Views of the future at Montreal’s Biosphere

Biosphere Montreal.

Way back in 1967 the World was a Jetson’s sort of place full of rocket-powered visions of the future. One of those visions has survived and evolved through to today here in Montreal.

1967 was the year of the Montreal World Expo and the USA hall was an enormous geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller himself.  Standing 76 metres in diameter and 62 metres high, the dome was originally built to be dismantled after the Expo was over. In a perfect parallel with the Eiffel Tower, the dome proved to be both iconic and too expensive to dismantle (cheaper than intended production saw joints being welded instead of bolted) and so it remained part of the Montreal skyline. In 1976 the acrylic sheets covering the dome caught fire in a  spectacular fashion (imagine a literal dome of fire) leaving on the metallic structure intact. Fourteen years later the skeletal remains were bought and the Biosphere was created.

Water display with the boys sinking a ship with air bubbles.

From the rocket-future to the environmental-future, the Biosphere now presents information on our environment and where it is heading. We took our own environmental love of walking to a bad place when we decided to stroll out to the Biosphere. Even in our history of walking long distances this turned into something of an epic march through an industrial wasteland inhabited by swarms of insects that resembled something out of a science-fiction movie. By the time we arrived at the Biosphere the luke-warm reviews of its attractions meant we were just about ready to throw the whole venture away and go home. Thanks goodness we didn’t.

We spent a thoroughly entertaining three hours in the Biosphere, having fun and learning a great deal. We attended a lecture on how climate change effects the oceans and why impacts on the ocean are so significant for the World as a whole. We also attended another lecture on pollination and learned, amongst other things, that 80 per cent of the World’s oxygen comes from plankton. Apart from learning some very interesting stuff, the lectures also served as a bit of validation of the whole travel-the-world-as-education thing. The boys gave some amazing clear and informed answers to questions that were aimed at adults; they could relate facts to places we’d been – Iceland and Peru for two; and they impressed some serious scientists with their knowledge of physics and plants. Score one for road-schooling.

Dec walking on water.

The Biosphere also has an entertaining display about Buckminster Fuller and his inventions – which ranged from the geodesic sphere to a better way to present world maps. Of course standing inside one of his enormous spheres lent the whole thing an immediacy that might otherwise have been missing. There were also a few other displays that I have to admit did not terribly grab us.

What did grab us, and was just fantastic, was a big display about water. Even to our jaded science museum eyes this was cool. There were a number of things we’d seen before that were simply done better – flood control and pumps for example – and some new things. Showing how tough it is to pump and carry water was an education, walking on water was probably more fun than educational unless you bothered to read about displacement – it was certainly fun though. Showing how bubbles from the sea-floor can sink a ship was a great demonstration of what may cause the Bermuda Triangle. All-in-all it was immensely entertaining and educational.

The combination of great, fun educational material presented in an extraordinarily cool environment that is itself fundamentally recycled was completely compelling for us. We had to forcibly extract the kids and set out for home.

When I asked the person behind the counter for directions to the metro station she asked how we had got there in the first place. “We walked.” I said. Her eyebrows shot up and she laughed in a very French way that clearly conveyed “Well that was dumb wasn’t it?”. So true, but in the end more than worth it.

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