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Observing, varying, measuring: understanding

How can we communicate scientific knowledge? One German entrepreneur has an answer.

You can build gears from large colourful cogwheels, set up pendulums, give yourself small electric shocks, or put things on rotating discs and watch them move round in strange ways. All this – using Axel Hüttinger’s devices – looks fun and physics teachers could give you long lectures on the forces at work in each case. The installations designed and manufactured by Hüttinger’s company for large and small exhibitions are, however, much more fun than traditional classroom learning.

Hüttinger and his brother Jörg run a company in Schwaig, near Nuremberg, southern Germany, with a workforce of 120 and a turnover of about €15m (£13.75m) a year, almost twice what it was 10 years ago. The company has become Germany’s largest supplier to science centres. For more than a decade, the brothers have been scouring museums, taking pictures of the exhibits, recording and analysing them. This database is their most important source of ideas and they regularly invite schoolchildren to evaluate them.

Chain reaction or domino effect, illustrated by a series of slabs of different sizes.

Right now, teenagers are testing two dozen exhibits for a planned science centre in the Russian city of Tomsk. If the testers get bored trying out what kinds of stuff they can do with magnetic fields, paper cones in an air current, or rotating discs, the developers have got it wrong. At the same time, these technical toys need to look, in the words of one 17-year-old, “awesome” – somewhat futuristic, not like lab equipment. Another teenager says: “At school you are taught the theory first. Here, you experience the fascination first and that leads you automatically to wondering how something works.”

Michel Junge is the head of Germany’s largest interactive science centre, Phaeno in Wolfsburg, northern Germany, and he is one of the brothers’ customers. “We want people to have fun thinking, and fun taking a closer look at things,” he says. “Once they have learned how to look, they experience more and more.” When he and his colleagues are thinking up new exhibits, they look for ways to translate the laws of nature into experiences.

However, they also want to stimulate and surprise – and the “Bernoulli ball” is an example. A large ball floats on air. “This arouses people’s curiosity. At first you think it’s suspended by a thread, but in fact it’s floating in mid-air,” says Junge. “If you knock it, it falls down, and it may take you a few attempts to put it back in the stream of air. You can feel the current; you can change how the ball behaves. If you want to find out more, you can google the Bernoulli principle, or ask a physics teacher. But the first thing we get you to experience is how to hold that ball in the air current and how easy it is.”

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This rotating disc causes balls to move in unexpected directions. With a little practice, you can make them roll to look as though they were stationary

Playful hippies

Learning labs like this have become everyday institutions in English-speaking countries. There are now some 1,500 major science centres all over the world, focusing on different topics and aimed at different audiences. The first was Exploratorium, set up in San Francisco in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, a former nuclear physicist and brother of Robert, who helped design the atomic bomb. The Exploratorium must have been an early synthesis of hippy culture, the joy of experimentation and advanced science: the spirit that made Silicon Valley great a few decades later.

Photos from the Exploratorium’s early years show slightly stoned-looking geeks building mad installations that will reveal physical phenomena such as gravity, rotational forces or diffracting light. The connection between acceleration, mass and velocity was demonstrated with a huge slide that would never make it into a museum nowadays on safety grounds.

Rodeo on a spinning top
Use a crank-driven generator to make your own electricity and run various household appliances

Great fun but also the first step towards understanding that people learn best through shared experiences. Hüttinger admires Frank Oppenheimer as a role model: “A tough physicist who turned into a radical teacher,” he calls him.

Everything starts with the astonishment the exhibits trigger, but that is when the questions really erupt. This is how the Hüttingers’ set-ups differ from more spectacular museum shows: they are not about entertaining firework effects but about the laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Like his brother, Axel Hüttinger studied mechanical engineering and draws on his scientific training when developing new exhibits. The design is important, he says, but only as a means to an end. “We see ourselves within the context of the formal education provided by schools, nursery schools and universities.”

Hüttinger’s idea of interaction is also different from the touchscreens that are so commonplace in many museums but can only be used to retrieve stored images and texts. Hüttinger believes true interaction begins when visitors “generate insights through their own actions. And if they end up with more questions than they started out with, so much the better”. He describes an installation that examines the properties of flowing water: a valve regulates the amount of water flowing down an incline, a webcam films everything and produces data that changes as the parameters, such as pitch or pressure, are varied. The experiment is open-ended and the apparatus is adjustable, permitting a variety of possible actions that can be performed, just like in real research: observing, varying, measuring and understanding.

A Galton box or bean machine. A large number of balls falling through the array of pins will end up in the bell-shaped curve of a normal distribution

Although there are several large science centres in Germany, many museums continue to produce exhibits to look at rather than touch. “Talking to Britons or Americans at conferences, you begin to realise the full extent of what can be done,” says Hüttinger. “German museums are lagging behind. They are still concerned with collecting, preserving, researching and putting things on display. They produce exhibitions about science rather than exhibitions of science.”

This is why he does a lot of his business abroad, including in China. Learning labs fit the strategy of the Communist Party functionaries, who want to modernise their economy. “We tell them, your weakness is the absence of creativity,” says Axel Hüttinger. “A science centre can promote creativity.”

In Fuyang, about 180km (112 miles) from Shanghai, his company has equipped a centre allowing visitors to experience the principles of mathematics, physics and chemistry, as well as applications of communications technology and mechanical engineering.

Their next step is ambitious: Hüttinger wants to turn an entire building into an exhibit. In Sharjah, a city in the middle of the United Arab Emirates desert, he and scientists from the Centre for Applied Energy Technology are planning a net zero-energy building. The designs looks like some futuristic command centre from a James Bond film. Or, to quote that pupil once again: “Awesome.”

Physics can be very vivid: a nitrogen source and balloons demonstrate the properties of air and its components