Eastern Europe's first science centre wows in Poland

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The Independent Tech

Eastern Europe can finally boast its first ultra-modern, multi-million dollar science museum in the Polish capital Warsaw, a city already drawing tens of thousands to Europe's biggest annual outdoor science fair.

The Copernicus Science Centre is wowing its first visitors with a robot theatre, hands-on laboratories and the promise of a state-of-the-art planetarium next year for star gazers - all features science buffs know well in major museums in the West and Asia.

"Our science centre is the largest and the first such modern facility east of Berlin," director Robert Firmhofer told AFP.

It is named after cherished native son Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), the Polish-born Renaissance father of modern astronomy who first put the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of the universe and who is still regarded by his countrymen as their greatest scientific luminary.

Costing 93 million euros (131 million dollars), the Copernicus Science Centre was co-financed by the city of Warsaw and the European Union, which Poland joined along with seven other ex-communist states in 2004.

"The allocation of 52 million euros in EU funding allowed the centre to be built, and built very rapidly," its director Robert Firmhofer told AFP. Construction on the 20,000 square meter (215,000 square feet) facility began just two years ago.

Perched on the west bank of the mighty Vistula river that cuts through Warsaw, the centre is designed to merge with the semi-wild riverside environment on the outside and tickle the imagination inside.

With a total 454 displays, its facilities include hands-on chemistry, physics and biology laboratories and a novel theatre where humanoid robots are the actors.

Another attraction where cutting-edge technology joins the arts is Elektrobalt, a robot poet inspired by a character created by another native son, the late writer Stanislaw Lem, known for his sci-fi classics including "Solaris", which was brought to the silver screen in the acclaimed 1972 film by then Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky and again in 2002 by the American Steven Soderbergh.

Firmhofer said the centre was inspired by the wild success of the annual "Science Picnic" run in Warsaw by public broadcaster Polish Radio.

Starting as a humble affair that drew just a dozen institutions and 3,000 visitors in 1997, the "Picnic" has since grown into Europe's largest outdoor popular science event - attracting displays from 20 countries and over 100,000 curious visitors in one day.

Even 21 years after communism ended, "we're not a completely consumer or commercialised society yet and there's still a hunger dating from difficult and dull communist times for modern types of enlightened entertainment," Firmhofer said.

After a spectacular, multi-media official opening last Friday, thousands queued for hours to visit the centre over its debut weekend, with hundreds more turned away for lack of capacity.

A thrilled Firmhofer told AFP he hopes the centre will inspire young Poles to follow in the footsteps of Copernicus and Polish-born Marie Curie, winner of Nobel Prizes in physics (1903) and chemistry (1911) for her pioneering work on radioactivity.

Among the first visitors was 12-year-old budding inventor Adam Mrok who said he had "created a computer program which serves to calculate the surface and and volume of various geometric shapes and now I'm working on an invention which would generate energy using gravity and centrifugal force."

As his hair stood on end - the effect of a hands-on static electricity generator - Adam said the centre was already inspiring him to dream up new types of airplanes and spacecraft.

Part of the Ecsite European network for science centres and museums, which includes 400 institutions in 50 countries, the Copernicus centre will host the organisation's annual conference in May 2011.

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