Let there be light

Roger Frost

Roger Frost investigates the mysteries of the universe at a new hands-on science centre.

The latest conversions in St Michael's Church, Norwich are due to Inspire, the name given to East Anglia's first hands-on science centre which opened there in August, for ages 3 and upwards.

Here you can find things that amuse and puzzle. There's a simple copper bowl that "sings" as you rub its handles, or a screen (Fresnel) that magnifies but is nothing like a lens. There's a stand-on platform that sends you to and fro as you hold a spinning wheel and you can wrap yourself in a soap bubble as a hoop is pulled up over you.

Then there are mirrors that let you see infinity, a "black hole" where "planets" orbit and fall into the sun and an arch bridge to build and walk over. A geodesic dome provides space and shelter for some exhibits using light: the ubiquitous Plasmadome, ray boxes and amazing fish that you can see through a polarising filter.

This then is a place to tickle the senses, though director and "museum" designer, Ian Simmonds will explain a more serious purpose. It's more to do with changing the perception of science as intimidating or something to fail: "We're saying to people try this, this is enjoyable. Because the exhibits appear friendly and unthreatening, they get involved and feel that the science they're exploring belongs to them."

There are tales of small miracles, told only in the interactive trade such as how visitors have gone home and wired a plug, or changed a light bulb for the first time ever.

Inspire, with its 30 exhibits is small compare that with the 150 at Techniquest in Cardiff so you'll be round it in an hour or so. But as it is run by interactive experts, has connections with the Herstmonceau Science Centre in East Sussex and the Exploratory in Bristol, it is guaranteed a respectable change of exhibits. With any spare time you might take on Banham Zoo, the dinosaur natural history park, the many railways, and of course the many churches in the town.

Inspire brings a great taster of hands-on science to an interactive-free zone. As a visitor from the Historic Churches Trust put it: "the building has always been used for investigating the mysteries of the universe, you're just doing it in a different way now".

Inspire is at St Michael's Church, Coslany Street, Norwich, NR3 3DT. Tel: 01603 612612. Open 10.00am- 5.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Admission adults Pounds 2.50, children Pounds 2.00.

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