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Psychology, molecules explored at Hall of Science

Children and adults can explore their minds as well as stomachs at new exhibits now open at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

"Psychology: It's More Than You Think!" shows that the field is more than Freudian therapy or pop culture, but a definite science that is relevant to everything we do and think.

At the other new exhibit, the Pfizer Foundation Biochemistry Discovery Lab, visitors can learn how to make their own cheese, among other projects, with an emphasis on the molecular biology underlying the process.

Here's a sampling of what's in store at the psychology exhibit:

Interference - "Don't read the words on this list," the display instructs. "Just say the colors they're printed in, as fast as you can, out loud. You're in for a surprise!"

The list is a column of the words "red," "yellow," "green," and "blue" written in mismatched colored ink; for example, "red" is written in blue letters, and "yellow" is written in green letters.

Most people find that ignoring the word and only identifying the ink color quickly is not an easy task. The first inclination is to read the word. This is because we've all learned from experience that the word and its meaning are more important than the ink color, and it's hard to forget all that and pay attention only to the color of the ink.

This conflict between perception based on experience and what we're instructed to do is an example of interference. The specific demonstration with colors and words is an example of the Stroop Effect, based on the 1930s work of James R. Stroop.

PET - Visitors can go inside the human brain by examining Positron Emission Tomography scans that show how different parts of the brain respond to different tasks. A PET scan of a subject relaxing, for example, will show a different arrangement of brain activity than a subject concentrating on reading.

Mind over matter - Can you ignore the feel of an icy cold metal pipe by concentrating on something more pleasant? This exhibit is a way to find out.

Movement - How good is your reaction time? Find out, down to hundredths of a second. Also, see if you can draw a circle with one hand and a square with the other - at the same time. (The ancient Chinese used this test to determine what they considered to be fitness to hold public office.)

Among the science principles explored at the new biochemistry lab are the way antacids work, and how cheese, one of man's earliest processed foods, is made.

Many might find it surprising how simple it is to make cheese. Visitors learn that cheese is essentially coagulated milk - the milk is separated into solid curds and liquid whey (the same curds and whey that Little Miss Muffet has been trying to eat on her tuffet all these years). When milk goes sour, this happens naturally, by bacteria. This can be done more quickly by adding vinegar, lemon juice, or other acidic foodstuff to milk heated just below boiling.

As the lab experiments show, the milk curdles in acid because the acid has a good deal of loose, positively charged hydrogen atoms. These free-roaming atoms and the negatively charged atoms of the milk protein, casein, are attracted to one another, and the casein molecules and the hydrogen atoms clump together forming the white curds, leaving the greenish liquid whey. Most commercial cheese producers use an enzyme derived from animal stomachs to speed the separation.

Cheese-making dates back as far as 4,000 years B.C. in Sumerian and later Greek and Roman societies. (The Romans really perfected the art, discovering how different acidic agents, bacteria, kind of animal milked, what the animal is fed, and even the time of day when she's milked affect the taste and style of the cheese).

For more information on the Hall of Science exhibits, call 699-0005, or visit its web site: www.nyhallsci.org.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at glenn@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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