Talking rocks and upside down planets – A day of strange matterings at the Science Museum in Paris

As I went from London to Switzerland by train, I got to stop in Paris for a while. On the way to my friend’s place I saw a poster on the underground announcing a new exhibition at the Science Museum in Paris on – you won’t believe it – MATTER! So instead of munching my way through several heavenly patisseries with view onto the Seine – like one should do in Paris – I diligently obeyed the call of ‘matter’ to discover how ‘the French’ portray it in these particular surroundings (yes, I do regret not eating the pastries).

The museum is part of the Parc de la Villette, which is a wacky place worth seeing in itself. I once visited it as part of a comparative study of green spaces in the city and was perplexed by its design and ambience. The museum building is a lot tamer (apart from maybe the big silver globe that is their planetarium) – maybe this is a deliberate understatement to not distract from the wondrous inside.

At the ticket booth I managed to obtain a student discount despite being ‘too old’ to get a discount (thanks ;)), so with enough money left for some madeleines and a drink I embarked on my mission to the first floor. On entering the exhibition level, I first noticed some plants that were arranged as if they were running a visitor information stall. Fantastic! Interestingly, the theme of a lively non-human world continued throughout all exhibitions that I visit. I first went through the portal that lead me to ‘Humans and Genes’ which talked a lot about the role of luck and nature’s creativity in evolution, the various activities molecules participate in to create life, and our ‘dynamic world within’ (I love that phrase!) that developed out of an inconspicuous ‘broth of bacteria’ 4 billion years ago. Unfortunately, quite a few interactive exhibits did not work, but I still got to symbolically experience the wondrous worlds of cytoplasm (‘molecular breeding ground’), our own internal ecosystem (Pierre Sonigo makes a thought-provoking comparison of our body to a forest rather than a machine), and, last but not least, bioethics.

Getting too impatient to see the ‘main’ exhibition, I just quickly walked through the exhibition on convergence – twiddling a few knobs here and there – which represented different opinions on the topic in verbal or material form (through design objects). Sadly, this cute little bunny-bot was not in a very convergent mood – in my presence at least. Anyone had more luck?

After a seeming eternity, I entered ‘The Great Story of the Universe’. The ‘story’ began with the questions ‘Where does matter come from?’ and ‘What is the history of matter?’
The first exhibits were tables with ‘talking’ rocks – when you touched them, they told you what they knew and remembered about the universe. This seemed like a great way of illustrating how inanimate things hold memories of events and can communicate them, thus contributing to our research. Taking this idea of the active inorganic further, there even was a ‘dance of the continents’ display.

The next question was phrased: ‘Earth recycles matter, but does not create it – what do we owe to meteorites?’ From there, the displays quickly moved towards galaxies, dark matter (‘must all matter be luminous?’) and ‘matter before the stars’ (I loved the mental images of a ‘leopard spotted universe’ and a ‘lumpy soup’). My favourite sentence was: ‘The universe seems to be full of things we can’t see but that influence us’ (even as a non-scientist I always had the feeling this was the case! ;D). Displays alternated with interactive installations and films – the latter you could watch from super-comfy bean-bag-type diwans, which was exactly what I needed at the time! I discussed some of the things which were not entirely clear to me with a French hobby astronomer who spoke very good English. He moved on soon as he was extremely curious about the museum’s exhibits on relativity and other mathematics. I followed after a longer struggle of separating myself from the bean bag.
Upstairs was, indeed, a section on theoretical physics and – particles! Amazingly, there were a lot of interactive things you could do there – from quizzes to ‘proper’ experiments. Knowing most experiments from my physics classes, I spent a lot of time checking up on the latest results from the ‘particle hunters’ around the world, and reading contrasting quotes from different physicists (and non-physicists – or have I missed something? – such as Woody Allen) that were on the walls. In case anyone wants to know what Woody Allen says about physics:

‘It is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light and certainly not desirable as one’s hat keeps blowing off.’

A great read was also Raymond Devos’ (another non-physicist) idea of antimatter: ‘Anti-matter is a hole with nothing around it.’ You could find out if this ‘hypothesis’ was true in the attached ‘antimatter game’. The game, in fact, surprised me with somewhat unexpected comparison with quantum objects and platypuses (‘quantum objects are the platypuses of classical physics’), although I dimly remember reading strange things about platypuses a few years ago…

From the Big Bang I suddenly found myself three floors below surrounded by lots of children waiting for a screening about the inventor of the ‘Big Blank’. Following a loudspeaker announcement, I had dared to enter a bastion of ‘Shadokology’! For those, who don’t know the ‘Shadoks’, they are part of a surreal cartooniverse brought to life exactly 40 year ago by a gentleman named Jacques Rouxel. In their two-dimensional world, the bird-like Shadoks have a much simpler theory of the universe before the Big Bang: ‘In the beginning, everything was cosmic.’ In the persona of their chief researcher, the great Professor Shadoko, Rouxel pokes fun at logic, rationality and our ‘laws of nature’ (particularly gravity) with political subtext. For instance, when the Shadoks finally manage to travel to Earth, it is so hostile to them that they decide to ‘reorganise it scientifically so that the planet is more convenient for them’.

Rebelling in their own ways against the intended education, the Parisian kids were not interested in the Shadoks as a metaphor (despite the desperate explanation attempts of the museum staff), but rather in the birds’ squeaky voices and the ‘violent’ scenes where the birds, in true slapstick style, hit each other over the head with hammers. Adults are just too weird and take the fun out of everything. I involuntarily managed to bring back some fun by asking a question in my dodgy French, which they found, to the further embarrassment of the ‘native’ adults, hilarious. My ‘outing’ as a non-francophone person attracted some post-event conversation with the staff (and Jacques Rouxel’s wife who was present) who were curious why I was interested in the Shadoks. I tried to explain how their imagery and sense of logic speaks to me despite my non-existing mastery of French (‘excuse my French’ takes on a whole new meaning). They kindly pointed out some screens dotted around the education resource centre to me on which I had the opportunity to watch about a dozen episodes (they each are only about 2 minutes long) of ‘shadokology’ before my mind warped and the museum closed its doors for the day.

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