New MSI exhibit takes Chicago by storm

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

New MSI exhibit takes Chicago by storm


April 17, 2010

It’s Monday morning at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and half a dozen elementary schoolchildren on Spring Break are about to be asked about a touchy topic.

In front of their parents, no less.

“Who’s ever taken a bath before?” Lisa, a guide for the Tornado Vortex display at MSI’s dazzling new “Science Storms” exhibit, says with a grin to the pack of youngsters standing in front of her alongside their chuckling parents.

Each little boy and girl raises a hand in the air – reluctantly, it seems, in a couple of cases – and confess that, yes, they have indeed bathed before.

(But don’t ask about washing behind the ears.)

As a mesmerizing 40-foot tornado made of a foggy mist spins and swirls behind her, Lisa then peppers the kids with questions about what happens when bath water goes down the drain or when chocolate milk gets mixed in a glass.

“It twirls around,” one little girl piped up.

“So, then,” Lisa asked, while nodding approval, “what do a bathtub, chocolate milk and a tornado have in common? They’re all vortexes.”

Such are the kinds of simple explanations to complex natural phenomena that kids – and adults – can learn at “Science Storms,” the museum’s new permanent, 26,000-square-foot exhibit that opened last month and is worth a visit.

Spread across two floors of the museum and requiring at least a couple of hours to fully explore, “Science Storms” is a wonderland that allows visitors to not only investigate the basic principles of chemistry and physics responsible for nature’s biggest marvels, but also to get the opportunity to interact with and even control these marvels themselves.

With Tornado Vortex, you can manipulate that 40-foot mist tornado by controlling its air pressure and wind speed. At the Lightning Charge display, you can witness the awe-inspiring power of a high-voltage electrical storm produced by a giant Tesla coil suspended high above the museum floor and stretching 20 feet in diameter.

And with Avalanche Motion, you can trigger a 20-foot landslide of garnet sand and glass beads to experience the unexpected and hypnotizing beauty of granular dynamics.

You just have to wait patiently.

“Do you want to give another little boy a turn?” a mother asked her son as he toyed with the Avalanche Motion controls, before looking at me with a smile and adding, “Or a grown-up?”

At “Science Storms,” there’s also the opportunity to wage a battle of fire vs. water to see how a flame reacts to different conditions, make giant rainbows and even unleash your own tsunami across a 30-foot water tank to study the power and motion of waves.

In fact, so impressive is “Science Storms” that last month it left famously chatty WGN-Ch. 9 meteorologist Tom Skilling almost speechless in a newspaper story, as he was quoted as repeatedly uttering little more than “Wow” while touring the sprawling exhibit.

“Creating transformative experiences that get people excited about the world around them is what the Museum of Science and Industry does best,” said David Mosena, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry. “And exhibits like ‘Science Storms’ are our most powerful teaching tools.”

And as much as I enjoyed the interactivity of the exhibits, I think learned even more from watching the Discover Channel-worthy video presentations displayed on large screens throughout “Science Storms.” Featuring leading researchers and scientists from places like NASA, the United States Geological Survey and the University of Chicago, the videos had me walking out of MSI with a whole lot more scientific understanding than I walked in with.

And as a history buff, the display cases at “Science Storms” provided me with a fill of fascinating historical artifacts, as well.

My favorites included the first light bulb to ever be lit in public (1879), a 345-year-old telescope and a frightening breathing helmet used by firefighters in 1880. I was also captivated by the first copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s “Opticks,” circa 1704, in which the legendary thinker recorded his experiments into the physics of light, including a description of his prism experiment, touted to be one of the most important experiments in history.

As I left “Science Storms,” I strolled past a young boy as he exclaimed to his mom and grandmother, “This is so much fun!”

Even worth taking a bath for, one might say.

“Science Storms” is included in general admission at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 South Lake Shore Drive, which is $15 for adults, $14 for seniors, and $10 for children ages 3 to 11. City of Chicago residents receive a discounted price.