A tale of two museums

During our week in Paris, we had the chance to check out two science-related museums, the Musée Curie, and the Cité des Sciences et de Industrie.

I decided to write up this visit in the form of a letter to the curators of the Cité des Sciences et de Industrie that I will be mailing soon. Read on, and you will understand why.

Dear Curators,

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting your museum with my wife and two daughters. My eldest Daughter, Maddie (age 7), has developed a passion for all things science, and physics in particular, so our first stop was the exhibit on the Great Story of Our Universe. As a high school physics teacher, I was eager to explore this exhibit with my daughter.

At first, I was struck by just how beautiful the exhibit was—your designers did a marvelous job of creating a inviting space that wonderfully used lighting and texture to evoke a flow through the origin of our universe, with great hands-on experiments that allowed you to touch and view meteorite samples, or see a live infrared photo of oneself to understand how we are able to classify stars based on the light they emit.

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Maddie looking at some meteorite samples.

I was particularly impressed by so many of the simple but engaging experiments—a parallax experiment that explained how we measure the distance to stars, by demoing how to make a measurement of a “star” on the wall across the room. My favorite demo of all was the side by side model solar system and galaxy, and the text that invited the patient to see how these two models behave very differently. Maddie and I watched it for at least 5 minutes, and she made so many observations about the differences she saw. What a wonderful introduction to Dark Matter.

After getting through the first floor of the exhibit, I was pleasantly surprised to see it went to a second floor that explains the strange physical laws that “enable us to describe and understand the evolution of the Universe.” Here again, I was impressed with all the interactive exhibits and even more impressed with your efforts to explain not just some of the oldest physical laws like gravity and electromagnetism, but also to fully cover discoveries in quantum mechanics (we loved Schrodinger’s Cat in a Box), and even some very recent discoveries in cosmology.

As I walked around this exhibit, I began to notice something strange—every column in the exhibit featured the name and biography of a famous physicist or mathematician, and every single one of them was a male. I’m also pretty sure that they were all white European men—Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Schrödinger, Lorentz, and on and on—more than 20 names in total. I looked hard, and I didn’t see a single woman or person of color in the entire collection.

In another part of the exhibit on the second floor, there was an exhibit presenting nine quotes about the nature of the universe from scientists and philosophers throughout history, and every one of them came from a white man, as best as I can recall.

It’s easy to come away from this exhibit thinking that our entire understanding of the universe, and the field of physics, is the result of the work of a bunch of dead white dudes with gray hair and more often than not, a mustache, leaving out so many important stories of women who have contributed to this understanding and what the field of physics looks like today.

There are so many incredible women scientists who have made deep and profound contributions to this story, that I find it hard to understand how they could all be left out of this exhibit. Adding a description of Vera Rubin and her groundbreaking work on galactic rotation curves would have have been an informative and powerful addition to the first-floor exhibit about the rotation speeds of galaxies and our solar system. Marie Lavoisier, Marie Curie, Joycelin Bell, Henrietta Leavitt—each of these women made major contributions to experiments and discoveries that were already mentioned or alluded to in your second-floor exhibit, and they have inspiring and important stories that are worth sharing with visitors to the exhibit.

With the exhibit’s vast amount of space and focus on highlighting recent discoveries in physics, I can imagine a wonderful addition that highlights very recent discoveries in physics—like the discovery of gravitational waves, showing photos of the hundred-person plus team that made this discovery. A wall featuring photos and descriptions of scientists today could very well inspire many of your youngest visitors to see themselves as scientists and imagine how they might contribute to understanding the universe when they grow up.

This exhibit also raises the opportunity to talk about why the field of physics has been historically dominated by men—specifically pointing out the ways in which women have been excluded from educational opportunities and research organizations since practically the beginning of science. At the same time, you could point out the hidden and unrecognized ways in which women have made vast contributions to the field of physics—from serving as the “human computers” to painstakingly type the dissertations of their husbands. Perhaps this conversation looking at the nature of who does physics could be a web resource, similar the great ones I saw on the ground floor in Cite des Enfants, where the signage encourages parents to visit a website for more ideas about how to engage children in the experiences they had in the museum.

I know that museums are incredibly powerful places—they are some of the most important places for inspiring young people and opening their minds to possible careers and ideas they would not have otherwise considered. This was made most clear to me in the case of my own daughter, who developed a love for Marie Curie after reading a short story describing her life in “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.” After reading that story, Maddie decided she wanted to be a scientist just like Marie Curie and wanted to know all she could about the Nobel Prize. When Maddie read in the story that Marie Curie lived in Paris, she asked us if we could visit her house, and through that, we discovered the wonderful Museé Curie, a tiny three-room museum dedicated to the life of Marie and Pierre Curie. Maddie pushed this museum to the top of our Paris agenda, and watching my daughter in this space was magical. Maddie was thrilled to see Marie Curie’s office just as it existed, but she spent the most amount of time scrolling through images of Dr. Curie and her family on a large video screen, occasionally fixating on a picture of Marie Curie on her wedding day. Maddie has been super fascinated with weddings recently too, and when we talked about it leaving the museum, she told me how awesome it was that her hero, Marie Curie, was also able to get married. To me, this visit scored the trifecta of science museums—it helped my daughter to not only understand an important discovery in science, it helped her to relate to the story of the human that made that discovery—emphasizing her humanity and helping my daughter to see that she too can be a scientist.

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Maddie in Marie Curie’s office.

I wish we had more time to explore your museum. I’m sure I missed many exhibits that did celebrate the work done by women in science, and help students of all backgrounds seem themselves as scientists. I appreciate your consideration of these suggestions and look forward to visiting the museum again in the not too distant future.

Sincerely,

John Burk

Physics Teacher and Dad of wonderfully curious 7-year-old girl who wants to be a physicist

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