Science museum builds a ribbon of light and life

A multimedia display at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences will illuminate nature's patterns

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMarch 4, 2012 

  • "Patterns of Nature" is part of the Nature Research Center, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' new wing. It's scheduled to open to the public at 5 p.m. April 20, a 24-hour event that will include a street fair and live entertainment.

— If you've ever wrestled a string of lights onto a Christmas tree, you've probably had the maddening experience of discovering a burned-out light tucked into a particularly inaccessible spot. That's nothing compared to what workers at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences have been up against with "Patterns of Nature."

It's a spectacularly cool exhibit that winds through multiple stories of the atrium of the Nature Research Center, the museum's new $56 million wing scheduled to open in April. Measuring 90 long by 10 feet wide, "Patterns of Nature" is a multimedia display that looks like a big waterslide, descending from the south wall to the front entrance on Jones Street.

It weighs in at a bit more than a ton and a half, consisting of 3,600 polarized plastic plates on a metal grid hanging by cables from the ceiling. Electric pulses create a liquid crystal display with a range of 256 shades, from clear to deep black.

"It's the same technology as digital watches or anything else with LCD panels," said Bill Washabaugh, whose Brooklyn-based engineering firm oversaw the installation. "Just bigger."

"Patterns of Nature" will live up to its name, showing literal patterns found in the natural world - schooling fish, flocking geese, swarming mosquitoes, wind in the grass and even the pulse of a deep-space black hole.

"Most people without a science background think that different aspects of nature are in isolation," said artist Jeff Lieberman, one of the exhibit's co-designers. "But there is this unity of underlying patterns, which science can show."

The display is aural as well as visual, with synchronized sound from eight speakers strategically positioned around the atrium.

"The sound really makes it come to life," said Eric Gunther, who worked with Lieberman on the design. "When you see these black pixels flying around and then hear the sound of birds, your mind glues the whole thing together. It's a collage of about 20 different visual patterns on a loop that lasts about an hour, and the soundscapes just melt into each other. Clouds turn into storms and raindrops that fall on a pond. Then it's underwater with fish schooling and comes back up into sunlight, then into grass. It's a spatial path through nature."

Looking up

"Patterns of Nature" has been several years in the making. After a prolonged round of calculations and design, a crew started building it at Washabaugh's Brooklyn workshop in December and shipped it to Raleigh in nine pieces in January.

Rigging the cables to hold it up took several weeks and installing the panels took most of February, with the last piece going into place Feb. 24.

It will be the most eye-catching thing in the new wing's atrium, causing visitors to crane their necks upward as soon as they walk into the entrance west of the Daily Planet, the globe that puts a stamp on Raleigh's downtown.

"We're figuring on a rise in neck pain after this goes live," Lieberman said.

Because it extends between two of the walkways through the atrium, the design also involved some delicate calculations. During the installation, Lieberman pointed out a couple of empty panels in a piece that was about to be raised into place and expressed hope they were in the right place because fire sprinklers had to pass through them (they were, although a smoke detector on the ceiling above had to be moved).

Energy use

While most of the installation went off smoothly, there were a few hiccups. The second of nine panels that went up had to be brought back down and taken apart for repairs because it had a single panel that didn't work - shades of those malfunctioning Christmas-tree lights.

"In being transported several hundred miles down here, something must have shook loose," Washabaugh said with a shrug.

But it's good to go, although they'll probably be tinkering with the programming up until opening day. Fortunately, it won't run up the museum's electrical bills too much.

"It's very energy-efficient," Lieberman said. "The whole thing runs on less electricity than a light bulb takes, about 55 watts. We did a lot of testing on it, too - threw baseballs at it to make sure it would stand up and not break. Anything that can happen, will happen. I'm sure kids will be throwing things onto it in no time."

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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