Science Tourism: the Henry Ford museum

I’m sitting out here with a cup of coffee on the back porch of my mother’s house in northern Virginia.  It’s 70 F, sunny, and calm.  The sounds include the constant static of crickets and cicadas, the intermittent cackling and keening calls of birds, and the rustle of the breeze through the leaves of the thinning ranks of trees, their numbers culled by disease or construction.  Harder to pick out, though, and more revealing, is the vague and distant encroachment of civilization — you can hear it in the drone of a lawnmower, the rumble of a jet engine, an ambulance siren, and in a very faint patina of tension which must come from traffic on the main street of town less than half a mile away.  That patina won’t let you unwind completely as you might in a smaller town or in the sticks…

It’s been a struggle to update at all, much less regularly, given how fast things have been moving; I’ve been through nine states in the last three weeks visiting people I won’t get to see for quite a while after I flee the continent.  Science has therefore been more or less on hold, but I have gotten to enjoy much of the last hurrah of summer.

From the standpoint of science tourism, at least, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI was an unexpected and amazing find.  (Thanks so much to my tour guide, you know who you are!)  The collection is eclectic to say the least, containing some turn-of-the-century furniture and household objects and a display on the history of civil rights in America (the centerpiece being the bus on which Rosa Parks first protested), but the main attraction in my mind is the diversity of machines small and large, from eighteenth-century steam engines to space-age super-cars clocking 400+ mph on the salt flats of Utah.  Hardware is not my strong point, so the raw mechanical insight needed to make these inventions work, often without electric motors or electronics of any kind, was far beyond my ken.

The museum’s main weak point in my mind was that the mechanisms of the objects were not explained in sufficient detail to allow a non-inclined musuem-goer to see how they worked.  Without some information here, the complexity of the machinery seemed a bit overwhelming and one could be impressed only by its intricacy and, sometimes, its sheer bulk.  I feel as though, while I learned a lot, I could have learned a lot more from a few well-placed toy models.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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