Friday, September 28, 2012

Where the geek have inherited the earth

A long time ago, sometime in the 50s in fact, the river Turia, on whose banks Valencia was built, flooded, causing great damage and loss of life. In order to prevent anything like that from ever happening again, they diverted the course of the river, leaving the old riverbed running through the city unused and unkempt. And then, many years later, they made the whole stretch of many kilometres a park, with gardens, fountains, jogging tracks and what not.

And now, somewhere along this stretch, Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences rises like something out of a sci-fi film. I didn't feel like taking any pictures, but do an image search for the complex, and I challenge you not to be astonished. There's four main attractions - the opera house, which is the biggest in the world after Sydney; the enormous eye of the Hemispheric, the IMAX dome; the science museum; and finally the Oceanographic, which I suppose must be classified as an aquarium, but maybe the description I read somewhere of "underwater city" does it more justice.

Valencia's Spain's third largest city, but I put it in my itinerary just for this complex. When I was a little boy visiting my grandparents in Bombay, I would pester them relentlessly to take me to the science museum and the adjoining planetarium there. And it would make my day when they consented. It was with something of the same excitement that I looked forward to Valencia. I was warned, though, that while the Oceanographic is fantastic, the science museum is a little underwhelming.

I'm happy to report that I enjoyed the science museum enormously. In fact, I haven't enjoyed a museum this much since my childhood. This is, in the words of the museum itself, one of those where it is "forbidden not to touch." I started with the top floor that has a large section devoted to Valencia's football club: it makes football all scientific. There are charts on nutrition, scales for measuring your weight and height and then calculating your ideal weight, interactive quizzes and whole lot more. Also, one of the sections there lets you take penalty kicks and informs you how you rate. It gave me high marks for preferring guile and precision over raw power.

Then there is this fun section devoted to superheroes and their physics. Contains everything from Doc Ock to Magneto to the Hulk. And then a video played in a room that has mirrors all over. It contains montages of moving pictures of earth and space. The mirrors in the room reflect the video all around you, sometimes giving it infinite depth. I think it was made by the European Space Agency and is alone worth the price of admission. Then a "chromosome forest" that shows the human DNA sequence and contains trivia about the human body at every stop. Kind of boring. And finally a zero-gravity machine that is supposed to simulate the multi-gravity experience of being launched into space, followed by weightlessness. I found this last a little underwhelming. Was fun sitting with the others and anticipating the whole thing nervously, though.

The second floor is devoted mostly to Nobel winners and their achievements. Nothing to touch here. Moving right along...

The first floor must have contained a lot of things, but for the life of me I can't remember anything except the giant Foucault's Pendulum. I had Physics in school and this must have been part of the syllabus, and further I'd even read the book by Umberto Eco, but the significance and the sheer genius of the thing escaped me until I saw it before me. The idea is this. A pendulum's plane of oscillation tends to stay constant. So even if the Earth below it rotates, the pendulum still sticks to its original plane. But because we, the observers, move along with the Earth, the plane of oscillation of the pendulum appears to rotate. The pendulum in the museum demonstrates this rotation by placing pins in a circle around the pendulum. As the plane rotates relative to the Earth, you see the pins being knocked down one by one.

An idea on a celestial scale; one that had been vehemently denied for centuries and had resulted in the persecution of some of our greatest minds, proved beyond doubt by a ball on a thread. How beautiful is that?

The ground floor was mostly entrances, coffee shops and temporary exhibits.

The Oceanographic, while impressive, is not really my thing. The two most memorable exhibits there, for me, are a couple of tunnels that pass beneath the aquarium. This allows us to pass under and see the marine life above and around us - and presumably allows them to study us as well. And a dolphin show.

Then the IMAX dome. More than any 3D movie I've ever seen, this was my most life-like cinema experience. Because the dome curved above and around me, it was like I was immersed in the Nile, which was what the film was about. And for a couple of shots taken from helicopters, I could feel myself banking along with the helicopter.

All this took 2 of the 3 days for Valencia. The third was for the Bioparc. Another occupant of the old riverbed. A kind of zoo, except that there are no cages at all and only glass panes are occasionally used to separate the visitor from the animals. But for the most part, they've gone for natural separations. Very often, it is a rock or a pond that divides the visitor from the residents. So you're a guest in the animals' habitat. I was once about two feet from the head of a giraffe, as it grazed on a tree. The restaurant there offers tables that give us the option of either watching zebras and rhinos in a field, or the other section that faces some giraffes, watched from even higher up by a pride of lions, grazing on some hilly meadows. Conservation can now be done far from the shores of the original habitat of the animals, they say, and the Bioparc is Spain's bit to conserve Africa's wildlife.

And that was that. I found Valencia itself a little boring, but then again, I didn't really take the effort to explore much if it. On to Barcelona, then...

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