The Museum of Science and Industry makes waves (literally) with its new exhibit, "Science Storms." A host of natural disasters are unleashed inside the comfy 34,000-square-foot space. Here's how the museum did it.
Display The first thing you notice in the museum’s new permanent exhibit is a holy-crap 40-foot-tall twister spinning in place just inside the entryway. MSI’s senior exhibit developer Olivia Castellini said the museum employed the help of environmental artist Ned Kahn to create the vortex. Here’s how he did it: A high-frequency speaker uses vibrations to transform water into a thick cloud of vapor. A giant fan in the ceiling sucks up the fog, while a downdraft and fans on the side create a rotation resulting in a vortex-like motion. Ta-da—a tornado! Actually, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Castellini says this permanent installation is the only one of its kind in the world. Visitors can walk into the vapor and stand in the vortex. Don’t worry: The winds blow nowhere near a tornado’s 110 mph speed.
Physics lesson This exhibit focuses on simple physics but relays that the simple can be incredibly mysterious. For example, in this display, we learn what a vortex is: a rotating column of air. But, Castellini says, although scientists know the pieces of the puzzle, they don’t know how it all fits together to set off a tornado. Tornadoes still befuddle physicists, as viewers can see in a nearby video on tornado chasers.
Display This one’s a real shocker: The museum created a display that sends bolts of lightning crackling overhead. The exhibit uses a Tesla coil that produces 1.2 million volts of electricity—one of the largest Tesla coils in any museum. The lightning, which creates a frighteningly loud sound (we couldn’t help but yelp and duck), goes off for about ten seconds once every half-hour and during facilitated shows. The museum swears you’re totally safe.
Physics lesson A lightning bolt is basically static electricity (the thing that makes your pants cling to your legs on dry days) but on a larger scale. A video near the display shows various studies on lightning, including a high-speed camera recently created to record the movement of lightning that helps scientists know exactly what causes the weather phenomenon.
Display A 20-foot rotating steel disk tilts at approximately a 20-degree angle. On top of it, garnet sand and glass beads continually cascade down the disk, creating an uncannily snowlike stream of white. Castellini says the museum consulted with Kahn about a difficult part of this display: the rotating piece of steel with a topside smoothed correctly to allow sand and beads to run overtop. To create the huge motor, Castellini says the museum consulted with an engineer who produced Disneyland amusements like Splash Mountain.
Physics lesson In the display, you’ll notice that the brownish sand and white glass beads never mix. And they never will. This has to do with force and gravity. Scientists study avalanches to see how an individual snowflake’s crystal shape affects big packs of snow; they’re ultimately trying to predict when and where an avalanche will occur.
Display A 30-foot-long tank builds tsunami-like waves that crash into a (plastic, thankfully) shoreline. To make the display, Castellini went to Oregon State University, which harbors a large indoor wave facility for studying tsunamis and other natural phenomena. She came back armed with an idea of how to help the public understand the devastating tsunamis we’ve seen in the past few years. At the MSI’s wave tank, viewers can make two kinds of waves: regular ocean waves and tsunami waves. The tank lets you control the length and the amplitude of an ocean wave and the height of a tsunami.
Physics lesson When you control the size of the waves, you’re actually changing the amount of energy. The tank demonstrates the way in which energy affects two things: how a wave propagates, or moves across water, and how it inundates, or hits a coastline. Fortunately, all that happens when tsunami waves hit this indoor coastline: A couple of plastic flags fall.
“Science Storms” blows in on Thursday 18.