The California Academy of Sciences, located in the San Francisco Golden Gate Park, runs an evening program called NightLife every Thursday from 6-10 pm. Each NightLife has a unique scientific theme as well as a DJ, dance floor, and alcoholic beverages for purchase (you must be over 21 with valid ID to enter NightLife). Non-member tickets are $12 and can be purchased online or at the door.
I first visited the Cal Academy last year when NightLife was fresh on the table and the line to get in wrapped around the block, no matter how windy or cold the San Francisco evening. Even now, the event remains popular with hundreds of guests visiting every Thursday evening. The Academy’s current highlight is Extreme Mammals, which runs through September 12 this year, and it’s a must-see for adults and kids alike.
I’ll admit it: I have quite the appetite for extreme, or weird, science. I have always loved science museums and science classes, which is why I’m 25-years-old and still in school studying science. That’s also why moving to the Bay Area has been a bit of a gold mine. I grew up in Missouri, visiting the St. Louis Science Center several times a year (St. Louis’s only such science institution). For college, I moved to a small town in Wisconsin with one museum total: a museum entirely about angels.
Then, about three years ago I moved to the Bay Area for graduate school, and I still haven’t managed to visit all of the great public science institutions, which is probably because I keep going back to the Cal Academy. And I keep going back because the Academy’s phenomenal exhibit team always has something entirely new and exciting to offer.
Each time I go to NightLife, I grab friends who haven’t been. This time, I went with five other engineers from my program at UC Berkeley, four of whom were first-timers. While I usually go to see one specific exhibit, I find it difficult to stick to my plan once inside the Academy. I’m always distracted by something, whether it’s the wall of preserved sea creatures near the Galapagos tortoises, the walk-through rainforest with hundreds of birds and butterflies flying all around the multi-story enclosure, or the entirely digital planetarium experience.
This time, before we could locate Extreme Mammals, my friends and I happened upon the most bizarre thing I’ve seen yet at the Academy: a room of three exquisitely primped ladies in bleach-white lab coats artfully sawing through bird cadavers resting in cafeteria-sized stainless steel trays. One lady pulled out a liver while another ripped off tufts of stubborn plumage and the third paused to lean over the table and tell a joke, holding a dismembered head in her hand. They seemed oblivious to our wide eyes, perfectly content to be exploring the innards of deceased fowl as part of a living exhibit sideshow.
I was still contemplating precisely what those ladies were doing when I spotted Indricotherium. It’s hard to miss: Indricotherium is plated like a rhinoceros and the largest of all the mammalian megafauna, larger even than mammoths! What a superb recreation this model was, standing there in painted fiberglass and fully life-sized. I realized that after two hours of distractions, I had finally managed to locate Extreme Mammals, and Indricotherium only marked the beginning of the exhibit.
Inside, we encountered a concoction of installations, skeletons, and models. The exhibit was full of freakish skulls with protruding horns, accompanied by a soundtrack of exclamatory remarks from awed guests (“What the—!” was a popular one). My friends and I spent nearly an hour carefully touring the wing (most visitors take about 20 minutes), poring over all the details. “Fantastic” is the word I would use to sum up Extreme Mammals. To you, Cal Academy, I raise my tiny plastic cup of $7 (plus tip) off-the-shelf chardonnay and say “Well done!”
But hey, don’t take my word for it—I still get excited by the sight of infinite varieties of miniature, organic, purple vegetables at the Bay Area farmer’s markets. Instead, go see Extreme Mammals at the Cal Academy for yourself! Hurry, though, because as any student can tell you, September will be here before you know it.