Columbia University professor Joachim Frank, winner of the Franklin Medal in life science, hardly stopped expounding for two hours.
"People are streaming in," he marveled. "They don't just have a casual interest. I find it very encouraging and very touching."
The institute's awards program, which dates to 1824, has in the past honored such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Thomas A. Edison, and Marie Curie. This year, the museum is recognizing eight scientists and engineers, as well as bestowing an award for business leadership on William W. George, a Harvard Business School professor and former chief executive officer of Medtronic Corp.
The honors are to be given in a black-tie ceremony Thursday evening hosted by Bob Schieffer, moderator of CBS's Face the Nation.
But before that, the winners had to do a lot of talking.
Frank answered questions about his development of a technique called cryo-electron microscopy, for taking pictures of ribosomes. Frank is a physicist by training, but the real impact of his discovery was in biology, where it helped depict the twisting, "ratcheting" maneuver by which ribosomes make proteins.
Cameron Klales, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, just three blocks from the museum, stood rapt as Frank demonstrated how proteins emerge from this cellular assembly line.
"Some of it definitely goes over my head," Klales said, "but I got the basics of it."
Nearby stood geophysicist Lisa Tauxe, winner of the Franklin Medal in earth and environmental science, who counts power saws among the tools of her trade. Speaking to students from KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in West Philadelphia, she advised wearing ear protection around such devices.
"Most of the old guys in my field are deaf," Tauxe said.
A professor of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California, San Diego, Tauxe is being honored for her study of the Earth's magnetic field.
She explained how the location of magnetic north has varied through the ages, due to the churning of molten iron deep inside the Earth. These historic patterns can be detected by the orientation of metal particles in ancient sediments, allowing paleontologists to pinpoint when they were deposited.
The floating ceramic disk was the handiwork of Al Bruno, a Franklin Institute science interpreter. He was helping explain the work of Daniel Kleppner, winner of the Franklin Medal in physics, who stood nearby.
When cooled by the liquid nitrogen, the disk became a superconductor, meaning it conducted electricity with no resistance.
In the presence of a magnetic field, such materials levitate, as did the disk.
Kleppner, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did not discover this phenomenon, but is renowned for his work with ultracold hydrogen. He also helped develop the hydrogen maser, a device that emits a beam of microwaves and is used in deep space communications.