A course in the Force

first_img 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! What do you get when you cross an original Darth Vader costume, magnetized Legos and an actual artificial heart? A museum exhibit equally attractive to school children, “Star Wars” fanatics and science buffs. “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” now open at the California Science Center, incorporates other-worldly, futuristic elements of the six blockbuster films and scientific achievements both fresh and on the horizon for a broad appeal. Officials say 12,000 visitors attended over the Presidents Day weekend, about 2,000 more than the usual holiday admissions. Ken Phillips, the aerospace curator who was involved in the seven-museum consortium that developed the exhibit, said it can help visitors understand how real science inspires science fiction, while highlighting distinctions between reality and George Lucas’ fantasy realms. “I’m happy to admit I’m a ‘Star Wars’ fan — I’m not going to sweep that under the rug,” Phillips said. “The idea (behind the exhibit) is to use ‘Star Wars,’ which is a saga a lot of people know about even if they’re not super fans, to bring them into a wonderful family experience where they can see all the exhibits and artifacts,” he said. “And, right on the side, there are real world technologies. And, in some cases, these are really close on the heels of what the ‘Star Wars’ technologies were.” For the movie geek, there is an impressive array of film memorabilia, including the original Han Solo and Chewbacca costumes, a Yoda puppet and Obi-Wan’s light-saber. But this exhibit is not about the evolution of ewoks and wookiees. It bridges fantasy and reality by showing the tech marvels that George Lucas and his creative team imagined alongside innovations that make “Star Wars” seem not so far-fetched after all. The exhibit has two themes: transportation and robotics. The first installation is Luke Skywalker’s “land speeder” hover craft — a visual-effects marvel from “Episode 4: A New Hope” (1977) until you hear the explanation of how it was filmed in action. It actually had tires, but they were concealed by curved mirrors on the undercarriage that reflected the sand, creating the illusion of a vehicle speeding just above the terrain. Its zipping sound came from a 2 a.m. recording of freeway noise played back through a long steel pipe. There still is no such thing as a land speeder, even in concept form, because engineers cannot create its repulsor-lift technology. But there are hands-on areas where museum visitors can experience gravity-defying transportation. The Airchair hover craft allows single passengers to hop into a bumper-car-style vehicle that levitates just slightly above a small wood floor. The steering mechanism positions an industrial fan — the kind used to dry out a flood-damaged room — that repels the car from the low wall surrounding the floor. “It was kind of hard to steer it,” said Hugo Martinez, a fourth-grader from the Science Center School. The concept of magnetic levitation — or maglev — comes to life in a workspace where visitors assemble Lego contraptions with powerful magnets in place of wheels. At three stations nearby, they can check the vehicle’s ability to hover above a polarized magnetic track, then test its propulsion on a straight track. For an extra challenge, they can try to make it move up and down a series of hills. The animated installation titled “Moving Down the Skyway” brings the idea of sci-fi transportation back down to earth with the pros and cons of futuristic modes such as flying cars. It gets visitors thinking about the public cost of such far-out rides as well as the their energy requirements and, maybe most significantly, traffic rules. The Millennium Falcon simulator, one floor below the exhibit, is a life-size replica of Han Solo’s craft from the 1977 feature. For a $2 fare, six passengers at a time get a warp-speed, five-minute visual trip to the edge of the universe created with images captured by the Hubble telescope. A community-building exercise applies “augmented reality” technology. At three stations — a Jawa town, a spaceport and a moisture farm — a visitor’s placement of cards on a flat surface translates to a virtual community on the screen. A computer then evaluates the arrangement of workplaces, living spaces and other elements to rate productivity and energy efficiency. R2-D2 and C-3PO are re-animated in the Robot Theater, though with much less movement than one might hope. C-3PO explains the current and near-future uses of robots in the real world. Specific purpose robots, he notes, do “dirty, dull or dangerous” jobs such as a sewer pipe inspector, a car welder or a firefighter. Robot mechanics are getting more sophisticated, as seen when a robot climbs over C-3PO’s extended leg. A motion detector helps some robots “see” movements of other objects and react to them. New on the horizon is the social robot that does not yet use responsive language but can babble expressively. The metallic sidekicks in “Star Wars,” and the medical advances that spared Darth Vader and gave Luke Skywalker a working arm, make robotics seem simple. But at a station where visitors use lever controls to manipulate a pair of metal legs, it becomes clear just how complex the mechanics and command centers of such devices really are. One last stop on the way to the gift shop offers a chance to build and program a small robot. Kids can make choices such as treads vs. wheels and instruct their robots to respond to heat or magnetic sensors. In addition to action figures, T-shirts, Mr. Potatohead SpudTroopers and “Daddy’s Little Ewok” baby onesies, the souvenir shop offers an assortment of “Star Wars” masks. But don’t plan to wear one to the exhibit. That’s only for the show’s designated “fan days,” Saturday and March 24. STAR WARS: WHERE SCIENCE MEETS IMAGINATION Where: California Science Center, 700 State Drive, Exposition Park. When: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Price: Free admission, but donations are welcome. Information: (323) 724-3623 or www.californiasciencecenter.org. Expect large crowds on weekends, particularly for “fan day” costume contests Saturday and March 24. — Valerie Kuklenski, (818) [email protected]last_img