Science Storms engages the public in a timeless scientific endeavor: discerning the laws of nature. The power and beauty of the exhibition captures visitors' hearts and immerses them in an unparalleled setting for exploring physics and chemistry. Visitors are granted direct control over dynamic, large-scale experiments, from triggering avalanches to making rainbows. They manipulate air flow to influence the behavior of a 3-story tornado and specify the frequency and amplitude of waves in a 30-foot tsunami tank. Everywhere you look, visitors are actively engaged in the scientific process: observing, experimenting, and making their own discoveries.
A live flame provides a compelling context for learning about combustion and convection. Visitors can manipulate variables such as fuel quantity, water volume, and droplet size to see the impact on the flame. Laser light shines on the falling water droplets and illuminates the convection patterns. Infrared cameras detect temperature variations which are invisible to the naked eye, and the results are displayed on a monitor below.
The Combustion exhibit demonstrates a core principle guiding the Science Storms team: technology used to manipulate variables or display scientific data should be implemented in a way that does not detract from the beauty and drama of the large-scale experiments. In the photo above, two friends use the touch screen to influence the outcome of events and quickly turn their attention back to the battle of fire and water playing out before them.
Visitors use physical pucks to "pick up" elements from the Periodic Table, then set them next to each other on a "react table" to trigger chemical reactions. Combine oxygen with iron and you will call up an image of a rusted-out jalopy in an overgrown field. Follow the onscreen hints and you can find combinations of elements that explode when they come in contact. The Periodic Table makes the experience of combining elements tangible in a situation where handling actual chemicals would be wildly impractical.
The unsung innovation behind this popular exhibit is a massive spreadsheet of simple chemical reactions which result from combining two or three elements at a time. In the design phase, we assumed such a resource already existed. It did not. Treatments of the periodic table simply presented each element in isolation. We contacted universities without any luck. We started running low on time. Finally we built it ourselves, by looking up "hydrogen" on Wikipedia, identifying some common chemical reactions, logging which other elements were involved, and then repeating this task for the next element. It took months.
During testing, many visitors told us they would have found chemistry more fascinating and easier to understand if only they had been able to play with a periodic table like ours. It's a resource that didn't exist back then--but now it does.
The bright lines in these photoelastic discs reveal contact forces emanating out from an initial point of impact, similar to earthquake fault lines. Visitors can put pressure on the discs and watch the forces travel through the material. Scientists at Duke University replicated the material they use in their research lab in order to make this exhibit possible; Force Chains is one of many Science Storms exhibits that feature current research.
A core message of the Science Storms exhibition is that "science isn't done yet." Rather than present the topics of physics and chemistry in a definitive manner, we included examples of current research to convey that discerning the laws of nature is an ongoing endeavor--science needs YOU!