Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Part 6 - Top of Boston

Last stop

It was pretty chill but since there were no seats inside we were forced to sit out. Sipping hot coffee in this weather was perfect. We found it amusing that Dunkin Donuts had chained all the tables and chairs that they had outside the store – in the US you kind of get accustomed to trust that it kind of felt odd seeing that. We picked a few free newspapers and headed to our next stop – we didn’t have much of a choice; the two museums on our list would close soon and then only thing left was Prudential Center or heading back home. The bus was at around 7 and we had a little over an hour left.

Back on the metro, we changed from the red line to the green line. The green line trains were small – just 4 carriages while the red line was pretty long. The switch over station (station where you get out of one line and take the other line) was very crowded – and the green line had multiple routes; there was a A, B, C, D and E route! Figuring out on which platform ours would come took a while - we went up and down a couple of times on the staircase and then discovered that since the green line was a small train, on each platform in different locations 2 routes of the green line would arrive.

We stepped out into the Prudential metro station which connected to the Prudential Center – a 50 storey skyscraper that had a shopping mall and office space. On the 50th storey, just like they have in many skyscrapers around the world, there was an observatory. The ticket is a bit pricey – $13 just to see the city from the top. But since this was part of the City Pass that we had, better to use it than waste it. And my friend hasn’t seen the view from a skyscraper – so seeing it once is certainly worth it. Just inside the building, in the ground floor, there were a series of telephone booths; we had to inform another colleague that we would be taking the 7pm bus. After dropping coins, my friend dialed the number but it went to an automated machine that said this would be placed as a collect call. Uh – this was probably the first time that we actually missed having a mobile! No mobile, driving without gps and hardly any access to personal emails – we were kind of going backwards!

Brahmins in the US?

We went up to floor number 50 for the 'sky walk observatory'; the lift shot up in a matter of a few seconds. All these sky scrapers have really fast lifts. Imagine taking a minute to reach the top! The place wasn’t crowded. This observatory wasn’t just about the view from the top; it also had information regarding the early immigrants to USA – Boston was one of the common entry points for outsiders. There were nice paintings/posters on the walls and in rooms explaining the history of immigration – from the days in 1800s when people would land on ships from other continents to the present day where it could take years to become a US citizen. People who are not citizens are called “aliens” – a weird term to use; how many aliens do you have in your country?! Did you know that there were Brahmins in Boston? Not Indians but Boston Brahmins – they were the elite wealthy class in Boston and they were worried about the influx of immigrants.

We could see the entire city through the glass windows – the sea, the bridge, the traffic and the vehicles that appeared like toys on the street. The famous Fenway park was also visible (the home ground of the Boston baseball Red Sox team). But for me the best part in this observatory was an amusing poster. Back in those days you could just land in the US and become an immigrant if you satisfied some basic criteria. You needed a way to quickly evaluate whether a person can aid in the development of your country – so a puzzle was developed; those who solved it were assumed to be fit for immigrating to the US! Wondering what sort of a puzzle that was? Check out the image on the side (click on it to see it enlarged) – it’s basically a kind of jigsaw puzzle to piece up! You could solve it within a couple of minutes but if your life depends on it then it might not seem all that simple – under pressure things can look complicated!

Read before use

There was a sign at the entrance to the observatory which directed us to a phone booth. We dropped four quarters (if you plan on using the public booths then ensure you have plenty of quarters – 25 cent coins; local is 50 cents and long distance $1), picked up the receiver and found it dead! Well – there was no dial tone and I went over to check with the lady at the observatory reception; she came over and checked and couldn’t help us. It seemed like if we wanted to make a local call then she’d give her phone; but since it was long distance she didn’t! And thus the machine ate our $1. I reread the instruction and it said, “Pick the receiver and when you hear the dial tone, dial the number you want to reach.” Uh, our fault – you dial first and then put the money; not put the money and then dial! Trying this out in the phone on the ground floor (the one we tried the first time unsuccessfully), worked. We made our first call from a public booth!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Part 5 - Learn some Science...

We had a brisk walk towards the metro – we really didn’t know where it was but we just followed some signs and our map hopeful of discovering the next metro station. There was a park that we crossed where you had many people walking around with dogs; at least around 7 dogs to be seen along with their owners. The bridge across the water body was beautiful. It was around 1pm when we reached the Museum of Science; the museum would close at 4:45pm. The first hall we entered was about Models – models of real things. So there was a huge grasshopper model explaining why that model though proportionately built to a real grasshopper would not be able to fly. There were models of mountains, models of the pyramid which explored how the pyramids might have been built etc. There was a live session being conducted about Tornadoes just outside the hall. The next hall was about Race – yes, about the different human races. It explored the topic of skin color, why color varies, relationship between color and voice and many more posters exploring the topic. I found it amazing that they made an entire hall of exhibits based on the topic of Race. Further down we reached a door that had a sign board outside which read, “Theatre of electricity”. This was a live demonstration and there were two levels with the top level forming something like the balcony area in a theatre. There was a museum staff below who was explaining about positive and negative charges. There was a huge tower behind the lady which appeared to be a model of the Van de Graff machine. Probably just to add to the setting and not a real one. From simple demonstrations on a small model showing sparks and electricity, the lady started up the Van de Graff machine and demonstrated lightning (charging up the machine and then raising some metallic rods close to the dome and you could see the lightning).

Touching lightning

The most dramatic part of the show was when the lady stepped into a metal cage and raised herself up. Lightning flows when the circuit is complete. And one of the most popular misconceptions is that you are safe in your car during a lightning storm because the rubber tires act as insulators. Is it the insulator effect? But air itself is an insulator! So if lightning is able to cross miles of air, surely a few centimeters of rubber aren’t a big obstacle. So up she went in the metal cage which had no rubber base and charged up the machine. Lightning struck the metal bars of the cage but…she was safe. She went one step further by even touching the inside of the metal bars of the cage – even near the point where the lighting struck. It is the metal which kept her safe just like that in most cars. The skin effect – lightning is an alternating current at high frequency; such electricity will flow through the outer surface of the conductor. So only if you were to touch the outside would you get struck by the lightning – the same thing happens when you sit In your car; the electricity passes through the ‘skin’ of the car. But if you were to give a direct current to the cage, then even if you touch the inside you will get struck. She rounded up the show by creating a lightning storm inside the hall. The show was great and I think learning about Van de Graff in this way is a lot more fun that just reading about it.

Math is fun

The next section we walked into was the Computers section which didn't interest us much; maybe because we are living on computers daily! One exhibit was interesting – it was a system with a large screen having two digitally created images; if you ask a question orally from the list of preprogrammed questions, then the digital image robot would reply to you (speech recognition) – making computers understand our voice and respond. We next went to the Mathematica section. It covers a lot of things and again, it isn’t just about posters but interesting working models. I wondered why we didn't have such museums back home - we could surely create such models back home as well; was it cost? You would need a lot of visitors to break-even because maintenance cost a good deal of money. For explaining normal distribution, they had a model where little balls went through a random path and accumulated in glass tubes. As more balls came through, the typical bell shaped curve started forming. There were nice quotes hanging from the top that added to the atmosphere.


3 hours later we were out of the museum – you can easily spend more than 4 hours out here! We knew we couldn’t make it to the art museum since it was supposed to be large. So we thought of checking out the Harvard Museum of Natural History which was the 4th museum pass in our City Pass booklet. We took the metro to Harvard but there was one problem. The maps we had didn’t cover the Harvard area. There were a few Indian faces who appeared – a couple of girls, a guy and a couple of Westerners all splashed with multiple colors on their faces. It had to be Holi – and the way they were running around the place, they were probably students in Harvard. We walked and walked and at 4:30pm we realized there would be no point in going to the museum since we’d have hardly 20 minutes before they closed. Not having had lunch, we stepped into a Dunkin Donut. My friend ordered a combo – 2 donuts and coffee; the cashier asked, “Cream sugar.” Seeing that we didn’t understand she asked, “Coffee with cream and sugar?” After that she asked, “Which donut?” We never expected that question because we didn't expect there to be more than two types of donuts. But there were atleast 10 or 15 on the refrigerated display here! We picked one with chocolate and one plain. The coffee cup was huge and so I didn’t go for the combo – I opted to order a small coffee and one donut instead. My friend’s love affair with Dunkin Donuts began with that cup of coffee – half a litre of coffee is enough to fill your stomach!

Monday, April 04, 2011

USA Part 4 - fishes galore...

The interesting thing about the fire department in US is that they have volunteer service as well – I’m not sure of the cities but at least in the outskirt communities, residents can opt to join the fire department as a part time volunteer – the department gives you training for a few months and you can tell them what timings you will be available – it is like an on-call support in case of any emergency where they can have extra people; so there is a core full time team that gets help from volunteers when needed. It sure sounds like a nice idea. It was clear that we were on the right track because the breeze got stronger and you could sense that you were approaching the sea – the aquarium was located on the coast of Boston. My friend was eager to take snaps while I was eager to get into the aquarium. As I stood in the queue I noticed something called a city pass being sold in the same ticket counter which provided tickets to four places at a discounted price – you could save 30 dollars rather than buying the tickets to four places individually and the good part was that you could use it for 9 days – but I didn’t believe we’d need it for more than today; according to our plan Boston was supposed to be completed in one day.

Just before entering, the camera went dead in my friend’s hand – the battery sign popped up! At the entrance to the aquarium, a lady stamped our hand with a green symbol – it seems that you can reenter in the same day multiple times; that’s nice- they don’t force you to finish the trip in one stretch. The entry wasn’t that grand because the first thing we walked into was the penguin area – the setting somehow didn’t seem to be that interesting or exciting; there was a lady staff who was taking questions from the audience that stood around the spiral staircase; the penguin area was in the center of the building. On the left side you had some exhibits explaining the work that is done in the aquarium etc. These weren’t the large black and white penguins but smaller ones. We made our way upwards to see what else was in store – the lights were pretty dim and when I saw the penguin area I just didn’t feel that the setting was right. But when we came to the first few fishes I realized that this might be better than what I thought. There were some pretty illustrative posters beside each of the small fish tanks explaining interesting facts about them. And then in some places you had demonstration exhibits with Q&A to try your hand at – I learnt that some fishes have a higher concentration of mercury; so fish eaters beware – you are injecting mercury into your body with every bite of a fish! Some of the fishes were amazing – like the leafy sea dragon which demonstrated a fascinating way of camouflage; a fish that looks like a plant. Wiki image of a sea dragon

Then there was the blue frog which we had a tough time spotting – it was so tiny but stood out in the water. It was supposed to be very poisonous – the odd color an indication to other fishes “to be careful”! Then there were the jellyfishes with umbrellas and there was an exhibit that explained the effect of ocean currents on fishes – when the direction changes, the fish changed their direction as well – and you could press a button to change direction and see how the fish reacted. There was another one explaining about high tide and low tide and again it was setup such that every 20 minutes the tide changes and you can see the effect. There was one tank with plenty of fishes swimming in high speed to demonstrate schooling - a large group of fishes of the same family swim at high speeds in one direction – it helps in making it easier for them to swim and also helps in defending themselves from predators. Wiki - school of fish

The aquarium in Atlantis (Dubai) was in excellent setting but not very informative because of missing posters and messages. The one here wasn’t all that great compared to Atlantis in setting, but this was highly educative and fun to learn. There was a live session going on at the top of the spiral staircase on the top floor where you had a trainer explain about all the fishes present in his huge tank. He explained about the giant turtle and then the two sharks inside and asked for questions from the audience – guess who was first in that crowd to raise their hand and ask a question? A kid – yeah a kid; curiosity and kids go together and they never seem to worry about what the other person will think of their question. There was an interesting question about “won’t the sharks eat the other fish?” to which the staff replied, “They might, we can’t stop it but since we drop food for them twice a day, the chance of it happening is very rare. In the oceans, shark eat once a week or once in two weeks while here we drop food twice a day so they can eat whenever they want.” The kids wanted to ask more questions but the instructor moved on since he was running short of time. And we moved on since we couldn’t wait for 40 minutes for him to finish the presentation. The spiral staircase went around a fish tank where there were a variety of fishes – some huge, some tiny and some fierce looking like the shark.

There was a tank that had the clown fish – remember the one in Nemo with orange and white stripes? In fact, looking back, I think I saw many of the fishes that appeared in Finding Nemo in this aquarium – amazing, the creativity of the guys who conceived the idea for that story and picked up a variety of fishes. We didn’t go to the imax 3-D theatre block of the aquarium since both of us had seen imax theatres before. We spent more time than what we thought we’d take – around a couple of hours but the Boston trip had got off to a good start. Next stop – the science center.