Apr 8, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Palais de la Decouverte

5 hours at the central Paris science museum - and there's still much more we want to see.

On Sunday morning, we left home early and headed over to the Champs Elysees. The roads were empty and partially still blocked off from the Paris marathon (where my parents ran very respectable times), so we sauntered slowly towards the Grand Palais in the sunshine.


Palais de la Decouverte is based in the west wing of the complex and is in the same Beaux-Arts style.


We arrived at about 10:30 and had the building pretty much to ourselves; it never really filled up even after lunch, probably because of the sunny weather. The staff at the ticketing desk gave us a schedule of all the presentations and demonstrations taking place that specific day (all included in the ticket price) and she also gave me suggestions on what Lee might enjoy best at three years old, like the Rat School.

Life Sciences: Animal Communication
We started off on the ground floor with this exhibit, which focuses on the different means by which animals send messages (e.g. visual, tactile, chemical). Lee was more interested in the animals in their terraniums, especially the frogs and "cute little roachies!" (she's obviously never lived in tropical climates where there's nothing cute about these critters).


Meteorology
This section is one of the least interactive and thus pretty uninteresting for little kids. It comes across as a bit old-fashioned, but I still thought it broke down the information in a very easy-to-understand way. Note that the museum is very Francophone - there are a few English and Italian signs, but they're few and far between.


Eureka
This zone was Lee's absolute favorite, and we spent a good two hours of our visit there. It's very hands-on so that visitors can directly observe the effects of physical forces, which makes it completely engaging. I actually knew a lot of the installations from having spent a good part of my childhood at Spectrum, the science center at the Berlin Technology Museum, and it was amusing to see Lee play with the giant Newton's cradle, draw sand shapes with a little Foucault's pendulum, and have her squeal with delight when she managed to balance a styrofoam ball in a jet of air.


Life Sciences: Human Biology
Lee was a fan of this too. There are large-scale lit maps which show the pathways of the the human circulatory and digestive systems, large models of organs, cells, bacteria, and viruses, and interactive parts where you can like down on an MRI scan table and have your heart rate measured.


Lee started singing about "the bloodmobile."


I would have loved to explore the subsection called "The Genetic Lottery" in more detail (genetics was my favorite section in IB / AP Biology back in highschool), but Lee didn't play along.

Betes de sexe
We stumbled into this special exhibit through its back entrance (I will limit it to this one off-color joke). It's lined wall-to-wall with photos of copulating animals, and interspersed with mounted (and mounting) stuffed animals, but Lee's young enough for it to go over her head completely - she knows babies come from mothers' bellies, but she has no interest in a) how babies get in there and b) how exactly they get out. And I'm a firm believer of the school that she doesn't need any more information than she asks for at this stage. Lee loved the clownfish, which she insists are called "Nemos" to the certain delight of Pixar's marketing division (I didn't explain that they were included for their genderbending prowess). She then turned her attentions to Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno series, which was running on a loop on several screens. I thought it seemed pretty harmless at first, but once Rosellini (dressed as a duck) started protesting about the "Forced copulation!" she had to endure from male ducks, I extracted us. I do think the videos are pretty funny, and Rossellini is hilarious...just not for preschoolers.

Physics: Light
Despite pulling me out of the genetics section "'cause it's dark and so scary," Lee loved this part - spinning the wheel to turn it from colored to white pretty much blew her mind.


Astronomy
I'm a bit spoiled for having spent countless weekends at the Air and Space museum when I was young, but T really liked the various large models of the planets and the moon, some of which you can touch. One of her daily questions is why it gets dark at night and where the moon and sun go, and this made it really easy for me to show her how it all fits together.



Math
Lee loved the Pi room (I don't really see the appeal but I guess it illustrates the concept of irrational numbers to kids in a different way) and shaped the magnetic polygons into an owl while I played with a tesselations computer game. The math balcony is less interactive and a bit dated. I wish there'd been more on fractals...


Since Lee called all the shapes except for squares and triangles "nonagons" she was a bit annoyed when I told her there weren't actually any nonagons in the mix.


Chemistry and Earth Sciences
Lee was pretty worn out by this point. We only looked at the periodic table which had small samples of (harmless) elements and the dinosaur section.




Physics: Electromagnetism
After a snack break we went to a demonstration here, but the loud crackling lighting frightened Lee to tears - so we went back to the Life Sciences section.

Life Sciences: Rat School
I liked this presentation and felt it ended our visit on a high note. The scientist who gave the talk was really engaging and made it very fun, and little Hulk, the one-lb rat who showed off his maze-running skills, was smart and surprisingly cute (for a rat). Though I whispered a rough simultaneous translation into Lee's ear, she said she'd wished it had been in English (but we're in France, little one, so people speak French here...).


For me, the museum would have been worthwhile even without a kid, though I would have attended a lot more presentations without the little imp. I hope I'll get a chance to go again, though I also want to check out the larger Cite des sciences museum all the way out in the 19th - which has a dedicated section for 2-7-year-olds.

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