As Seth Goldstein tells it, he was doing what engineers, especially retired ones, often do. He was toying around with an idea. "I’d actually gotten this one from my wife, who’s always been my creative partner," says Goldstein, a biomedical engineer with the National Institutes of Health until his retirement in 1999. "Why don’t you make a machine that ties a tie?" she had idly suggested to Goldstein one day at breakfast. And just like that, the scientist was off and running – if you call several years of "tinkering" running. "It was my turn to do fun things, and to me, this idea was fun," says Goldstein.
So much fun that Goldstein invested several thousand dollars of his own money to create the wonderfully quirky "Why Knot?" machine that actually ties a tie, although in far more time than a human takes.
The Rube Goldberg-type contraption can be seen in all its intricate glory at the Franklin Institute’s new installation, "Sir Isaac’s Loft: Where Art and Physics Collide." The exhibit is a nod to Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity and other concepts of physics interpreted through on-site installations and art.
Seth Goldstein’s gizmo is surely the show-stopper, with its 10 electric motors that send power to pulleys, levers, and other components, which ultimately deliver a four-in-hand knot. And this serious scientist insists that creating it was a high point of his professional career. "I had worked initially on a model that didn’t succeed, which is always enormously frustrating. I spent over two years on that one," he says, attempting to down a 3 p.m. lunch during the media blitz that surrounded the show’s press preview on July 14 – including Goldstein’s contribution. "It took dogged determination," says the scientist who holds 12 patents for various inventions. "And just like today, it meant a lot of missed meals!"
While Goldstein’s "Why Knot" may take a whimsical look at the principles of physics, there is definitely a serious side to the new Franklin Institute installation. The challenge of making "Sir Isaac’s Loft" educationally enriching and also user-friendly – always the delicate balance at the Institute – fell to Michael Levad, exhibit and program designer. (Levad also has two pieces in the show, "Blue Pretzel" and "Green Spiral," harmonographs that record the motion of pendulums photographically by putting a small light on a pendulum and swinging it over a camera with the shutter left open.) As designer of the exhibit it was part of Levad’s job to make sure that the finished product had impact for the thousands of visitors who would see it in the next year alone.
"We had wanted to redo the mechanics gallery. It had been there for years, and it was just old," says Levad, who previously worked at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. "We kept some of the exhibits, like the sand pendulum, which has been in place since 1933 and still fascinates kids. But we also wanted to try six ‘clusters’ of physics concepts so that there would be some order and coherence to the space."
The clusters, each representing a physics concept, include Combining Motions, Changing the Light, Illusions, Physics Feats of Strength, Chain Reactions, and Energy Transfer. Levad, who says his overall goal is always "to show how beautiful science can be," was also charged with making sure that whatever was interactive in the exhibit could withstand the Herculean test of small hands reaching, grabbing, poking, prodding, and often doing the unexpected. And the Sir Isaac exhibit passes that test.
We "test drove" the exhibit space with three kids, ages six, nine, and eleven, all of whom had initially balked at going to a physics exhibit with an art subtext. In the end, they steadfastly refused to leave.
What makes this exhibit compelling is its diversity. Behind those textbook-sounding labels are lively, interactive elements that are fun for adults, but also highly engaging for small fry. Illusions, for example, features one of those optical illusions where you stare at something for 15 seconds, then look away and into a mirror. And suddenly, the world is entirely different. Things wave and move that hadn’t before, and the disorientation is both disturbing and fascinating.
The Giant Lever in the Feats of Strength section of the exhibit teases us to test our strength – and who can resist that challenge? Then principles of physics take over as we lift ourselves three feet off the ground by utilizing a series of pulleys. Doing is believing.
Chain Reactions features the centerpiece exhibit item, Newton’s Dream, a colossal sculpture in which golf balls shoot around metal tracks in what amounts to a three-dimensional maze.
Nearly every kid who walks through "Sir Isaac’s Loft" is automatically drawn to the Energy Transfer section’s Bowling Ball of Doom. Imagine a giant, swinging bowling ball moving directly towards your face, and you get the idea. Naturally, the whole deal is perfectly safe and demonstrates a principle of physics. But that is not what you are thinking about when that bowling ball seems destined to collide with your nose.
Then there’s the show-topper of them all, Goldstein’s "Why Knot" piece, installed just beyond the main exhibit area. The contraption is super-complex, and a great deal of fun to watch as it goes through its paces in 350 movements in eight minutes.
Other highlights include Changing the Light – where you can see rain freeze before your eyes, watch an image transform in the "Phantom Painting," and discover the beauty of x-rays; Chain Reactions – where every principle of the strange ballet of falling objects is demonstrated; and Illusions – where nothing is as it seems, and patterns seem to jump off walls, swirl, and even wave.
Youngsters will probably stick to the "do-it/touch-it/lift it" aspects while older visitors may want to linger over the unusual paintings and gadgetry. "What we’re noticing is that in this exhibit space, people really spread out, and at any given moment there are visitors exploring something. Every installation in the space holds fascination for someone," says Levad. "And when we see that, we know we’ve done our job."
"Sir Isaac’s Loft: Where Art and Physics Collide," a permanent installation at the Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday through Saturday. Admission: $13.75 for adults; $11 for seniors 62 and up and children 4 to 11. 215-448-1200.
Bordentown Community Players seek actors for "Exit the Body," a farce in three acts. Auditions are Thursday, August 18; Friday, August 19; Monday, August 22; and Tuesday, August 23, all from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. 2 Northumberland Drive, Eastampton. Performances are in October and November. Call 609-744-3361 for information.
Kelsey Theater seeks actors for "Inspecting Carol" for performances from Friday, November 11, to Sunday, November 20. Prepare a two-minute comedic monologue. Bring resume and headshots. Contact Tracy for an appointment at 609-291-8123 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
YWCA Princeton offers four-week session of ballroom, swing, and Latin dancing with Candace Woodward-Clough beginning Sunday, September 11. Beginners at 4 p.m. and intermediate at 5 p.m. $49 per person; $79 per couple. YWCA membership required. Visit www.ywca.org or call 609-497-2100.
CONTACT of Mercer County seeks volunteers for its 24-hour crisis intervention hotline. The 11-week training course begins Tuesday, September 20. Classes are in Ewing with morning and evening sessions. Call 609-883-2880 or E-mail email@example.com.
American Red Cross seeks volunteers to be receptionist or canteen volunteer at area blood drive, deliver meals to elderly or home-bound residents, teach a CPR or community disaster education course, or help families clean up after a fire, flood, or hurricane. Visit www.njredcoss.org or call Sharon Hurley at 609-951-2121.
VSA Arts seeks poems, essays, short stories, and plays by New Jersey residents 18 and over for the Joyce Indik New Jersey Wordsmith Competition. Writers with disabilities are encouraged to enter. Selected works showcased. Deadline is Friday, October 14. Visit www.vsanj.org or call 732-745-3885.
Plainsboro Public Library seeks area artists, musicians, dancers, poets, and creative performers for the Tenth Annual Festival of the Arts to be held at Saturday, September 17, 1 to 5 p.m. Call 609-275-2897 for information.
Phillips Mill seeks artists within a 25-mile radius of New Hope for the 76th annual juried art exhibition. Works must be by a living artist, created within the last five years, and never exhibited at Phillips Mill Art Show. Mediums accepted include paintings, graphics, other mediums, and sculpture. Visit www.phillipsmill.org or call 215-862-0582 for registration form and details.
VSA Arts of New Jersey offers parent and child workshops in music, movement, and art for children with autism or autistic behaviors. Classes will be held on Saturdays, October 1 to December 10. Free. Call 732-745-3885 for time, place, and to register. Deadline is September 13.