Museum Musings

April 4th, 2009at 07:36pm Posted by Eli

So I was in Philadelphia for a few days this week, and found myself with time to kill on Thursday.  I found a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown that had avocado milkshakes, then walked up to the Franklin Institute and the Mutter Museum, taking pictures as I went.

As I kind of expected, most of the Franklin Institute was pretty mobbed with school groups, but the exhibit on Galileo and astronomy in the time of the Medicis was blissfully quiet.  It was mostly books (behind glass, strategically opened to key pages) and scientific instruments like compasses, astrolabes, armillary spheres, and, of course, telescopes.  And as I browsed through the various accomplishments of people like Galileo and Kepler and Huygens, I was struck by just how much of the knowledge that we take for granted was discovered by just a few very smart guys.

I had a pretty good idea of what Galileo achieved, and I knew that Kepler figured out that the planets orbited in ellipses and Huygens figured out that Saturn had rings, but they did a lot more than that.  Kepler actually studied the optics of the eye to improve the telescope; Huygens also designed his own telescope, the pendulum clock, the balance spring clock, and a pocket watch.  Huygens also helped advance calculus, probability theory, and the wave concept of light.  These guys were creative in multiple directions, and in many cases their discoveries were very much at odds with the consensus of accepted (and acceptable) knowledge.  Sure, it all makes sense now, but back then they had to come up with their theories entirely on their own in a time when their ideas were counterintuitive if not heretical.

The Mutter Museum, as I also kind of expected, had no kids at all.  It’s basically a museum of medical oddities, with all manner of cancers, growths, deformities and rot.  It’s like a crash course in everything that can possibly go wrong with the human body.  Sure, most of the time everything works pretty well, but some of the glitches are spectacular and disturbing.  Skulls rotted away by syphilis, conjoined twins, fetuses without brains or skulls (or even heads), a giant colon, ovarian cysts the size of beagles.  It was morbidly fascinating, and I came out of there very grateful for all the bullets I’ve been lucky enough to dodge – so far, at least.  I can’t recommend it enough, but only if you’re not squeamish.

Entry Filed under: Science

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