Museum Physics


(This 1164th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 14, 2013.)


Children Play at the Museum's Gravity Wall


It has been too long since I last visited the Buffalo Museum of Science, so I am pleased to join museum president and CEO Mark Mortenson on an early summer morning tour of the newest gallery. The excuse for my visit is the opening of this third of the eight planned "permanent interactive science studios." It is titled In Motion. Two others, Explore You and Our Marvelous Earth are already active and Invertebrates, Culture, Biodiversity, Extinction and Space are to come.


There are seven stations in the On Motion gallery. I'll describe my experience at each of them:


A Crash Test Simulator. You've probably seen those videos of test cars smashing into obstructions to test the value of seat belts and airbags. Here is a real Calspan crashed car showing in vivid detail the serious effects of even a slow-moving accident.


This is, of course, a good example of an old-style museum exhibit: it is certainly interesting to see such a real result but my experience is simply looking at it. But there's more to this exhibit: I design a test of my own and watch a video of an experiment that carries out my chosen test. Now I am participating.


A Gravity Machine. This is a large magnetized wall with various devices that can be affixed to it. I watch as an eight year old youngster places a ball into a tube and it is forced by air pressure up to the top of the display. This part of the exhibit is like those pneumatic tubes through which you send your funds at an outside banking stop.


From there the ball enters a series of Rube Goldberg-like curved tubes and stairways and spirals that he and several other children have mounted until the ball is stopped. That obstruction is fixed by another child and a new trial takes the ball all the way down to the tray at the bottom.


An older girl has been watching and, as the younger kids move off to another station, she steps up and further complicates the path for her own experiment.


Gears and Pulleys. Remember how Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" is run in among the gears and pulleys of a big machine. Here I fix several big and small pulleys and a rubber belt to a wall making a similar machine. Then I set them in motion and watch the difference in the turning rates of the individual pulleys.


All I can think as I make some changes in the gears is, "I wish I had this when I studied levers, gear ratios and mechanical advantage in my seventh grade science class." Instead we had to rely on pictures in a textbook. This exhibit makes those direct and inverse ratios come alive.


Car Race. I watch a father and son each build their own racing car from parts in a bin. Then they place their cars at the beginning of a twenty-foot track. The youngster presses a level and off go the cars up and down the track hills. At the finish line the time is posted. The father's car wins this time and they both head back to improve their design for another run.


Air Table. Children are choosing various objects to hold above a source of forced air. Some simply blow away but others that are symmetrically designed remain – like magic – held in the air stream.


Fluid Dynamics Simulator. This is a screen that models flowing liquid. At first the lines running across the screen are all horizontal but, when a young girl places a square object in the flow we watch the lines curve around that object. She experiments with other shapes.


Human Motion. I laugh as a child walks in front of a screen and his motion is then recorded in a display. He sees me and suggests that I try it. Now he has an opportunity to laugh.


These new stations certainly enhance a museum visit and should draw many families back for more.


Once these eight studios are in place Mortensen hopes through additional funding to reestablish the museum's curatorial staff to support the research leadership that is important to balance these attractive activities.-- Gerry Rising