It looks like something Jules Verne might have dreamed up, this vast circus of science beneath the Columbus Center's tent-like roof.
The world's biggest horseshoe crab beckons visitors to sit beneath its shell, at a high-tech theater simulating the deep sea -- through the senses of a shark.
A cell, 3 million times the size of its human likeness, looks decidedly otherworldly, multicolored lights playing off its bumpy orange surface, screens inside displaying oversize images of the minuscule stuff of life itself.
A 52-foot-long rockfish's gaping mouth forms the entrance to an exhibit offering close-up glimpses of marine life forms devouring those farther down the food chain, from trophy fish to microbes.
The sheer spectacle of such larger-than-life exhibits no doubt will rivet visitors' attention when the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration opens Saturday morning, culminating the $160 million marine biotechnology center's decadelong journey from conception to completion.
But the fun-house feel of the 46,000-square-foot exhibit hall notwithstanding, the mission extends well beyond mere amusement. For this science attraction itself represents a bold experiment, a pioneering attempt at melding cutting-edge research, education, entertainment and tourism.
Here, when visitors look up toward the glass bubbles in the translucent white roof, they'll see what no visitors have seen at any other science centers anywhere: the labs where scientists ponder the infinitesimal universe of cells and DNA and microbes.
Here, too, science will be participant sport and theater and education for visitor and researcher alike, all varying means to the same ends: Bringing the white coats out of the labs, literally and figuratively, and imbuing visitors with their passion for discovery.
The interactive exhibit hall, where a state-of-the-art computer system serves as tour guide and information storehouse, relies on a panoply of ways to show just what goes on in those labs, which comprise more than 80 percent of the Columbus Center's space, and why it matters. The attraction is not only science but also scientists: The 126 researchers and staff demonstrate experiments and strike up conversations (no lectures allowed) on how their work helps clean up pollution, develop antibiotics, induce fish-spawning and save the dwindling supply of oysters.
Visitors inspired by watching can walk across the hall and conduct their own experiments at "living labs," say, by extracting DNA from fish, cloning genes or testing bay water for pollutants.
"This is not just some highfalutin kind of abstraction," says Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc., the maritime center's owner and operator. "This is real, and this is how people in this building think."
For more than a decade, Heuisler, former award-winning editor and general manager of Baltimore Magazine, has been trying to think like them, to get inside their minds. To see this microbial universe as they see it, as an unfolding story, a frontier awaiting. To do as the Columbus Center's one-word motto urges, simply: "Explore!"
See the world's first "microbial city," with high-rises that change colors and bubble and blurp, and learn that more different types of bacteria exist than all the known plants and animals. Inside a hall of mirrors, see the kaleidoscope depicting everything from bacteria movement in ocean currents to other microscopic organisms magnified millions of times and played out in a light show. Log onto the Channel Marker computer system, with "Crobi the Microbe" as host.
The network of 48 Sun Microsystems computers records each visitor's journey, interests, knowledge and questions. At workstations interspersed through the hall, each visitor can get a detailed, computer-guided introduction to all that surrounds them.
Or check out Microworld, the virtual museum in newspaper format. Or sit at Overlook Cafe, perched a level above the main exhibit floor, and tap into biotech Internet sites to share science around the globe or across the room. Or play games like how to examine seafood about to be served at a White House dinner for possible contaminants.
At the end of the journey, a printed, personalized account will await each visitor at the Real Science Store, the hall's gift shop. And the computer system will store it all, providing visitors a way to pick up where they left off and the hall a measure of what's most popular to tailor future exhibits.
The trip into a world foreign to so many begins with the gargantuan exhibits, then branches out into more and more detailed and sophisticated hands-on activities and education meant to make visitors forget about nightmares of dissecting one too many frogs.