Science Factory Turns 10 Today

Making Science and Technology Into
Kid-Stuff for All Ages

Paris:- Wednesday, 13. March 1996:- Imagine one of those giant toy supermarkets. Then imagine ripping apart Paris' slaughter-houses up in the north-east corner of the city, by the Canal de l'Ourcq, and re-building them as a science supermarket as big - at least - as a downtown department store.
The Geode
The Géode is also a cinema theatre,
which presents films in a fantastic
way - but not for three year-olds.
Imagine adding a perfect silver sphere called the 'Géode,' 36 metres in diameter; and a high-tech wide-screen cinema called 'Cinaxe.' This complex, is named the Cite des Sciences and it is ten years old today.

Since its opening, 31 million visitors have trooped through the multi-layered, multi-disciplinary, collections of science and industry displays. Not sexy you say? About 22 percent of the visitors in 1995 were foreigners.

The Cité, as it is called, is not some sort of dry and musty collection of old glass tubing - it is a 'hands-on' place - and sort of an odd community centre too. People buy annual tickets and hang out here, because there is a lot to see and do.

Children are encouraged to touch. Well, not everything; but there is a 'Cité des Enfants,' where they can not only touch everything, but they can play with the latest high-tech gear - not found in the average home - or fiddle around with batteries and wires. Their poor parents, on the other hand, have to sit off to the side and watch their offspring - say, for example - play 'weatherman' in their own working TV studio; which is supervised by nobody.

Right after Pierre pointed out the sun
shining on the map, Roger poked him
and the 'weather report' became wrestling.
Okay, this is a bit heavy - so the kids are divided into two age groups: from three to five, and from five to twelve. They have to come with an adult, but as I said, their minders can't touch.

There is a thing you don't see all the time on TV called a 'blue screen' and you don't see it because it's invisible. A person stands in front of a blue wall and the TV camera can not 'see' it; another scene rolls in the background, and the person in front of the 'blue screen' is 'encrusted' on the background scene. When I saw this, the kids appeared to be flying over the English Channel like Peter Pan - and later they were over the Grand Canyon.

For the tenth anniversary of the Cité, the press department has produced a fine bundle of facts, figures, names and dates, but I will just try to tell you just a little of what I saw today - a quarter of all visits last between three and four hours, as mine almost did - less than 10 percent stay for only a hour.

The place is huge. And it is based on the original nineteenth century structure - although this is not evident. There are four main floors, which are served by both elevators and escalators; there are cafeterias and snack bars, as well as public toilettes. There are guides for the deaf and a library for the blind. The Cite is located in the 35-hectare Parc de la Villette, which also contains the Cite de la Musique centre, and the park is used by the residents of the area. The 'mini' guide book is 80 pages and costs 20 francs.

The main hall is immense; this is looking down to the ground floor from level one - it is a long way.
There I go - copying out the 'facts' again. Here is one fact that is important though: if you have difficulty walking, do not try to get to the Cité from the Métro - there are a lot of stairs.

Right inside the entry are the ticket booths and lines of people waiting to buy tickets. There are booths for each attraction, so the lines move quickly. The entry price is 45 francs; after 16:30 it is 25 francs; reduced price is 35 francs (for under 25, unemployed, teachers, and handicapped), and it is free for children under seven. There is an extra charge for the Cité des Enfants of 20 francs and the stay is limited to 90 minutes - adults get in for no extra charge, but are not allowed to play.

I went up the long escalator to level one where I saw - a large model - of an Ariane 5 rocket - and one of its real Vulcan engines, which had a sign saying don't touch. There was a description of its fuel: minus 300 degrees and its cooking temperature: plus 6000 degrees - so I don't think it was all that fragile. Probably didn't want the carburetors messed with.

While having a café at a snack-stand there, another customer wanted to know about my space-age high-tech QuickTake snapshot camera that is about as smart as any normal compact camera with a few steroids added - and I wondered... back to reading 'facts:' the Cite intends to equip itself with fibre-optic cable - there is a lot of multimedia around - and there are going to be ten 'Network' days from 16 to 26. May, with lots of visioconferences - hmmm, but if you want to connect with the Cite's web site, jam this into your browser right now: I had intended to make a quick survey of the whole place, but got stopped about every five metres to look at something else. I could have been there for months. I should mention that the floor is easy on the feet, whatever it's made of - but, off I went to see the kids in their realm.

The hostesses let me in without having one with me after I told them a load of bushwah about being 'The Internet Reporter' - and it was nice to see them having a good time while their parents or guardians were sitting around wondering how long 90 minutes really is, and not wondering a bit about the magic of a 'blue screen.'

Information: Cite des Sciences - phone 36 68 29 30 for info, reservations, and group rates. Minitel : 3615 code 'Villette' - Opening times are 10:00 to 18:00, until 19:00 on Sundays. The last hourly film at the Géode is 20:00. Métro stop is Porte de la Villette and there is parking available.

Today, on the Cité's birthday, there was no special program - but there will be special events throughout the rest of the year, mostly up until the beginning of summer. The Cité's regular show is like a special event anyway.

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contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
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