Kaohsiung's National Science & Technology Museum

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When one thinks of science and technology in Taiwan, Taipei (home of National Taiwan University, the country's leading school, and a new software park) and Hsinchu (location of Taiwan's first science park and base for many high-technology companies) come to mind. Kaohsiung may seem a strange place to find what is said to be the world's second-largest science museum.

But actually it isn't. South Taiwan's principal city - one of the world's busiest ports - would not have grown nearly so rapidly were it not for technological breakthroughs in steel-making, shipbuilding, and other industries. This heritage is celebrated locally with events such as the Kaohsiung Steel and Iron Sculpture Festival and the Kaohsiung International Container Arts Festival, as well as exhibitions at the National Science and Technology Museum (NSTM).

An Institution with a National Role

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As the name implies, the NSTM is not merely a city museum, but an institution with a national role. As such, it's a source of pride for Kaohsiung's citizens, some 800 of whom serve as volunteers, working alongside the 150 salaried staff.

The NSTM belongs to Taiwan's Ministry of Education, but also cooperates with other government agencies and private enterprises. According to its website (www.nstm.gov.tw), the museum, which was officially opened on November 9, 1997, aims to enrich citizens' knowledge of science and technology, inspire them to push back the frontiers in these fields, and record and present Taiwan's related achievements.

The museum is also a venue for cross-border scientific interaction at the highest levels. Among recent international conferences and workshops hosted here was one in 2004 on the "Acquisition of and Access to Scientific and Technical Archives," and another last year on "Advanced Learning Technologies."

Such events are held in the NSTM's South Complex (across Jiouru 1st Road from the museum proper), where there is also a public science library.

The museum is a member of the ASPAC (Asia-Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centers), a grouping of institutions that facilitates the sharing of information and expertise, the exchange of exhibitions, and the organizing of seminars for staff development.

Exhibitions that Educate and Entertain

Of course, the vast majority of the 1.5 million people who visit the NSTM each year come not for conferences, but for the exhibitions. So what can visitors in 2006 expect to see?

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There's plenty in the NSTM's 14 exhibition halls that will educate and entertain both children and adults. Among the permanent exhibitions, visitors with an interest in East Asian history will enjoy the Hall of Chinese Achievements; before entering the museum, they should spend some time examining the replica armillary sphere (an instrument used to make astronomical measurements) that stands in front of the main building.

More conventional displays focus on aeronautics, computers, the living environment, biotechnology, renewable energy, and medicine. The Air Navigation and Aerospace Hall on the sixth floor features a fighter-jet simulator; for NT$30 per person, you can pretend to be a "Top Gun" engaging in dogfights with enemy aircraft. Alternatively, strap on a special harness and feel what it's like to walk on the surface of the moon, where gravity is only one-sixth of the Earth's. It's not as easy as it looks!

Stimulating Simulations

I'm an Englishman, and the Mitigation of Natural Hazards exhibition on the second floor is especially interesting for visitors from countries like mine that have neither earthquakes nor typhoons.

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The typhoon simulator gives you an idea of just how strong the wind can blow. Even better is the earthqukke chamber, decked out like a typical Taiwanese living room. Over the course of eight minutes, it rocks and shudders to simulate tremors of magnitude one, three, five, and seven. Finally, it tips and shakes at a strength (magnitude 7.3) and for a duration (over a minute) matching that of the ???9-21" earthquake of 1999. For added realism, the lights flicker and go out. Visitors are charged an additional NT$30 per person for this experience. If you've never felt a real earthquake, it's well worth the money.

According to Anita Lo of the museum's Visitor Services Division, the most popular exhibitions are those that offer interactive, hands-on experiences. For this reason, the Open Sesame permanent exhibition is often crowded.

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In the medical section, one can see how the body's leg muscles propel a bicycle, which blood types are compatible and which aren't, how the nervous system reacts to pain, and how tiny hairs in the throat called cilia expel irritants.

The Children's Science Center, which has just been renovated, has attractions that will engross every youngster. The Frozen Shadow Room has a wall covered with photosensitive material that catches, albeit fleetingly, one's shadow. The Blue Room applies technology used in moviemaking to superimpose a visitor onto a different background so they appear, for example, to be swimming in the sea.

Technology of Today and the Past

The newest long-term exhibition, called "CH@T on Line: Telecom History in Taiwan,??? is on the second floor, and is due to stay here until the end of 2008. Designed with the assistance of Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan's largest telecommunications company, the displays cover the industry from the earliest days of telephony and telegraphy, more than a century ago, right up to today's state-of-the-art technology that allows you to use your cellphone to control your air-conditioning and other household appliances.

Among the switchboards and old magneto (wind-up) telephones, there is a section of barnacle-encrusted cable that was retrieved from the ocean in 1999, after functioning as an underwater line for more than eight decades. There's also a black handset used by late President Chiang Kai-shek, and a massive but primitive fax machine from the 1950s.

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As Anita Lo points out, this exhibition details not only technological advances in the field of telecommunications, but also the social and economic context. For instance, in the mid-1950s in Taipei, demand for telephone lines greatly outstripped supply, and scalping and reselling resulted in phones that, for their weight, cost more than gold!

Science in Practice

While you're here, take a little time to appreciate the museum building and its grounds. In addition to being pleasing to the eye, the NSTM is also energy-efficient. To reduce electricity consumption during peak hours, the air-conditioning system produces ice during the night, then uses that cold mass the following day to chill the interior. The NSTM does not simply present science and technology - it's an excellent example of how humanity's best ideas can make life better!

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Practical Info

The museum is open Tue-Sun, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Monday and Chinese New Year's Eve/Day).

Address: No. 720, Jiouru 1st Rd., Sanmin District, Kaohsiung City

tel: (07) 380-0089

fax: (07) 386-8971

Admission:
NT$100for adults
NT$70for students

The handicapped, children not more than 120 cm tall, and seniors over 65 are admitted free.

For an even better deal, roll up before 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, when admission to all general exhibitions is free for everyone. For the latest exhibition news, check the museum's website. For group-tour or translation services, please call as far in advance as possible.

Admission to the museum's IMAX theater requires a separate ticket. At any one time there are two or three programs to choose from, each one lasting around 45 minutes. Full-price tickets cost NT$150. Discounts are available to students, senior citizens, and groups.

How to Get There

Getting to the museum is not difficult. Bus No. 60 links the NSTM with the train station, and costs just NT$12. Bus No. 73, which is not so frequent, runs from Kaohsiung's Zuoying District to the museum.

If you're arriving in Kaohsiung by train, leave the station by the front entrance if you plan on taking a bus to the museum. However, if you plan to hail a taxi (the journey shouldn't cost more than about NT$100), you're better off leaving the station by the rear entrance.