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Is there a science to skateboarding? Do toilets really flush counterclockwise in Australia? At San Francisco's hands-on science museum, you'll find out things you wished you learned in school. Combining science with art and investigating human perception, the Exploratorium nudges you to question how you perceive the world around you. The setting is thrilling: a 9-acre, glass-walled pier jutting straight into San Francisco Bay, with large outdoor portions you can explore free of charge, 24 hours a day.
Covering a whopping 330,000 sq ft of indoor-outdoor space, galleries focus on color, sound, light and motion, stimulating learning by inviting participation. Never didactic, always engaging, the more than 600 exhibits have buttons to push, cranks to ratchet and dials to adjust, all created by artists and scientists at the in-house building shop (which you should peer into). Try on a punk hairdo, courtesy of the static-electricity station. Turn your body into the gnomon of a sundial. Slide, climb and feel your way – in total darkness – through the labyrinth of the Tactile Dome (reservations and separate ticket required).
Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969. He'd been a physicist on the atom bomb and was blackballed during the McCarthy era but then later reemerged as a high-school teacher, eschewing secret scientific study in favor of public education. The Exploratorium is his lasting legacy, with the mission to incorporate technology with human values.
In 2013 the Exploratorium moved from the Marina to Pier 15, a brand-new purpose-built solar-powered space, constructed in concert with scientific agencies, including NOAA, which hardwired the entire pier with sensors delivering real-time data on weather, wind, tides and the bay. See the data flow in at your final stop, the Observatory Gallery, a glass-enclosed lookout where you can make your own observations about sea, land and sky.