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  • fog tornado in San Francisco's Exploratorium, image
    Photo caption
    The fog tornado at the Exploratorium is a safe way to experience one of nature's scariest phenomenon.
  • Medusa head made of Barbie dolls in San Francisco's Exploratorium, image
    Photo caption
    The Medusa head made of doll parts will not turn you to stone.
  • push broom clock in San Francisco's Exploratorium, image
    Photo caption
    An overhead camera captures two people using push brooms to move the "hands" of a clock.
  • ultra violet room in San Francisco's Exploratorium, image
    Photo caption
    Step into the dark for a color fest in the Ultra Violet Room.

Road Journals Blog—A lone cloud of white fog drapes over the boardwalk as you walk past a human sundial and a 27-foot-tall harp that is strummed by the wind. Surrounded by colorful algae and a wind vane flickering in multiple directions, you’re already learning and you haven’t even walked into the new digs of San Francisco’s Exploratorium yet.

The new hands-on science center on Pier 15 has over two acres of un-ticketed outdoor exhibits, but the real wonders are inside. Among whirring whirlpools and clanging clock faces, are only two of the 600 exhibits created by some 500 scientists, artists, and engineers.

The West Gallery, all about human behavior, is an area where you can dance with an ever-changing fog tornado or climb, slide, and feel your way through complete darkness in the newer, larger Tactile Dome. Sit down on a chair, look up, and see hundreds of your own eyes staring back at you, or enter into a pitch-black cave, where a digitally-realized woman wanders back and forth from a screen like a ghost, waiting for you to interact with her.

The Central Gallery is a testament to light and sound; experience a monochromatic world in a room where rainbows are entirely red (keep and eye out for the Elmo doll). As you stroll past invention after invention, catch a look at yourself in a 3-D mirror or in another contraption that creates a pencil-drawn, sketch-like video footage of you in real time.

You’ll likely be drawn to the crowds surrounding the Giant Mirror. As you walk towards it, watch for the inverted vision of yourself popping out from the frame. As you reach for your own fingertips, you’ll want to chide yourself for mocking the puppies you’ve seen attacking themselves in the mirror.

For a real hands-on experience, though, make your way to the South Gallery. Watch as engineers in the workshop create the exhibits that will one day grace the Exploratorium’s halls, and then try your hand at your own inventions. In The Tinkering Studio, you can sculpt, hammer, and hack away at materials and experiment with inventions like a mechanical teddy bear.

The 22-foot-high Tinkerer’s Clock gongs on the hour, its numbers swinging out to form a clock face before folding back into a vertical tower. Check out house-made artwork in the studio window, such as a Medusa head made entirely of Barbie parts.

After quenching your thirst at a toilet bowl (don’t worry, it’s a water fountain), wander into the East Gallery, where the décor is lifelike—and occasionally alive. An algae chandelier hangs over a liquid timeline of recorded bay tides and interactive displays of the microscopic phytoplankton that live in the water outside the windows. Use special lenses to hone in on the plankton or watch them in action on the walkway outside, where the Color of Water showcases how plankton changes color over the course of the day with the changes in water salinity. Sit on a bench carved into an enormous 327-year-old Douglas fir found felled in Olema ten years ago, and soak it all in before heading upstairs to the observatory.

What is the population density of two-year-olds in the Bay Area? A 3-D topographic model of San Francisco Bay switches functions at the click of a button. Flick back and forth between ethnographic and geologic maps of the region, or see how people move as they age. Alternately, you can watch the fog roll in and out and see how water salinity ebbs and flows over the course of a single day.

Photography by Kareem Yasin

This blog post was first published in May 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.