Marvel at these medical and scientific wonders at museums and exhibits across the U.S. where getting grossed-out is just part of the educational experience.
Most of us have dissected a frog or coaxed lava to spew from a vinegar volcano. But for many people, scientific exploration ends on graduation day. Sadly, it's easy to lose touch with the natural world -- to take gravity for granted and let the periodic table fade from memory, one element at a time.
To help rediscover your inner science geek, we've featured eight of country's weirdest, wackiest and at times -- grotesque science-related destinations.
The Mütter Museum (Philadelphia)
In 1858, retired surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter donated his collection of medical equipment and pathology specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Mütter intended his gift to educate future doctors, but today his eponymous museum enlightens the public on human anatomy and disease. Visitors can cringe at antique surgical tools, or gawk at President Grover Cleveland's tumor. But the Mütter's most intriguing displays are as much carnival as medical: a 40 pound colon, a woman whose body turned to soap, and a plaster cast of Siamese twins joined at the liver are just some of the highlights.
The Exploratorium (San Francisco)
Ever wonder what the world would sound like if your ears were reversed? At San Francisco's Exploratorium you can find out. Billed as a "museum of science, art and human perception," the Exploratorium was opened in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, a professor, high school teacher, cattle rancher, and experimental physicist who felt people could learn to understand the world around them through fun, interactive experimentation. A day at the Exploratorium is a far cry from memorizing physics equations. Exhibits are divided into five categories: seeing, hearing, traits of life, the material world and the mind. Visitors can analyze their own DNA, learn how the eyes and ears work through various perceptual tricks and hallucinations, or experience the tension between reason and emotion by drinking from a water fountain shaped like a toilet.
Strange surgical devices
International Museum of Surgical Science (Chicago)
Chicago's collection of all things surgical may not be on the usual list of Windy City tourist essentials (deep dish pizza, Wrigley Field, Millennium Park, etc.) but it's just as worthwhile for anyone with an interest in weird science or medicine, or in staging a pleasantly creepy afternoon. The 56 year-old museum is housed in a gorgeous old stone mansion overlooking Lake Michigan -- think marble floors, grand staircases and a cold starkness right out of a Poe story. Exhibits rotate but expect iron lungs, antique surgical and x-ray equipment, and a collection of skulls once treated with trepanning, the archaic practice of drilling holes into a patient's skull to treat neurologic disorders. Medical art -- old and new -- lines the walls and a turn of the century apothecary shop replica will have you wishing your local pharmacy dabbled in homemade tinctures, salves and pills.
Marfa Lights (Marfa, Texas)
Everyone loves a mysterious light phenomenon. The aurora borealis. UFO sightings. And in Texas, it's the Marfa lights. Nine miles outside the little desert town of Marfa, visitors gather on a viewing platform to witness this odd and eerie event: on most clear nights, spheres of light in various colors appear to hover in the distance; they disappear, reappear, lazily creep across the horizon, and, sometimes, dart hastily back and forth. Various explanations have been suggested: distant ranch lights, traffic lights from nearby Highway 67, a mirage caused by a hot and cold air gradient. But still no one knows for sure what causes the mysterious light show. And it's probably better that way.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology (Culver City, Calif.)
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is hard to decipher. Is it for real? A playful farce? Something in between? The museum bills itself as an "educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic." But you won't find any relics from the Jurassic age. Instead visitors browse odd scientific, artistic and historical exhibits that may or may not be rooted in fact: horned humans, a bat-like creature that can supposedly pass through objects, and an entire display devoted to dogs of the Soviet space program. Be sure to view the Mosaics of Henry Dalton exhibit, featuring colorful micromosaics made from individual butterfly wing scales. The bottom line is this quirky institution is more about warped, poetic wonder than scientific accuracy.
Makes your skin crawl
The Bodies Exhibit (Cities across the U.S.)
Now in its fifth year, this controversial anatomy exhibit continues to shock and intrigue across the US and abroad. It's part grotesque, part med school lab, and mostly just a really, really interesting way to appreciate how our arms and legs work. Bodies features whole human cadavers dissected to demonstrate the various bodily systems; some stand frozen in real-life positions -- playing volleyball, conducting an orchestra -- introducing a playful element to what could be an otherwise frightening display.
The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (St. Paul, Minn.)
Weight loss glasses. A vibrating chair for constipation. An "energy accumulator" to cure the common cold. These are just a few of the medical oddities housed in The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. The museum was the brainchild of Robert McCoy, a steel salesman with an interest in weird and wacky medical gizmos and "remedies" that never quite lived up to their inventor's claims. McCoy retired in 2002 and donated his collection to the Science Museum of Minnesota, where a portion of it is currently on display.
Grand Central Station Whispering Gallery (New York)
Shhhh. Watch what you say beneath the bustling concourses of New York City's Grand Central Station: here, sound travels in funny ways. Near the entrance to GCS's legendary Oyster Bar is a massive ceramic tiled archway, colloquially known as the whispering gallery. Grab a friend and stand at opposite ends of the arch. Then let out your softest whisper and chances are your pal will hear you loud and clear, as the ceiling carries even the faintest sound along the arch and down theother side. Stick around long enough and you'll likely catch one of the spot's frequent hushed marriage proposals.
Bret Stetka is a science, medical and food writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He recently authored the Eat Manhattan iPhone app, a guide to essential Manhattan dining.