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A Science Lover’s Kind of Town

By Ethan Gilsdorf
November 14, 2008
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WHEN you run an ice cream parlor down the street from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you expect your customers to chat about stem cell research or trade theories about neutrinos between licks of burnt caramel. But Gus Rancatore, whose Toscanini’s shop in Cambridge, Mass., is renowned as much for its deep-thinking clientele as for its sundaes, discovered long ago that catering to the technology-minded crowd could have unforeseen advantages.

One day, two M.I.T. students who were “working in superconductors,” Mr. Rancatore said, took a good look at his ice cream machine, visible through his shop window, and were “distressed by the poor engineering.” So they took it back to their lab and transformed its inefficient gear-drive mechanism into a lean, mean, belt-driven machine. That was 23 years ago. “We still use the machine,” Mr. Rancatore said. “Another generation of M.I.T. engineers just tuned it up this summer.”

In metropolitan Boston, including Cambridge, home of Harvard and M.I.T., and the technology corridor out on Route 128, the story is amusing, but not particularly surprising. At least since the early 1700s, when its cutting-edge physicians first offered smallpox inoculations, Boston has been a leader in sciences both theoretical and applied. Today, it’s still a town for science lovers, and the mood can be either serious or playful. If you’re the kind of person whose idea of fun is probing the structure of DNA or designing a faster toy bobsled, Boston is an inspiring place to spend a few days.

An essential stop on the science circuit is the MIT Museum, on Massachusetts Avenue a block or so from M.I.T.’s nuclear reactor. Recently expanded to 15,000 square feet of floor space (a 5,000-square-foot addition opened just over a year ago), the museum features invitingly devised rotating exhibits on new M.I.T. research, as well as permanent exhibits.

One day last month, some visitors examined prototype parts for stackable urban cars, which looked more like shopping carts than vehicles, while others walked slowly backward at the “Eight Einsteins” exhibit. As they moved, “hybrid illusions” of faces of Einstein morphed into Freud, Madonna and John Lennon before their eyes. Created by Aude Oliva, a cognitive science professor, and her colleagues, the images are helping researchers learn more about visual cognition and how the brain functions.

Hanging from the ceiling in one corner were M.I.T.-designed submersible vehicles — made to move on their own in deep-ocean areas too dangerous for divers — including Jason Junior, the one that snooped around the wreck of the Titanic. Upstairs, permanent exhibits demonstrated the institute’s more established work in robotics, voice recognition and DNA research. Prof. Harold Edgerton’s groundbreaking stroboscopic photography is on display there; you’ll probably recognize his famous bullet-through-the-apple shot.

Fiddle with the “Remarkable Double Piddler Hydraulic Happening Machine,” which uses a strobe light to deconstruct a water stream into individual droplets. Or examine the displays chronicling M.I.T.’s work on radar in World War II and navigational systems for the Apollo space missions. There’s also a video of the annual mechanical engineering class’s robot competition.

The museum also owns hundreds of 3-D holograms, the largest and most extensive collection in the world, said Seth Riskin, curator of a new juried exhibit called “Luminous Windows: Holograms for the 21st Century” (running Dec. 5 through March). The show will feature six large-scale holograms from international artists, some as tall as five feet, to be displayed in the museum’s ground-floor windows and facing outward, visible to nighttime passersby. Two dozen smaller holograms — from a portrait of Keith Haring to images of brains and a coal molecule — are part of the permanent exhibit.

While the MIT Museum’s character is tranquil and contemplative, the justly renowned Boston Museum of Science can seem like pandemonium, especially on weekends. There are literally hundreds of interactive and informational displays and kiosks on dozens of topics: optics, reproduction, computers, live butterflies, remote sensing and much more. A rare Triceratops skeleton recently became the latest permanent exhibit. The exhibits are arranged helter-skelter in three confusing wings over three levels. Plunge right in anyway — this stop, too, is obligatory — but focus and pace yourself.

You can learn how radiology, wind turbines and biomethane digesters work. To please <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="46636">“Star Wars”</object.title> fans, a full-scale model Naboo N-1 Starfighter, from <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="179455">“The Phantom Menace,”</object.title> dangles from the ceiling beside real spaceships from a galaxy not so far, far away.

At Galileo’s Drop Stop, test for yourself whether different masses fall at the same rate. An exhibit called Mathematica, created by Charles and Ray Eames, explains concepts like celestial mechanics, probability and the Zeta Function (don’t ask) with endearing circa-1961 models and falling plastic balls. Teaching moments are everywhere: the men’s rooms have signs explaining how the infrared sink technology works.

For the biggest “wow” factor (aside from the IMAX movies and planetarium shows, at least) visit the Theater of Electricity and its Van de Graaff generators and Tesla coils. “We need people who are particularly full of electric charge,” joked Diana DeLuca, a program coordinator who made one volunteer’s hair stand on end, much to the delight of the audience. The show got better: a supersize Van de Graaff generator crackled with one million volts and created a shockingly beautiful indoor lightning show.

“A lot of the presenters here have math and engineering degrees,” Ms. DeLuca said.

The generators came to the museum from M.I.T., where their inventor, Dr. Robert Van de Graaff, taught physics — one example of the ways the area’s dozens of universities and research labs have infused Boston with innovation. Faculty members at Harvard and M.I.T. alone have racked up 49 Nobel Prizes in the sciences. The microwave, the safety razor, the instant camera and the video game were all invented in the Boston area. All around town, there are places to trace some of this legacy.

One is the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, the operating theater where in 1846 a Boston dentist administered the first fully effective anesthetic — ether — in a famous early demonstration. Across town, at the Warren Anatomical Museum on the Longwood Medical campus of the Harvard Medical School, you can gawk at medical history in glass cases, some of it creepy, like skeletons of conjoined twin babies and Civil War-era instruments used for amputations. The best-known artifact is the skull of Phineas Gage, who, in 1848, blasting rock for the railroad, accidentally shot a three-and-a-half-foot tamping iron straight through his head. Amazingly, he survived.

Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, in its Science Center, is a whirlwind tour of tools that have helped scientists calculate nature’s mysteries, from a geometrical compass designed by Galileo to the Mark I, a locally invented pioneering computer used to calculate shell trajectories during World War II.

At the Harvard Museum of Natural History, galleries of old-school specimens, like skeletons of three whales and a rare dodo, recall the heady era of Darwin. Other displays are reminders that important discoveries are still being made. One prize item is a model of the world-famous tiktaalik roseae skeleton, the evolutionary link between fish and land animals, discovered two years ago by the Harvard zoologist Dr. Farish Jenkins and a team.

Before you leave, don’t miss the exquisite collection known as the glass flowers. These delicate models of 830 plant species, 3,000 in total, were made by a father and son glassblowing team so Harvard students could study botany in the winter months.

For a glimpse of the science crowd off duty, explore their haunts in Central Square between Harvard and M.I.T., home to Toscanini’s and other lively restaurants, cafes, clubs and shops, most along Massachusetts Avenue.

“You walk down the street and hear people yapping about stuff that’s technical,” said Eran Egozy, co-founder of Harmonix Music Systems, the video game developer behind Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Mr. Egozy and his business partner, Alex Rigopulos, who met as students at the M.I.T. Media Lab in the 90s, are happy to keep their company in Cambridge. “It feels like this place has a lot of smart people trying to solve the world’s problems,” Mr. Egozy said.

Many of their employees are also musicians who play in bands at neighborhood clubs like the Middle East and T.T. The Bear’s Place.

To rub shoulders with robotics engineers and astrophysicists, Mr. Egozy recommended a legendary M.I.T. hangout, a Chinese restaurant called Mary Chung. “When you go in,” he said, “you can just tell it’s packed with nerds.”

Miracle of Science is another geek-centric watering hole. The chalkboard menu is set up like the Periodic Table of the Elements; beware of “Rb,” the radioactively hot Ronie burger, which is packed with jalapeños.

A more swanky option is Middlesex, where button-down types are known to dance to nightly DJ music. It’s also worth wandering M.I.T.’s fun house-like Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry, where students huddle over pub food and computers at the R&D.

Cambridge even has science-themed theater. The Catalyst Collaborative@MIT theater company presents plays at the Central Square Theater. Several performances of “Einstein’s Dreams” are scheduled in December.

If you can’t leave town without techie souvenirs, shop the MIT Press Bookstore and M.I.T. Coop for sci-tech books and the Boston Museum of Science gift shop for child-pleasing robotics kits and stuffed animals. Harvard’s Natural History Museum sells jewelry and minerals along with educational toys.

The MIT Museum’s shop specializes in grown-up gifts and gadgets. One T-shirt has the symbol for the square root of negative 1, below the words “I have an imaginary friend.” Perfect for that budding Einstein on your gift list.

TECHNOLOGICAL HOT SPOT

THE MIT Museum (265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge; 617-253-5927; web.mit.edu/museum) costs $7.50 for adults, $3 for children.

The Museum of Science, Boston (1 Science Park; 617-723-2500; www.mos.org) has ticket packages beginning at $23.50 for adults and $19.50 for children. A Boston City Pass (888-330-5008; www.citypass.com) gains admission to the museum, the Harvard Natural History Museum and four other sites for $44 for adults and $24 for children.

The Ether Dome (Bulfinch Building, Massachusetts General Hospital, Grove and Cambridge Streets) is open for self-guided tours (ask for pamphlet at information desk) whenever the amphitheater is not in use.

The Warren Anatomical Museum is situated on the fifth-floor mezzanine of the Countway Medical Library of Harvard Medical School (10 Shattuck Street, Boston; 617-432-6196; www.countway.harvard.edu/). Admission is free.

The Collection of Scientific Instruments at the Putnam Gallery at Harvard (Science Center 136; 617-495-2779; www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/chsi.html) is free. The Mark I computer is on the building’s first-floor lobby.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford Street, Cambridge; 617-495-3045; www.hmnh.harvard.edu) costs $9 for adults and $6 for children.

Miracle of Science (321 Massachusetts Avenue; 617-868-2866; www.miracleofscience.us) has casual fare like burgers and skewers ($8 to $12) and beer on tap.

Middlesex Lounge (315 Massachusetts Avenue, 617-868-6739; www.middlesexlounge.us) has a lunch and bar menu and serves cocktails.

Toscanini’s (899 Main Street; 617-491-5877; www.tosci.com) serves homemade ice cream, coffee and baked goods, and offers a weekend breakfast.

Mary Chung (464 Massachusetts Avenue; 617-864-1991) offers inexpensive Mandarin and Sichuan dishes, and dim sum on weekends.

The Middle East (472 Massachusetts Avenue, corner of Brookline Street, 617-864-3278; www.mideastclub.com) has four stages for live music; T.T. The Bear’s Place (10 Brookline Street; 617-492-2327; www.ttthebears.com) also has music nightly.

The Catalyst Collaborative@MIT (866-811-4111; www.undergroundrailwaytheater.org/) performs science-themed plays at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue.

A hotel convenient to M.I.T. and Central Square is Le Meridien Cambridge (20 Sidney Street; 617-577-0200,; www.starwoodhotels.com), with rates beginning $269.

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