Exploring Within and Without at the Exploratorium

I remember my dad taking me to the Exploratorium as a kid. With my parents being divorced and me living in the Philippines while he lived in SF, I would only see him once every couple of years, which made it even more of a treat. That was one of the things I loved about my dad. He knew how to feed my wonder- perhaps because we wondered about the same things. 

I mostly appreciated the exhibits for the immersive experience of science as a kid.  I would run around, fascinated by how things worked. Even though several years would pass, my fond memories of the place stayed vivid in my mind in between visits. I think I had the exhibits memorized because every time I came back, they all felt familiar, yet each experience with them felt new. It never got old.

Over time, I started my own family. When I first went back to the Exploratorium as a parent, the exhibits seemed to have an added dimension to it- art. Maybe it was always there and I just didn't have the depth of perception to notice or comprehend it. One of my favorite and most memorable visual images of the place was a picture my partner took inside the triangular kaleidoscope you could duck into. It was simultaneously art, science, geometry, and an experience. That was my first taste of each of them, all of them, simultaneously, but yet individually.

After they moved to the new location on the pier, it took a while for me to go back. My kids went on their own last year, but yesterday was my first visit to their new home. I recently heard Thomas Rockwell, the director of exhibits and media, speak at The Art and Science of Awe  and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the effort that goes into putting the exhibits together. From my experience at the new location, it was evident that they've stepped up their A(we) game. 

There's the reflective installations as you walk through the doors at the entrance that give you quick visual snapshot experiences of what it's like to experience yourself in multiple simultaneous incarnations. 

Through the science of the reflective properties of material and light, the mathematics of the angles needed to reproduce an infinity of reflective permutations, the art of the beauty of each individual image and the whole kaleidoscopic image as a whole, and the psychology and sociology of processing their interactions and meanings- each installation eloquently summarizes our quest to keep looking for our true selves only to find that everything around us is a reflection of ourselves. 

I see you... And you... And you... And you..
Everything we've been looking for has been in front of and inside us all along.  I could have gone home satisfied from those profoundly beautiful experiences and I hadn't even paid for my entrance yet.

Once inside, I took in the Exploratorium experience with completely new eyes.

And, again, maybe it's because I have a broader perspective now, but on this visit there were more added layers to my Exploratorium experience- psychology and sociology.  It was evident not just in the exhibits that explicitly explored these topics, but in the behavior of the people around us- the kids and the adults- and how they interacted individually and with each other. 

There was a kid who wouldn't leave her spot at the sand turntables, totally immersed in the experience, and her mom who physically hovered over her creating a mom-shield around her child, barking, "Wait your turn!" whenever another kid asked if they could have a try at it. In stark contrast, there were three kids right across from them on another turntable who didn't know each other. But they all slowly discovered that they could make beautiful patterns in the sand turntables if each of them, simultaneously, and respectfully traced their fingers on different areas of the same turntable as it spun. It was the same exact exhibit, happening at the same exact time, but with different human experiences. It became evident that each one of us were all part of the experiments around us.

As we looked around, my kids excitedly pulled me to their favorite exhibits from their previous visit. These were a few of my own favorites:

The one with the ferrofluid- It beautifully visually demonstrates to me how the magnetics of our thoughts and beliefs shape our being, perception, physicality and reality. I could've sat here for hours just playing/watching, the infinite number of movement/patterns unfold.

Even her shadows look happy and bright. 

The colored shadows- reminds me that we are beings of light.

The invisible stained glass- reminded me that there are aspects of ourselves and the world around us that are only visible when our thoughts are polarized a certain way or tuned to a certain frequency. And that magic isn't visible unless we have the eyes and the heart to see. ;)

The zen-inducing sand turntable (where the kid had the mon-shield) that made me want to push my daughter out of the way so I could have it all to myself. LoL.

Everything and nothing.

And the multiple exposure camera that reminded me that we are a different person in each moment. And that we are both a culmination of all of those moments and yet none of them at the same time.

All of the exhibits I saw had elements of science, art, math/geometry, psychology and sociology elements to it. Each exhibit seemed like a microcosm of the truths and secrets of the Universe and existence in them. The more time I spent playing with the exhibits, the more I felt I understood. 

Art, science, math, psychology and sociology are not mutually exclusive. They're all intertwined, each a perspective used to describe the same thing- the truth of the world around us and within us. It's not one or the other. It's each and every single one of them, simultaneously, but it's also none of them, because the truth is so much more than can be described by any or all of them. And that's the same way I'd describe myself. 

I'm everything and nothing at the same time. I'm a culmination of art, science, mathematical patterns, thought, social interactions. I'm a culmination of all the labels, identities, roles, characteristics, creations, and images that all describe my being to some extent, but none of them can truly encapsulate my being. They're merely vehicles of experience, different perspectives of me, individually, simultaneously, and cumulatively.  Yet the truth of who I am is not limited to a single one of those categories because it is SO MUCH MORE. Yet the truth of who I am is also paradoxically none of them, as it cannot be contained, labeled, categorized or in any way limited by any of those categories. 

So in reflection, after all these years of coming to the Exploratorium, not only have I gained a better understanding of how the world works, but I've also gained a better understanding of me.  It's helped me to come to terms that it's not about finding a definitive answer, it's about being in a perpetual state of wonder. And for that I am grateful to my dad. 

It's been years since I've last seen my dad. He's been off, chasing after answers of his own. Maybe one of these days when the time is right (and if I even see him again) I can return the favor he did for me as a child. If we really do wonder about the same things, maybe I can show him that it's okay to not have a definitive answer and bring him back to a place of wonder. That might help him realize that what he's been desperately searching for was right in front of him and in him all along.