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California Science Center Moves to a ‘Green’ Home

July 31, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The California Academy of Sciences, founded in 1916, has a new home in a modern, energy-efficient building in San Francisco, aimed at raising public awareness of the natural world. Spencer Michels explores the unconventional museum amd the challenges of the move.

JIM LEHRER: Next, a new life and a new home for a California museum. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report. A version of this story will air on “KQED Quest.”

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: How do you move 18 African penguins who have been living happily for four years in temporary quarters in downtown San Francisco to a new home across town? The answer is: carefully.

And that goes for the 20 million other specimens — living and dead — which make up the rare collection of the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally, the academy’s purpose was pure research. But then, according to staff biologist Bob Drewes, the public was invited in.

BOB DREWES, Herpetologist, California Academy of Sciences: It was founded during the Gold Rush by a bunch of wealthy San Franciscans to sort of serve as a Smithsonian of the West Coast.

SPENCER MICHELS: It became a museum in 1916. And its new building in Golden Gate Park quickly became a great favorite locally, predating flashier and newer museums and aquariums. But major earthquake damage made it necessary to reconstruct the building from the bottom up.

These time-lapse photos were taken over the four years it took to build the $500 million, four-acre palace designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

A dramatic, nature-inspired museum

SPENCER MICHELS: A computer animation shows an energy-efficient, dramatic new building, intended to work in harmony with nature, a structure that academy officials believe will attract up to two million visitors a year.

Perhaps the most novel feature is the academy's living roof, a hilly surface -- like San Francisco itself -- planted with a variety of native grasses and wildflowers, emphasizing biodiversity. It insulates the museum and planetarium below and absorbs rainwater.

The walls are insulated with recycled blue jeans that will never be seen, but keep the temperature even. There's no air conditioning.

SCIENTIST: What you want to do is get a little bit of water in there...

SPENCER MICHELS: For months, academy scientists and keepers -- and even a volunteer or two...

SCIENTIST: Get in there, baby.

SPENCER MICHELS: ... have been moving thousands of fish to the new building. The moray eels had to be handled with special care since they have two sets of sharp teeth.

SCIENTIST: They are built to be great predators. So what they do is they -- unlike us, they have a row of teeth that run down their throat. So once you're caught, you're not going to escape.

SPENCER MICHELS: In their new home, the eels quickly found caves and holes to hide in.

Along with the aquatic exhibits, the academy features a new huge, four-story-tall simulated rain forest. When completed, it will be hot and moist and full of birds and butterflies. Visitors can travel from the swamps up to the treetops.

As aquarium director in charge of the rain forest, Chris Andrews has his hands full with the big move.

CHRIS ANDREWS, Aquarium Director, California Academy of Sciences: How will the birds get on with the butterflies? Will the birds eat the butterflies? Will the fishes eat each other? How do we quarantine them, make sure they don't bring diseases in? So it's a big sort of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Creating public attention

SPENCER MICHELS: Andrews hopes the new museum will help create public awareness and support for protecting species and their habitats in the wild.

CHRIS ANDREWS: Fundamentally, what we want to do is convince people of our passion for the natural world and get people to share our passion for that little ant, that bird flying in the rain forest, that shark swimming in the lagoon.

SPENCER MICHELS: Which brings us back to the penguins, a natural for attracting the public's attention and love. Biologist Pam Schaller has been working with these birds for eight years.

PAM SCHALLER, Biologist, California Academy of Sciences: To see them now at this point, where they're starting to find mates, and to watch kind of the boyfriend-girlfriends get together, and they bow their heads to each other, and they preen each other. It's obviously there's -- I'm giving a lot of human characteristics to the penguins, but it's very easy to see why people see those in them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Schaller picked two young ones to make sure their new quarters were safe and hospitable. She loaded Pete and Dunker into portable kennels and drove them the five miles to the new building.

Meanwhile, Brian Fisher, another biologist, was tending his charges: half a dozen colonies of ants. These trap-jaw ants from Madagascar use their jaws to propel themselves away from danger.

BRIAN FISHER, Entomologist, California Academy of Sciences: Oh, you see, it jumped itself. Did you see that?

SPENCER MICHELS: The ants are almost as popular as the penguins, because people relate to them.

BRIAN FISHER: Ants are social, that's true, and they have to work together. They have to communicate. And you can't have just one leader, you know, saying, "You do this, you do this." They have to figure how to work in small groups.

SPENCER MICHELS: And why do we care? Because, says Fisher, ants keep the forest going.

BRIAN FISHER: Well, most people encounter the ants in their kitchen and they think, "Aw, they're bad ants." But actually ants are wonderful, and they're really important in the ecosystem. In fact, if you tried to remove all of the insects like an ant from a forest, the forest would collapse.

Science or showmanship?

SPENCER MICHELS: In another part of the academy, Fisher pointed to a cage with poisonous golden mantella frogs, who will soon be moving to the rain forest. The frogs eat poisonous ants and become poisonous themselves, which ensures their survival.

And why is it important that they survive?

BRIAN FISHER: Well, for one thing, they're beautiful. They're beautiful creatures. But on top of that, they're all part of that complex system in the ecosystem that makes it strong.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the top floor of the temporary building, scientists were growing coral and keeping it alive. Coral is a living organism, an animal similar in some ways to a jelly fish or a sea anemone. Like the penguins, the coral was taken, gingerly, to the new facility.

Curator Bart Shepherd used epoxy putty to anchor his coral to rocks in a huge tank that will soon support thousands of fish.

BART SHEPHERD, Aquatic Biologist, California Academy of Sciences: So those are the homes for a myriad of other species, fish, invertebrates, all kinds of creatures that all live together in that complex, three-dimensional habitat. It is the deepest coral reef tank in the world, 25 feet deep, and there's five independent viewing windows.

SPENCER MICHELS: Scuba-diving docents will keep the tank clean and viewable by the public. But the question all natural history museums like this always have to ponder is: Are they doing science or showmanship?

BART SHEPHERD: We're using science to grow the coral. We're using chemistry. We're using biology, you know, to do all of that. And then we're using art when we present it to the public.

And we really -- we have to create something engaging, something beautiful, something inspirational in order to make that direct connection with our guests.

SPENCER MICHELS: The penguins connect with practically everybody. In the new building, Pete and Dunker became instant media stars, as academy publicists encouraged them to walk into their new home. The penguins had other ideas.

SCIENTIST: Come on, Pete.

SPENCER MICHELS: Biologist Schaller says getting visitors to care about these penguins can direct public attention to the plight of their brethren in the wild, whose numbers are in decline.

After a cautious beginning, Pete and Dunker seemed to like their new home. So a few weeks later, they sent for the rest of the huddle.

Coral, penguins, ants, and eels, all manner of creatures, swimming and stuffed, will be on view at the new California Academy of Sciences, which opens Sept. 27 in San Francisco.