Marbles and Brains Make Science Come Alive at Galas

  • Steve Martin and dinos at American Museum of Natural History
  • Beakers on the dinner table for the New York Hall of Science

Steve Martin, whose many credits include the science-fiction comedy "The Man With Two Brains," said what he likes most at the American Museum of Natural History is "sperm." The sperm whale, that is.

Steve Higgins and Steve Martin
Steve Higgins and Steve Martin
Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Attending the same museum gala Thursday night, hedge-fund manager Roberto Mignone said he likes to tell his kids the story of the dinosaur skeletons in the rotunda: somewhere on the plains of North America, a giant Barosaurus is hoisting up on two legs to defend its babies from an Allosaurus. As Mignone sees it, the parent with his giant front paws is ready to squish the enemy like a grape.

Roberto and Allison Mignone with Melissa and Keith Meister
Roberto and Allison Mignone with Melissa and Keith Meister
Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The Mignone kids are more impressed by the fossil showing feathers on a dinosaur, said their mom, Allison, vice chairman of a new capital campaign for an expansion into a building designed by Studio Gang Architects. “Every time they see a bird, they say, ‘That’s a dinosaur flying around.’"

Pete Davidson and Jay Pharoah
Pete Davidson and Jay Pharoah
Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

For several years now, thanks to museum board member Lorne Michaels, the museum’s gala has been a natural habitat to observe the stars and alumni of "Saturday Night Live" doing normal gala-guest things like shaking hands and eating dinner. The Mignones had an up-close view of this from their table, right next to Tina Fey’s, where Tituss Burgess and Jane Krakowski sat. Also they could see Pete Davidson and Jay Pharoah contemplating the menu, created but probably not personally cooked by Mario Batali and featuring fennel, beef braised in wine, and maple mascarpone cheesecake.

Mignone, a bit of a chef himself, said he’ll be deep-frying turkeys for his Thanksgiving dinner. At the gala he dined with athletes: New York Yankee Mark Teixeira and Keith Meister, a former Harvard football player who recalled a shining moment during the 1994 game against Yale.

Alan and Susan Patricof
Alan and Susan Patricof
Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Also attending were Greg Mondre, Bruce Richards and Scott Bok. Michael Buble performed. Tony Bennett said learning about science takes a lifetime.

Alan Patricof kissed his wife and said he’s been coming to the museum since he was a kid. "I grew up on 92nd Street -- this was my home away from home," Patricof said. "It got me interested in animals, whales and dinos. It did not get me interested in money."

A science demo
A science demo
Photographer: Andrew Kelly via Bloomberg

The spirit of scientific inquiry was equally vivid at the New York Hall of Science gala on Wednesday, where guests took part in an experiment during dinner.

After David Karp of Tumblr and Bob Greifeld of Nasdaq were honored, Priya Mohabir of the Hall asked for volunteers at every table to pour a beaker of water into the flower arrangements.

What had looked like a vase of marbles transformed into a vessel containing an illustration of the museum’s newest exhibit, "Connected Worlds," a playful digital environment in which visitors manage resources -- moving logs to redirect water, for instance -- to help habitats full of fantastical animals and plants thrive.

Mohabir then described what had happened to reveal the previously hidden image: When guests first saw the vase, the light reflecting off the picture was scattered by the marbles, obscuring it. Once the water was poured, the light rays could pass straight through, allowing the eye to see the image. Mohabir said the angle of refraction is also at work in energy-efficient windows.

The Hall’s role in exposing kids to applied science and technology is what made Greifeld a fan, he said, noting two of his favorite applications: finding new cures for diseases and creating a stock market that handles high volumes of trades.

Bob Greifeld, Brittany Roopnarine and David Karp
Bob Greifeld, Brittany Roopnarine and David Karp
Photographer: Andrew Kelly

The Hall fueled Karp’s imagination as a kid and still does. "You feel like you can shape whole worlds, pushing the buttons, turning the levers," he said. It’s places like the Hall that keep Karp firmly planted in New York, even when Tumblr’s original investors and its subsequent parent company have asked him to relocate, he said.

Karp’s mom, Barbara Ackerman, still takes kids to the Hall in her role as a teacher at the Calhoun School. "The visits trigger them -- they start asking questions, and that’s where a scientist always begins," she said. Also, the Hall has "the greatest playground in the entire universe."

The American Museum of Natural History, which raised $3.6 million at its gala, sees about 500,000 kids through school and camp visits annually. The New York Hall of Science raised $1.4 million at its benefit, and hosts 210,000 kids a year on school visits. The institutions work together through the Urban Advantage program, which creates resources for teachers and parents.

A typical day in the Great Hall at the New York Hall of Science
A typical day in the Great Hall at the New York Hall of Science
Photographer: Andrew Kelly
(Corrects identification of person who led experiment starting in ninth paragraph.)
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