Yoni Liebstein, 6, of Potomac, MD, tests out the "Laugh… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Making french fries with an air gun, dance patterns with fire and music with PVC tubing — a new exhibit at the Maryland Science Center is all about having a grand time making stuff do what one normally wouldn't expect it to do.
OK, maybe that's not exactly what the science center folks had in mind. Opening Saturday and running through Sept. 6, "Wonder Warehouse" is billed as a sort of grand-scale, hands-on, fun-with-science exhibition — a chance for kids and adults to play with some cool toys and, in the process, learn a thing or two about science.
"The kids can come in and have fun," says Alex Van Ness, the center's exhibit fabrication supervisor (which means he's the guy in charge of giving shape and form to other people's ideas). "And at the end of the day, they're going to learn something about science, whether they realize it or not."
So, yeah, there's an education component here, a chance to learn about equal-and-opposite reactions, the properties of sound waves and just what light refraction means. Very nice. But after seeing a guy shoot a potato through a screen and make French fries, or watching fire dance to a heavy-metal beat, or taking a pair of flip-flops and making music on a calliope made of the same tubing you have under the sink at home – that wow factor is what people are going to remember.
All of which is fine with the masterminds behind "Wonder Warehouse," who have spent the past six months dreaming up, designing and then putting together the 13 exhibits that will be in place on the center's second-floor Legg Mason Gallery. With few exceptions, the exhibits have been designed and built in the center's basement workshops by craftsmen thrilled about the challenge.
"It's definitely enjoyable for us, we have a good time doing it," says Van Ness. "It is work, and we take it seriously. But at the same time, it's definitely fun to work on ideas like this, where you know it's pretty-much your imagination that sets the limits to it."
Take, for example, the "Flaming Acoustic Harmonophone," a sure-to-be crowd-pleaser if ever there was one. The original idea, Van Ness says, was to come up with a novel way of allowing people to see sound waves. "We realized, very seldom will you ever see it in fire," Van Ness says. One tank of propane, one 10-foot metal tube and one radio speaker later, the center had its exhibit — one that shows flames leaping out of tiny holes drilled in the tube, leaping and gyrating depending on what music is playing. "This one is fun," audio-visual engineer Christian Chalmers says as Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" makes the flames dance in spectacular fashion.
A lot of this kind of mad-scientist tinkering has been going on in the science center's workshops. Charged with finding a visual way of showing-off non-Newtonian liquids (which Van Ness describes loosely as "liquid that doesn't follow the normal laws"), designers and workers tinkered with the twin problems of 1) coming up with something that was visually exciting and 2) making it big enough that crowds could see what was going on.
They eventually came up with the "Goobulator" (naming these things was apparently a team effort), essentially a large clear drum of heavy liquid — a mix of corn starch and water — that sits atop a giant speaker. Turn on the sound, and the liquid reacts to it, turning into solids that leap up out of the drum.
"We started out with about 25 ideas," Van Ness explains. "And then we weeded out some of the things that sounded like a great idea in the beginning, but the 'wow' factor wasn't there, or they were just too dangerous, or it ended up where the final results were so completely different from the original idea, because we needed to make it safe."
The safety factor, for example, is what scotched the idea of a rocket launcher to demonstrate Newton's Third Law — the one that says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The science center tinkerers considered building a rocket big enough to strap people in, but cooler (and more pragmatic) heads prevailed.
"We actually wanted to make a rocket sled the visitor could strap into and shoot across the gallery," Van Ness says with a laugh. "It was a very ambitious idea, one I don't think the liability people were too crazy about. But we're working on a scale model of it, where it wouldn't be a person, it would be more of a dummy or something."
Some of the ideas, it turns out, weren't even original. Take the "Fryzooka," a bazooka-like contraption that uses forced air to shoot a potato through what is, essentially, a tennis racket, shredding the speeding spud into a handful of uncooked French fries. After spending weeks on a mock-up, they discovered that someone already had one for sale. Made by American Air Cannons out of San Diego, it's the same device used at ballgames to shoot T-shirts into the stands. So the science center bought one.
"We figured there's no reason to re-invent the wheel," Van Ness explains.
Some of the center's exhibits will be operated by trained personnel only; sorry, kids, but you won't be able to turn on the Harmonophone or pull the trigger on the Fryzooka. But you will be able to make smoke rings or shoot small bursts of compressed air at dangling CDs in the "Totally Torroidal" section, or create funky patterns using light sticks with "Light Doodles," then see your handiwork on a computer screen.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to propel mom or dad across the room in their own rocket ship.
"In the end, I think what we came up with," says Van Ness, "is fun, semi-amazing experiments that are not too unsafe."