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This story by Phyllis Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 25, 1998. All rights reserved.
Microbes: Amazing Allies
They are so small, they can be seen only with a microscope
— and they are everywhere. A few million are moving around right
now in your mouth, while another billion or so in your stomach are
breaking down that breakfast bagel. They are microbes, the microorganisms
that are the gout in your gouda, the kick in your cabernet, the beneficial
bacteria in your blueberry yogurt. They are also the barbed bits of
H.I.V. virus that clamp onto cells and invade, and they are all centerstage
in a delightfully cautionary exhibit at the Liberty Science Center
in Jersey City, now through May 3.
Sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the exhibit has made LSC
the first of 15 American stops in a five-year tour that will take
the mighty microbes to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, the Smithsonian
in Washington, and the Buffalo Museum of Science — as if microbes
needed any help getting anywhere! Titled "Microbes: Invisible
Invaders, Amazing Allies," the exhibit presents a vivid, kid-pitched,
interactive narrative of both deadly microbial marauders and their
benevolent microscopic kin.
"Many museum exhibits present the big things, galaxies and dinosaurs,"
says Meghan Harrington of Pfizer. "This explores `inner space’
which is often overlooked — even though microbes have such an
impact on our bodies, our health, and our future."
Microbes are the oldest and smallest forms of life on earth. The simplest
among them are the viruses, balls of genes wrapped in shells that
inject themselves into other cells to reproduce. Bacteria are microbes,
though much bigger; protozoa are even larger one-celled predators
and parasites, and fungi — nature’s decomposers — round out
the microbe group. Though microbes have existed for billions of years,
they were not detected until 1683, when Dutch merchant Antony van
Leeuwenhoek, whose hobby was making microscopes, saw what he called
"wee animalcules" swimming through scrappings he’d taken off
his teeth. It would be another 200 years before scientists established
a relationship between microbes and disease.
All the while microbes continued to wreck havoc on humans. The first
several stops in the 5,000-square foot exhibit form a cook’s tour
of epidemics: a Paris crypt for victims of the bubonic plague that
killed three out of every four Europeans during the Middle Ages; the
Egyptian tomb of Ramses V, one of countless dead from smallpox; Aztec
ruins, a monument to the most lethal weapon in the European arsenal,
those diseases against which native Americans had no immunity; and
Main Street, North America, ravaged by polio, influenza, and tuberculosis
well into the 20th century. To children, the photographs of young
polio victims pressed into iron lungs will seem as remote as the Egyptian
mummies — but to parents among the first generation innoculated
with Salk’s vaccine, it is a sobering reminder of a scourge defeated
in our lifetimes.
Kids will enjoy the different X-rays that can be held up to screens,
but they probably won’t linger at the three-minute video detailing
the discovery of penicillin and the mass production of the "wonder
drug" during World War II. But it is a fascinating tale of how
a critical medical mystery was cracked, and well worth a stop.
Then it is on to the Microbial Universe where holograms give a lurid
view of some names very much in the news: rubella, floating in the
air like a blue-red brain; the malevolent-looking cholera and E. coli
bacteria; H.I.V., resembling a boiled potato studded with peas, and
that familiar pain streptoccoccus, looking like an old fashioned doughnut.
Different samples can be slid under light microscopes, and there are
X-ray crystallography specimens that show how viruses are turned into
crystals and then shot with X-rays to record images on film —
a long way from van Leeuwenhoek’s "wee animalcules."
The Body of Disease section is a kids’ arcade with games
that illustrate how the human body fights off infections. Lines of
Defense football shows microbes being repelled by skin and hair; different
hands-on displays portray different defenses, from the battles waged
by white blood cells to the viruses sent sailing with a sneeze, while
"virtual" combat lets you beat back a microbe attack with
The whimsical "Pete’s Place" is a re-created apartment setting
complete with talking appliances that explain microbes’ many benefits:
the bread baking in the oven will rise because of yeast, and the refrigerator
is stocked with foods that microbes make possible. The trash can is
hooked up to a telephone with a message that explains how microbes
turn garbage into compost (and microbes in the soil convert nitrogen
into nutrients, allowing plants to grow), while the Gobble De Goop
video game has goop-munching microbes gobbling up oil spills.
In the Microbial Superhighway, visitors enter an airplane fuselage
to learn how modern transportation, overcrowding, and pollution now
foster the spread of infectious diseases. A world map illustrates
the sweep of ancient and emerging diseases; ebola is still confined
to central Africa while AIDS is a hot zone that covers the globe,
and the screen still lights up at New York and Los Angeles to show
the continuing presence of tuberculosis. The final section, the New
Frontiers 3-D video, animates advances in medical research, like gene
therapy and the ongoing development of synthetic drugs.
Along the way, the exhibit makes it very clear that catching flu from
Hong Kong chickens is only the latest microbe to jump from the animal
kingdom; tuberculosis, scientists believe, was first contracted from
cattle over 8,000 years ago. And while bubonic plague in Paris may
have succumbed to better hygiene and antibiotics, there are still
plagues for which there are no cures or vaccines. Microbes — and
the epidemics they cause — are not a thing of the past, as any
day’s headlines will attest. They continue to evolve, with infectious
diseases still the leading killer worldwide and, in aggregate, the
third leading cause of death in America.
`Microbes" is fun, engaging, and
kid-driven, with computer boxes to quiz your microbial knowledge of
the benign and the deadly. It comes complete with its own action figure,
Microbe Man, who figures in several of the computer games as well
as in a comic book with messages written in invisible ink. The "gross
factor" of microbes and their deadly deeds will make it a hit
with kids who clearly relish the macabre, while the many virtual,
animated, video, and hands-on displays not only pique children’s sense
of play but convey the real-time interactivity with which microbes
and humans are incessantly engaged.
"It demystifies disease by explaining exactly how diseases work,"
says Harrington, "showing that microbes not only cause illnesses
but treat them as well. Children get to see that microbes are the
active agent in penicillin as well as in ebola. The exhibit highlights
the importance of research and development, making it clear that drugs
just don’t appear because somebody had a good idea. Getting a drug
to market takes about a dozen years, and understanding that process
will give people a better perspective on the realities of fighting
With Pfizer as sponsor, pharmaceutical research — on which pharmaceutical
companies spend billions of dollars a year — also plays an important
part in the exhibit. The role of medical research is cast as one of
discovery and exploration, as compelling as the race into space —
and much more essential. Learning the agents and mechanics of disease,
tracking how diseases are produced and transmitted, determining the
most effective among thousands of pharmaceutical compounds — these
are important stories, narrated through state-of-the-art animation
and special effects. The games reveal how science unlocks microscopic
secrets, striving now to re-engineer the tiny organisms at the bottom
of the food chain that can topple those at the top.
"It is an interactive exploration, designed to increase kids’
comfort level with science and technology," says Dr. Randall Kaye,
head of pediatrics at Pfizer. "They are the scientists of the
More than 4 million visitors have visited LSC since it opened in 1993.
It offers over 250 hands-on exhibits devoted to informal science and
technology education, with different floors devoted to Inventions,
Health, and the Environment, and the nation’s largest IMAX theater.
There are permanent displays and playrooms for children of all ages,
as well as visiting exhibits. The cafeteria has a spectacular view
of the Manhattan skyline, and with the entrance to the Holland Tunnel
and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries just blocks away,
LSC can be a fun day of science or part of a more comprehensive "I
Love New York" family trip.
— Phyllis B. Maguire
Science Center , Jersey City, 201-200-1000. To May 3. Tuesday to
Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., September to March 31. Open daily,
(9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., April 1 to September 7. Admission to exhibits
only, $9.50 adults; $8.50 students & seniors; $6.50 children 12 and
under. Premium admission to exhibit, Omni theater, and 3-D Laser show:
$15 adults; $13 students & seniors; $11 children. Parking $5.
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