Brian Salter's Blogs:
Don’t overdose on fun in the Tech Museum!


You can see it from a long way away … well, at least from across the water in the Olympic Park. The Science & Technology Museum is something I have been meaning to visit for a while, but finally the time seemed just right…

Well, maybe “right” is one of those relative terms? I have come on a weekend, admittedly in the school holidays, but one look confirms to your favourite blogger that it is almost standing room only inside (or should that read “sitting room only”?).

It would also appear to sap the energy out of some people. So I guess it must be really exciting… right?

Stuck to the walls are some old photographs of “technology” in all of its many guises. The space race in 1957, for instance…

… or a few years later when Yuri Gagarin and others ventured to new frontiers…

But no. No one gives any of these pictures a second glance.

Hmmm… maybe an explanation of magneto-rheological fluid dynamics will get them queuing up for more?

Not forgetting a simulation of what it can be used for, of course!

Hmmm. Not many takers here either, for that matter.

I make my way up to the top floor – always a good place to start in Chinese museums, I always think. Way down below are groups of school kids obviously doing plenty of scientific research on their mobile phones.

I notice that around the central atrium are a number of sculptures from an ‘International Itinerant Exhibition of Olympic Sculptures’. I count over 50 in all. Here, for instance is a masterpiece called ‘Lotuses from the Water’ by Zhang Hua who is an artist living in Hebei.

(Actually, to prevent misunderstanding, I rather think I should explain that the soda bottle is not part of the original artwork.)

Here’s another sculpture called ‘Olympic Spirit’ by Edward Eyth of the USA…

I am trying to work out why these sculptures have ended up in a Technology Museum, and can only assume they couldn’t find anywhere else to put them. There is, after all, plenty of space on all floors around the guard rails of the central atrium.

Ah, here are some live demonstrations of science in action. This guy is pouring liquid nitrogen from one flask into another.

And this girl is doing something incomprehensible with a magnet and a rod.

It is obviously so inspiring that it has caused this student to do some more research on the topic on her mobile phone, while her friend closes her eyes to better contemplate the sheer mind-boggling amazing miracles of science.

Lest I, too, overdose on incredible factoids, I fight my way through the crowds to have a ‘conversation’ with the inventor of the Periodic Table, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. (Yes, yes, yes… I know he died in 1907, but with modern technology, surely anything is possible, isn’t it?)

But unfortunately however hard I press the red buttons surrounding his office, Mr M is fast asleep and cannot be woken. No matter. I guess my Russian wouldn’t have been up to it anyway.

Time to learn about the human body.

Golly – I can’t wait to find out how my insides work!

Of course, the museum curators have gone out of their way to make every visitor feel elcome.

I head for a tunnel that, I think, is meant to represent a vein heading straight for the heart. No doubt this is what they mean by ‘blue blood’? How appropriate. How could they have known I was coming here?

I mosey on through the back passage (warning: for the uninitiated, that’s a British joke!) to find an area devoted to mechanics. How would I like to play at being a balance weight on a penny-farthing bike that is riding along a rope? I note the stricture that “Before you unfasten the seat-belt and leave the seat, please make sure the Bike Rider has already taken off the bicycle.” Oh boy! I just can’t wait…

But alas the killjoys have a dead weight hanging from the bike, instead of a balance weight. Perhaps an earlier rider had already taken off the bicycle? Mind you, a number of people cannot help but stare in awe and wonderment at the daring-do of this brave little soul venturing out onto the rope…

Time to make my way to another floor for more excitement…

Now here’s an incredible machine that amply demonstrates the power of technological innovation. Mind you, it takes a while for this intrepid duo to work out how it operates. You place money into a slot… then you press a button… and then as a reward a bottle of coke drops through a letterbox-type door. Incredible! Chinese innovation at its best! What on earth will they come up with next?

I reach the ground floor where hidden away at the back is yet one more exhibition zone: Glory of China. I leave it to their description to explain to you what it is all about. Note the clever way they have avoided having to use up too many full stops, by the simple expedient of running everything into one sentence.

The thematic exhibition hall The Glory of China composed of five exhibition zones - Hall of Introduction, China's Ancient Technological Innovation, China's Ancient Scientific Exploration, exchange between China and the World Civilization, Experiencing Space - which display China's ancient inventions and innovations in the fields of mining, metallurgy, agricultural machinery, silk weaving, architecture and shipbuilding etc and the exploration and discovery of the ancient scientists in medicine, astronomy, physics and maths as well as to represent the impact and exchange in terms of scientific and technological civilization between China and the West.”


First up is a machine that is driven by a water wheel. This drives a bar with paddles that operate levers that have hammers at the far end. I can only assume this is the origin of that expression ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’. Amazing!

There is also a half section model that displays the structural characteristics of post and lintel construction. It looks like it could have come straight out of The Ancient Architecture Museum.

But what does it do, mummy?” asks one of these kids who is obviously taken by the amazing construction techniques of her forebears (at least I think that’s what she is asking). Mummy gives up trying to explain and leads them on to other exciting civil engineering tableaux.

I arrive at Luoyang Bridge (also known as Wan'an Bridge), which was constructed in the Northern Song Dynasty and is really located in Hui'an County in Fujian. (Come on. You didn’t really think I had suddenly travelled 1500kms did you?) It is a 47-span stone bridge, 1106 metres long, 4.6m wide and is the oldest existing cross-sea stone bridge.

The most prominent features, we are told, are “the use of boat-shaped piers, bridge erection by floating methods and feeding oysters to consolidate the bridge foundation. This was a milestone for initiating the applications of biology to a bridge building.

A bridge shored up by oysters? Hmmm. I never stop being surprised by Chinese engineering genius! Who would have thought it!

The two ‘Wunderkinder’ from before have beaten me to this 1:5 model of the Fu Ship in the Ming Dynasty (actually 31m x 8.5m and boasting three masts). They are obviously amazed that “the watertight cabins divide the whole main cabin into several separate cabin areas so that even if one or two of the cabins were to break down, letting water in, the other cabins would not be affected and the ship could still stay on course.

They have obviously noted the Operational Instructions: “Visitors can observe the model at close distance” and have a picture taken for posterity that no doubt one day they will show off with pride to their own kids.

Now what have we here?

Woops. Get those kids out of here!

Here is a bronze acupuncture figure that apparently played an important role in ancient acupuncture education in China showing clinical acupuncture point selections. This particular bronze figure is marked with 357 named acupuncture points out of an actual total of 664. (I guess the remaining 307 weren’t that important… or maybe they had another bronze figure to show them off too?)

And… OMG!

I thought the Natural History museum was going a bit OTT in showing off pickled foetuses. But here we have a collection of tongues. “Tongue diagnosis is a required item in traditional Chinese medicine. According to in traditional Chinese medical thought opinion, the human body is an integrated unit, and the tongue can be a mirror to reflects the physiology and pathology of the human body. Because the tongue is connected with the meridian of internal organs and the meridian of tongue is connected with the Qi-bloody and fluid, the weak and strong points of internal organs, and the riseups and downs fall of Qi-blood, gain and loss of fluid, existence and decrease of gastro-Qi and extent of illness can be obtained by tongue diagnosis.

Oh, it’s OK. They are just models of tongues. Phew!

I quickly move on to astronomy. “The armillary sphere is used to locate the position of celestial bodies and measure time. It is divided into inner, medium and external layers,” we are told. It looks just like the display in Departures at Beijing Airport (Terminal 3) that itself looks like something straight out of the Ancient Observatory.

But alas, the airport cannot boast a model of Zhang Henh's seismograph, which is NOT an oversized tea urn, despite what you might think at first.

Invented in 132 AD by astronomer Zhang Heng, it was used to determine the direction of an earthquake. “This is a great innovation,” we are told in the accompanying blurb. “The capital pillar was a copper cylinder which stood upside down in the centre of the seismograph and eight channels were set up around the capital pillar, which stood vertically and had a high centre of gravity. If there was an earth tremor, it would lose balance and fall onto one of the channels. Inside, there was a set of levers that passed though the wall of the instrument and connected with the upper jaw of one of the dragon heads. After the capital pillar fell onto one of the channels it would push levers to lift the dragon's upper jaw then the copper ball would be spit out and give an alarm.”

Now, trust me. I know what I am talking about on this… Have you ever watched IT ‘specialists’ installing software and then checking out that it actually works? Can you imagine a seismological expert checking out the installation of one of these things? Another expression comes to mind: Watching paint dry…

Across the corridor from the wonders of seismology, we come across the wonders of bell construction. You probably are not aware that your favourite blogger used to be an avid campanologist… So I am drawn like a magnet to this display of flat and round shaped bells. Of course, I have already visited Beijing’s bell museum , but it is interesting to be told that “flat bells have the phenomenon of ‘one bell, two tones’, due to their tile shape, while round bells have only one tone because they are symmetrical.”

Well, that’s what we are told here, but I think experts might well disagree. But hey, this is China. Let’s not be pedantic. No doubt the laws of physics work somewhat differently over here.

Visitors are allowed to bash away on a set of bells, and there’s even some sheet music to help in the creation of simple melodies.

But shhhh!!!!

With so much information to absorb from one museum, some people are trying to organise their subconscious thoughts into a meaningful order, the better to become not just older, but wiser too.

Awww … give her a pillow, somebody!

I guess learning can be hard work sometimes…