Museum of Science and Industry

Behind the Scenes

On March 18, 2010, the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago unveiled Science Storms, an unprecedented and dramatic permanent exhibit in newly-named Allstate Court that reveals the extraordinary science behind some of nature’s most powerful and compelling phenomena—tornados, lightning, fire, tsunamis, sunlight, avalanches and atoms in motion. Following are some behind-the-scenes details from the final phases of bringing this immense and cutting-edge exhibition to completion.

March 15, 2010 -- Cleaning the Ripple Tanks

Right after the Science Storms Employee Preview, contractors from Chicago Scenic Studios were back at work giving the Ripple Tanks a final polish. When their work is done, three 15-foot diameter tanks will cast shadows on the floor below to reveal a variety of wave patterns.

Museum staff got their first peek at the Ripple Tanks during the Employee Preview.

In this activity, guests use tappers to create waves that interact with barriers resembling different coastlines. When the tappers are activated, the resulting waves demonstrate reflection, diffraction, and interference. These wave behaviors are isolated aspects of the complex behavior of tsunamis.

March 8, 2010 -- Staff Break! Bernoulli's Principle

The project crew stopped work long enough to allow Museum staff from all departments to get a sneak preview of the exhibit. These folks are playing with the Air Flow component by trapping balls in fast-moving columns of air and keeping them afloat.

This phenomenon is called the Bernoulli principle.

March 5, 2010 -- Landmark Artifact: Millikan Oil-Drop Experiment

An expert from Germany visited our collections department to inspect one of the most historically significant artifacts to be displayed in Science Storms. Martin Panusch of the University of Flensburg's Institute of Physics and Chemistry examined the original equipment used in the Millikan oil-drop experiment performed by Robert Millikan and Harvey Fletcher. This landmark experiment to measure the charge of an electron in an atom is frequently cited as one of the most significant scientific experiments of the 20th century. In the photo below, Martin is inside the Museum’s collections storage area where he disassembled and took measurements of the artifact.

In pursuing his Ph.D. in the history of science, Martin has spent the last three years recreating Millikan’s experiment using only the technology and information available during Millikan’s career. He was unaware that the original equipment still existed until collections consultant Terri Sinnott contacted another expert here in the U.S. Two days later, Martin had heard the news and was on a plane to Chicago.

Not only did we help Martin with his project, but he was a great help to us in return. Here at MSI we knew that Millikan and Fletcher had conducted three important experiments, but we weren’t sure which one used our artifact. Martin proved that in fact we own the single oil drum that was used in all three experiments.

March 2, 2010 -- The "Brazil Nut Effect"

In the picture below, Dr. Olivia Castellini is testing the mix of materials for an experiment highlighting what scientists have dubbed the "Brazil nut effect." Notice the large circular object surrounded by small white beads in motion. When you turn on a motor to shake the container, the large object rises to the top. That's why it's named "Brazil nut effect": have you ever opened a can of mixed nuts and found the largest ones at the top?

Several experiments in the Avalanche area of Science Storms will allow you to explore the surprising behaviors of granular materials, which can be anything from mixed nuts in a can to rocks in a landslide. This is an area of scientific study called granular physics.

February 25, 2010 -- Wimshurst Machine

Exhibit staff teamed up with our Collections department to install the historical Wimshurst Machine, one of the first inventions to generate electricity. This artifact is one of the few remaining static electricity machines built by James Wimshurst in the late 1800s.

In this picture, Senior Exhibit Developer Charles McGhee Hassrick is adjusting one of the metal “combs” that pick up electrical charges as the disks spin—you can see a second comb in the foreground of the photo.

How it works: Two large disks rotate in opposite directions, separating positive and negative charges. Metal combs pick up the charges from each disk. When the machine builds up a static charge, opposites attract and spark jumps across the gap. This machine is so powerful that a spark of static electricity over 30 inches long can be created in less than a full rotation of the two disks!

February 19, 2010 -- Newton’s Prism

Our team recently finalized adjustments to the primary Sunlight exhibit. They linked interactive controls on the balcony with mirrors and prisms on a circular frame suspended from the ceiling. With these controls in place, we can recreate Newton’s prism experiment.

Guests will rotate mirrors to capture sunlight streaming in through the roof. Then they can rotate prisms to capture the white light and separate it into all the colors of the rainbow.

Where do we get the white light for this experiment? On sunny days, a heliostat mirror system reflects sunlight down through a hole in the roof. On cloudy days, an artificial light source takes the place of the sun.

In Newton’s time, most people thought that a prism added color to white light. Newton proved that the prism was actually separating the white light into many colors. You can find out how he proved this when you visit Science Storms.

February 17, 2010 -- Create a Chemical Reaction

Last week a graduate of the MIT Media Lab stayed at the Museum into the wee hours to finish installing an exhibit of his own invention: Create a Chemical Reaction. James Patten, Ph.D. has developed a 3-D user interface that allows guests to produce virtual chemical reactions by combining elements from the periodic table of the elements.

Grab a puck, use it to select an element, and then set it down on the React Lab at the end of the counter. Use more pucks to gather and combine elements from the Periodic Table until you get a result. For example, you can put hydrogen and oxygen (H2O) together to trigger a video of water spilling across the countertop. Museum staff gathered more than 200 videos and pictures that pop up when you combine different elements in the virtual react lab.

Many images were donated by photographers on Flickr; the Museum commissioned some custom photography and video footage as well. Look for potassium exploding on contact with water (hint: combine K with H2O) or sulfuric acid burning a hole in the table (hint: combine hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen). This interactive will be featured in an area of the gallery that focuses on atoms, and it will provide a fascinating way to discover that everything is made up of atoms in different combinations.

February 8, 2010 -- DART Buoy

A buoy used to detect tsunamis recently arrived at the Museum of Science and Industry after a long ocean voyage. On May 20th, 2008 the buoy was lost at sea. It was recovered 11 months later on Kodiak Island, over 400 miles from its original location. Now this Deep Ocean Assessment and Recording of Tsunamis (DART) buoy has been installed in Science Storms and has a permanent home as part of the Museum 's collection.

Photo credit: NOAA National Data Buoy Center

The buoy was one of 39 DART buoys that NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center maintains throughout the world’s oceans. The network of buoys is used to detect tsunamis before they reach land. On November 15th, 2006, the Museum’s buoy recorded a tsunami resulting from an 8.3 magnitude earthquake in the Kuril Islands in Russia. It relayed that information to tsunami warning centers via satellite.

Photo credit: NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab

The DART buoy is one example of tools developed by scientists to measure and predict natural phenomena.

January 29, 2010 -- Projectile Motion

The Projectile Motion kiosks have been installed, and so has the net spanning 40 feet between the balconies. Soon you will be able to launch tennis balls across the gallery to swish into a net and hoop on the other side.

All-Star Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose will coach you on your technique as you aim for “nothing but net.” You can adjust the speed and angle; once you launch your ball, the computer will trace its path. Derrick will explain some of the science behind projectile motion: your ball will not travel in a straight line—it always travels in an arc, called a parabola, because the force of gravity pulls it toward the Earth. The Projectiles exhibit is in an area of the gallery dedicated to the study of motion and forces.

January 28, 2010 -- Tsunami Wave Tank

The exhibit design team just got back from California where they tested the 30-foot tsunami tank. It has since been disassembled at the Lexington fabrication shop in Los Angeles and is now on its way to Chicago in a semi.

Once the wave tank is up and running on-site you will design and launch a tsunami with a touch of your finger. After you plan your wave on a touch screen, you’ll see the real wave travel 30 feet and break against two different shorelines in the tank. Video replay lets you watch your wave again in slow motion.


Museum Hours
  • Daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
    Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas
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Museum of Science+Industry
5700 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60637
1 (773) 684-1414
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