Cap sciences

A question of culture...

On the banks of the Gironde River in Bordeaux, the former dock-side warehouses have been converted into urban spaces. Blending in with this industrial-esque landscape is a newer concrete building. This is Cap Sciences, a friendly, multi-functional place designed for hands-on exploration.

Exploring, touching, playing…Animation for primary schools. Exploring, touching, playing…Animation for primary schools.
© Cap Sciences

Located at Hangar 20, Cap Sciences houses exhibition spaces, a café with a view of the river and spacious offices. It is also home to an enormous workshop where tables, display cases and materials used in activities are put together and where metalworkers and costume-makers drop in to lend a hand. Impressive black crates containing exhibition materials in kit form, are awaiting departure – some are on their way to Greece, while others are heading for Turkey.

A group of school children unpack their lunch in the cafeteria. In the media library, some young people are engrossed in documents. On the first floor, Bernard Favre's team is planning the next exhibition, for 3-6 year-olds. ‘The theme is measurement. This is not an easy topic, especially for young children (1)’. The exhibition will therefore be based around the theme of a journey, like in the story Thousand and One Nights, taking a detour through Islamic art in order to help the children discover geometry. ‘Even for the youngest visitors, our approach is always to place science within the context of the history of civilizations.’ Multidisciplinary in nature, the preparatory work involves mathematicians, speech therapists (‘who are very familiar with the difficulty children have in distinguishing numbers’), psychologists (‘measuring your height, or your shadow, is also a way of comparing yourself to others and understanding what it means to be bigger or smaller’).

Young researchers as guides

On the ground floor, school children are immersed in the L'eau à la bouche exhibition on water consumption. The programme is both factual and entertaining. ‘The word “experimentation” is not just something done in school. It is also associated with exploration. Both of these awaken our curiosity – and science is about discovery. ‘When they come out of the exhibit, the children will know more about ground water, and, for example, the number of kilometres that many African women have to walk to reach water, water wastage and pollution, the number of litres it takes to fill a bathtub, the possibility of desalinating seawater, and conflicts and wars surrounding possession of this vital resource...Classes spend a half-day or a whole day here. Students and teachers are taken through the exhibit by guides, who present various parts of the exhibit, lasting around 20 minutes each. There are some 40 students and young researchers acting as guides, according to their expertise and availability. Being ten years older than the pupils themselves, these students take on the role of a big brother..offering another view of science.’

A little further on, we come across an exhibition on a recent technological achievement: an operation which was carried out by surgeons at zero gravity (see “surgery in space”). As the crow flies, the European Space Agency and Airbus are only a short distance away. Some of the initiatives are launched with support from industry. Nestlé contributed to the water exhibition, while other industrial partners have supported events on digitalisation and on new materials. ‘Whether the support is public or private, the rules are the same. We decide on the content and way it is presented.’

Exchanges and languages

In a few days, Fascination of Light, a German exhibition that started in Brussels, will open. As is the case with many science centres, the Bordeaux facility creates its own exhibition, which it can then “export”, while also “importing” and adapting others. This practice makes it possible to vary the exhibitions on offer and to benefit from the research, creative work and setups of other exhibitions that would otherwise not be possible because of space and time limitations. Its success is thanks to the interpersonal exchanges taking place primarily through the Ecsite (2) network. ‘Having a network is important. It is thanks to these connections and co-production and co-distribution methods that European cinema is able to thrive. The interpersonal exchanges are very positive. On the other hand, exchanges of products often pose certain problems. The first is the linguistic problem. Everything needs to be translated, including the multimedia components. In this regard, we have little or no help from the European Commission, which could otherwise provide very welcome support. If we, for example, are able to exhibit Fascination of Light, it is because the Belgians had translated it into French.’

Praising alternative choices

Set up in one of the centre’s corridors is a portrait gallery containing a collection of black and white photos of researchers. On a countertop, bookmarks are scattered featuring the faces of young scientists, briefly explaining their work and motivations. For Bernard Favre, young people are interested in science, and most studies show that the degree of confidence in researchers is quite high in Europe. ‘There is, however, a gap between this taste for science and the wish to make it a career. The studies are not easy and the remuneration is often much lower than in sectors such as business and finance. This could dampen anyone’s interest in a career in science.’

But Cap Sciences is not only for teenagers. Older children and adults are among its visitors, too. Some evenings are set aside for the "Science Café". Bernard Favre thinks it’s a shame, however, that these are not more like philosophy cafés, where no one guest is invited, only a philosopher who initiates the discussion. ‘We invite scientists but we do not impose our cultural policy on the debate. We want to elicit curiosity, interest and exchange. It is not about, for example, knowing if you are for or against GMOs or about counting tallies after the discussion. It's about being better informed on the concepts of risk, methods, etc. If we are able to stimulate people to delve more deeply into things, whether it be through a meeting or an exhibition, then we have won our bet. To help people interested in the arts, for example, discovering mathematics through music or the visual arts seems to us to be an excellent way of achieving this.’

  1. All quotations are by Bernard Favre.
  2. See p. 26

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Surgery in space

In September 2006, a surgical team operated on a person with a fatty tumour on the forearm. Nothing extraordinary about that. Except that the patient was a volunteer and that the operation took place on board the Airbus A 300 at zero gravity. Based in Bordeaux, the aircraft dubbed Zero G is one of only two in the world making parabolic flights (involving freefall descent followed by a dizzying climb), which are able to recreate gravity-free conditions for approximately 40 seconds. For three hours, the aircraft recreated these conditions 32 times. The accumulated time enabled doctors to operate on their patient for a total of approximately 10 minutes. The operation was successful. A mock-up of the aircraft, the operating suite and the onboard medical equipment are on display at Cap Sciences. Various videos, including those shot during the flight, provide more information about this unusual experiment, which is an essential one for the safety of astronauts living in space stations for months on end.

Humanities on the move

Each year, Cap Sciences organises a festival entitled The Theatre of Science that promotes the humanities. The year 2007 is dedicated to language. The following quote by French writer Victor Segalen has been chosen as a caption for the event: ‘It is best not to go off on an adventure without taking some words along.’ As part of the festival, conferences, debates, and film screenings followed by discussions have been organised throughout the Aquitaine region. These events involve the participation of neurolinguists, psychoanalysts, anthropologists, sociologists, speech and communications specialists and theatre actors, all providing their expertise to the most wide-ranging aspects of language: different languages (human and animal), linguistic diversity (more than 6 000 idioms are spoken today), dialects and jargon, the relationships between language and cultural identity, "talking" robots, as well as gibbering and non-speak that emerges during therapy. Events include a performance paying homage to silence by Patrick Baudry, a sociologist at Montaigne University in Bordeaux , while screenings of the astonishing French film L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, will provide an opening for discussions on the language of adolescents.