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Museum of Science indulges curiosity about ourselves

When the Museum of Science’s new Hall of Human Life opens this fall, it will be an interactive, evolving place of discovery.

Slated to open Nov. 16, the 10,000-square-foot permanent exhibit on the second floor of the museum’s Green Wing features dozens of stations that explore the way the human body works and how that varies depending on circumstance, choices, and living conditions.

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Have trouble falling asleep at night? Stop by the station that demonstrates how proximity to so-called “blue” light, emitted by energy-efficient light bulbs and such electronic devices as smartphones and tablet computers, can keep you awake by revving up brain function when the brain naturally wants to relax and slow down. The station shows how astronauts use blue light to stay alert when they’re in space.

Think you walk straight? You may be surprised to see computerized measurements showing that you lean to one side when you stroll. A station measuring arch support will even show just how well formed your feet are compared with others’.

But the story each station tells will rely on your sharing your notes, so to speak. Each visitor will be offered a plastic wristband marked with a unique, anonymous barcode. Using that barcode, you can take 15 measurements of your own body and record your experiences and insights at the different stations.

A computer system that maintains visitor anonymity will allow visitors to compare their measurements — including their eating habits, their access to certain foods, and how well they sleep — with the anonymous measurements of the 200 most recent prior visitors. Further, each station will have a social component that lets visitors express their views on how and why bodies function under certain influences, from poverty to weather, stress, and even traffic congestion.

Each station falls into a category — food, organisms, physical forces, time, or communities. In the organisms category, for example, you can stand in front of a body mirror that reflects how many microbes live on and in human bodies, and where on the body they live.

In the time category, visitors can move a ball through a maze with their bodies. Sure, it sounds like the stuff of lab rats. But the purpose of the exercise is to measure the balance of visitors of different ages and show how balance changes as people grow older. A computer game that bombards visitors with distractions as they attempt to complete different tasks might even solve that age-old question of who multitasks better, men or women.

And if you think calories are calories and fat is fat, try measuring calories by food type, in giant plastic tubes that show what the exact same amount of calories of fruit vs., say, hot dogs, looks like.

“As interaction goes, that is the element that makes this hall most unique,” says Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the museum. “It will thrive on visitors investigating their own bodies and sharing and comparing the data — anonymously, of course — with that of other visitors, and forming a vision of how our bodies work and should work in today’s world.”

And for folks who like their museum experience to stoke a good debate or critical thought, the Hall of Human Life will feature a “Provocative Questions” station, where visitors can dig into the way public policy, social issues, and science intersect. The idea is to get visitors to think about how our bodies are affected by the decisions other people make.

A “Living Laboratory,” manned by scientists studying human biology, will give visitors the chance to become study subjects and participate in research by answering questions along the lines of those posed in the “Provocative Questions” station. And an “Exploration Hub” will feature Q&A sessions with museum staff, science students, and retired researchers.

The Hall of Human Life also features an active beehive (no worries; the bees, which come and go through a window above the Charles River, are isolated behind sealed Plexiglas) and even an enclosure of tamarin monkeys to show how animal “societies” function, compared with humans, in terms of social hierarchy, power structures, and other aspects.

But the big draw, Miaoulis says, will be the chance to compare one’s own body to others.

An active beehive that illustrates how animal societies function, compared to humans.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

An active beehive that illustrates how animal societies function, compared to humans.

“It is an inherent part of human curiosity,” he says. “And it was one of the reasons we wanted it to be the most comprehensive hall of its type and the reason we drew from multiple scientific disciplines and different communities when shaping the idea and plans for the hall. If it was too heavily scientific, that wouldn’t work. If it was too artistic and not academic enough, that wouldn’t work. And if people took the time to give their measurements but then couldn’t do anything with them, well, that would just be frustrating.”

In terms of keeping science simple, you can’t do much better than the hall’s giant artificial nose up whose nostrils you can shove a giant pollen grain and then watch the effects the pollen has on the whole body. One semi-enclosed station uses film and surround sound to examine aggression and violence, including physical injury to the brain. It compares, for example, concussions suffered in football vs. boxing or criminal assault and battery.

Elizabeth Kong, manager of the Hall of Human Life and visiting scientist at Tufts Medical Center, says the idea for the exhibition was conceived in 2004. Four years of fund-raising and viability studies followed. And in 2008, planning began in earnest with input from members of Boston’s research, biotech, academic, and pharmaceutical communities. The physical components have been under construction for the past two years.

Kong says the museum has raised $20.4 million to build and operate the hall, including a $5 million matching grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

“Even in the planning stages, we took a collaborative approach,” Kong says. “We had clinicians and public health experts give their input as well. And as Dr. Miaoulis will tell you, it really led to a fuller picture of what people want in this type of exhibit. Our research shows people want to learn about themselves. They’ll look at data if they’re in it. They’ll look at graphs and charts if they’re in them. We’ll be encouraging visitors to explore how their data and others’ will change over time, along with circumstances. And from our perspective, we’ll continue to add layers to the visitor experience here.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
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