By David Perlman
Chronicle Science Editor
The wide green turf of AT&T Park and the sandy stretches along first and third base never encountered anything like the crowds of kids and parents who streamed into the stadium Sunday for what may have been the largest science sideshow ever seen.
There were telescopes to peer at sunspots whenever they were visible between the windswept clouds, animal skulls with ferocious teeth to test for sharpness, chemicals that popped under pressure, gauges revealing the gases emitted by human lungs, and human brains to reveal the mysteries of the nervous system.
All these and more highlighted the climactic event of the first Bay Area Science Festival, sponsored by UCSF to spur interest in science. And if the skulls and popping chemicals seemed incongruous beneath the stadium's signs for garlic fries and clam chowder - well, that's scientific show business.
More than 170 exhibitors attracted more than 21,000 people through the stadium's turnstiles, from first graders to grandparents, and while the kids experimented, their elders watched, beaming.
Johan Delen, 4, tried aiming a beanbag at a target with his eyes encumbered by distorting binoculars, and he did pretty well at a game offered by the Exploratorium. "It's not too early to get him interested in science," said his mother, Michelle, "but right now he's looking for something to blow up."
William Stenzel, 13, of Orinda, tried measuring the carbon dioxide and methane in his lungs at an exhibit by hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, as his father, Christopher, smiled. "He's really interested in all this," he said. "It's encouraging."
The idea of organizing festivals to show kids and their parents that science can be fun originated with Bruce Alberts, long a professor of biochemistry at UCSF, later the president of the American Academy of Sciences, and now the editor of the journal Science.
The venture won Alberts and UCSF a three-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund similar festivals at San Diego, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass.
"I can feel a lot of energy out here," Alberts said as he walked among the scores of exhibit tents that lined the field. "It's getting kids excited about getting their hands on doing experiments, and they need it, with so little science being taught in schools these days. All this excitement here should encourage teachers in the schools, too."
The festival spanned more than a week, with shows on the campus of Cal State East Bay in Hayward, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, and at virtually every other scientific institution in the region. More than 70,000 people attended, said the festival's organizers.
To Kishore Hari, the festival director for UCSF's Science and Health Education Partnership, its success - a gamble by his team - left him "dumbstruck."
"Kids and their grown-ups too are spending real time at all the exhibits," he said, "and they're really working the experiments. I can see a real hunger for science all around me and it's uplifting. It's the job of those of us who teach and those who legislate to feed that hunger."