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Knowing the world

As the Berlin Year of Science comes to an end, the immense Weltwissen exhibition attempts to track 300 years of scientific progress and asks, “Where are we now?”

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Photo by Roman März

How much knowledge can you fit under one roof? That’s the question Martin-Gropius-Bau tries to answer with the overwhelming, monstrously extensive Weltwissen, which caps off the Berlin Year of Science.

The three-hour tour through 3,200 sq. meters of show space and over 1,500 individual exhibits – containing everything from 300-year-old invertebrates preserved in formaldehyde to illegible chicken-scratches from Leibniz – can leave you feeling a little disoriented. The sheer breadth – if not depth – is astounding.

The height is impressive as well. Entering the exhibition space, visitors are greeted by a 15-meter-high screen of shadows, later to be recognized as artifacts from around the world. The atrium hosts a series of career-day exhibits, a not-so-subtle advertisement for school-age kids to find careers in the sciences.

The ongoing work is fascinating though, and includes a researcher collecting and analyzing relics from the Silk Route and a psychosocial behavioralist working with robots.

But the exhibition is not just about the future. A march through history outlines some of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. Einstein’s draft theory of relativity, Leibniz’s investigation of coefficients in mathematical calculations and a hand-drawn modeling of a solar eclipse from 1720 promote the real purpose of Weltwissen: to understand the process of knowledge and discovery.

Process can be boring, especially when we are used to an automated world. But the attention-span-deprived are saved by the show’s attempts to be modern and hip. Visitors can hear a collection of hip hop recordings from young Berlin artists – some of which have some real street cred. But beware: the sounds are likely to be drowned out by the senior citizens a few meters away sharing a single earpiece to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at an unconscionable volume.

Both the hip hop fan and the Beethoven-lover belong at Weltwissen. Science, like art, thrives on debate and interpretation. And this exhibition doesn’t shy away from it. From modern-day gentrification of Berlin to the difficult task of uniting research universities following reunification, Weltwissen explores sides and asks questions. It never insists on an answer.

In the room devoted to these debates, next to an android-looking machine with red blinking lights, several issues are confronted head-on. Philosophical questions about the status of methodical inquiry within a fast-paced society center on Karl Marx, symbolically noting that politics has no place in science.

The results of government intrusions into science can be disturbing. Josef Mengele’s genetic research on twins, which extended to a ward within Auschwitz, are displayed, as is Frederick II’s prize-winning Berlin Academy interrogatory (1777), which asked whether it is useful to deceive the people.

Weltwissen is a tour through the history of thought and progress. The crown of short, sharp metal rods used to study brain waves in 1924 comes to mind as an example of progress. There is also a push to keep moving forward. The 3D images describing the project to map Mars and Konrad Zuse’s theory to calculate space, breaking all matter into units of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are already setting the stage for the next Berlin Year of Science.

Back in 1987, when the still-divided city turned 750, East and West celebrated separately by extolling the virtues of their own scientific enterprises. So when 2010 was anointed the Year of Science for the reunified capital, all the biggest players got involved. Humboldt University, the Charité Hospital, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Sciences and Humanities and the Max Planck Society worked together to stage Weltwissen. The result is more information than anyone can safely digest in a single afternoon, but at least you’ll feel smarter when you leave.

Through January 9