The Experience of the Exploratorium

This past Friday, I went to the Exploratorium on a field trip with other students in my major, symsys. We aren’t known for being particularly cohesive, so whenever an opportunity to meet and hang out with other students with similar interests, I usually try to make it. And though I had been to the Exploratorium this past summer with family friends already, it seemed like a place worth going again and again.

The Exploratorium is primarily oriented towards little kids, but it certainly has universal appeal. The museum is covered with a bunch of mini-exhibits, each showing off one or two scientific concepts. For example, a ring rolling around in a dish was supposed to represent chaos theory, and a drinking water fountain over a toilet bowl demonstrated our developed aversions. The advising fellows for symsys had justified the trip with the “Mind” area in the back, which was mostly a series of optical illusions. I had wandered around with Te, a senior who had taken a class on these exact topics. He would look at an exhibit, see the trick, then say something like, “Oh… that’s just lateral inhibition.”

While not all of us have had the same coursework, I think we all recognized some of the phenomenon at least from our high school education. But we were just as excited as the little kids running around, amazed by these things they had never seen. Reading about something in a textbook and accepting that it’s true just isn’t quite the same as being able reach out and touch it or feel yourself falling for a mental trick.

Just before I had left for the field trip, I had been in section for a class, “Mind, Matter, and Meaning.” In the class, we basically just talk about consciousness. Most of our reading is from David Chalmers’ “The Conscious Mind,” and our early discussion was focused around the difference between what he calls the psychological and phenomenological aspects of consciousness. Psychological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states do and the sort of functions associated with that. Phenomenological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states feel like and why something feels like it does. And when we’re trying to figure out if our brain and our mind are the same thing, this is where the phenomenological part gets messy.

Because it’s a hard question to say why something “feels” like it does. What does an apple taste like? What it is like to see the “redness” of an apple? What’s interesting about these questions to me is that they are absolutely subjective. We’re trying to boil down all these sciences into a disembodied, objective explanation, but what we feel seems linked to who we are. I’m certain many people have come to the questions about whether everyone else is conscious or what the nature of others’ consciousness is. I mean, even if I assume all of you fine readers are conscious (in the sense used above, not the awakeness sense; I know the latter to be false), how do I know what you see to be red is the same red I see? Maybe my red is your blue.

And I think it’s amazing to probe the differences in how we experience things. One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had here at Stanford was helping one particular student with a program in the computer cluster. She was a little slow in finding her mistakes, but she was entirely capable of using her computer and thinking through and fixing her mistakes. It probably would’ve been otherwise insignificant if not for the fact that she’s also blind and deaf in one ear. Thanks to Microsoft Sam, she could navigate her code line-by-line, jump between windows, and very quickly fix even syntax errors with her code.

I can’t even imagine how she could do something like that. For one, she was able to navigate her file system very quickly and without error based on snippets of words. I kind of have a sense about how my file system is structured, but I have to look things up everytime, and I know I’m constantly depending on context cues to go to the right place. So being able to have a mental representation for that is amazing. But moreover, I just can’t even imagine what code would look like if I had never seen a letter of the alphabet before. On a psychological level, I understand that in such cases, it’s common that areas of the brain responsible for processing visual input can be retooled to enhance capabilities with the other senses. On a phenomenological level, that’s just baffling. What does a block of code “sound” like?

But I guess if I believe the distinction here, it’s all kind of peripheral. Walking around the Exploratorium, I don’t have to feel to learn. It’s just the psychological process of learning where I have a new experience that creates a different representation and new pathways to understand something. And my joy is just a trained response to learning that causes my eyes to widen and my body to get jittery. Maybe a zombie version of me, which has the exact same psychological processes but no phenomenological experience, would have done the exact same things that I had. But I don’t think that makes the sensation any less valuable. I’d still say the Exploratorium is worth going to because you can actually see and touch everything.

My Inner Museum

Today, I am Chinese. I road the MUNI bus along Stockton through Chinatown. The Shanghai and Tokyo subways have nothing on that bus. The bus makes 3-ish stops through Chinatown, and at each, an army of Chinese grocery-shoppers waits with bags and canes ready to remove any (likely living) obstacle between them and the bus. Our stop was the kicker to the previous one. On the third bus that passed, I finally got close enough to the door and mustered enough courage to push my way onto the bus. The first step of the bus, actually. At least in the busy subways, they can squish everyone in on one go.

If you were wondering, I was back in Chinatown and San Francisco this weekend again to do some grocery shopping. But not just for the grocery shopping. Family friends came in this weekend to visit Stanford and the Bay Area, and I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. That meant museum-hopping.

Which is something I wanted to do this summer. On Friday, we went to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Both were individually interesting, but visiting both in a day showed the range of a spectrum of museum styles. The Tech Museum covered many elementary topics in an elementary manner, with exhibits explaining how integrated circuits work, how genetics influence individuals, how the internet and worlds such as “Second Life” work, and more. Many of them had a link-up to online resources and activities one could access from home, and while the topics have great depth, the museum was largely targeted towards children. The examples and activities worked at a high level, but being simplified representations of complex systems, more knowledgable visitors wouldn’t have much to see.

Onto the Computer History Museum, where the primary focus is on a warehouse-ish room filled with actual computing artifacts, including part of the ENIAC, an Apple I, and once functional core memory. The museum, still very new, has only two other constructed exhibits, both relatively small. Julie and I chose to dodge the tour and explore ourselves, catching bits of familiar lore in a timeline of mostly modern computing. Unlike the show of the Tech Museum, this museum was all tell. I looked at machines behind metal railings and trinkets inside of glass cases. Which I understand, considering the uniqueness of the items. The content was absolutely fascinating, but everything had a geek trivia feel to it. Highly recommended if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The following day, we went to the SF MOMA. I recently visited–and wrote about–it, but fortunately, out of three main floors of exhibits, only one holds a standing collection. Walking through the Matisse and Stills works again, it was interesting to get a second opportunity at interpreting the works, though I feel no more enlightened. The new exhibits included the photography of Lee Miller, primarily known as a “Vogue” WWII correspondant, and contemporary Chinese art. And on the last day, we went to the Exploratorium, a more successful hands-on museum. All explanations came on the far side of an example, such as a host of optical illusions and crankable engines.

It was interesting to see the different types of museums side-by-side, but what I found more interesting was doing museums in SF. I had known that the area had many well-acclaimed (and many more smaller) museums, but only once in the trips to the surrounding area have I gone to a museum. When I think about taking a day trip around here, about getting the real look at the Bay Area, I think about crowded buses, meandering in the Marina District, walking from Market up through Chinatown and North Beach to the Fisherman’s Wharf, peeking into chocolate shops. But I admit that I’ve become attracted to educational vacation with tours and museum visits.

To say that museums are all the same is certainly a lie. Some aren’t as good as others, but each has its own take, and it’s certainly a point of exploration on a trip. There’s so much more, though, to what really composes a city. Museums are the territory of academics, often with a district of its own. The real feel and culture of a city is in the streets, the lives, the spontaneous, the routine. But I think I still might be hard-pressed to convince the next visitor to take the Stockton Street MUNI.