June 2006 Issue
The Force is With You
The magic of "Star Wars" lands at COSI Columbus.
It's been nearly 30 years since moviegoers slouched down in the dark and discovered what it meant to jump into hyperspace and enter "a galaxy far, far away." And since that first "Star Wars" movie in 1977, dozens of questions have lingered through the decades: How did Luke Skywalker keep his claptrap Landspeeder idling inches off the ground, thumbing its blunt little nose at gravity? Who made R2-D2 out of a garbage can, and how did C-3PO speak every language known to alien and android? Where did Darth Vader get his funky respirator and great black coat? And what's in those lightsabers, anyway?
The answers to these and other quandaries are revealed in "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," heading at warp speed toward COSI Columbus. Created by the Museum of Science in Boston with "Star Wars" writer-director George Lucas' Lucasfilm Ltd., the vast exhibit will touch down for its first official U.S. stop at COSI June 3 through September 4.
Even though it will have half the six-month run that the "Titanic" exhibition did -- COSI's all-time blockbuster at 226,000 visitors -- the center is confident of a generous "Star Wars" draw, since the films are now enthralling a third generation of viewers. "We're extending hours, being open seven days a week and late until 9 p.m. Fridays in July and August," says Kelli Gaza Nowinsky, COSI public relations manager. "We may get close to 'Titanic' [attendance] figures."
The exhibit represents the first time that curators have combined costumes and props from all six "Star Wars" films with real-life science fact, and invited the public in to see which is which. That translates into 130 props, costumes and real-world-technology displays; 21 interactive experiences and more than two hours of video interviews with filmmakers, scientists and engineers. Plus, there are two labs where you can build your own robot and magnetic-levitation train.
"I'd recommend taking a look through it all, then coming back [to what you're interested in]," says Ed Rodley, exhibit developer at the Museum of Science in Boston. A self-described "Star Wars' geek," he worked for more than five years on the exhibit and companion book, collaborating with cinematic wizards at Lucasfilm, along with next-frontier scientists from around the world.
It's those experts, both in science fiction and science fact, who can answer questions fans may have, concerning topics such as the aforementioned Landspeeder. In "Star Wars" jargon, it's a rudimentary vehicle, which levitates through gravitational repulsion. The original two-seater Landspeeder is a focal point of the exhibit "in all its beat-up, rusted glory," Rodley reports lovingly. (Only "Star Wars" fanatics will probably know that it began life as a Bond Bug, a three-wheeled English car, which is why the steering wheel is on the right.)
Fans aching to levitate like Luke can try out a one-seat hovercraft, which Rodley describes as "a cross between a fan boat and a riding lawn mower." They'll quickly learn that it's harder to control and stop than a car.
The Landspeeder introduces the first of the exhibit's two major technological themes: "Getting Around," from "Star Wars" floating vehicles to today's commercial space planes, and "Robots and People," with C-3PO and R2-D2 introducing their real-life cousins emerging from labs today.
Using "Star Wars" as inspiration, how will we get around in the future? Will transportation options include individual flying vehicles and space "trains" zipping between cities? Down on the ground - or just a few inches above it - will we be zooming along at 400 mph on quiet, nonpolluting magnetic levitation trains, as people in Shanghai are doing at this moment?
Imagine the possibilities in the Maglev Engineering Design Lab. Maglev (magnetically levitated) trains use the same superconductive magnets as medical MRIs, with the magnets on the train responding to ground coils on the guideway ("track" in old railway lingo). In the lab, COSI visitors can make their own trains with Legos and magnets. "Enormously simple, but endlessly appealing" is Rodley's verdict.
Where do our robot friends fit into this brave new maglev world? The films' famous characters, along with a host of real-world ones, are also an integral part of the exhibit, including Sony's golf-playing humanoid QRIO Robot. Everyone can try programming a two-legged robot to walk, or build one from scratch. "You can give it different mobility options, perceptions and programming for getting around on its own," Rodley says of the exhibit's Robot Engineering Design Lab. "In the end, you've made an essentially autonomous robot."
Although he's not technically a robot, the exhibit does feature Rodley's favorite character, Yoda. "He manages to combine worldliness with spirituality. He's a Zen master, only short and green," Rodley observes.
Yoda's evolution reflects the role of imagination in the "Star Wars" universe. Lucas first developed the little Jedi master, modeling his eyes on those of The Dalai Lama and Albert Einstein to reflect wisdom and compassion, for 1980's "Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back."
Lucas was bound by animatronics and cables, calling in Muppet master Frank Oz to operate the puppet. Yoda's most memorable moves back then were his ear waggles.
Lucas had to wait nearly 20 years for technology to catch up with his mind. By the time he was working on the prequel trilogy in the late '90s, digital computer animation allowed Yoda to stand and fly and, in 2002's "Attack of the Clones" and 2005's "Revenge of the Sith," wield his lightsaber like the master he is.
And what about those lightsabers? In the early trilogy, they were plastic wands wrapped with reflective tape. "The artists had to stop every frame and paint the saber in with a blue glow or red glow," Rodley says. By the prequels, they had been transformed into digital green sticks, and the computer had to freeze each frame and add the glow. "People think computers save time, but it actually takes longer with them," he explains. "We searched long and hard for some real-world analog to lightsabers, but didn't come up with one."
When crafting the exhibit, Lucasfilm insisted on an 80/20 split: 80 percent real-world technology, 20 percent "Star Wars" artifacts. "George is a firm believer in educational reform, and Lucasfilm was interested in the exhibit because of education," Rodley explains.
Curators tackled the educational mission at both child and adult levels: American students are often eclipsed in math and science by their peers in other industrialized countries, and their parents are often future-shocked into paralysis by the speed of technological change. Many scientists liken this seismic shift to the change from the pre-electric world to the switched-on, from a world depending on horses for transportation to one depending on cars. "People feel something's coming, but it's not clear what the outcome will be," Rodley says.
In an entertaining way, "Star Wars" tries to get us up to speed - not hyperspace speed, certainly, but to a more comfortable pace to handle change. The movie memorabilia helps the techno-literacy lessons go down a lot easier.
When You Go...
333 West Broad St.
Extended hours for the "Star Wars" exhibit June 5-Sept. 4: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 12-6 p.m. (In July and August, COSI will be open on Fridays until 9 p.m.) Admission is $17.50, seniors $15.50, children 2-12 $12.50. Multimedia Tour, which includes additional audio, video, photos, graphics and text, is $5.
Out of This World
When planning your trip to Columbus, include a special program or two that COSI is hosting in conjunction with the "Star Wars" exhibit:
Become E.T. during the "Alien Adventure." On July 1 and 15 and Aug. 6, families will be invited to solve four engineering challenges in order to restore a stolen treasure to their native alien planet.
Preschoolers can explore "Flight!: Airplanes, balloons, helicopters" July 5, 12, 19, 26 and 29. "Space!" covers the night sky and rocketry, Aug. 9, 16, 23, 26 and 30.
Children ages 7 and 8 can delve into "Movie Magic" to learn special effects, animation and even 3-D, June 19-23, June 26-30 and Aug. 7-11.
Preteens, ages 9-11, can have their own L.A. adventure with "Hollywood: Lights, Camera, SCIENCE!" The program explores acting, directing, animation, optical illusions and green screen special effects, June 19-23 and July 17-21.
With "Destination: SPACE," preteens will be immersed in a week of astronomy, rocketry and robotics, July 24-28 and August 7-11.
For prices and reservations, call COSI at 614/228-COSI.