Visual Guide to Science Museums in Paris

There’s a great book called The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive, a list of nerdy tourist attractions around the globe. I heaven’t exactly read it, but when I left for Paris to do research September-November last year at the Synchrotron Soleil (pictured above) I made it my goal to explore as many science museums in Paris that I could. On top of that, I just got a new camera before I left, so let me break down my favorite spots in a nice visually stimulating manner.

Even if you’re a super science genius and you’re too cool for these layman museum displays, it’s really interesting to consider these exhibits from a science education perspective. While you’re strolling through, consider the challenge of designing of both accurate and interactive science demonstrations. I have a vested interest in these installations so I found this whole museum quest fascinating on a number of levels.

1) The Museum of Natural History (Musee d’Histoire Naturelle)

If you’re a biologist at heart, this place is great. Free for students (don’t forget to bring your student card overseas kids). Awesome animal parade centerpiece surrounded by multiple levels of taxidermy-style displays. Don’t miss the tiger attack and dodo not pictured. Great for photography opportunities and if you’re visiting in the right season, there’s lots of stuff to do outside. A must-see in my opinion.

2) Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie

The most famous/biggest science museum in France, home of the Geode (an IMAX theatre),

I only visited the permanent exhibits (energy, space, optics, etc.) but those alone were worth the price of admission. Be warned that all the displays are explained in only French. If you’re a hopeless English-only speaker like myself, you’ll have to rely on your inner scientific explanatory gusto (or they might have tour guides). What I didn’t expect to see were all the cool mathematical demos. How do you present something as dry and uncool as math? The answer is geometry. Check out this simple cube/square projection and artsy Mobius strip,

I really enjoyed the simple soapy water demonstrations. It was just a demo of contorted wires being dipped in soapy water, demonstrating nature’s great ability to minimize surface area. Another bubble demonstrations was just a sheet which you could lower and raise into bubbly water and watch the swirling rainbow optical phenomena. Kids (including me) had fun blowing holes in it and recreating it,

Even some statistics demonstrations of both the Galton Box and Brownian motion.

Did I mention there were traditional science exhibits? There was a genetics section and several noteworthy physics demos scattered about. I had fun trying to photograph this Newton’s Cradle symmetrically. Plus, a snazzy rotating water wheel.

Top off your stay with a brilliant gravitational lensing demonstration and a classic coloured shadows optics demo, then head to the next museum!

3) Museum of Arts and Crafts (Musée des Arts et Métiers de Paris)

I’ll be the first to admit the name of this place is confusing. More than anything, it’s a museum of historical science and technology and hence, it’s probably the most boring of the museums for kids. Don’t go here if you’re expecting interactivity, unless you count pressing buttons to activate crazy mechanical dolls (I warned you!) or unless they have a cool temporary exhibit on. For photographers, lots of stuff behind glass, like this fax machine. I was really hoping to get a closer look at such a rare piece of equipment,

Numerous engineering feats were displayed, like a Moon Rover and a Cyclotron,

Despite its grandparent’esque historical nature, I had lots of fun nerding out over old science apparatus. It really made me wish that today’s lab equipment had more wood and brass. If I ever get rich, oh man, you won’t believe the oldschool lab I’m going to build. This place even had a supposed “Laboratory of Lavoisier”. I heard that guy was a total jerk!

There are some cool geometric models by Théodore Olivier,

The original Focault pendulum, formally installed at the Pantheon, was/is at this museum, but I think there was a recent scandal where the cable broke. When I was there it was going strong.

They had a sliced-in-half car but you couldn’t sit in it for a picture, shame. No visit to this museum would be complete without a shot of their beautifully suspended Ornithopter.

4) Palace of Discovery (Palais de la Découverte)

Science in an ancient French palace, now that’s what I’m talking about! When you walk  in you’re greeted with an amazing open-space and ceiling. This place has a planetarium but I was nervous my French would be too fail-ridden to get my money’s worth. The place itself was slightly underwhelming for an English-speaker.

The real draw of this place seemed to be the hands-on science demonstrations for kids. Check out the mathematics room, chemistry demonstration, and unfortunately deserted electricity stage!

This giant T-rex bust would look great over my fireplace, but I’ll guess it makes sense in a museum too. This place also has a decent section on reproduction to school young ones about the birds and the bees.

5) Centre Pompidou

Certainly not a science museum, but this modern art museum had it’s share of aesthetically pleasing geometric constructions, not to mention a few Picasso’s along the way. Here is Antoine Pevsner’s “Construction spatiale aux 3ème et 4ème dimensions”.

And some other optical modern art!

As a summary I’d definitely recommend making the big trip to Northern Paris for “Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie” and a nice leisurely stroll through Musee d’Histoire Naturelle. I’d suggest that the other two are totally optional.

Other things to do include visiting the famous lab of Marie Curie at the “Curie Museum“. If you’re visiting Paris before April 3rd, 2011 you can also stop by at the Palace of Versailles for their “Science & Curiosities at the Court of Versailles” exhibit.

On top of your normal museum visitations, you can also go on a morbid scientist grave tour. Louis Pasteur is buried at the Pasteur Institute, the Curies and Paul Langevin (who’s work is most related to my research) are at the Pantheon, and numerous scientists are buried at the Père Lachaise and Montparnasse Cemeteries.

One of a kind scientific souvenirs, you’ll want to visit Les puces de Paris. A great place to find complete skeletons, old phrenological brain models, brass telescopes, and old chemistry bottles (have those been autoclaved?).

Lastly, not very sciencey, but the Hunting Museum (Maison de la chasse et de la nature) I totally recommend to any visitors of Paris. It’s pretty small, but it’s completely bizarre. Where else can you get a picture at the base of a narwhals tusk at a ceiling covered with goat antlers. I won’t spoil all the sights (read: the owl room), but here’s a few teaser photos I took,

So if you’re a scientist or science fan visiting Paris, let me know in the comments and I’ll answer everything you want to know.

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