Corrections or additions?
This article by Caroline Calogero was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 14,
1999. All rights reserved.
Allures of Liberty Science
The adventure of a trip to a big city museum with
kids begins the minute you step out your front door. First comes the
60-minute car ride plus traffic delays at the bridge or tunnel. This
is followed by a hunt for a parking spot as rare as snowflakes in
July in some urban parts. The walk from the car park to the museum
clutching your offspring’s hand can be a bit tense. And by the time
you’re finally inside, the tykes are crying for lunch.
For New Jersey suburbanites who have lost their taste for such urban
challenges, the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City is an easy to
swallow alternative. Granted, this is not the place to revel in cultural
peripherals. Rolling off the New Jersey Turnpike directly to its ample
parking lot, you can’t soak up colonial history as is possible on
the way to the museum in Philadelphia. There are no skyscrapers to
ogle up close as there are in Manhattan. But for high quality fun
and learning, plus the utmost in convenience, there is no destination
On an early summer Saturday, the 35-mile trip on the New Jersey Turnpike
from Exit 8A in Jamesburg to Exit 14C in Jersey City took about 40
minutes. Arriving at about 11 a.m., we parked in the fourth closest
parking spot. My four kids, ages 3, 5, 9, and 11, were interested
as soon as they got out of the car and saw the large banner with the
mechanical giraffe head advertising a brand new exhibit, the Robot
Liberty Science Center currently has two touring displays in residence.
"Reptiles: The Beautiful and the Deadly," an exhibit mounted
by Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland of Allenwood, Pennsylvania, runs until
September 6, and "The Robot Zoo," which continues through
January 8, 2000. Also featured this summer is the IMAX feature film,
"Island of the Sharks," and "Brutal Kinship, a photography
exhibit on the chimpanzees.
The kids dragged me kicking and screaming straight down to see the
Robot Zoo. I would have rather spent more time watching the Hoberman
geodesic sphere in the Liberty Science Center’s handsome 90-foot-high
atrium. The Hoberman is 750 pounds of articulated aluminum, which
rhythmically contracts and expands from 4 to 18 feet in diameter,
as it travels up and down along a silver cable.
But the kids were intrigued by the robot giraffe whose
face filled a flag flapping over the entrance walkway. So down into
the basement we went. The Robot Zoo, an exhibit filled with giant
mechanical models of animals and insects, represents an attempt to
explain the phenomena of natural movement and sensory perception through
computer-assisted mechanics. The kids were very interested, but the
point of it all eluded me. It seemed like an awful lot of lights,
bells, and whistles just to model some bugs.
The robot line-up consisted of a fly, a giant squid, a bat, a platypus,
a rhino, and the head of a giraffe. The children gave the robotic
models just a quick once over, but found some of the accompanying
My three-year-old glanced only briefly at the robotic housefly. But,
hands gripping a pair of Velcro covered paddles, she repeatedly tried
to "crawl like a bug" up and down a carpet-covered form shaped
like a couple of sine waves. The activity was designed to simulate
the fly’s ability to climb vertical surfaces.
Near the robot of a giant squid, the kids played a game. Pumping vigorously,
they raced against each other to propel four wall-mounted plastic
squid to the finish line. During the race, I read the display cards
and learned that such squid can live at ocean depths of up to 6,500
feet. Even at weights that reach 1,000 pounds, they remain the tasty
prey of sperm whales.
My husband, later joined by our 9 and 11-year-old, got very involved
in a computer game that redesigned the neural pathways of these same
squid to allow for faster motion. The goal was to cause all the squid’s
neurons to fire simultaneously, expelling sea water from the body
cavity and creating maximum thrust. Unable to get much pleasure from
squid optimization, I went back to reading the fact cards.
On the way back up from the lower level, or certainly on the way out,
thrifty families may want to keep the little ones away from the gift
shop but avail themselves instead of the museum’s souvenir bargain.
Try the machine that flattens a penny while it crushes on an imprint
of an atom and the name, Liberty Science Center. The total cost is
51 cents, which should include the very shiny penny you brought along.
We spent a lot of time on the second floor where other not-to-be-missed
sights include the Touch Tunnel for children ages 7 and up. It is
impossible to see anything while inside — it is total darkness.
Kids must rely on their other senses as they crawl through.
Grownups and future naturalists should take the time to examine Michael
Nichols’ photography exhibit "Brutal Kinship." The photographer
and animal rights activist worked closely with Dr. Jane Goodall to
document the plight of chimpanzees at the hands of their homo sapien
The Bodies in Motion exhibit interested the entire family as we measured
our grip strength, flexibility, and wheelchair racing talents. It
also allowed would-be strongmen to impress their siblings with these
abilities. A tour through the ambulance and some time sitting at its
steering wheel is a must for the younger kids.
By the time we reached Liberty’s third floor, our appetite for science
facts was almost sated. We paused at the Stream Table, which allows
the very young a chance for some quick water play and older kids a
chance to learn about a river’s effect on topography by moving around
sand. We also all enjoyed watching the fish swim around in shallow
tanks that simulate cross-sections of local aquatic environments.
Certainly this is a destination that satisfied the span of ages in
our family group. With its three floors of exhibits and two movie
theaters, it also comes recommended as a destination for families
of teenagers in general and dating teens in particular.
— Caroline Calogero
201-200-1000. During summer, the Liberty Science Center is open daily
from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission to the exhibit halls only is
$9.50 for adults; $7.50 for children ages 2 to 18, and seniors. Combination
tickets that include the IMAX Dome Theater and 3-D Theater are $15.50
adult; $13.50 children and seniors. College students with ID receive
a $1 discount. Parking in the state-operated lot is $5. For information
call or go to the website: www.lsc.org.
Directions: Take New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 14-B, Liberty State
Park exit, and follow signs to Liberty Science Center.
Clyde Peeling is the Jane Goodall of the reptile world.
Self educated, he was hooked on the creatures after catching his first
snake at age 12. He opened Reptiland, an accredited zoo, in 1964.
Peeling acknowledges some private zoos cannot tolerate being the little
guys and are really Bronx zoo wannabes. His own aspirations are different.
"My dream has always been to just try to create a nugget. If occasionally
I get criticized because it’s not as big as people thought, so be
it." His 6,500 square foot reptile house, located in rural north-central
Pennsylvania, 13 miles south of Williamsport, contains about 60 species
and 150 specimens.
Peeling’s aim is to educate the public about these perennially vilified
creatures who have symbolized the bad guys for the human imagination
since Eve took a bite of the apple. "They’re such a maligned group.
There are so many misunderstandings about them — especially about
snakes," he says.
Zookeeping handily combines Peeling’s two great interests: show business
and reptiles. "I thought I could blend the two interests so I
could interpret for the public one aspect of science in an entertaining
and informative way. So that’s what I’ve done with my life," he
says. He has given more than 5,000 lectures at Reptiland and at schools
Now Peeling has set up "a self-contained zoo" at Liberty Science
Center, complete with its own imported zookeepers. The miniature zoo
includes a couple of disappointingly small alligators; the poisonous
Gila Monster, a lizard whose biography indicates it eats only a few
meals a year; a soft shelled turtle; and lots of snakes. Cobras, vipers,
and pythons are among those displayed.
The show begins with a glimpse of an ugly alligator snapping turtle
swimming vigorously around his tank. The exhibit then snakes around
(pun definitely intended) past the turtles, gators, lizards, and finally,
the slithery serpents themselves. The creatures are housed individually,
with an occasional pairing of specimens, in clear cases built into
the walls of an island-shaped set made of black Formica. My own kids
took less than 30 minutes to speed through this exhibit, but young
devotees of snakes or lizards, and adults, will probably take longer.
"What we tried to do was to give a fairly even representation
of reptiles from around the world. We attempted to do a blend of high-profile
animals that people have heard of, and some very delicate, beautiful
creatures that not so many people have heard of," says Peeling.
The exhibit is zoologically comprehensive. Peeling has included representatives
of three out of the four orders of reptiles — snakes and lizards,
crocodilians, and turtles. The missing order, tuatara, consists of
just one species that has not been bred in captivity and is found
only on islands off the coasts of New Zealand. About 20 species are
represented in total.
Peeling believes the key to a successful exhibit is properly maintaining
the animals. The ambient temperature is critical but glitzy cases
"These creatures are not highly intelligent. They don’t require
a lot of cage furniture that say, a mammal, would need." But maintaining
the correct temperature is very important. Peeling judges 85 degrees
Fahrenheit to be the optimal temperature for most of these with some
desert reptiles needing a "hot spot that’s close to 100 degrees."
A high temperature area allows these animals to better thermo-regulate.
The set is embellished with pictures of reptiles by wildlife photographers
Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. The animal service area is located within
the island itself and out of sight of visitors. Case adornments are
simple — some wood chips, tree branches, or fake foliage —
letting the forms of the animals themselves dominate the settings.
Peeling also tries to minimize stresses on his animals. He says that
can often be done by simply providing a place in the display where
the animal feels hidden and thus, safe, from predators and prying
The exhibit walls are sprinkled with back-lit graphics explaining
such arcane reptile facts as how the sex of alligators is determined
by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. There are also
lots of learning opportunities with question and answer panels designed
as skulls or photographs. The area is well lit, a far cry from reptile
houses at some zoos where, upon completion of the exhibits, one emerges
from the gloom feeling like a prisoner just released from a term in
the salt mines.
The snakes proved very popular the morning we visited. They are roughly
arranged in order of increasing size and correspondingly, of human
interest. A large peach and beige Burmese python was among the most
riveting. The snake’s unusual color was a result of amelanism, a condition
in which animals lack the dark pigment melanin. In amelanistic animals,
the softer pigments dominate. Such creature are light colored but
are not albinos, and seldom survive in the wild.
When pressed to name a favorite reptile, Peeling draws a blank. But
he gains volubility when asked to explain his interest in reptiles
in general. "I’ve always had an interest in bio-diversity and
how evolution works. I see life as a continuum. They’re sort of cousins
(to us) — more than twice removed."
— Caroline Calogero
State Park, Jersey City, 201-200-1000. Admission to the IMAX Dome
Theater only is $8.50 adults; $6.50 children 2 to 18 and seniors.
The film website is at www.pbs.org/nova/cocos
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This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.