Sam McManis

Discoveries: S.F.’s Exploratorium offers libations to help the science go down

As if the new Exploratorium weren’t mind-bending enough with its quirky exhibits and nerd-chic, eco-friendly galleries, try poking around this interactive museum after sucking down a few cans of Moose Drool or sipping chardonnay all night.

Talk about your Weird Science.

Wait, isn’t the exploratorium a kids museum?

By day, yes. But once a month – the first Thursday – the adults are let out to play. For a $15 cover charge, people can cut loose from the kids and embrace their inner child at the recently relocated 330,000 square-foot structure, jutting like some deranged science experiment from Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. Freed from parental responsibilities, Mommy and Daddy can drink from their adult “juice boxes,” while freaking out at their images in front of the parabolic mirror or trying to hear through their jawbones, like a snake, at the “Sound Box” installation.

Each monthly “After Dark” gathering features a theme (in August, it was “Freestyle”), with performers and exhibitors on hand to entertain and amaze. On this night, there was a hip-hop seminar, break dancing, a hands-on introduction to hand music and, mixing things up, frank talks on sex, evolution and your DNA, as well as the neurological reasons why music enhances human existence. There even was a “freestyle” sewing expert on hand to stitch into fabric your abstract thoughts.

But, really, the attraction for the several hundred in the 18-and-over crowd is to geek out with impunity with all the cool science stuff. Yeah, that and the alcohol. But I guess you could call that a “chemistry” lesson.

People could spend several rapt minutes, for instance, gazing through a microscope at a truly bizarre planktonic animal called the rotifer, with its wild-flowing head of cilia and its translucent body showing its primary organ, the mastax, which moves as the rotifer chews its food.

Fascinating, especially after consuming half a cup of gin juego, the concoction Berkeley residents Steve Dooley and Julie Choe cradled in their palms while leaning in to espy the rotifer.

“The thing is, I like to go around and explore all the stuff at a museum like this,” said Dooley, a medical student. “But when you’re here during the day and the children are here – that’s great – but I’d feel bad making them wait while I look at something. With all adults, it’s more, like, relaxed. You’re on equal footing.”

Choe, a grad student, much prefers after-hours events at a museum – the couple also frequent the adults’ night at the California Academy of Sciences – to the bar scene.

“There’s a lot more social atmosphere,” she said, “and it’s easier to have a conversation with the people you’re with. You can get a drink and enjoy yourself.”

There’s no bar rowdiness with which to contend, because even though the alcohol is flowing and music blaring, this still is a museum, so decorum reigns.

The crowds at the Exploratorium after-hours events tend to skew younger. Maybe it’s a form of premature nostalgia among 20-somethings who visited the museum in its former home at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District as kids not so long ago.

“It’s nice to come back and see it as an adult,” said Luis Parades of San Francisco, who came with friend Ilona Bell. “You see it as a kid and you still remember (the exhibits). It’ll be interesting to go in and check it out.”

The two had yet to even make it inside the walls and check out any of the 600 exhibits. They were still marveling – and giggling – at the meteorlogical display they encountered in the courtyard. First, they had walked past the “Fog Bridge,” an ephemeral sculpture by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that re-creates the iconic San Francisco fog in a pond of water pumped in from the bay. It spans 150 feet, and people can stand there for hours holding their brewskis and wondering how it’s done. Turns out, the water is vaporized by 880 implanted high-pressure nozzles.

Then, Parades and Bell were serenaded by an Aeolian harp that was attuned to the changing onshore winds. Then they stood under a giant orange umbrella and pressed buttons on a panel titled “Remote Rains.” It simulates the feel and sound of a rainstorm in a specific location (for instance, “mountain rain” was recorded in Cazadero on March 28, 2012.) When Parades pushed the button for “hard rain,” they were treated to a near-monsoon from Australia.

The couple got a little wet, as did passers-by. Again, all in the name of science.

Something about that second beer makes science seem a whole lot more interesting. Take the table-size exhibit called “Plankton Populations.” Let’s face it, normally the subject of plankton isn’t fodder for endless fascination. But three guys cradling cans of Moose Drool Brown Ale and Dale’s Pale Ale seemed enraptured, using the touch screen to check out where the plankton are populated and where they are bereft.

“I love these science museums,” said Jayson Falkner, the one drinking the Moose Drool. “It’s nice to have a beer, walk around and explore the same stuff as kids.”

His buddy, Taraak Upadhyaya, was reserving judgment.

“It’s still early,” he said, brandishing his Dale’s Pale Ale. “Ask me later.”

Though the “after-hours” event runs four hours (6-10 p.m.), it’s nearly impossible to cover the entire 330,000 square feet of the museum, especially since you’ll waste considerable time waiting in lines to reach the bartenders.

Do you gawk at the multihued algae chandelier? Check out the series of hulking columns called “Tidal Memory” that show the hourly height of bay waters throughout the day? Or play the group Pac-Man game meant to foster cooperation more than competitiveness? Do you watch barnacles having sex at the “Glass Setting Plates” or make your own short film at the stop-action animation desk?

So many choices

Whatever you do, you’ll want to drink out of the “Sip of Conflict” drinking fountain toilet in the first gallery. There actually was a line of people waiting a turn, their friends wielding smartphones to capture the moment.

As Matthew Fullerton, a college student from Australia, said, “I love it here. You can act like a kid and there’s nobody around to stop you.”