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Science Is Popular, so Chaos Theory Kicks In

It is a weekday morning at the new California Science Center, and the school buses are lined up as far as the eye can see. Under the doorway with the hanging sculpture that’s supposed to make you think deep thoughts about the cosmos, kids by the thousand scream and bump and shuffle, a study in some scientific principle, probably, if you could hear yourself think of it. Chaos, maybe. Or something about kinetic energy.

“Line up!” yelp the poor teachers. There are fruitless attempts at head counts. Someone yells, “Ernesto! Stay with the group!” Which group? Unclear. Outside the lobby, there are scores of them--big, little, uniformed, be-jeaned, kids with wristbands, kids with name tags. “Ernesto!” comes the call again. “Get over here!”

Inside, the noise is deafening. Thirty-seven people are lined up at the exhibit on virtual volleyball. There isn’t a display that isn’t so swamped with shrieking hordes that it looks like it must feature a live fistfight. A rock sculpture at one end of a hallway is being scaled by four kids in parochial school uniforms, next to a sign that says, “Do Not Climb on Rock.”

A half-dozen exhibits have little signs on them, saying that they’re temporarily broken. The kids ignore them. They slam the big green interactive buttons. They lay into the crank handles. They slap the switches around. By lunchtime, it’s bedlam, and there is no respite, not even in the little room for small children, with the signs that say, “Use Indoor Voices.” A 10-year-old hurtles herself through a door marked “Toddler Corner,” lets out a bloodcurdling scream and flops down.

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It has been not quite three months since the grand opening of Southern California’s latest answer to the quandary: How can we make science more popular with kids? To the tune of $130 million, the California Science Center in L.A.'s Exposition Park has sought to whip up enthusiasm for learning with everything from its now-famed 50-foot woman to its price of admission, which is free.

Problem is, there’s always another quandary. It’s a kind of scientific principle. And the new quandary is: What happens when your free, interactive science museum gets so popular that it gets overrun, and you can’t control the crowds?

Some 700,000 people have flocked to the place since it opened. Inarguably, this is a sign of success. But it is also a lot of people (paying nothing for an experience that, though I hate to say it, might seem more valuable if it came with a nominal price tag). And some of those people have been complaining, even as they find themselves returning again and again.

One father I know tried to take his kindergartner on a weekday, and the crowd was so overwhelming, they turned tail and went home. A mother went with her kids on a weekend and found “madness.”

“At this rate, the place is going to be trashed in a year if they don’t do something,” she confided. “The day we were there, 10 to 12 exhibits were broken and somebody had thrown up on the floor.”

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Don’t misunderstand. This is a very cool, even extraordinary, museum. Far be it from me to talk it down. The administrators say they are planning to hire more technicians and be stricter about school groups that show up without reservations. And there are still zones of quiet. If you go on a weekday after about 2 p.m. the place is calm enough that you can actually read the displays.

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But what’s happening at the California Science Center is something to trouble-shoot now, precisely because it is the kind of problem that can spoil even the best intentions if it is allowed to progress. If you don’t believe it, check out some of the local children’s museums--bastions of sticky carpeting, scratched plastic furniture, mildewed dress-up clothes, assorted cooties and other things that make you think: No kid of mine is gonna play in this mess.

And it isn’t just the kid stuff, though that is the stuff that needs the most upkeep. In general, Southern Californians seem to have issues when it comes to taking care of publicly funded things that inspire. We are notorious for cutting and running when the novelty wears off, famous for letting things we should cherish get old and tired.

It’s a reputation we need to grow out of. Evolution awaits us. It’s a scientific principle, I understand. In the meantime, go now--after school hours--to the California Science Center. Cherish it while you can.

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Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.


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