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May 31, 2012

Earthquake Exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences

Shake House at the Earthquake Exhibit. Photo courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences

What if, every hour on the half hour every day from 11.30am to 4.30pm, you could enjoy earthquakes and not worry about furniture raining down on you? Then you’d be sitting safely inside the Morrison Planetarium watching the new Earthquake show at the California Academy of Sciences. Of course you’d probably only do it once with the kids and head over to the big exhibit at the other end of the building where kids will love watching a short earthquake movie in a mini-dome, standing in a “shake house” and being shaken – not stirred – sideways, and learning about what causes earthquakes and how seismology shapes rocks, plants and even wildlife around us. That, in essence, is what I saw last week at the Earthquake exhibit of the California Academy of Sciences.

The Planetarium Show

Before you bring your young crew for a fantastic journey into the world of moving tectonic plates, know that the show is not recommended for kids under age 6. I had this feeling when I got our of the planetarium and confirmed it with Dr. Elizabeth Babcock, Dean of Education at the Academy. Besides a realistic animated 1906 earthquake that reminded me of the aesthetics of Hugo, the movie shows how the crust of the Earth interacts with the Earth’s molten core and how earthquakes spread by waves along fault lines. What I mean is, it might be too technical for younger children and not so much “oh look, a supernova!” That said, I got out of the show with a fresh eye on the Bay Area’s earthquakes – and happy that I don’t dwell at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean where some pretty big shakes occur.

The Exhibit

If you want to engage in interactive activities before hopping on the next movie-shakehouse adventure, start with the displays on earthquake preparedness and grab one of the small “Get Quake Ready” flyers to bring home. In these displays, kids can push buttons, turn cranks, smell gases and turn wrenches to find out where the biggest hazards are in their home and where they can find safe water to drink, safe food to eat and so forth. I bet you’ll be surprised. I was when I learned that worse comes to worse, the water in the tank of my bathroom is A-OK to drink as emergency water. Eew, I agree. But then, you may not have a handy supply of 12 gallons of water to quench the thirst of your family of 4 during 3 days – do you?

When the kids have pushed all the buttons they want, get inside the mini-dome for a redux version of the Earthquake show. A few minutes long, this show introduces the next fun thing and that’s the Shakehouse! I bet you many a kid will compare this to the Disneyland Star Wars ride. Picture this: you step inside a Victorian house parlor with books and glassware on the shelves, painting on the wall and chandelier hanging from the ceiling. You grab a handrail because you’re instructed to – I stood next to the window with a view on the Alamo Square “postcard row.” After a few words of caution, the room begins to shake – from left to right and right to left. The glasses rattle, the painting flops on the wall. You’re not taking off to hyperspace but close enough. Kids will love it! Or cry.

When I did it, I watched the people around me. Instinctively, most of them checked the ceiling and its waltzing chandelier. I guess that’s people are afraid of – receiving granny’s chandelier on the forehead. This was the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I watched the window as the view turned to 1906 Alamo Square and braced for a bigger and longer quake, the April 18, 1906 earthquake that caused the massive fire that destroyed a third of the city.

Now you have a rough idea of what a big quake is – except this shakehouse cannot simulate any up and down motion, something a big quake would give you in Real-D. Boy, that was quite an experience!

After the shakehouse, I browsed the botanical exhibits  and talked with the curator of Botany of my home island New Caledonia and of the birds of paradise, these pretty flowers that evolved and are distant cousins of all the other plants in the display. At that point, chances are the kids will want to check out the ostrich chicks. Ostrich chicks? And there I thought that ostriches had nothing to do with earthquakes. Little did I suspect that flightless birds like ostriches are related to other flightless birds like the kiwis or the emus, only they were separated eons ago when the mighty Gondwana continent was broken into continents that drifted away thanks to this planet’s tectonics. As a result, you better go wave hi to the baby ostriches who will be replaced every 6 weeks by a crop of new baby ostriches because they grow so fast.

Now before you leave, head over to the Geology exhibit and check out the iron meteorite on the middle stand. Get your reading glasses on and read the weight. I’m not telling, you’ll have to go – I was speechless and unethically tried to lift it from its stand. Hopefully nobody got that on camera because I think it’s glued, to avoid imbeciles like me doing weights with museum exhibits.

As a closing note, I’d like to add a little prose on earthquakes as every day life events.

When Earthquakes Are Part of Everyday Life

Earthquakes happen all the time. In fact, worldwide several million earthquakes happen every year but most are too small to be felt. If you live in the Bay Area like me, earthquakes are a fact of life. Every time we’ve been house-hunting around San Francisco, we’ve looked at the soil/rock foundations and the seismic resistance of the buildings we were considering. Walking around my neighborhood today, I have a good idea of where the nearest fault is and how the hill we’re on might react. I know our home is built on bedrock and honestly, I feel better than in a home built on landfill. Not a single day goes by that I don’t drop off my girls at school and think  - what if a major earthquake strikes today? Same when I cross the Bay Bridge – silly, I know.

Well, if a major earthquake strikes today, you’ll  probably find me buried under a mountain of books because I haven’t bolted a single one of our book shelves to the walls and that’s a major mistake.

Practical details for the exhibition

  • Websitehttps://www.calacademy.org/academy/exhibits/earthquake/index.php?dc=
  • Days and hours for non-members: Monday – Saturday9:30 am – 5:00 pm, Sunday11:00 am – 5:00 pm.
  • Members-only hours: Tuesdays: 8:30 am – 9:30 am, Sundays: 10:00 am – 11:00 am
  • Morrison Planetarium Show:  Monday – Friday: Every hour on the half-hour, 11:30 am – 4:30 pm, Saturday & Sunday: Every 45 minutes, 10:30 am – 4:30 pm.

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