Sunday Science: atmospheres

I piled roast meat and veg onto my plate, sat under a stack of 5 vintage cars and gazed at the original Watson and Crick DNA model. Dinner time at the Science Museum, rounded off with steaming mulled wine. Could life get much better?

Lining up for the feast… this is where I sat down to eat!

I was at the ‘staff and volunteers’ (courtesy of Sci Comm course-mate Pippa – massive thanks!) preview session of the new climate change exhibition atmospheres. The Museum went all out – free drinks, free dinner and free dessert, along with a hat-making area and the traditional silent disco. It was quite the spread.

Christmas puddings and piles of Quality Streets. Dessert time!

Of course, the catering wasn’t the reason for the visit. We were there to check out the brand-new gallery. Having eaten our fill, we wandered up to the second floor and joined a tour to get the lowdown on what promises to be a key educational tool about climate change in London.

The main floor area of atmospheres.

The exhibition space is high-tech and a dazzling blue. Above, winding screens display a representation of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A twinkling landscape is projected onto the floor, with the balance of ocean, desert and green areas varying based on the atmospheric greenhouse concentrations. The whole visualisation is controlled by a multiple-user interactive game interface in the middle of the space.

That’s all fine if you have it explained to you – but if you don’t, or don’t tinker on one of the centre consoles, it’s basically a big, shiny mess. I think it’d be easy to enter and leave the space without knowing the point of the visualisation, and even then, I’m not sure if I got much more out of it than ‘that’s cool’.

The paleoclimate section.

More interesting, for me, were the paleoclimate and history sections. They explain how we can understand past and current climates and debunk the idea that this is, somehow, a new idea. There were some engaging and fun explanations of the processes driving climate change in this section as well; definitely my favourite part of atmospheres.

While I didn’t explore all of the consoles, I wasn’t as impressed by the section on impacts. The main one I interfaced with was a ‘future scenarios’ in which the impact of climate on regional landscapes and ecosystems could be predicted under high and low CO2 scenarios, for people in different parts of the world. However, even with a high greenhouse scenario and projected impacts of 3.5-6C warming, the response of the virtual people was staggeringly inane. A wine grower in Australia, for example, facing massive temperature increase and drought, responded with something along the lines of “Well, I think I should start using drought-resistant grapevines.”

A poignant image…

I understand that it’s a museum for a wide spectrum of the public and that controversy wasn’t part of the agenda. However, it’s a science museum, and a large part of the audience will be children, who stand to lose the most from climate change. Yes, scaremongering won’t help, but a sense of urgency and scale in the projected impacts section would make the whole display sit better with me.

Atmospheres had several nifty features, and some interesting aspects to the display, but it was superficial. I can’t imagine someone who’s already interested in climate change getting much new out of it, and I don’t think the seriousness of the problem would come across from the displays to a casual observer. I plan to visit again and look in more detail at the remaining screens and displays, but I have a feeling that too much emphasis was placed on concept and visuals than storytelling or a message.

A moment of quiet contemplation under a dark planet on the way out…
Categories: Fun Things On Land, Science | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Sunday Science: atmospheres

  1. It’s a pity that people won’t be able to get a lot out of it. I’ve found that even young children understand science if it’s explained well.Sounds like this would just confuse them.

    Makes me wonder who designed the display.

    • I don’t think people won’t get *anything* out of it; the individual display screens are mostly good, but I think overall, someone who knows nothing about climate change could walk in, spend ten minutes, and walk out without really realising it’s much of an issue.

      I guess it is targeted at a young audience and they wouldn’t be capable of grasping things like long-term economic implications though; it’s more a way of explaining the basics of the science and outlining some of the other stuff.


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