Seattle's great science renaissance

As the Pacific Science Center gears up for its half-century birthday, Mossback digs into what caused Seattle's scientific love affair and what it means for the city now.
Yamasaki's vision tumbled down in New York, but stands triumphant in Seattle.

Yamasaki's vision tumbled down in New York, but stands triumphant in Seattle. Cacophony

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. National Archives

In October, the Pacific Science Center will turn 50 years old. It was on October 23, 1962 that the U.S. Federal Science Pavilion was converted to the private Pacific Science Center. Though we commonly talk about Seattle Center as a part of the legacy of the world's fair, the fair's legacy would have been huge even if the Science Center was the only surviving pavilion  bigger than many a fair's contribution to civic life. The Science Center stands today as a secular temple to the truth and its pursuit; it teaches and engages our children, it wows us with exhibits from robotic dinosaurs to King Tut and even brings us Laser Floyd.

Century 21 was unique in its earnest efforts to be educational and to get middle class Americans thinking about technology, the future and careers in science, math and engineering. Computers like the UNIVAC answered fairgoer's questions and basic research exhibits were presented alongside NASA space capsules and virtual tours of the universe.

At the time, science was not only key to progress, but to our survival. Advancement would win the Cold War, bring prosperity, give new hope to the world. Boeing used the fair to recruit engineers and had an office adjacent to the fairgrounds for that purpose. Inspire the kids, hire their dads.

The effects come across on postcards sent from the 1962 fair. One fairgoer named Patti wrote, "I went through the Science Pav. for the 2nd time today  had to go back to read the fine print." Yet another, presumably from a student to a professor, at the Catholic Marquette University: "Dear Father...The U.S. Science exhibit is out of this world." The fair was intended to get the public excited about something beyond the Gayway amusement park and these random postcards suggest that that mission was accomplished.

We also know it had a deep impact on some who have gone on to be important figures in science and technology; Paul Allen for one, who has said the Science Center was an influence.

The experience of the fair convinced many of the civic leaders who created it to transform the Federal Pavilion into a permanent Science Center; something dynamic that would teach and keep up with the times. Among the entities that had been imagined for the new civic center was a planetarium  the top of the Needle was even proposed as a location.

The fair did leave behind many facilities, from the new Opera House to the Coliseum, Arena and Playhouse. But it was science that was the soul of the fair, and the source of its funding. Without federal funding for a science pavilion, Century 21 would have been little more than a state fair, perhaps not unlike the anemic Oregon Centennial Exposition of 1959, a lightly attended regional event that was more about wagon trains than rocket ships.

As Murray Morgan wrote in his history of how Century 21 came to be, the fair was "saved by the beep-beep-beep" of Sputnik, a 1957 event that unleashed a massive federal effort to push science and technology forward and that truly launched the space race. And it was Warren G. Magnuson, the powerful Democratic senator from Washington, who steered Seattle organizers to give the fair a science theme. Seattle needed federal funding to be taken seriously as a fair and it also needed a national purpose to justify world exposition status.

Seattle was already a science and technology town: We had Boeing, the University of Washington, a massive and increasingly high-tech military presence (jets and Nike missiles). The state also had impressive engineering projects at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Columbia River dams had served national purpose.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps you are too pessimistic about the prospects for a 50 year update. In fact, even with the difficulties of getting money from the feds, it might be possible to pull it off with a combination of private grants, corporate sponsors, and donations from the public.

There is much to be excited about on the front of science and technology. Advances in solar power, autonomous vehicles, personalized medicine, new robotics, Martian exploration, wearable computers, and many other things are going on right now. Young people can be inspired by the thought that they could live to see fusion power or unmanned interstellar travel and participate in making these things happen. At the same time, the need for strong education in science and technology is well understood. As for the critics, there will always be critics, but being on the side of advancing the frontiers of knowledge is hardly a losing prospect.

I wonder just what it would take to pull that off. Of all the actions that could be taken to bring the country together, celebrating the advance of science and technology is a proven winning formula.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Mark Anderson said one of the main barriers to scientific and technological advancement was the slowness of the peer review process--that the Internet was helping to speed up the sharing of data and that the log-jam of traditional scientific publishing models would eventually be broken, and that would be on balance a positive. There is a funding concern--the U.S. only funds a tiny percentage of federal grant requests; other countries, like Germany, fund much more. But the biggest worry is the erosion in the political sphere of the acceptance of science, and the active propagandizing against, well, reality. Futurist Anderson, for example, refuses to use the term "climate change" because he believes it's a compromise term that's inaccurate, but politically safer to use than what is actually happening, which is "global warming."

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The Science Center is, or rather was, indeed beautiful. One of the most beautiful urban spaces in the world, but like the temples of ancient Rome, the current generation has turned the Center courtyard into a garbage dump. I was at the Seattle Center this spring to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of my trip to the World's Fair. I thought I'd go by the Science Center to get some pictures. The entrance is blocked my a monumental ticket booth and an iron fence that, while it apes the Gothic arches behind it, looks like something from a concentration camp. And there's all that junk strewn around the courtyard! It's really sad. To commemorate the anniversary, it should be restored to its former beauty. As it sits now, I'm sure the Barbarians and Vandals will soon be stripping off the facades to build their latrines.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 9:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Therein lays (?) an idea for a community service project for a Scout troop or a high school Senior.

s_calvert

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 2:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, I wouldn't worry about the critics so much. There have always been critics. Before the critics of global warming, there were critics of ozone depletion and the link between smoking and lung cancer. The theory of evolution has been fought since even before Darwin published On the Origins of Species. I just learned from Descartes's Secret Notebook that Descartes had developed "Euler's" Formula a century before Euler did, that in a connected planar graph, the number of faces minus the number of edges plus the number of vertices is 2. How could that be controversial? Because it seemed to relate to Kepler's model of Platonic solids and planetary orbits, and heliocentrism was still a dangerous topic.

My attitude toward critics of science is to let them grouse. Why should they be allowed to interfere with free inquiry? Progress would be a lot faster if people just ignored the critics and focused on what is important to them. Critics are like a fire: they either die out or become a raging inferno depending on the supply of oxygen.

Funding is indeed an issue. One of the reasons why it is important to promote public interest and enthusiasm for science is that it puts public pressure on Congress to provide funds. But with both the political climate and federal financial position being what they are, it is important to be thinking about alternative models. The Internet has helped in some ways but has yet to reach its full potential as a tool for rapid development and dissemination of ideas.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 9:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I would love to see the PacSci live up to its potential greatness! Right now, I think it serves more as a symbol of aspiration rather than the cutting edge mecca of scientific education it should be.

BBS

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 5:08 p.m. Inappropriate

As part of our commitment to enhancing the guest’s experience, the Science Center has made several exciting improvements and new additions this year. Major construction is underway now on a new 7,000 square foot permanent exhibition on health and wellness that will open to the public on December 1. This year, we also renovated our PACCAR IMAX Theater (formerly EAMES Theater) to create a state-of-the-art theater and multimedia presentation venue. Next time you visit, you will also notice our new glass elevator, restored reflecting pools and glass covered walkway. The Science Center and our Board are in the midst of a $50 million campaign, Fifty for the 50th: Future Ready, that aligns with our strategic initiatives of enhancing the participant’s experience, being a driving force for science education and operating a thriving and financially stable institution. More than $26 million has been raised to date. We are committed to continuing to be a place where people can find inspiration, have fun and discover something new.

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 6:31 p.m. Inappropriate

"Major construction is underway now on a new 7,000 square foot permanent exhibition on health and wellness that will open to the public on December 1."

This may push all the feel-good buttons in the postmodern board rooms where these kind of decisions are made, but this is not the kind of thing that inspires kids to go into science. They don't want to be involved in a discipline that lectures to people that they are too stupid to take care of their own well being and they need to eat more spinach. They want to get involved in disciplines that will enable them to make exciting discoveries and advance mankind's knowledge -- and maybe get their name in a respected journal. This project is exactly what's wrong with the Science Center today.

And why don't you clean all that scrap metal junk out of the courtyard? Do you really think that lots of kid are thinking, "If I go into science, I can work in a building with a rusty dinosaur sculpture in front of it!" At some point, the people who will grow up to do the real work of discovery want to be treated with respect, not pandering. I loved the Science Center as a kid, on the very few times our family could go to Seattle to experience it. That Science Center doesn't exist anymore, except as a once beautiful set of buildings.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 8:20 p.m. Inappropriate

That's hardly a fair characterization of the discipline of public health. Perhaps the field needs better PR to counter this sort of perception, but there's a lot going on that never makes the 6 o'clock news or the afternoon talk shows. Exciting discoveries are as possible in that field as in any other and our epidemiological knowledge is advancing all the time. Sure, discovering a cure for cancer might be sexier (though I'd rather my cancer be prevented in the first place than cured), and penetrating the mysteries of the universe might be more profound, but a sick society has a worse chance of doing either.

And, we should all eat more spinach.

Posted Sat, Sep 29, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

dbrenemen: I had a chance to see some of the new exhibit going up and it didn't strike me the way you characterize it. It looked fun, engaging, and had exhibits that did things like explain how sleep works. It opens before the end of the year and will be interesting to see it finished. I plan to take the grandkids and see what they think. One thing that strikes me about the Science Center new and old is there is much more variety now.

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, I'm very glad to hear that it didn't live down to my fears. Medical research is definitely something we need to get people interested in. I'm still concerned, however, that if it focuses on "public service" displays rather than "pure science" (ie, research, exploration and discovery), the Science Center is drifting away from getting people interested in science for its own sake, and drifting more towards a "The space program was worthwhile because it gave us Teflon" type of presentation. I'm hoping I can take a walk through the Science Center myself when I visit for King Tut next month. I'll try not to be cynical, but cynicism is a conditioned response, as a behavioral scientist could tell you.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 5:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The Wellbody Academy exhibit is a new approach to exhibits both for us and the field at large. The topic was chosen in part to address a major gap in health and healthcare in our region. King County has one of the greatest disparities of healthcare in the nation; these challenges cannot simply be addressed by treatment. The purpose of the exhibition is to help guests of all ages understand the choices they can make that can improve their quality of life--it's not preachy. There will also be a current research component, The Studio, which will have changing themes that will keep content fresh and current while providing an opportunity for our guests to interact with local scientists and researchers who are working to solve current health challenges. The broader health and healthcare community in the region has collaborated with Pacific Science Center to develop content and to help support this $7 million project. We believe the topic addresses a community need and will inspire guests of all ages. Our Board and staff make decisions that are based on the community's needs and we do that by listening to the community.

The Studio area of the exhibit is a product of our Portal to the Public initiative. Four years ago, Pacific Science Center developed a concept and received funding from the National Science Foundation to create Portal to the Public. The program is designed to connect broader public audiences with current research and to help scientists and researchers more effectively explain their research to the broader public. In addition to building awareness about the globally important research that is being conducted in our region's public and private labs, one of the goals of Portal to the Public is to inspire young people to consider STEM careers. Portal to the Public has taken off and we provide multiple opportunities and programs to engage the community in current science both at the Science Center and out in the community. We offer monthly Science Cafes in Tacoma, Kirkland and Seattle; three science research weekends each year where dozens of scientists are at the Science Center for an entire weekend talking one on one with guests; and numerous other on-site and community programs throughout the year. We have received international recognition for this innovative concept. Just last month, we received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to disseminate the model to other science centers and museums around the nation.

We hear you and appreciate your passion. We hope you will come see the new exhibition when it opens on December 1 and check out some of our other programs that connect the community with current science. Let us know what you think.

Posted Wed, Oct 3, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you. I now look forward to seeing it. And since I have your attention, what ever happened to the ball-dropping bell curve machine?

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I wish some of this pro-science energy could help get more discussion of science by our candidates for governor. I'm part of a coalition asking 6 questions: http://www.sciencedebate.org/wa2012/ The questions have the support of NW Science Writers, ScienceOnlineSeattle and FOSEP, the Forum on Science, Ethics and Policy at UW. We have Pacific Science Ctr. and Town Hall endorsing our efforts. Please check the link, and if you support - click the SIGN button. We hope Inslee and McKenna will answer these and we will post the answers.

jamesian

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