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Peek inside the amazing new Exploratorium (photos)

Take a tour of the new digs for San Francisco's visionary hands-on Exploratorium science museum, which is set to reopen to the public next week.

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Seth Rosenblatt
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Meet the new Exploratorium

The Exploratorium, one of the world's leading hands-on science museums, officially opens to the public in its new location on April 17. Now located at Pier 15 along San Francisco's Embarcadero, the larger digs bring back most of the Exploratorium's classic exhibits, plus many new ones. More than 1,000 exhibits mix science and art to get visitors learning in an active way.

Pictured here is Wind Arrows, one of the free-to-the-public exhibits. It demonstrates that the wind rarely blows in just one direction using an "off-the-shelf" 35-foot-flagpole and sailboat wind direction indicators.

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Have a side of science

The new on-site Seaglass Restaurant and Cafe serves fare including tacos, Welsh rarebit, fresh seafood approved by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch list, and chef Loretta Keller's well-regarded batter-fried green beans. You'll also find something for your brain to savor there: a large-scale version of the Exploratorium's popular Icy Bodies exhibit.

Thin shavings of dry ice are injected onto the surface of a shallow pool of water where they careen around like comets. Tiny jets of gas shoot out from the individual ice fragments, causing them to spin and tumble as they drift about. Side-lighting brings out the detailed structure of the out-gassing jets.

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Science in the bathroom

The new Exploratorium worked hard to integrate exhibits more closely with the fabric of the building. This tiled wall at the entrance to the bathrooms is an optical illusion. The tiles may look angled, but in fact they are all perfectly square.
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Ball of distortion

Exploratorium staff physicist Thomas Humphrey explains how the popular Giant Mirror exhibit works. Its shape not only inverts viewers' image, but allows slight whispers to be heard at normal volumes, depending on where you stand in relation to the mirror.
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Rolling through the toothpick bay

The Exploratorium features artist Scott Weaver's "Rolling Through the Bay" toothpick sculpture, which shows four paths that wind through, taking ping-pong balls on a tour of the miniaturized city. Weaver spent 3,000 hours over several decades working on it.
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The Wired Pier

Big data will play a big role in the Exploratorium, and that's readily apparent at the Wired Pier exhibit in the Bay Observatory Gallery. The new building has sensors on its roof, in the silt of the bay and in the water itself, allowing the Exploratorium to transmit real-time data on local weather and water conditions.
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Mapping the data

This large, wood-carved map of San Francisco Bay sits under a projector that can change the kind of data displayed. Options include not only "hard" scientific data, such as fog patterns and earthquake history, but "social" data such as where the 5-year-olds in the Bay Area live. There are plans to make more map overlays by partnering with artists and scientists.
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More than a glass circle

These wood-framed glass discs don't seem like much more than standard magnifying glasses...
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Hands-on big data

...but place the glass ring on this specially designed computing table from MIT, and a coating on the glass lets you zoom in and learn about different facets of the natural world. As shown, the map is being used to explore how phytoplankton counts change in different regions of the ocean.
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Powering the new Exploratorium

The new Exploratorium uses a complex system of bay water and solar panels to keep the building climate-controlled. "We heat the water by 2 to 3 degrees" before cycling it back into the bay, said George Cogan, the Exploratorium's chairman of the board. "It's a minute impact compared to power plants."
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Let there be...algae?

The algae chandelier grows phytoplankton. Too small to see with the naked eye on their own, these overhead tanks let you see millions of them at once.
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Musical lockers

Lockers where patrons can store their belongings play musical notes when the treble clef gets tapped.
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Exploratorium's new joint

George Cogan, the Exploratorium's chairman of the board, stands on the seam between the pier and dry land that the new Exploratorium is built over. Specially constructed for the new building to help make it safe during earthquakes, the seismic expansion joint is 2 feet wide and 300 feet long. It allows the two halves of the building to move independently of each other.
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Subtle chair

While some exhibits are flashy, others are more demure. This may look like your basic oversize Ottoman that can seat half a dozen people, but it also rotates so slowly that you only notice your feet have moved an inch or two every five minutes.
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Team Pac-Man

This game of Pac-Man may look familiar, but there's a big difference that changes it from mere video game to educational tool...
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Pac-Man teaches collaboration

Instead of a single person being able to control all four directions that Pac-Man can go, there are four, free-standing, kid-height oversize buttons in front of the screen. Each one moves Pac-Man in a different direction, so kids playing the game are forced to talk to each other to keep the little yellow guy alive.
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Explainers go carnivorous

The Exploratorium's "Explainers" program trains local high school students to answer visitor questions. The old space hired around 120 Explainers, but the program has more than doubled, making the Exploratorium the largest employer of high school students in the city, says George Cogan, the Exploratorium's chairman of the board. Explainers don't just talk the talk, however. They get their hands dirty with science. This collection of carnivorous plants is being grown and maintained by some of the Explainers in the biology-based Living Systems section.
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Time for Pi

The Pi Day shrine, which celebrates the mathematical constant of 3.14, was invented at the Exploratorium in 1988 by physicist Larry Shaw. The day is celebrated every March 14 at the Exploratorium, although there's no word on Pi Approximation Day festivities -- 22/7, or July 22.
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As if San Francisco needed more fog

San Francisco is known for its fog, but that didn't stop Fujiko Nakaya, the Exploratorium's occasional collaborator and artist, from creating the Fog Bridge, which makes fog on demand outside the main building. One thousand tiny, high-pressure jets are attached to the underside of the bridge, which connects Piers 15 and 17, and create a dense fog that envelops the bridge and forces you to use senses other than sight to find your way across.

Nakaya's first piece at the Exploratorium was called "Cybernetic Serendipity" from 1968.

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The whole cow

In a science lesson that combines learning about light and how a mammal's eye works, the cow's eye dissection remains a popular stop in the East Gallery's Living Systems section.

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