Windy City Science - 7 Top Science Sites Located Around the City of Chicago

With five top science museums, and two national laboratories, Chicago is the destination of choice for the science tourist.
Marcia Wendorf

If you're interested in science, one of the best places to visit is the city of Chicago. It's home to five of the world's best science museums, and two of the U.S.'s most famous national laboratories. Here are some of best science sites that the "Windy City" has to offer.

1. The Museum of Science and Industry

Located at 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive on Chicago's south side, the museum is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Collectively, the buildings built for the exposition were referred to as "The White City" because they were all clad in white plaster, however, unlike the other buildings, The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed with a brick substructure under its plaster facade.


1893 Palace of Fine Arts
1893 Palace of Fine Arts Source: Arnold/Higinbotham/Wikimedia Commons

"The White City" was famously chronicled in Erik Larson's truly terrifying non-fiction work, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

The Museum of Science and Industry was initially endowed by Julius Rosenwald, then president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, and it opened in 1933, during the Century of Progress Exposition.

Among the museum's most famous exhibits are the first diesel-powered stainless-steel passenger train, the Pioneer Zephyr, a full-size replica of a coal mine, and the captured German submarine U-505.

Pioneer Zephyr
Pioneer Zephyr Source: Sean Lamb/Wikimedia Commons

The coal mine recreates a working, deep-shaft, bituminous coal mine, with original equipment from the Old Ben #17 mine, circa 1933. Visitors ride a mine train to different parts of the mine and learn how the mine operated.

One of only two German submarines that were captured during World War II, the U-505 is the only German submarine on display in the Western Hemisphere.

U505 submarine
U-505 submarine Source: Jeremy Atherton/Wikimedia Commons

Also on display at the museum are a 3,500-square-foot (330 sq m) model railroad, and the command module from the Apollo 8 moon mission.

Model railroad
Model railroad Source: Interiority/Wikimedia Commons

Apollo 8 was the first spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, and on its trip to the moon were astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders. They became the first human beings to see the Earth as a whole, and the first to see the far side of the moon.

Other space-related exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry include Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter's Atlas 7 spacecraft, a Mars rover, a lunar module trainer, and a life-size mockup of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

For younger children, the museum boasts a farm, including a tractor and a combine harvester from John Deere, and a greenhouse. The "Swiss Jollyball" exhibit features the world's largest pinball machine, and another exhibit features animated dioramas of a miniature circus.

A real treat for both young and old alike is silent-movie star Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle doll's house, which is on display.

For the aviation enthusiast, there are two World War II warplanes on display, one a German Ju 87 R-2/Trop. Stuka divebomber, which is one of only two intact Stukas left in existence, and a British Supermarine Spitfire. Also on display is the first Boeing 727 jet plane in commercial service.

Sure to delight everyone is "Yesterday's Mainstreet", where visitors can see what an early 20th century Chicago street looked like, complete with cobblestones, old-fashioned light fixtures, and several shops. At Finnigan's Ice Cream Parlor, you can actually order an ice cream confection, and at The Nickelodeon Cinema, you can view silent films of that period.

Over the years, the Museum of Science and Industry has hosted numerous special exhibits that lasted five months or less. They have included "Titanic: The Exhibition," which was the largest display of artifacts from the wreck, Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds", "Game On", which displayed the history and culture of video games, "Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius," "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," "Harry Potter: The Exhibition," and "Robot Revolution", which was sponsored by Google and included robotics experts and hands-on demonstrations.

2. The Field Museum of Natural History

Named after department-store magnate Marshall Field, the museum and its collection originated from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field is one of the premier natural history museums in the world.

Undoubtedly, the museum's most famous exhibit is Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever discovered. Sue is longer than 40 feet (12 m), 13 feet (4.0 m) high at the hips, and had been estimated to weight between 8.4 and 14 metric tons (9.26 – 15.4 short tons).

Sue Tyrannosaurus rex
Sue Tyrannosaurus rex Source: Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons

Sue is estimated to be 67 million years old, and is named after the person who found her, Sue Hendrickson, although Sue's actual sex is unknown. Sue died at age 28, which was a record for a T. rex until Trix was found in 2013.

The "Inside Ancient Egypt" exhibit at the Field Museum contains 23 human mummies as well as many mummified animals. There is a three-story replica of the mastaba tomb of Unas-Ankh who was the son of Unas, the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.

Also on display are an ancient Egyptian marketplace, a shrine to the cat goddess Bastet, and dioramas that show preparations for the Egyptian afterlife.

The Field Museum houses a 19th-century Māori Meeting House, and in the Grainger Hall of Gems is a truly eye-popping display of diamonds and gems from around the world. Exhibits include a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window, and a collection of Chinese jade artifacts going back 8,000 years.

The Field Museum has appeared in several movies, including 1978's Damien: Omen II, 1995's Chain Reaction, and 1997's The Relic.

3. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute

The Oriental Institute was established in 1919, as an interdisciplinary research center for ancient Near Eastern ("Orient") studies, and as an archaeology museum. It was founded by famed archaeologist James Henry Breasted, and financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

The institute manages its facility in Luxor, Egypt called Chicago House. There, its Epigraphic Survey researches and maintains various historical sites in Luxor.

Among the Oriental Institute's most famous exhibits are the Meggiddo Ivories, which were found at Tel Megiddo in Israel. Dating to the Late Bronze Age, they are carved from Nile River hippopotamus incisors. An ivory pen case contains the cartouche of Pharaoh Ramses III.

Meggiddo ivories
Meggiddo ivories Source: Deror Avi/Wikimedia Commons

Other notable exhibits include treasures from the ancient Persian capital Persepolis, and an enormous 40-ton human-headed Lamassu, or winged bull, that hails from Khorsabad, which was the capital of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin.

Khorsabad Lamassu
Khorsabad Lamassu Source: Trjames/Wikimedia Commons

4. The Adler Planetarium

Located on an artificial island off Chicago's lakefront sits the Adler Planetarium. Named after businessman Max Adler, an executive of Sears Roebuck & Co., the Adler was the first planetarium in the U.S., opening to the public on May 12, 1930. Its building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium Source: Adler Planetarium/Wikimedia Commons

The first device to project images of celestial bodies onto a dome was created in 1913 by the Carl Zeiss Works in Germany. Adler traveled to Munich and purchased one of the devices for Chicago.

With the addition in 2011 of the Grainger Sky Theater, whose dome measures 21 meters across, the Adler can boast having the most technologically advanced dome theater in the world. The Doane Observatory at the museum allows the public to view celestial bodies through its 20-inch-mirror telescope.

The view of the Chicago skyline from the Adler Planetarium, both during the daytime and at night, is incomparable.

5. Fermi National Accelerator Lab

Located in Batavia, Illinois just outside Chicago, is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, affectionately known as Fermilab. Run by the U.S. Department of Energy, it is named after the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, Enrico Fermi.

Fermilab accelerator rings Source: Riffsyphon1024/Wikimedia Commons

Until the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland went online in 2008, the Tevatron at Fermilab was the world's most powerful particle accelerator, producing proton-proton collisions with energies as high as 1.96 TeV. The Tevatron was shut down in 2011.

In 1995 Fermilab discovered the top quark, and in 2008, the lab discovered the bottom Omega baryon, which is made up of two strange quarks and a bottom quark. The discovery completed the "periodic table of the baryons."

Wilson Hall at Fermilab
Wilson Hall at Fermilab Source: Steevven1/Wikimedia Commons

Today, Fermilab is leading in neutrino experiments. Its NOvA experiment sends a beam of neutrinos 455 miles (732 km) through the Earth to a detector in the Soudan Mine in Minnesota.

Besides cutting edge physics, you can also see Fermilab's native bison herd, which graze on top of the accelerator ring. You can visit Fermilab every weekday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November through March, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the rest of the year.

 A valid photo ID is required to enter the Fermilab site. All U.S. state-issued IDs are accepted at the security checkpoints.

6. Argonne National Laboratory

Located in Lemont, Illinois is another Department of Energy National Laboratory. Argonne National Laboratory is a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center. It was designated on July 1, 1946, making it the first national laboratory in the U.S.

Argonne has been at the forefront in the design of nuclear reactors, its designs form the foundation for most commercial reactors in use today. The lab is currently researching liquid-metal reactors for future commercial power stations. Scientists at Argonne designed the reactor for the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus.

In 1955, Argonne chemists co-discovered the elements Einsteinium (atomic number 99) and Fermium (atomic number 100) on the periodic table. 

In March 2019, the Chicago Tribune reported that Argonne was constructing the world's most powerful supercomputer with the processing power of 1 quintillion flops.

Guided tours of the Argonne facility are open to those age 16 and older, and are available by reservation.

7. The Shedd Aquarium

With 2.02 million visitors in 2015, the Shedd Aquarium is one of the most visited aquariums in the world. It contains over 1,500 species of fish, marine mammals, birds, snakes, amphibians, and insects.

The aquarium was financed by John G. Shedd, an associate of Marshall Field., and opened on May 30, 1930. It took 20 railroad cars to transport a million gallons of seawater for the Shedd's saltwater exhibits.

Wild Reef at Shedd Aquarium
Wild Reef at Shedd Aquarium Source: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons

Exhibits include a giant Pacific octopus, blue iguanas, seahorses, a green sea turtle named Nickel, and stingrays. The Amazon Rising exhibit, which recreates the Amazon River, features anacondas, piranhas, freshwater stingrays and caimans.

The Abbott Oceanrium features marine mammals, such as Pacific white-sided dolphins, beluga whales, sea otters and California sea lions. In the Polar Play Zone, children and adults can interact with Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins.

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