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A Salute to Silicon Valley Scientists : Museums: San Jose’s Garage honors the whiz kids who have brought us everything from pocket calculators to super-sophisticated weapons systems.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Silicon Valley, the garage signifies more than just a place to store the family car. It was once the playroom of whiz kids who helped invent American high technology.

About 40 years ago, when this fecund part of the San Francisco Peninsula was known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight because of lush plum trees, the likes of Bill Hewlett and David Packard toiled the hours away in cramped garages. They tinkered with ideas that would some day blossom into historic inventions.

The fruit of their labor is now a $10-billion international company employing more than 90,000 workers.

The Garage, a newly opened exhibit, honors the nation’s silicon scientists who have brought us everything from pocket calculators to super-sophisticated weapons systems. The hands-on museum is also part of the city’s renovated downtown. San Jose, the state’s third-largest city, is proudly showing off its status as the world’s high-tech leader.

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But it all began in the garage.

“The Garage symbolizes the future,” says Mayor Tom McEnery, who is on the museum’s board of directors. It also represents the region’s hyperactive creativity in the realm of microelectronics and biotechnology.

Twelve years in the making, The Garage is a 15,000-square-foot carnival of technological innovation. You can glimpse and play with gadgets made by six companies that have thrust Silicon Valley to the cutting edge of scientific research.

“Wherever you go--Dublin, Tian An Men Square, Costa Rica--you mention Silicon Valley and a special look comes into people’s eyes,” McEnery says. “It’s a state of mind and imagination. And what we are doing is nurturing the minds of the next generation of Steve Wozniaks and Bill Hewletts.”

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“There is a mystique about Silicon Valley; a spirit and energy that you don’t find anywhere else,” says Callie Gregory, museum spokeswoman. “When people come here and say, ‘Where’s Silicon Valley?,’ we now say, ‘The Garage.’ ”

The Garage is devoted to making weird science fun science for children and adults. It focuses on six areas of technology: space, materials, microelectronics, biotechnology, bicycles and robotics. The $5-million museum, which received a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, is the prototype of the $90-million Technology Center of Silicon Valley scheduled to open in 1995.

“The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry was to one era as this Technology Center is to the dawn of the 21st Century,” McEnery says. “This will be for another age. To say this facility will be of a Smithsonian caliber is in no way an overdramatization; that’s exactly what it’s going to be.”

Unlike most museums, this one does not dwell on the past. Aside from a few photographs commemorating the humble beginnings of Silicon Valley giants, the Garage highlights the future. Each of the museum’s stations were designed by educators and industry experts. And volunteers, frequently high-tech experts from local companies, roam the Garage ready to dispense interesting tidbits.

The walk-through exhibits cover everything from how silicon is refined from quartzite rock to the chip making process. Everything was designed to entertain; it’s a cross between “Star Wars” and high school physics.

An audiokinetic sculpture by George Rhoads draws crowds to the Garage’s entrance. The 16-foot tall work called “The Imaginative Chip” represents the flow of information through a circuit chip. Colorful billiard balls move up, down and around a maze of levers and vertical conveyor belts. And it bangs and clangs like a mad scientist’s laboratory.

The space section features a Mars rover replica and a life-size model of the Hubble telescope’s mirror. Posted next to the equipment are fascinating facts. For example, the mirror’s final aluminum coating is so thin that if you peeled it off and tossed it up in the air, it would float like smoke. And the telescope’s flawed construction was caused in part by a mirror ground incorrectly by four microns, or 4% of the width of human hair.

As you enter the “clean room” in the microelectronics section, a sign asks, “Do you have a particle problem?” You then pass through an air shower, which normally removes dust, dandruff and other dirt from workers in “bunny” work suits. The tiniest particle can ruin a microchip in the making. Here you can see how 1 million transistors are printed on computer chips the size of a fingernail.

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One of the most enjoyable exhibits is Big Chip, a microchip enlarged to 9 square feet. Punch in a date, and Big Chip computes the day of the week it falls on. With flashing lights, blaring baritone tones and twisting levers, the gizmo demonstrates how a microchip’s components communicate while calculating. The process has been slowed to a lumbering 87 seconds. Under normal circumstances, the microchip would complete the task in 0.012 of a second.

Measured your DNA lately? You might think about doing so after visiting the Biotechnology section. It features a study of deoxyribonucleic acid, strands inside our cells that give us personal traits such as eye colors. Did you know that if you uncoiled your DNA it would stretch to the moon and back 8,000 times?

Here you can also read about the Human Genome Project. Scientists hope to map out the thousands of codes that complete the human genetic chart. The 15-year project is expected to produce enough information to fill 500 phone books. The museum cleverly illustrates this by stacking phone books in the shape of a giant DNA double helix.

Over in the robot gallery, video clips from sci-fi movies depict robot fantasies from the past 50 years. But there is nothing fictional about the robots on display. They can draw your picture or spell your name with block letters. There’s even voice-control robots you can interact with.

Nearby is a computer for Californians who love to rock and roll. Visitors design a building, then subject it to an earthquake at a magnitude of their liking.

Step up to the materials bar and a guide will serve up some high technology. You might be handed a box of aerogel, or solid smoke, that can capture atomic particles in the atmosphere. And in the Workbench laboratory, visitors can play scientists and participate in experiments such as making superconducting wafers. There are also 28 work stations in the Interactive Media Lab, which provides in-depth information on all these topics through Macintosh computers.

“Interactive exhibits are the direction museums are headed in,” explains project director Jan Berman. “It makes information more personal and accessible; it makes the knowledge yours. You own it.”

The Garage, geared extensively for schoolchildren, has a way of awakening a kid’s curiosity in adults, too.

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“This is really one of a kind, nationally and internationally,” McEnery says. “So many people out there, literally and figuratively, are still working in garages.”

The Garage is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $6; $4 for children ages 6-18 and senior citizens; free for children 5 and younger. Lab fees are $4 each. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets through Ticketron, (408) 247-SHOW. Information: (408) 279-7150.


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