On a sunny Saturday, knots of elementary-school-age children clamber aboard a miniature train that transports them through a tropical forest, past a rose-colored Moorish castle, to a converted horse stable. Here they follow the antics of a live tarantula, peer intently through microscopes at cells taken from their own cheeks, or climb inside a spaghetti-like "vegetal cell" made of steel and plastic and magnified four million times, all the while internalizing lessons on various life forms. "We want them to appreciate the beauty of biodiversity," says their mentor, Christina Castro.
At the next stop, the children explore colorful outdoor equipment. One youngster grasps a paddle to start forms spiraling around a pole, while others pedal stationary bicycles or watch with rapt attention as a dry leaf suddenly bursts into flame. The setting is a theme park of sorts--but here the theme is science, and the children are enjoying a hands-on introduction to concepts of energy transformation and transmission.
Biodiscovery Hall and Science Park are part of Rio de Janeiro's Museu da Vida (Museum of Life), an informal education center that makes use of interactive laboratories, cutting-edge technology, and Brazilian ingenuity to introduce science in an engaging manner. The complex is located on the campus of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), hallowed ground in the history of Brazil's long and ongoing crusade to improve standards of public health.
It's no accident that in this environment everything is moving, dynamic, charged with energy, open ended, interrelated. Nor is it surprising that children respond with enthusiasm to the multipronged stimuli. "Children are open to new learning, new experiences," says Paula Bonatto, biologist and educator, as she monitors the leaf-burning experiment. "Science helps to satisfy their curiosity."
Like Rio itself, the museum exudes a playful, spontaneous quality that accommodates charming incongruities. First, there's that mirage-like Moorish castle engulfed by tropical vegetation, the whole surrounded by the densely populated neighborhoods of the Manguinhos district. Then there's the matter of young children encouraged to have fun with science (Divirta-se com a ciencia!) in a place where serious research has yielded cures for some of mankind's most debilitating diseases. And where better to situate this innovative and user-friendly museum, devoted to the study of life in all its manifestations, than Rio de Janeiro?
Throughout the city, the beauty of Brazilian biodiversity is everywhere evident, from rampant vegetation bursting forth on near-vertical hills to the resplendent Jardim Botanico, with its imperial palms towering over some five thousand species of plants. A hike through the world's largest urban park, Tijuca, offers glimpses of monkeys, iguanas, and other endemic wildlife. Tijuca Park calls to mind the original Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Rain Forest), which at one time covered 800,000 square miles of Brazil's coastline and rivaled the Amazon for biodiversity.
For displays of endless energy, one has only to follow Rio's multitudes to the beach, where cariocas slice through the surf or soar overhead on hang-gliders or demonstrate their athletic bravura by propelling a ball over a net using only head and feet. Meanwhile a gloriously diverse parade of humanity jogs, skates, and pedals its way along Avenida Atlantica, its sidewalk mosaics echoing the perpetual rhythm of the waves.
At the turn of the last century, when Fiocruz had its beginnings, the picture was far different. Cosmopolitan beach communities like Copacabana and Ipanema were decades away from major development. The bulk of Rio's residents squeezed into the old part of the city that's now known as Centro, where overcrowding and poor sanitation led to epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, and typhus. Meanwhile, an outbreak of bubonic plague threatened Rio de …