownership over the place, so allowing them to play in the centre will encourage others to do just that too. If they can be part of the decision-making and design process for exhibits and collections, so much the better, as this will give them a sense of ownership and therefore more enthusiasm over showing it off.

Secondly, if it's a choice between a natural communicator and a scientist, I'd take the communicator every time. You can teach an actor physics; you can't necessarily teach a scientist how to interact with people. If you want to create an atmosphere of learning, then it helps for the staff to be learners too. The Exploratorium had high schoolers, the Ontario Science Centre had actors - neither group is classically well up on science, but they have a curiosity and a natural keenness for learning.

Thirdly, if money is a problem, get the community involved. Make exhibits to be used and ask people to donate materials and ideas. What do people want to see and understand? Can you foster links with universities to bring new exhibits, sponsorship and talent? Can you get local businesses to sponsor an exhibit? What other ways can you find to use your existing facilties more wisely?

The simplest interactives are generally the best, as I found in places like the Halifax Discovery Centre, where space and funding are at a premium. You don't need gigantic interactives such as at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, though if you have the money and buildings, by all means go for it. Try and find the simplest ways to get the message across.

In that vein - signage. Make sure it's easy to navigate through your centre (take note, AMNH) and that in the hullabaloo of school holidays there are enough people on hand to direct visitors. There is though a very fine line between putting too much description on an exhibit and not putting enough; often putting a headline and brief precis of what's going on, then going slightly more in depth should visitors want to read on. Whatever happens, saying: "What's going on?", "What to look for" and "Why does this matter" and being clear about it really helps.

Finally, whatever you do, make sure that you listen to your visitors. The least good place I visited (in Montréal) was bitty, the staff were bored and uncommunicative, and the complaints procedure was non-existant. It has to be said that someone eventually got in touch, but after playing a bit of answerphone hockey the communication ceased, so there was obviously little desire to change. Every visitor counts, and every visit is a chance to boost someone's curiosity about science.

So there we have it, a brief summary of an incredible summer. For more information about me and what I do, please visit my website at - otherwise, keep the science communication coming!


When you hear a child crying because the don't want to leave a place, that's a very good sign. When, however, after four hours of playing, exploring, interacting and climbing it's you that doesn't want to leave because you have so much more to see, that's an excellent sign. That's understandable though, because the Exploratorium is a truly excellent science centre and I'm so glad to have gone there.


One of the taglines of the place is, "where the right answer is a question" and it's obvious why this is so. The answer is in the name - Explore-atorium - and visitors are encouraged to let their curiosity reign and enjoy themselves. It is also described as a centre for 'science, art and human perception', so as not to pull apart these very interlinked disciplines and thereby create a holistic experience for all who come through the doors.

Let me start by talking about the staff, as this has been so far the clincher for each place. During the summer, the floors are filled with high school students, and these are the people showing visitors around. You may think this a risky strategy, and it is not without its problems, but it is a socially empowering and laudible one. It creates a learning environment, where if a student doesn't know the answer, they'll work together to find it. It's also showing too that it's OK for people to say, "I don't know", and foster the continuation, "but let's find out."

When school is in session, field trip explainers are the young adults who take over. These guys are there to try out teaching and continue this culture of curiosity. Ken Finn, my host at the Exploratorium, told us that part of the ethos was the feeling that you could become an expert in anything at all and as such the exhibits are designed to pique whichever parts of your interest you choose.

The place can be likened to a forest of phenomena, and it is possible to get overpowered by the potentials within. There are pathways for schoolchildren to find a specific set of interactives about a certain topic, but otherwise the aim of the place is in the name - the Explore-atorium. You can find anything from geometry you can climb on to seminal photography, all based in a warehouse with gothic stone angels watching over.

An important thing to note is that each exhibit is a prototype, designed to be played with, investigated and used. It may not look so 'pretty', but you are immediately hit with the great feeling as a visitor that you can touch the exhibits. It doesn't create as much of a barrier as you maybe get with the 'perfect' interactives in other museums.

They are designed by inventors, people with arts backgrounds, museum studies graduates - any number of people who've come in, started as volunteers and made their way into the workshops. Whilst previously it was a matter of having an idea and going for it, now there are a couple of extra funding layers to get through. However this doesn't stop someone from building a prototype and putting it forward.

One remark here - having the floors stacked with these handling-friendly prototypes means that a lot of things get well used and as such broken. This isn't a problem in the Exploratorium, because the designers are there to see how the public interacts with their ideas in the first place, and it is the whole design team's job to go around and repair whatever is broken outside. Everyone does everything - the ownership of the whole place is shared amongst those who work there and even the visitors themselves.

You may also think that the materials used are somewhat shabby in places as a result of all this handling and discovery. It is true that the centre has a good recycling scheme where people bring in old bits of wood, plastic and so forth and Ken freely admitted that this is because materials are expensive and you have to make do with what you have. There is a great spark of brilliance in looking at what you're given and being challenged to make something from it.

In fact the museum has created cookbooks, telling you how to make exhibits for centres and big schools and the lighter 'snackbooks' have since been written showing smaller scale versions for schools. There have as a result been festivals where schoolchildren have been invited in to get their hands on the workshop and exhibited their own interactives - more social empowerment and community engagement.

The centre has around 600,000 visitors per year, and ten times that amount for online traffic. The website is just like the facility itself, a maze of curiosity that still manages references once the exhibits themselves have finished on the floors, e.g. the science of skateboarding. One way that the hi-tech and low-tech are being linked, for instance, is a microscope in the building being given the functionality to be moved and focused from online.

And what of the exhibits themselves? Well, apart from being very well-handled and touchable, they are extremely simple. One that we saw was simply a black box with a hole in the outside - this demonstrated that dark is the absence of light, as the inside was completely white and yet this couldn't really be perceived through the hole. Another was simply a button labelled "Do not push this button" and a counter showing how many people had. See the pictures above for others.

In short, this has been the perfect place for me to end my trip around North America's science establishments, as it takes the very best of them all and puts it out in its own unique way, without pretention and in a very welcoming, fun way. I have to thank my host, Ken Finn, for taking the time to give me a backstage view of the place and the opportunity to ask all my questions.

An excellent experience, and well worth a visit from anyone in the science communication community.

San Francisco Amateur Astronomers

I have to say that the SFAA have a wonderful spot for viewing the night sky up on Mt Tamalpais - quiet, warm (especially compared to the city when the mists come in) and with excellent viewing. They are especially lucky because once the fog blankets San Francisco, the city lights are masked and the stars can shine that bit brighter. I have to admit I was quite surprised to be able to see the Milky Way so brightly so near to the bay.

There is a good mix of levels there and they have both 'members only' and public evenings. Some bring their telescopes and laser pointers and show the wonders of the universe off to those who are interested, whilst some are there because they love the subject without the same depth of knowledge. It all makes up a really fun and varied evening with so many great stories to hear.

The SFAA is connected to a wider range of astronomical associations through the NASA network and membership is very reasonable for a year of viewing evenings and the resources available online. It's also a great place to meet new people and enjoy great company in one of the many beautiful places around the city of San Francisco. Thanks for a fantastic evening everyone!

Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory seems to be LA's answer to its Greenwich counterpart, with excellent demonstrations of the universe and solar system, as well as a dual-system planetarium running E&S Digistar 3 on DLPs with a Zeiss Universarium for crystal clear night skies. Sadly tickets to this were sold out when I got back from my walk in the afternoon, but I was lucky enough to get a look inside when I first arrived.

Griffith Observatory

There is a lot of good stuff here, and certainly more than you may expect from first looking. A Tesla Coil is fired every hour, along with a talk given by a member of staff, a public programme of events also runs, and our group was able to see an interactive presentation of how to make a comet (using water, sand, windex and dry ice). The presentation style was informal and interesting, with science questions being answered whilst guests entered.

There were once again good links to local astronomers and reasons why California should be well known in astronomical circles, as well as a live view of the sun on a smoky glass screen in one area. This was a very nice touch, as was the effect of looking at Saturn through a telescope in the same hall. The planets themselves got excellent treatment in the downstairs area, being displayed in very intuitive ways as regards size, scale and orientation.

My favourite piece in the observatory though had to be the Gottlieb Transit corridor which, at local noon, focuses the sun onto a large arc of metal to show the date and correspond to the place on the ecliptic. Sadly this wasn't well explained at all, but as someone who knows what was going on I really appreciated it.

It would be worth going again when it's not so busy, so I shall hopefully have reason to visit LA again in order to see more, but for anyone wanting to find out more about the universe this is a good place to go in Hollywood. There are hiking trails for those needing a walk as well.

California ScienCenter

In the heart of Exposition Park in Los Angeles lies the California ScienCenter, a free museum with IMAX and paid exhibitions. It is an imposing structure, although with a small problem of being difficult to find coming from public transport, and is equally breathtaking from the inside with a number of good exhibits and a well thought-out plan behind it.

California ScienCenter

The usual praises are sung - good interactives and friendly staff. Where this particular centre excels is in areas such as the local connection; for instance material unearthed from a landfill by an earthquake was put on display and after 15 years you could still read the print on the paper and so forth. This was part of the Ecosystems exhibition, in which there was also fish from the ocean and so on. As part of the extreme climates, a large block of ice demonstrated the different permeabilities of fabrics and in the desert flash floods showed the fickleness of the land.

One excellent interactive are that particularly springs to mind was the island zone, which demonstrated by means of catapults, air pumps and grappling hooks how difficult it was to get to the island by air, sea and carrier. Another one consisted of different sized balls in a perspex box which visitors had to pull up using different 'beaks', showing the adaptations of birds to their prey. Photos are in the album linked above.

In the section on Egypt and the pyramids, the visitor was challenged to put the pieces of pottery (and thence the story) together for themselves, emulating the work done by the real scientists. This was done very well, with good explanation for you when you finished. A pit with bones was displayed - who used it? Was it a party bin or a burial ground outside a butcher's? Poor or rich? Very well done, and very simple.

So here is a centre that's not afraid to get visitors to think and is also free for everyone to look around. This is why I heartily recommend the California ScienCenter to anyone in the LA area - it's well worth a visit.

Three Rivers Foundation (3RF)

18 miles to the west of Crowell, a small town in West Texas, lies the 3RF campus out in the middle of nowhere. Out here there is no light pollution, as the nearest sources are individual ranches far on the horizon. It's flat all around, so the view of the night sky is unparalleled, and it is here that I was invited as part of my Astrotour 2010 to see the stars as I have never done before.

Three Rivers Foundation

You may think that this part of Texas would be difficult to get to and this is certainly the case for light pollution reasons - but once there it is incredible and well worth the drive. After all, it's only 3.5 hours from the DFW Metroplex and close to Oklahoma too - a short hop for most Americans!

I visited for one of the monthly public star parties, beginning with a view of the Sun through a specially filtered telescope, then I gave a talk about how important astronomy and science education is for the world. As the sky got darker, the myriad volunteers who had come for the show opened their telescopes up to the public and I was able to see all the planets and even Pluto. In fact, one of the big draws to the campus is their 30" reflector, which gave excellent views of galaxies and the more 'invisible' objects in the universe.

3RF doesn't just open their campus for public star parties, however. There is camping (both tent and RV) for anyone wishing to stay overnight, as well as a bunkhouse for those wishing to have a bit more comfort. Their classroom has wi-fi and projectors, which get used by children's groups such as the Scouts for their badges. It's not just astronomy either, as the whole site is full of wildlife and is home to Project Prairie Wild, which emphasises the environmental sciences and conservation.

In fact 3RF has a unique draw for schools, as they offer programs for teachers and students to explore science and astronomy in a very hands-on manner. The company is extremely enthusiastic about opening up nature and the night sky to all, and this really shows in the enthusiasm, warmth and knowledge of their presenters. It was an absolutely amazing evening and I encourage everyone to find a way to get out there to see the campus and the crowd.

If you are also interested in the arts, the Three Rivers Foundation offers an Arts side in Quanah, 20 miles north of Crowell, and have teamed up with 3RF Australia to bring the whole of the night sky to both countries. There are three telescopes in the Butterfly Garden of the Comanche Springs campus which can be accessed via the web so that Australian students can experience the northern hemisphere skies.

So many thanks to Patrice, Jeff, Fred, David, Vance and all the others that made my stay so great there!