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Originally published October 20, 2012 at 6:01 PM | Page modified October 21, 2012 at 5:40 PM

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Pacific Science Center at 50: showing its age, working to rejuvenate

The Pacific Science Center turns 50 year old Monday. It's showing its age, but has some new exhibits, with a major new installation on wellness expected to open in December.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Pacific Science Center

For its 50th birthday on Monday, the Pacific Science Center will roll back admission prices to 1962 levels: $1 for adults, 50 cents for children.

More information: www.pacific sciencecenter.org

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From the beginning, there were skeptics.

Why in the world, they asked, would people attending the 1962 Seattle World's Fair want to get bogged down with science?

They were wrong on two counts. Under its distinctive white arches, the U.S. Science Pavilion became one of the fair's star attractions. And its hands-on exhibits showed that science doesn't have to be dull.

A half-century later, making science accessible remains the challenge of the Pacific Science Center, the private, nonprofit entity that — with the end of the fair — took over operation of the site from the federal government.

On Monday, the center will mark its 50th birthday by rolling back admission prices to 1962 levels: $1 for adults, 50 cents for kids. (That doesn't included admission to the King Tut exhibition, the center's current hot draw.)

These days, the facility is showing its age, particularly in some of its exhibits — creaking dinosaurs that don't always respond to push-button commands, ripped pages in a display book, nicks and stains here and there.

But it also has new exhibits sprinkled throughout, such as Science on a Sphere, a 6-foot-diameter globe, donated by NOAA, that can show real-time weather around the planet, track the advance of a hurricane or the decline of polar ice fields.

And in December, the center will open its first major exhibit in nearly 15 years, Professor Wellbody's Academy of Health & Wellness, where visitors will see how choices they make every day affect their health

"Sure, the place is older and it needs fixing up," said Bryce Seidl, the center's president and CEO for the past nine years. "(But) we don't get a million people a year coming here because they think it's old and dowdy. They come here because they're finding something that's of interest to them."

At the 7,000-square-foot "Wellbody" exhibit, set up like a fictional school, visitors will operate a stationary bike or hand crank to see how much work it takes to burn off a soft drink. They'll dodge droplets from a simulated sneeze and have the potentially jarring experience of seeing what their own faces may look like years from now if they smoke, are overweight, or get excessive sun exposure.

A walk through these exhibit halls acquaints visitors with some, but not all, of the center's work, and the way it collaborates, over the course of the year, with nearly 800 scientists and researchers.

Tom Daniel, a University of Washington professor of biology and computer science and engineering, said science-center staffers are "fantastic and widely respected advocates for science, at a time when science skepticism is particularly high."

Daniel and others from his UW lab have participated in a number of projects, including annual Husky Weekends, begun in 2010.

At those events, open to the public, UW scientists and researchers set up displays and exhibits at the science center to tell about current research — the what and the why.

The benefits go both ways, Daniel said. Researchers who can show that their work enlightens the public are more likely to get government grants. And a science-savvy public can better judge the evidence on topics such as evolution or humankind's impact on climate change.

In June, an appearance by internationally known physicist Stephen Hawking added star power to the inaugural Seattle Science Festival, of which the science center was lead organizer. The monthlong festival drew more than 50,000 people and more than 130 exhibitors.

Leroy Hood, president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, who shared the stage with Hawking, said he and his colleagues are impressed with the science center's work and have assisted on a number of projects.

"I would say within the resources they have, and in this environment, they do a remarkably good job," Hood said.

The center doesn't just invite scientists to show off their work. Through its "Portal to the Public" effort, it shows them how to effectively communicate with laypeople.

The success of that approach was affirmed in September by a $1.2 million National Science Center grant to help create similar programs at 20 other museums and science centers.

And beyond the visible attractions are programs that visitors may not see — from the thousands of students drawn each year to the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, to vans that carry exhibits to communities around the state.

There are also the monthly "science cafes" — informal presentations by working scientists held at restaurants in Kirkland, Tacoma and Lower Queen Anne.

"Our mission is to inspire lifelong interest in science and technology," said Seidl. "It doesn't say to do that only at 200 Second Avenue North."

By one indicator — reviews posted online at Trip Advisor — the science center is impressing most, but not all, of its visitors.

Of 281 reviews posted online as of Thursday, 65 percent rated the science center excellent or good, 17 percent rated it average and 17 percent rated it poor or terrible.

In contrast, another local science-related institution, the Museum of Flight, draws more positive comments. Of its 764 posted reviews, 96 percent called the museum excellent or very good, 3 percent called it average and less than 1 percent called it either poor or terrible.

Facets of the science center praised by reviewers include the tropical butterfly exhibit, hands-on displays, activities for kids, the King Tut exhibit (which runs through Jan. 6), and the IMAX theater.

Detractors mentioned exhibits not working properly, noisy youngsters and a facility in need of cleaning and a makeover.

Seidl said the center has been steadily working on maintenance and upgrades, such as repairing the leaking reflecting ponds, adding an elevator and covering walkways that connect the buildings.

Some of the same factors that helped the center achieve landmark status — its open spaces, its high-ceilinged halls, its pools — make it a challenge to maintain.

"There are limits to where we put our money," Seidl said.

"Is it more important to repaint every year or is it more important to have more first-grade classes coming to meet with a science educator? ... I think the content is more important than the vessel."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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