At the newly renovated South Florida Science Center and Aquarium (formerly the South Florida Science Museum), you no longer have to imagine what it’s like to stand in the eye of a hurricane. You can experience it, firsthand, in a single-occupancy booth that may be the coolest attraction in what has become a very cool edutainment complex. Just punch a button, slip into the tube and wait, as what begins as a casual gust swirls into a full-blown blast of cold, bitter wind whipping at your hair and clothing, increasing to a climactic speed of nearly 79 miles per hour. You can almost see the wooden shutters, tree branches and other debris swirling outside.
There’s nothing dangerous about this booth, but it might make you awfully uncomfortable for about a minute, whether or not you’re easily claustrophobic. And the kicker, when it comes to experiencing such disquieting thrills? The speed only represents a “mild” Category One hurricane; it’s enough to make you think twice about the havoc these storms can wreck on embattled Caribbean island, which always feel the brunt worse than we do.
The hurricane simulator is an example of informal, experiential learning that has become the calling card of the newly rebranded science center. And it’s one of many impressive advancements for the center, which is located, as always, in West Palm Beach’s Dreher Park, adjacent to the Palm Beach Zoo. Drive by today, however, and the onetime science museum is no longer a low-slung building that would be easy to miss; among the 6,000 new square feet built thanks to a $5 million capital campaign are an imposing, multi-pillared entranceway structure and a redesigned lobby and ticketing booth that leads right into the science center’s most prominent addition: a 3,000-square-foot aquarium that is now the largest of its kind from Miami to Orlando, and a huge increase from the 800-square-foot aquarium in the museum’s original incarnation.
The aquarium now houses some 86 species of fish, according to the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium’s Chief Operating Officer, Kate Arrizza, who led me on a tour around the new facility this week. The aquarium is curated a bit like an upward-swimming diver, beginning with deep-water predatory fish – a shark, barracuda, a four-foot moray eel – and moving toward tropical, shallower-water species and eventually the fish that might crop up under boardwalks and in our backyards. There are wrasses, damselfish and butter hamlets; sea turtles, miniature alligators, lionfish, and common gars and pacus, many of whom, according to the accompanying information, are nonnative species that are threatening the ecosystem of the everglades.
Most of the science center’s ancillary information is delivered in the smart new 21st century fashion: on mounted iPads and electronic info kiosks, rather than the mothbally old standby of wall placards. Indeed, the South Florida Science Center has situated itself on the cutting edge of the science explorium field. I walked past the aquarium and one of several experiential learning centers – stopping for a moment to watch a lab-coated intern display a millipede for a magnifying glass-clutching visitor – only to hit the Earth itself, or at least a scaled-down model of it.
The spheroid (pictured above), designed from lightweight carbon fiber, hovers from the ceiling on strings, where a four-screen projection system beams fascinating information onto its surface, elucidating on some 600 different programs, from replications of hurricane activity to wave patterns, sun spots, the surfaces of other planets, coral reefs and visions of the ocean floor. The atmospheric data programmed into the device can bring up historical earth atmospheres and even the atmosphere today. According to Arrizza, this technology, called Science on a Sphere, represents one of only in three in the state of Florida.
The final perk of the Science Center’s expansion is its large exhibition hall, which will finally allow it to house traveling exhibitions of a scale grander than it could ever have mounted before. Right now, the space is taken up by more than a dozen massive prehistoric fossils with unpronounceable names. Called “Savage Ancient Seas,” the impressive exhibit showcases the imposing ocean-dwellers that would chomp on dinosaurs if they wandered too close to their homes. Arrizza is hoping to schedule a number of showstoppers in this space, including exhibitions with ties to “Harry Potter,” “Avatar” and the James Bond mythos.
It’s a long time coming for a Palm Beach County institution that, until now, hasn’t changed much since 1969. If my visit showed anything, it’s that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is finally poised to meet its full potential.
The science center is located at 4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $13.50 adults, $12 seniors and $10 children. For information, call 561/832-1988 or visit sfsciencecenter.org.