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Touch (Virtual) Bacteria in The Secret World Inside You at The Health Museum

A virtual woman explains the universe of microbes inside us.
A virtual woman explains the universe of microbes inside us.
Photo by Jef Rouner

The Health Museum has a brand new exhibit that highlights recent advances in understanding the complicated relation humans have with the trillions of microorganisms that live inside us. The Secret World Inside You is a small but fascinating installation, much like its subject matter.

Most of us are familiar enough with Germ Theory and how microorganisms invade us and make us ill. As Harris County nervously watches a possible outbreak of measles, we’re all getting a refresher course in how vaccinations train our bodies to kill unseen tiny buggers. However, those infectious agents make up a tiny fraction of the amount of microorganisms in our bodies, most of which are helpful or necessary.

The dominant feature of the exhibit is a massive interactive table featuring a young woman in workout gear. The dark ceiling and black walls are dotted with colored lights to simulate being in an environment full of organisms, but also gives everything a "human spaceship among the stars" vibe. On the table, the woman has various points of interaction that are activated by putting your flat palm on, say, a shoulder or a knee.

At first it is a little uncomfortable. I almost asked the recording for consent because, well, she is staring at you like a painting in an old horror movie. Once you get past that, though, it’s an incredible piece of educational technology. Everything from cuts to breathing is affected by the menagerie of organisms that inhabit our body, and the display uses superb computer graphics in order to explain the processes.

The entrance to The Secret World Inside You at The Health Museum.
The entrance to The Secret World Inside You at The Health Museum.
Photo by Jef Rouner

That’s not the only hands-on piece. There are several video game tables scattered around. They use simple pinball controls to let you chose good food that promote microorganism health. It’s not going to replace Fortnite any time soon, but it does add a tactile aspect to the learning experience that gives it some oomph.

Aside from the technology, the rest of the exhibit is passive, though there has been some great effort to personalize the information presented. For instance, one wall is backdropped with the Houston skyline, helping to give the installation a homey touch.

If you’re not up to date on the latest medical science, microorganisms are the subject of a lot of the new theories about health. For instance, scientists are starting to see connections between levels of certain symbiotic organisms and mental illness like depression. Autism and obesity also have connections to microorganism health according to the factoids available along the walls of The Secret World.

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“We want to make the cutting edge of medical research available to people in an accessible way,” said spokesperson LaTanya Miles as she guided me through the exhibit. She explained how science is coming to understand just how much of a role microorganisms play in our well-being.

The exhibit is not without controversy. Possibly linking autism to anything is always going to bring up the “should we seek a ‘cure’” debate. There’s also a big chunk of information about birth and whether or not babies born via Cesarean section acquire the important microorganisms present in the birth canal. While The Secret World makes no definite case on the subject owing to its very concise presentation of all its data points, it made me bristle thinking about how many parents are already dealing with anti-C-section bias from a variety of sources.

The important thing, though, is that The Secret World Inside You is a conversation starter. Understanding that microorganisms are an essential part of human health is a science that is just getting started, and we live in a world where technology is being used to spread misinformation about medical issues at an alarming and possibly deadly rate. The Secret World is a chance to harness interactive media to enlighten with the best real information we have available, and that makes it worth the trip. Tell the giant table lady I said "hello" when you go to touch her feet.

The Secret World Inside You is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays at The Health Museum, 1515 Hermann. For information, call 713-521-1515 or visit thehealthmuseum.org. Free to $8.

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