Natural History Museum, London
What: If there is a first among equals in the science museum space, then this is it. The Natural History Museum may be most famous for its dinosaur exhibits—indeed, till recently, the massive skeleton of the Diplodocus, affectionately called Dippy, would greet visitors—but the other collections are as absorbing and eclectic. From fossils to fish, from human evolution to volcanic activity, there is something for every kind of interest.
The Darwin Centre allows a peek into ongoing research at the museum, as well as an opportunity to quiz scientists on their work. This wing, a giant eight-storeyed blob—known as the Cocoon—houses millions of species of rare flora and fauna, including specimens brought back by Charles Darwin himself from the historic Beagle voyage (1831-36).
Why: For the ways it encourages citizen participation: collecting samples, digitizing handwritten records, filling surveys and such.
Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
What: Created by the king of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh II, in the early 18th century, this open-air observatory is still fascinating and relevant. There were originally five Jantar Mantars from this time in India (although no trace remains of the one in Mathura), with the most popular one being in Jaipur.
At first sight, the Jantar Mantar, a Unesco World Heritage site, seems like a children’s playground, with a mishmash of weirdly shaped ladders, mazes, slips and slides. But every one of these structures is a scientific instrument calibrated to study sophisticated astronomical concepts like time, eclipses, stars and planets.
Why: The Brihat Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sundial—restored in 1901-02—still measures local time to an accuracy of within 2 seconds, with the cupola on top designed to predict monsoons and eclipses.
The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
What: Named after the statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, this is one of the oldest and most respected science centres in the US. This museum takes pride in its virtual reality demonstrations and “eminently touchable attractions”—not to forget the walkable ones, like the giant heart model visitors can traipse through.
The range of subjects covered is vast and varied, from the Jurassic Age to the Age of Robots, via the Space Age—every interest is catered for. The planetarium, the Tuttleman IMAX Theater and the massive replication of Foucault’s Pendulum are among other popular destinations within this campus.
Why: The SportsZone, which focuses on the “science of sports”, is one of the few serious spaces devoted to the exploration and elaboration of how involvement in sports affects human beings.
Artscience Museum, Singapore
What: Architecturally striking and creatively engaging, that’s the ArtScience Museum, located, of all places, in the Marina Bay Sands resort. The Future World: Where Art Meets Science gallery is the only permanent exhibition here, with the rest usually on temporary loan from prominent museums around the world.
Most of the installations are immersive and interactive; this museum also lives up to its name by showcasing art, design, architecture, even animation. Then there are the workshops and discussions conducted by thought leaders in their respective fields, usually with a Q&A session for participants.
Why: The guided tours and events that take place on specific dates (book in advance) have a range of interesting themes, from outer space to that invisible space where art meets science.
Exploratorium, San Francisco
What: This one, calling itself an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception, is for both adults and children. In this highly interactive museum, you can blow gigantic soap bubbles, dissect a teeny bit of an animal, see distorted images of yourself and learn about glassblowing, all in the name of science.
Exploratorium is divided into six main galleries, each devoted to a specific subject and created to encourage the spirit of discovery through doing. There is also ample time and space devoted to traditionally non-science subjects like language and speech, food and culture.
Why: You navigate—crawl, slide and bump where necessary—the pitch-dark maze, known aptly as the Tactile Dome, entirely through touch.
Miraikan, The National Museum of emerging science and innovation, Tokyo
What: This museum is devoted to science and technology as they affect the everyday lives of everyday humans. Looking into the future rather than the past—as museums tend to—this one is home to interactive displays that allow visitors to explore and experience even arcane subjects for themselves.
There are three permanent exhibitions: Explore the frontiers; Create your future; Discover your Earth. While children get to create and perform their own experiments, humanoid robots give live demonstrations at fixed times, and temporary exhibitions delve into topical themes like the way information technology is shaping modern society or the lessons Japan has learnt from its recent earthquakes.
Why: The Miraikan phone app includes audio-guides and suggestions for perspectives through which to process the exhibits and helps you get the best out of the visit.
Nemo Science Museum, Amsterdam
What: This one is for the children who always want to know why, with the emphasis on experiments that aim to make science fun and accessible. And when we say it is for the children, we mean it; where else would you find a whole section on “Teen Facts” that deals with the multitude of problems that crop up during puberty, that “hectic and confusing time of life”?
The core of the permanent exhibitions is Technium, showcasing the quick march of technology and the delight of mathematics, among other things, while sections like Humania and Elementa deal with the nuances of everyday human life and thought, and the eternal search for the source of life.
Why: The rooftop terrace doesn’t have just Energetica, an open-air exhibition about natural sources of energy, but also comes with a restaurant, city views and, in summer, a place to sunbathe.
Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai
What: Set up in 1977, this is one of India’s oldest science and technology museums, which opened with a “Light and Sight” exhibition, soon followed by a sprawling Science Park with hundreds of varieties of plants and trees. The museum has over 500 interactive science exhibits on subjects ranging from optical illusion to solar energy.
Like the best museums of its kind, one of the key aims of the Nehru Science Centre is to foster an inquiring mind among young people. It conducts science festivals and seminars regularly and most of them are open to the public.
Why: The Innovation Hub created for school students meets every weekend with the idea of promoting innovative and out-of-the-box thinking.
Bonus tip: Take your first step into the world of astrotourism with a visit to the northern regions of Chile, which boast of the clearest skies in the world. The Observatorio del Pangue and the Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca are among two of the best experiences for both the novice and master sky-gazer