The California Academy of Sciences
a speech presented June 5, 1986
by Brian Kunde

Note: This speech was delivered before a class at Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, Santa Clara County, California. The speech was accompanied by a handout for each member of the audience, a map and informational statement provided by the Academy. In the years since this speech was presented, there have been numerous changes at the Academy: this material should not be considered, or used, as a current guide to the facility. Those interested in the Academy as it exists today should visit the California Academy of Sciences website.
     Significant departures in the present text from the speech as it was actually delivered are indicated as follows.

  • (Deletions are in parentheses.)
  • *Additions are between asterisks.*
  • [Additions made to clarify references to the locale and circumstances in which the speech was delivered are italicized and in brackets.]

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     When we see a space mission on TV, live through an earthquake, or even catch a fish, we are experiencing the natural sciences; the sciences of the living world and universe around us. The environment we live in intimately affects each and every one of us, so it is not surprising that many people are fascinated by it. Yet many people in our area are unaware that one of the best places in the country for gaining a general knowledge of the natural sciences is right here in the Bay Area. It is the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
     Today I'd like to share with you what the Academy is and what it has to offer to you and the rest of the general public. In the minutes ahead, I'll try to provide some idea of its nature and background, as well as describing and giving some highlights of its three great divisions: the Science Museum, the Steinhardt Aquarium, and the Morrison Planetarium.
     The California Academy of Sciences has two principle functions; scientific research and publication, and a public education in science. For the first of these it employs a research staff of several hundred scientists in such fields as anthropology, botany, geology, and zoology. The results of their work appear in scientific publications the world over. The public education function, with which we are concerned, is carried out by its museum exhibits, aquarium displaces, and planetarium shows, all open to the general public. (In addition, various lectures, classes and field trips are available to members.)
     The Academy was founded in 1853 to study the then little-known natural history of the west coast. It has since expanded the scope of its research to the whole of the natural world, thought he west coast remains its chief area of interest. Its first public museum, which was also the first in the West, opened in 1874. It was housed in two successive downtown buildings until its destruction in the 1906 earthquake. In 1916 the first unit of the present complex of buildings was opened in Golden Gate Park, and the Academy has continued to expand to the present day.
     The portion opened in 1916 was the North American Hall, which is part of the Science Museum, the most important of the three great divisions of the Academy. It is really two halls; the Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Birds. Both exhibit stuffed specimens of North American wildlife in spectacular dioramas illustrating their native habitats. The Mammal Hall focuses on members of the deer and seal families. Carnivores such as bears, mountain lions and coyotes are also displayed, and small animal exhibits alternate with the major dioramas. The Bird Hall dioramas show representative species of a number of distinct western habitats.
     The African Hall follows a similar scheme. Its dioramas cover the whole diverse range of that continent's plant-eating and predatory species. The highlight of this hall is a walk-in waterhole diorama, showing zebras, antelope, and even giraffes. It features changing lighting and sound effects that take it through an entire day and night cycle, and really has to be experienced to be appreciated. *Some of the night animal noises approach the volume of a rock concert.* Some of the other displays include a rhinoceros, hippopotamus, gorilla, and lions. The African Hall was renovated a few years ago, and one of the new features are sets of speaker phones by each display providing extensive information on the animals.
     The Earth and Space Science exhibits were recently consolidated into the Hohfeld Hall, outside the Planetarium. Formerly some of them were in the Hohfeld Gallery. *Many are new, reflecting the knowledge advances in these fields of the past ten years or so* Here the featured exhibits are a giant pendulum illustrating the rotation of the Earth, a large model of the Earth like the one in our [Foothill College] library, only more detailed, a large Moon model, and a giant model of tall the planets of the Solar System, suspended from the ceiling. Each world of the model is faithful to its actual appearance as revealed by the Voyager missions, and is in true scale in relation to the others. Other features of the Earth and Space Science Hall are a digital scale that shows what a person would weigh on other worlds, and a vibrating platform which simulates the sensation of a major earthquake with disturbing accuracy. *I don't know whether any of you have experienced a strong earthquake, but I have, and the quake table duplicates the feeling precisely.*
     The Anthropology exhibits are also a fairly new addition to the Academy. They are contained in the Wattis Hall of Man and the Wattis Gallery. The Hall of Man holds dioramas of pre-technological peoples in their native environments. The human figures in these displays are mannequins, not stuffed specimens as in the animal halls -- just in case you were wondering! Cultural scenes from Pacific islands, Japan, the Andes, the Ethiopian desert, and Australia are represented, along with the American Indian cultures of Northern California, Alaska, and the Southwest. In the Wattis Gallery are artifacts from some of these cultures.
     The Science Museum has many lesser areas of equal interest to the main ones I have just covered, which I will now go over briefly. The Gem and Mineral Hall holds a spectacular collection of local minerals, including fluorescent and radioactive ones, and there is a special room devoted to California gold specimens. The Insect Room has an incredible display of butterflies in all the colors of the rainbow, covering an entire wall. The Fossil Hall has such oddities as a complete saber-toothed cat skeleton and a preserved Coelacanth, *a primitive fish thought to be extinct that was rediscovered in this century.* The Botany Hall has sections of a giant Sequoia redwood, with rings dated to important events in human history. An annex to the African Hall contains replicas of prehistoric man fossils, including the famous "Lucy" skeleton. Finally, the Hohfeld Gallery and Lovell White Hall are devoted to temporary exhibits. In the former is a show of cartoonist Gary Larson's original "Far Side" cartoons, which will run through June 22.
     The second major division of the Academy of Sciences is the Steinhardt Aquarium. It was established in 1923 for both public viewing and research purposes. Its most unusual feature is a terrarium for reptiles and amphibians, which might seem out of place in an aquarium. This was established because the outdoor San Francisco Zoo had too cold a climate to house such animals. The terrarium's main attraction is the alligator pit, containing a number of alligators, crocodiles, and turtles. Surrounding it are cases holding various types of snakes and lizards. The amphibian cases have been removed for renovation.
     The main portion of the aquarium is a gallery bracketing the terrarium on three sides. The tanks in the gallery are arranged thematically, holding distinct fish and marine communities from the oceans and rivers of the world. Highlights included a tide pool tank whose sea water fills and drains in simulated tidal action, and three inter-connected tanks duplicating three levels of a Sierra trout stream. The most popular attractions are a huge dolphin and seal tank and a habitat for blackout penguins, a recent addition.
     Another fairly recent addition, now about ten years old, is the Fish Roundabout. This is a doughnut-shaped tank viewed from the center, in which a constant circular current is maintained by water jets. It permits the display of large pelagic or deep sea fish, which are constantly swimming and could not be kept in an ordinary tank. Beneath the Roundabout is a tidepool display with specimens visitors can handle under supervision.
     That brings us to the Academy of Sciences' third division, the Morrison Planetarium, which opened in 1952. Its unique projector, constructed at the Academy, and a new method of making star plates made its projections of the night sky what are considered to be the most realistically beautiful in the world. The planetarium can show the appearance of the sky as seen from any point on the earth's surface, at any time in the past, present, or future. Several sky shows are presented each year, one exploring the current local night sky, and two or three others on special topics. This year's special shows include one on Halley's Comet, which ran through April, one on the current state of space technology, that runs through June 22, and one on science fictional views of the universe, to start June 27. The planetarium also runs "Laserium" shows, in which varying patterns of multicolored laser light are traced against the dome, to classical or popular music.
     This completes my overview of the public areas of the Academy of Sciences buildings. The Science Museum, Aquarium and Planetarium together form a complex of learning resources in the natural sciences that is unequaled in the Bay Area, and rivals any in the western United States. Hopefully my brief sketch has given you some idea of its value. I have tried to be as comprehensive in the time allowed, but have barely scratched the surface of the total number of exhibits and displays, and have left some areas, such as the new Hall of Evolution currently under construction, completely untouched. There is some additional information on the back of your map.
     For those of you who might like to go to the Academy I have two more things to say. First, the Academy does charge admission, but only fifty cents per visit, a price that can't be beat for the value. Second, it is quite easy to get to the Academy. From here [Foothill College in Los Altos Hills] you would take 280 north to San Francisco. At the city limits, turn off on Nineteenth Avenue and take it north to Golden Gate Park. Take the first right inside the park, and the second left after. And you're there. It's open to five, so why not go this afternoon?
     Thank you very much.

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The California Academy of Sciences
a speech presented June 5, 1986

1st web edition posted 2/9/96
(updated 2/12/96).
2nd web edition posted 3/12/98.
(updated 5/16/08).

Published by Fleabonnet Press.
© 1986-2008 by Brian Kunde.