Storm Watch

J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

A crowd attentively observes

Science Storms
The Museum of Science and Industry
57th Street and Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60637
(773) 684-1414
http://www.msichicago.org/

Not many museums can claim a tornado as a centerpiece to their exhibit. But Science Storms, a new permanent exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, allows visitors an up-close, hands-on encounter with the chemistry and physics of the world’s most devastating natural phenomena.

Upon entering, senses are engaged by a cacophony of buzzes, beeps, and bells coming from all directions: two large, blue hot-air balloons rise and fall from the ceiling, and a disk filled with swirling sand rotates round and round. The tornado, however, dominates. At 40 feet high it is truly impressive, and it draws the largest, most attentive crowds—most under five feet and accompanied by parents. People gather closely to watch the swirling vapor, and an attendant assists onlookers with pulling levers that alter the shape and direction of the tornado.

Almost as impressive as the tornado is the large rotating disk at the entrance: the “Avalanche Disk.” Filled with glass beads and garnet sand, the 20-foot structure can be controlled by a steering wheel so that kids (and more than a few grownups) can manipulate its movements, increasing or decreasing the rotation speed. This motion of beads and sand displays the physics of granular motion. When the disk stops moving, the grains pack into a solid state, but when the wheel turns to add energy, the granules flow like liquid. The beauty of this dance mesmerizes watchers who for a moment forget the devastating impact of this natural phenomenon (one look at the nearby movie screen looping footage of real avalanches quickly puts the danger of this force of nature back into perspective).

Tucked among the large displays are smaller learning stations where nearly everything is interactive. Although not one of the exhibit’s “iconic” attractions, Foucault’s pendulum (a visual representation of the earth’s rotation) receives considerable visitor attention. The pendulum, a steel orb the size of a watermelon attached to a rod suspended from the ceiling, swings, knocking down pins as the earth rotates. Crowds wait patiently for proof of the earth’s rotation, though some get bored with the lack of drama and move on to the tornado. Those who do stick around cheer as the pendulum finally knocks down a pin.

The second floor of the exhibit, or the balcony level, appears geared to the older set but still offers some hands-on activities for the kids. Quite a few display cases are filled with artifacts, providing a history lesson on humanity’s journey to recreate the wonders of nature using modern science. The cases are filled with an array of objects enlisted to harness lightning, fire, and more: batteries, lightbulbs (including the first lightbulb ever lit in public), firefighting supplies, barometers, thermometers, microscopes, cameras, and telescopes.

Another popular station features an interactive periodic table, where users can make “virtual reactions.” Guests select elements from a projected periodic table using a puck, dragging and dropping them into the “virtual chemical lab” to discover how those elements react with each other. After a user creates hydrogen sulfide, for example, the screen displays a video of an explosion.

For those not content with only seeing a tornado, the exhibit also offers a chance to experience the inside of one. People can line up to step inside a tiny phone booth and be assailed by winds of up to 80 miles per hour. Those who brave the storm emerge from the booth looking windblown and exhilarated.

The buzzes, beeps, clangs, and cheers are akin to walking through a casino’s gaming floor, so for those bothered by noises or prone to sensory overload, this exhibit might not be a joyful experience. And though Science Storms opened only in March 2010, there is already a chance of visitors finding a few “pardon our appearance” signs hanging on stations that require maintenance—a danger when people are allowed to touch a museum’s displays. But for those in awe of the natural world, Science Storms successfully provides a safe, up-close simulation of weather’s most devastating phenomena.

Justine Welch Mastin is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.