Excited kids. Exhausted parents. Urgent play. Scurrying from exhibit to exhibit. That's what I saw when I made my first visit to the Connecticut Science Center earlier this summer on an otherwise normal Tuesday afternoon.
At long last, downtown Hartford has a child-friendly, enthusiasm-generating place. Congratulations to the visionaries, sponsors, politicians, architects, scientists, designers, contractors, administrators and security staff who made it all possible. The center will surely remain an educational resource and tourist attraction for years to come.
I saw no errors of commission. But I was stunned by an error of omission: There is no exhibit on organic evolution, the biggest idea that science has generated since the Copernican revolution, when humans finally accepted that Earth was not the center of the universe.
This is the bicentennial celebration of Charles Robert Darwin's birth, and the 150th year since publication of his greatest work, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." Throughout the world, scientists are celebrating his work for providing the life sciences with their central organizing principle. This is not the case at the science center, where the E-word receives only glancing treatment.
For me, going to a science museum without an exhibit illustrating the emergence of species, the origin of humanity and the connectedness of all living things is like going to a banquet without a main course.
The question is, why? I can think of several reasons. Perhaps the obviously competent design team decided there just wasn't enough space in the building, given its focus on architecture, invention, technology and engineering. Perhaps they thought that kids would not be sufficiently interested. Perhaps the design team did not consider the subject of "living nature" to be a proper science.
Physics and chemistry are fine. Astronomy is fine, and done very well. Geology is fine, provided that it does not involve the touchy subject of fossils. Meteorology is fine, provided that it focuses on dramatic events. Oceanography is fine, especially as it involves climate change and seabed cores.
But aside from a few fish in tanks, a lab station with a aquatic plants and some text for the Connecticut River exhibit, the biological sciences of ecology, zoology, botany, microbiology and evolution are not covered. In fact, the science center home page at www.ctsciencecenter.org doesn't show a single living organism except for three pre-pubescent humans surrounded by geometrically austere designs. It's apparently OK to show a few animated light bulbs flying around with wings, but not the actual insects they are modeled after.
In biology, all roads lead to evolution. Avoiding evolution thus requires avoiding biology, which avoids nature, which is a bad thing for children.
Approximately five years ago, The Courant invited community leaders to comment on the architectural design of the proposed science center. My favorite response was from a biology professor at Saint Joseph College in Hartford. He recommended that the best design was no design, that urban planners and educators should leave that patch of geography as a vacant lot, let nature reclaim it, and let kids explore something far more interesting and aesthetically satisfying than all the gizmos and gadgets inside the science center today.
Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder," would be sympathetic to this proposal. In his award-winning national best seller, he argues that a detachment from nature undermines the physical, mental and spiritual health of children worldwide. Audubon Magazine writes: "Louv's case for a drug-free 'nature' cure for many modern ills is too tantalizing to ignore."
But that is precisely what the Connecticut Science Center has done. They've ignored the "nature cure," perhaps to avoid the inevitable road leading from it to the politically touchy subject of evolution.
Otherwise, I congratulate the state, the city of Hartford, and everyone involved for the great job on what I will henceforth call the "Connecticut Physical Science Center."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at