Nightlife: Cocktails and the Cosmos Collide

Stars and galaxies, flora and fauna of the rainforest, exotic creatures of the seas, a few dinosaurs, a few more cocktails to go with them, music, a tiny bit of dancing, and the priceless look of wonder on everyone’s faces.

The Thursday Nightlife at the California Academy of Sciences was nothing short of a young, extroverted scientist’s dream come true.

Dinosaurs and a cocktail, what could be better?
Dinosaurs and a cocktail, what could be better?

I had the opportunity to take a spontaneous trip out to San Francisco with a friend last week, with no real plan in place. We purchased our airline tickets early in the morning (4:00 am) a few hours before our flight out of Indianapolis, with close to zero clues about where we would be staying later that night, what we would do, and what we would see. Within a few hours of exploring the city it was not long before we heard about Thursday evening events at two science museums, the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences. We jokingly referred to both of these events as the “Science Gala” for the rest of the week, as we imagined dimmed lights, classy tunes, overpriced cocktails, and an ambience of casual conversation over the myriad technical and philosophical matters which scientists and science enthusiasts might discuss at these events.

Seeing as how both of these museums hosted their weekly “Science Gala” at the same time on Thursday evening, we had to make a decision about which one to attend, and we (somewhat haphazardly) chose to purchase tickets for the California Academy of Sciences Nightlife event (which I might add, at the price of only $12 was by far the best use of $12 that we spent the entire trip). We showed up just before the event was about to start, having literally ran back across the Golden Gate Bridge and getting a ride through Uber to make it on time. We were greeted with a decently long line, which to us was an indicator that this event was worth attending. This is not to say that we wouldn’t have enjoyed a quiet evening at a science museum, but the hustle and bustle of a lively and excited crowd made us even more eager to begin our evening.

The California Academy of Sciences "Nightlife" program occurs every Thursday from 6:00 - 10:00 pm with tickets for only $12!
The California Academy of Sciences “Nightlife” program occurs every Thursday from 6:00 – 10:00 pm with tickets for only $12!

Once inside, my friend couldn’t help but laugh at how my face was aglow from the dinosaur skeleton in the foreground, the planetarium to my left, the indoor rainforest to the right, and the multiple bars each with their own specialty cocktail designed for the evening. It was like I was a kid again (minus the adult beverage), where wonder and curiosity was the norm among attendees rather than the exception. The first stop for us was the Morrison Planetarium, where Planetarium Director Ryan Wyatt took us on a live tour of the cosmos, starting at the International Space Station, journeying across our solar system, highlighting discoveries on nearby moons, planets along the way. We next zipped out to the local supercluster, a where our own Milky Way galaxy resides, and then to the ends of the known universe, emphasis on “known.”

The show was a glorious 50 minutes filled with beautiful visualizations of the universe and basic lessons in cosmology and what we might call “astronomical geography.” But perhaps what made it so wonderful and memorable for me were the continual references to new discoveries that have been made in the past month such as the solar flares that caused exuberant aurora displays on St. Patrick’s Day and a new study by microbiologists that could help identify exoplanets teeming with microorganisms based on “colors” emitted from the planet’s surface. On a humorous note, the “real-life” messiness of scientific data was also demonstrated when Ryan Wyatt pointed out the apparent orbit of Saturn appeared to be jettisoning sharply towards the sun. This, he reassured us, was an obvious error in the data, which was being obtained from NASA, but served as a pleasant reminder about the inherent difficulty of astronomical research and that even good scientists make simple mistakes (not to say that any research in astronomy is simple). Once the show ended, the audience was left with a quiet stupor of excitement and wonder about the night sky and our small place in the vast cosmos in which we reside.

The energy of the night had only just begun however, and we next made our way to the Osher Rainforest, a 90 foot-tall glass dome encasing mildly hot and humid miniature ecosystem with exotic plants, birds and butterflies in the same space as the museum guests. As we ascended along the path to the top of the four-story canopy, there were numerous terrariums displaying all the manner of exotic critters that would provide hours of entertainment for any amateur herpetologist or entomologist (those who study reptiles and amphibians, and insects, respectively).

These jellyfish represent just a handful of the 40,000 different aquatic residents spanning the tree of life showcased in the aquarium.
These jellyfish represent just a handful of the 40,000 different aquatic residents spanning the tree of life showcased in the aquarium.

After reaching the rainforest canopy, we descended via elevator beneath the rainforest into the Steinhart Aquarium. Having spent countless hours watching my own aquarium of pet fish as a child, and perhaps even more hours pouring over library books about the weird and wonderful denizens of the deep, it goes without saying that I was more than pleasantly surprised by the aquatic diversity that the aquarium offered. We had the opportunity to touch starfish and sea urchins, gaze at the dangerous beauty of the jellyfish, and literally exclaim “WOAH!” when we realized one curiously dark exhibit with a “no photography” sign contained fish with bioluminescent spots emitting light underneath their eyes. Kind of creepy, but mostly cool. Near our departure from the aquarium we walked through a tunnel where we were surrounded by our fish friends on all sides, and we could even look up and see through the rainforest lake up into the canopy above. Very cool. Many selfies ensued, but not from us of course…

After our return to the main level of the museum, and a quick cocktail-refill-pit-stop, we began to explore other exhibits including those that were set up for the night’s theme, “time.” We found out that each week the Nightlife program has a different theme, featuring interactive displays and special talks from specialists in the area. The theme this week (March 26, 2015) is “Robots” (a shame we had to miss that), but on the night we went (March 19, 2015) the theme of “time” included all the manner of interesting topics from literally keeping track of time with clocks, modern physics theories of spacetime, and understanding the timing of human evolution. If I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I am sure I would be spending quite a lot of time every Thursday checking out what the museum has to offer each week, and I am now attempting to see if there are any events back home that are even remotely as awesome as the experience at the California Academy of Sciences was.

Our night at the “Science Gala” ended with some pleasant conversation with several other guests whom we found out were also just visiting San Francisco for the week. Remarkably, in our time at the museum we were shocked to discover that most visitors were not necessarily “science geeks” like ourselves, but rather hailed from a variety of different backgrounds. Of all things I witnessed that evening, this was perhaps the most memorable and certainly the most important. The California Academy of Sciences is doing what all scientists should strive for: engaging the public. The necessity of creating positive images of science in the general public’s mind, and instilling desires for knowledge, curiosity, and scientific advancement are crucial to keep the enterprise afloat. It would be naïve to neglect the fact that the cocktails inevitably proved to be of some assistance in this department, but it was really the combination of the excellent staff, fantastic exhibits, the food and drink, and music being played throughout the museum that were all synthesized into one phenomenal experience, a splendid night at the museum indeed.

Wall of sea lion skulls...with a couple of misfits for you to spot.
Wall of sea lion skulls…with a couple of misfits for you to spot.

I tell this story not only because it was a fun and memorable event that I would like to record, but also because it serves as a superb example of how scientists can engage with the public. Honestly, I was more than a bit concerned before we got to the museum that it would be an over-hyped event, not the lively, aged-21+ “Science Gala” we were imagining it to be. Fortunately, our imaginations were pretty darn close to reality, and it was nothing short of heartwarming to see so many people in a science museum on a Thursday night fully engaged in learning about the cosmos, biodiversity, and time. It is high time for scientists everywhere to recapitulate the spirit of this Nightlife event, and make science education and advocacy entertaining and engaging for everyone.

In the meantime, I am seriously considering submitting an application for “Science Gala Coordinator” to the California Academy of Sciences…a position that (to my knowledge) does not exist, but one that I would take in a heartbeat.

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