Where to Get Your Science On in Philly
Science nerds, lovers of antique anatomical curiosities and people who like to party can all enjoy the same activities in Philadelphia, a city with an unusually good array of science offerings. Some are cool and some are creepy, but they’re all unique to Philly. From off-the-radar museums that opened in the 1800s to collections of body parts in formaldehyde to a nine-day science festival with fighting robots, there’s something for everyone here, nerd or not.
The weirdest of all the Philly museums, hands down, is the Mütter, a medical museum filled with all kinds of anatomical oddities and scientific curiosities. The collection is displayed in original 19th century-style glass cabinets and oak drawers that let you get up close and personal with terrifying 100-year-old medical instruments and the collection of objects extracted from patients’ throats. Not to miss: the skeleton of the 7’6″ man, the slides containing slivers of Albert Einstein’s brain, a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra, and the conjoined liver of Siamese twins.
You can nerd out happily for hours in this world-class science museum, which is chockablock with interactive exhibits designed for kids, but just as entertaining for adults. The IMAX theater has a 79-foot domed screen where awe-inspiring films on everything from outer space to national parks are screened, and the planetarium is one of the most high-tech in the country. The new SportsZone has 21 interactive exhibits related to sports science, including one where guests can run a 40-foot race against virtual sports stars (and the Phillies’ mascot). Don’t leave without walking through the giant heart (15,000 times larger than life), a beloved local experience for many years.
If possible, schedule your trip to Philly for the annual Science Festival, an exuberant celebration of science that takes place over nine days jam-packed with lectures, exhibits, debates, and interactive experiences like shooting off fizzy rockets, a science-related pub crawl, solving a murder mystery in a museum, and going to a star-gazing party. The events are scattered around the city, hosted by museums, cafes, breweries, libraries, and parks. The festival ends with the day-long Science Carnival on Penn’s Landing, on the banks of the Delaware River—an all-day party where guests can watch robots battle it out, stare (safely) at the sun through a telescope, and try to extract DNA from a strawberry, just for a start.
This popular institution on the Parkway was founded in 1812 and is the oldest natural history museum in the country. Crowds are always drawn to the permanent dinosaur exhibit (the star of which is the T-rex skeleton that leers down over Dinosaur Hall) and to the live tropical butterfly garden, but the museum has its own quirky traditions, too, like the daily public turning of a page in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America folio, and the yearly display—at the museum’s annual Paleopalooza Festival—of fossils collected by Thomas Jefferson, which include giant mastodon teeth.
Far from Philadelphia’s “museum mile”, this off-the-beaten track museum in north Philadelphia is unknown even to most locals, but it’s one of the city’s most atmospheric. The Victorian building hasn’t changed much since the 1890s, and the antique cases that house the specimens—stuffed birds and animals, rattlesnake skins, insects, fossils, shells—create an ambiance reminiscent of an old apothecary shop. Admission is free; try to schedule a guided tour, which includes a slideshow in a lecture hall where Edward Drinker Cope, and Margaret Mead both taught.