Tartu

Ahhaa Science Centre

28 Mar 2017

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In Tartu there’s a fresh, new attraction that might just blow your mind. At the very least it’ll put your view of reality – or what you thought was reality – to the test. Here you can take a gravity-defying bike trip along a cable suspended high in the air, ride an elevator down into the bowels of the Earth, examine the inside of a raincloud, peer down a tunnel to Australia, explore distant planets and still be back in time for a pancake lunch.

We’re talking of course about the new AHHAA Science Centre, a recent addition to the city’s tourism scene that’s a must-see destination for visitors, particularly (though by no means exclusively) for kids.

Back in 1997 a few dedicated folks from the University of Tartu decided to put together some clever, hands-on exhibits with the aim of getting the younger generation of Estonians excited about science. They named the project ‘AHHAA’ after that very universal expression of discovery.

Now, thanks to its years of popularity, the project has been given its very own high-tech building in downtown Tartu. The 7,000-square-metre facility not only has space for its dozens of interactive displays, it has its own shop, conference rooms and even a restaurant. Since opening its doors in May 2011, the centre has attracted more than 10,000 visitors each month.

It’s science, but not as you know it
Don’t think science ‘museum’ – the AHHAA centre isn’t a place where you look at a bunch of exhibits behind glass. Your first clue to just how different this experience is will come when you buy your ticket and they scan your fingerprint for biometric access.

Once inside you’ll see the main hall, where the larger of the centre’s 50-plus installations are kept, including the abovementioned tunnel to Australia and cable-riding bike. There’s also a hoist that lets kids haul themselves up several metres into the air and slide back to ground level, a thermal camera where visitors can see which of them looks the hottest, a number of displays demonstrating phenomena related to optics, aerodynamics and the like, and a photo booth that’s activated when a rubber balloon bursts. Each exhibit comes with explanatory text in English, Estonian, Russian and Latvian that tells you what you’re supposed to do, the result you should see and a little bit about the science behind it all.

Adjacent rooms on this floor house walk-in activities designed to challenge your perceptions. These include a room built entirely on a 20-degree tilt (leave if you start to feel dizzy) and the mirror maze where our editor nearly got lost for all eternity. For those interested in biology, there are also aquariums, a large ant farm, an incubator where a couple of chicks hatch each day. Don’t miss the balconies on the second floor, where ‘energy cocoons’ will help you explore your own inner space. From December 2011, there will be an extensive temporary exhibit from Finland on music.

Smoke, bubble & bang
As engaging as the hands-on exhibits are, they’re just the tip of the iceberg at AHHAA (in fact, knowing this place, the rest of the iceberg is probably hidden in the basement next to the time machine and the colony of vampire bats). To get the most of your experience here, try to get involved in the daily shows and activities listed on the events screen.

One you should definitely aim for is the Science Theatre. True to its name, it’s a show where dynamic, young folks in lab coats cause fires, explosions and the like, all in the name of education. Want to see an apple dipped in liquid nitrogen and hit with a hammer? Shows cover chemistry or physics, depending on who’s performing. There’s also one conducted by the Rescue Services, where you can see just how dangerous your kitchen really is.

For something even more hands-on, sign up for (or just join) one of the many work tables held here daily. Designed for groups of 20-30 kids, these short, guided experiences cover easy topics like making chocolate and marzipan to more complex activities like building robots and playing surgeon on body parts helpfully donated by pigs.

Costing an extra €2-4, but worth the price, is the planetarium show. Sign up in advance to make sure you get a seat in a show in your language. The Japanese-built projector holds the Guinness world record for showing the most stars – over 5,000 – which you see not only above you, but under your feet in a 360-degree display.

If all this leaves you hungry for more thrills, you can also visit AHHAA’s separate 4D Cinema in the Lõunakeskus shopping centre (see Culture section for details).

Read more about visiting AHHAA from Leisure section.

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