At first glance, you might suspect that the Center of Science and Industry's (COSI) newest exhibition is nothing but a lot of hot air. However, a second look at "Turbulent Landscapes" reveals that it offers a great deal of substance, and plenty to think about.
Created by artists at San Francisco's famed hands-on museum, the Exploratorium, this traveling show, subtitled "Forces That Shape Our World," boasts 21 interactive displays that are all about, well, interactivity.Dying to know what a tornado feels like - without risking your life? Just inside the entrance you can dive your hand into a vortex spinning within a sleek temple. Tornado, a sinuous, twisting 10-foot column of mist, performs a spiral dance that mimics the deadly do-si-do of the real thing.
Nearby, inside a low drumlike table, a fan moves sand into drifts, ripples, and lacy openwork. Aeolian Landscape, named for Aeolus (ay-oh-lus), the Greek god of wind, lets visitors become natural sculptors by moving the fan, creating wind-driven effects visible year-round in Midwestern sand, dirt, and snow.
Like most of COSI's unfailingly engaging and clever exhibits, "Turbulent Landscapes" is designed for all-ages appeal. Youngsters will get graphic evidence of the invisible forces that push and pull air, water, and solids into familiar if mysterious patterns.
They'll likely be captivated by the sight of familiar substances behaving in powerful, unpredictable ways. For example, Fountain of Instability re-creates the violent whipping action of a hose pumping water - although contained neatly under a clear dome.
In Point of Criticality, a bird-seed and corncob crumb mix pours from a chute onto a circular pad, the pile eventually tumbling off the edge in an avalanche into a giant bowl.
The exhibit explores in seemingly lighthearted, fun ways some of the most profoundly moving powers in the universe. Ironically, it took artists, not scientists, to interpret these forces for the public.
Melissa Alexander, Exploratorium manager of public programs, explains: "We were looking for alternative points of entry to these complex subjects."
Rather than the orderly approach of science, they sought the creativity that can arise out of artistic chaos.
Exploratorium veteran weather artist Ned Kahn gathered a crew, including Juanita Miller, Shawn Lani, Michael Brown, Carl Cheng, and Gail Wight. They spent a year supported by a National Science Foundation grant exploring ways to translate these forces into smaller, accessible, portable units.
"Natural forces are all around you," says Alexander. "We were looking for ways to help visitors slow down and take their time encountering them."
Because many of these forces manifest on an enormous scale, we often miss their inherent patterns. Chaos becomes the answer for processes so huge we simply cannot comprehend them, she added.
To suggest the dichotomy - and man's place in it - COSI artist Mark Pechlivanos designed an entrance with two pillars, one marked Chaos, the other Order. Visitors march in right between the two, and beneath a long flapping purple banner, kept aloft by air currents.
Inside they see more Pechlivanos work: dynamic, colorful murals that serve as backdrops for the displays.
"Turbulent Landscapes" brings to our attention aspects of nature that we either are not accustomed to, not able to see, or simply have always taken for granted," says Pechlivanos.
Many of the displays relate to the artists' own experiences - and some will resonate especially with Midwest visitors.
For example, Juanita Miller, who created Point of Criticality after scientist Per Bok's experiments in the exact moment of change, used screw lifting mechanisms found inside grain elevators to maintain a constant flow of granules for her avalanche piece.
"It looks random," Alexander says of the tumbling particles. "But is it?"
What appears to be unpredictable patterns of breakdown in bubbles puffing from jets at the base of a tall tank of water actually begins to assume a rhythm when one watches long enough. Invisible currents caused by earlier bubbles nudge the next batch subtly. The effect is mesmerizing.
Mary Beth Halprin of the COSI staff says that although this new exhibit is geared for older children, "There will need to be an adult here to explain what's happening."
Adults may get more caught up in the exhibits than the kids, in fact.
"Turbulent Landscapes" will remain on view through May 10.