Getting hands-on at the NZ International Science Festival

by Rebecca Priestley / 28 July, 2012
Getting hands-on with preserved body parts is a good way of understanding what makes us tick.

‘Pass the brain,” said the kid standing next to me. I’d been in Dunedin less than an hour and was already holding a human brain in my hands. I’d always thought the weight of a human head was all in the skull – the brain looks so light and squishy – but this plastinated organ was solid and heavy. With a theme of “What makes us tick?”, and its medical school a big part of the Dunedin science community, brains and body parts featured strongly in this year’s New Zealand International Science Festival. A biennial happening since 1998, the festival featured more than 100 events, from dentistry workshops and a play about Victorian vibrators to an American astronaut talking about space survival.

Fascinated by our brain encounter, my daughter and I joined a tour of the anatomy museum. Inside, we were greeted by a table of plaster legs, shaped and painted to show muscles, ligaments and tendons. Another table held arms. A row of human skeletons grinned at us from metal hooks. In glass-fronted cabinets and on tables around us were a giant papier mâché nose, a preserved foot and a series of hominid skulls. The handsome curled moustaches on a collection of moulded wax heads hinted at the age of some of the pieces – many of the exhibits are more than 100 years old.

Today, bodies for study are prepared using plastination, a method pioneered by Gunther von Hagens in the 1970s. In a 1.5m-high display case, half a white plastinated head, with eyes and mouth squeezed tightly shut in a bloodless grimace, is attached to an oesophagus, stomach, liver and intestines. The entire digestive tract, head to anus, is stretched out to the height of the cabinet. We move on to the icy-cold plastination room, where preserved body parts are stacked on wooden shelves or in plastic containers. “We’ve got kidneys, limbs, heads, all sorts of things,” said museum curator Chris Smith, as he ushered us inside. Containers are marked “plastinated brain material”, “brain stem and cerebellum”, “whole brains”.

The next room had historic displays of embryos and fetuses, including conjoined twins and a victim of thalidomide. It was all a bit poignant, sad. I paused at the doorway to discuss the contents with my daughter, but she looked past me and yelled, “Look mum, boobs!” as she spied some plaster lactating breasts on a top shelf. As Smith said, “my experience is the kids will handle it better than you do”. Then it was time for some hands-on fun at the University of Otago science expo “Let’s Tock”.

After a quick stop to look at some deformed tadpoles, we were soon using a pestle and mortar to make a paracetamol and green Tic Tacs suspension, then donning safety goggles and using tongs to dip a chocolate fish into liquid nitrogen before shattering it with a hammer. Next we produced gummy-worms by injecting a red alginate solution into a calcium chloride solution. “Science is just adult play,” said my daughter. I think she’s right. Festivals like this are a great way to stimulate young minds into science and a reminder to adults of how much fun the subject can be.

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