Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Visiting the Miraikan

Museums were not a highlight of my first visit to Tokyo because I wanted to see more of the Japanese countryside; it was sakura season after all. This time, thanks to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, I had the opportunity to see the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. This was the venue of some sessions of JST's Science Agora 2016 and I was excited to see the museum after browsing through the museum's website.

On the first day I was there, I didn't see much of the museum because I was in the panel discussion in a function hall and I attended the opening ceremonies of Science Agora (in a building across the street). Despite not seeing the museum exhibits, I totally had a good time because I was in lively discussions. I felt that the discussions were a preview on what the museum held. The functional hall, however, was interesting; it was set up similarly to how those daily talk show sets are set up: chairs, coffee tables, and microphones were on stage. We had assigned seating onstage, of course, and the non-Japanese speakers were given those receivers to hear the simultaneous interpretation.

The next day, I had a preview of the Miraikan exhibits because the panelists and the young scientists were given a private tour of the museum. It was fascinating because we had a "backstage pass": we went through the backdoors to get to the exhibits fast... these paths are not normally accessible to regular visitors to the museum. We passed by where the exhibits are being prepared, for instance. But this was just a glimpse because there were a few of us who had to go to the JST Anniversary Forum. I just had to find time to visit the museum again during my free time.

On my last day as an attendee of Science Agora, I was able to sneak in some time to visit the museum. I was in luck... Miraikan had a Free Admission Day!

This time, I was able to see the exhibits at my own pace. However, there were so many exhibits! I had to choose what I wanted to see because I only had an hour. I ended up visiting the giant globe again.

The science communicator on my second day had said that this globe basically reflected what satellites could see as they rotate around the Earth. If we were lucky, we might find typhoons or hurricanes. Yeah... they're fascinating to look at on a map but difficult to be in the midst of. When I visited, I felt lucky... there were no typhoons to be seen anywhere in the world!

Aside from the globe, I was also able to visit the health exhibit. In this space, scientists were speculating that there will come a day when diseases will be treated at the molecular level. I could understand where this idea comes from: as our understanding of biochemistry and metabolomics improves, we start seeing how diseases are triggered (e.g., what metabolic pathways are disrupted) and how these can be stopped... and even prevented. This is an interesting takeaway because it makes me believe that by shutting down or switching on different pathways, we can make people with diseases such as cancer and diabetes asymptomatic. Will people still need chemotherapy with this approach? Most likely. But the success rate for curing illnesses will shoot up.

And then there was the space exhibit. It featured Japan's launch vehicle engine and a model unit of the interiors of a "space habitation module". It is possible that when manned space flights to planets are made into a reality, astronauts will be living in these modules. It is also possible that these future astronauts will be put in hibernation and will be automatically woken up when they arrive in their destination planets. The launch vehicle engine (LE-7A engine), on the other hand, is used to launch satellites and to bring payload to and from the International Space Station via the H-IIA launch vehicle. This engine reminds me a whole lot of the Apollo rocket engine that was on display in Cape Canaveral. I have to admit, though, that I have not been updated on the space exploration efforts of countries other than the USA... I have always been fascinated by the Apollo program that I haven't even read up a lot on the Space Shuttle missions. 

That is why it was not a surprise when I came face-to-face with an astronaut and I didn't realise it immediately. I met Dr Mamoru Mohri, currently the Executive Director of the Miraikan... he personally welcomed us guests from Science Agora 2016 to the museum on my second day there. I was listening (and taking down notes) when he was talking about the museum. And then he related his experience of seeing the Earth from outer space. Say what?!? He saw the Earth from outer space?!? Oh my goodness, I was in the presence of an astronaut! A retired one at that!! An internet search showed that he is a veteran of two NASA Space Shuttle missions. How cool is that? And what's even cooler was that he actually talked with me about wanting to involve IRRI in Miraikan's international event next year. I was talking to an astronaut!! Mission accomplished! I can go home now!!

If some people get starstruck meeting tv and movie stars, I get starstruck meeting astronauts. 

But after that high, I realised that the Miraikan is also very much connected with more Earthly pursuits such as understanding the mechanisms behind the Tōhoku megathrust earthquake in 2011 (the one that triggered the infamous tsunami that then triggered the Fukushima Daiichi plant to melt down). The Miraikan also seeks to understand how humans adapt to extreme conditions and how science and technology can help ease transitions during calamities triggered by climate change, for instance.

Alas, my last opportunity to see the Miraikan during this trip was drawing to a close because I only had an hour between sessions of the creativity and innovation presentations at Science Agora. I have to go back here one day; an hour is not enough to see the entirety of the museum. This almost ensures that I'll return to Japan soon.