Science & Environment

Museum banks on science, not belief, for climate gallery

Artist's impression of the new gallery
Image caption The atmosphere gallery promises an "interactive, immersive experience"

"The general level of knowledge about climate science is extremely hazy and very rudimentary," says Chris Rapley.

"There will be a few pieces of information or maybe misinformation; but the ability to join the dots and make sense of it - the science that shapes their lives - is quite limited.

"So people struggle - and not surprisingly - to understand what they hear through the media on this subject."

We are standing in what looks more like a building site than a museum exhibit - all plastic coverings and hard-hats - but which will, within two weeks, be transformed into possibly the most sophisticated attempt yet to bring the science of climate change to the public.

By the time Prince Charles makes his opening speech on 4 December, this will be atmosphere - that is the title, deprived of an initial capital letter, of the newest gallery in London's Science Museum - a £4.5m exhibit that will, in Professor Rapley's word, "immerse" people in the topic.

Turned circle

The conclusions he puts forward on peoples' understanding of the subject come largely from research his own staff have done on museum visitors.

atmosphere is an attempt to help them clear the haze, join the dots and begin to make sense of it all.

The philosophy marks an abrupt turnaround from the museum's previous venture into the issue last year, a temporary exhibit slugged Prove It - All the Evidence You Need to Believe in Climate Change.

In some peoples' eyes, what it proved was that the museum was proselytising when it ought to be informing and educating - and at least privately, eyebrows were raised over the word "believe", given that science is not supposed to be about belief but about evidence.

The atmosphere gallery, by contrast, is designed to infom - giving facts when facts exist, admitting uncertainty where that is the reality.

"What it is not is the means by which we would convert someone who fervently believes climate change is a hoax, or what have you - that is not what the gallery is attempting to do," says Professor Rapley, the museum's director.

"We will have succeeded if when people have had this experience, they leave more interested in the subject, more likely to read something in the media about climate change, and better able to make sense of it."

And the gallery is also most definitely about engagement, through techniques you will not find in traditional museums.

Play time

In the nascent gallery, wisps of mesh hang above our heads like tendrils of eddies in the atmosphere.

Image caption An ice core excavated from Antarctica will illustrate how past climates can be analysed

The floor describes the Earth's surface - land, sea, ice - and rising from it are various stations where interactive potentialities lie cloaked, for now, under bubble-wrap.

One exhibit that is up and running is a central platform winged by games consoles. What the games deal with is nothing less than the world's future.

First up on the screen is a slice of the atmosphere.

As I rub my fingers across the screen, triangles emerge, representing molecules of some unspecified greenhouse gas.

An on-screen thermometer at the bottom shows the temperature of my imaginary world rising.

When it rises beyond the level the thermometer considers safe, it issues a warning.

I jab the screen, my fingertip issuing a circle of darkness that clears away some of the gas, much as some proposed geo-engineering schemes would suck up carbon dioxide.

The next game features a grasping tool, an electronic representation of the ones in fairgrounds where you can manouevre the jaws to snatch up a soft toy.

But here, we are capturing lumps of fossil fuel from the ground to burn.

The consoles are linked together; and in some games, players will see the results of their combined choices displayed on the central platform.

I can't help imagining negotiators from the various countries at next week's UN climate talks gathered here, playing the game - the US upping the greenhouse gas concentration, China mining new coal, and so forth - and wondering whether it might affect their approach.

Fairground distraction?

Whatever the fruits of that idle speculation, there's no doubt that this technology is much more engaging than a textbook.

Image caption Keeling made his pioneering CO2 measurements using jars such as this

But is it accurate?

In order to produce something that handles like a fairground game, is it not inevitable that essential details and caveats will be lost?

It is a difficult balancing act, the museum team acknowledges.

For example, one of the modules still under wraps aims to show people how computer models of climate work, how they forecast the future and what their limitations are.

In the research world, the word is always "projection"; here, the much stronger "prediction" is employed.

"We do use the word 'prediction', but with a lot of caveats," says Alex Burch, atmosphere project leader.

"What we're trying to explain is not an absolute - it's what scientists think might happen under a number of different scenarios.

"So we're very cautious about what it is that we're saying."

Visitors with more curiosity can drill down into 600 electronic pages - sort of web-pages, but not on the world-wide web - that the museum has prepared on some of the more detailed issues.

Historical context is given by reference to the work of climate science pioneers such as Fourier, Arrhenius and Tyndall.

And the last but perhaps most impressive visual - which will arrive only when the builders have gone - will be a segment of ice core from Antarctica, storing the record of atmospheres and temperatures past.

Clean break?

The science in atmosphere is based on the work of authoritative institutions - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Royal Society - and the museum has engaged about 120 experts to make sure the details are absolutely correct.

What this means is that the museum has put more effort into ensuring the integrity of science in this exhibt than in anything it has done before - testament to the size of the hornet's nest that climate science has become.

Image caption A hydrogen car forms the centrepiece of the "clean technology" section

It steers clear of the overtly controversial - there is no hockey stick graph, nothing on "ClimateGate".

But even so, atmosphere will undoubtedly have its critics; and some may focus on the decision to include an exhibit designed to show how a low-carbon society can be prosperous.

"By and large, people are really confused about a low carbon future - there's a tendency to fear it, to think it's a hair-shirt, grey, 'you can't do anything' future," says Chris Rapley, again citing research by the museum's team.

"And when they begin to hear that low carbon technologies are seen by many as the great green race, that there's money to be made out there, and actually you can have a sustainable world that's also a high quality world, that's news to them - that message hasn't got across."

Whether the message that societies can continue to grow economically while drastically curbing their carbon emissions belongs in a straightforward science exhibit is another matter; in the real world, it is very much a live topic of debate.

Whatever the caveats, there appears little doubt even from my brief early glimpse that the gallery has begun to answer the big but persistent question of how to make climate science intelligible and interesting - something that has eluded the best minds in the environmental education field for two decades.

For that reason alone, one can see a number of other organisations beating a path to the Science Museum's door in the coming months, and inhaling deeply of the atmosphere they find.

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