It looks like something Jules Verne might have dreamed up, this vast circus of science beneath the Columbus Center's tent-like roof.
The world's biggest horseshoe crab beckons visitors to sit beneath its shell, at a high-tech theater simulating the deep sea -- through the senses of a shark.
A cell, 3 million times the size of its human likeness, looks decidedly otherworldly, multicolored lights playing off its bumpy orange surface, screens inside displaying oversize images of the minuscule stuff of life itself.
A 52-foot-long rockfish's gaping mouth forms the entrance to an exhibit offering close-up glimpses of marine life forms devouring those farther down the food chain, from trophy fish to microbes.
The sheer spectacle of such larger-than-life exhibits no doubt will rivet visitors' attention when the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration opens Saturday morning, culminating the $160 million marine biotechnology center's decadelong journey from conception to completion.
But the fun-house feel of the 46,000-square-foot exhibit hall notwithstanding, the mission extends well beyond mere amusement. For this science attraction itself represents a bold experiment, a pioneering attempt at melding cutting-edge research, education, entertainment and tourism.
Here, when visitors look up toward the glass bubbles in the translucent white roof, they'll see what no visitors have seen at any other science centers anywhere: the labs where scientists ponder the infinitesimal universe of cells and DNA and microbes.
Here, too, science will be participant sport and theater and education for visitor and researcher alike, all varying means to the same ends: Bringing the white coats out of the labs, literally and figuratively, and imbuing visitors with their passion for discovery.
The interactive exhibit hall, where a state-of-the-art computer system serves as tour guide and information storehouse, relies on a panoply of ways to show just what goes on in those labs, which comprise more than 80 percent of the Columbus Center's space, and why it matters. The attraction is not only science but also scientists: The 126 researchers and staff demonstrate experiments and strike up conversations (no lectures allowed) on how their work helps clean up pollution, develop antibiotics, induce fish-spawning and save the dwindling supply of oysters.
Visitors inspired by watching can walk across the hall and conduct their own experiments at "living labs," say, by extracting DNA from fish, cloning genes or testing bay water for pollutants.
"This is not just some highfalutin kind of abstraction," says Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc., the maritime center's owner and operator. "This is real, and this is how people in this building think."
For more than a decade, Heuisler, former award-winning editor and general manager of Baltimore Magazine, has been trying to think like them, to get inside their minds. To see this microbial universe as they see it, as an unfolding story, a frontier awaiting. To do as the Columbus Center's one-word motto urges, simply: "Explore!"
See the world's first "microbial city," with high-rises that change colors and bubble and blurp, and learn that more different types of bacteria exist than all the known plants and animals. Inside a hall of mirrors, see the kaleidoscope depicting everything from bacteria movement in ocean currents to other microscopic organisms magnified millions of times and played out in a light show. Log onto the Channel Marker computer system, with "Crobi the Microbe" as host.
The network of 48 Sun Microsystems computers records each visitor's journey, interests, knowledge and questions. At workstations interspersed through the hall, each visitor can get a detailed, computer-guided introduction to all that surrounds them.
Or check out Microworld, the virtual museum in newspaper format. Or sit at Overlook Cafe, perched a level above the main exhibit floor, and tap into biotech Internet sites to share science around the globe or across the room. Or play games like how to examine seafood about to be served at a White House dinner for possible contaminants.
At the end of the journey, a printed, personalized account will await each visitor at the Real Science Store, the hall's gift shop. And the computer system will store it all, providing visitors a way to pick up where they left off and the hall a measure of what's most popular to tailor future exhibits.
The trip into a world foreign to so many begins with the gargantuan exhibits, then branches out into more and more detailed and sophisticated hands-on activities and education meant to make visitors forget about nightmares of dissecting one too many frogs.
Bran Ferren, the hall's chief designer, knows about winning over audiences -- and winning Academy Awards. He has three of them, and his set credits include "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," "Cats," and the stage show for Paul McCartney's 1990 world tour.
"From my perspective, it's all about storytelling," says Ferren, now with Walt Disney Imagineering, the corporation's design arm. "How can I tell people the story about biotechnology and marine science? This is a subject that is as big as the entire planet.
'Hollywood with real science'
"It's Hollywood combined with real science going on in that building. We're trying to use every tool available, and the most powerful tool we have is the human imagination. If we ignite the imagination, then we will have succeeded."
To bring Ferren's vision from dream stuff to reality, the hall's leaders, with the Rouse Co. as development manager, turned to an international team of some of the best and brightest in their fields.
Collectively, their work includes the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, acclaimed public television science specials, Hard Rock Cafes, an underwater coastal area at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and Dinosaur Halls at the American Museum of Natural History.
Carol Bossert, a biologist who serves as the hall's director and the center's vice president, played a key role in the tricky task of attempting to balance science and spectacle while staying within the hall's $13 million budget.
She encountered considerable skepticism from scientists, suddenly asked to become teachers, emissaries, even performers of sorts, and it surprised her not in the least. "The problem that most scientists have had in the past is they don't know how to talk about what they do except to other people in the field," she says. "It all seemed far-fetched to them, and they were skeptical. They're paid to be skeptical."
But then, she knew, most people passionate about their work like to share that passion. Therein, in her view, lies the chief appeal of the hall.
"It's not what scientists do every day; what they do every day is they manipulate little tiny things of usually clear liquids with little tiny instruments, and they look at lots of numbers," Bossert says. "Now if that's all you see, you wouldn't consider that very passionate or worthy of getting up at 3 in the morning to check your results after working from dawn into the night.
"But when you talk to that scientist about her work, then you see that in her head she is seeing more than just the little white liquid or the numbers. She's seeing an entire process of how nature works. That, you can't present in a traditional exhibit format alone. You have to use the light, the magic, and you have to create this exciting circus environment where there's an energy level that can be sustained."
The nucleus for this dream of creating a world-class marine biotechnology institute combined with an education center and major tourist attraction began taking shape more than 10 years ago over breakfast at a Holiday Inn just outside College Park. There, Heuisler, Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. and Rita Colwell, the internationally renowned scientist who is president of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute, brainstormed the idea.
More than a few skeptics scoffed, some joked, some wondered what possessed Heuisler and this small coterie of believers. Biotechnology, after all, remained in its infancy, at least in terms of public awareness. The Columbus Center site's immediate environs struggled down the path to becoming a no-man's land only now beginning to recover from the recession. And while science centers trying desperately to be fun had been opening all over America, none had ever attempted to directly link research scientists and a tourist attraction.
Today, nobody's scoffing at the result of the partnership between federal, state and city governments, foundations and corporations. The focus of worldwide attention, the grand-scale science experiment has drawn contingents of scientists and civic leaders from throughout America and as far as Japan, Germany, Australia, Italy and Great Britain.
The center aims to be an engine that will turn Baltimore into an internationally acclaimed bastion of marine biotechnology, with an anticipated major boon to the state's economy. From the beginning, the exhibit hall has been viewed as a crucial piece to demystify the hard-core science.
After all, before embracing what remains a forbidding abstraction to so many, nonscientists must first understand the focus of all that arcane research and why it matters. Scientists must become teachers, entertaining ones who master the storyteller's art of showing more than telling, to keep paying customers coming back, and to replace rote learning with what really fires a child's fertile imagination. Children who would become the future scientists must develop the researcher's insatiable curiosity and passion for pondering what most never see nor think much about.
For three months, the hall's leaders have brought in scores of children and adults as part of focus groups. They've sat on the benches adorned with shark skin in the "immersion theater," where the wind simulating a shark's sense of motion blows, and floor-to-ceiling screens show footage of the hunt for a meal shot off the Florida coast. They've looked into a mirror showing what they would look like without water -- a mummy. They've journeyed through the explosion of color in the cell from nucleus to membrane. They've spied the microscope camera images of the oyster bed behind the waterfall.
The real test
Now comes the real test. Though the Center for Marine Biotechnology opened in 1995, and the Science and Technology Education Center has played host to 6,000 students and teachers in the past year, the Columbus Center remains largely a mystery to most.
Colwell, perhaps the most vocal in insisting on making sure the arcade atmosphere didn't compromise the science, knows the challenge is a daunting one.
"Enthusiasm for science has been sort of beaten out of most kids by the time they're teen-agers," she says, "because the mode of teaching has always been rote memory. It's the way biology is taught.
"We need to regain the balance. We need to show the scientists as people you can sit [with] and talk to, people who do fascinating work that matters a great deal. They're nice people, and they really don't have pointy heads."
Pub Date: 4/29/97