When I was a kid, I remember watching “Entrapment”, the 1999 movie where Catherine Zeta-Jones crawls through an intricate laser maze to steal a priceless art piece. Assisted by none other than Sean Connery, who plays a notorious thief specialized in international art, she defies the laser security system and returns with the prize. But for me, it was even better.
Prior to the theft, Connery being a true Scotsman himself, takes Zeta-Jones to his Scottish hideaway in Duart Castle, the seat of Clan MacLean, to plan the heist. This is where he teaches her the trade and, in particular, how to navigate a yarn maze replica. While it’s probably a stretch to call myself a true Scotsman having only worn a full kilt once during my University graduation, at the time, I couldn’t help but imagine myself also deftly sneaking into a museum and having to worm myself through a laser maze. Now, more than 15 years later, LIGHT Illuminated, the new science exhibit at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener makes it possible.
2015! The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL) is declared by the United Nations, with the goal of raising awareness about how we use and interact with light and optics in our everyday life. One of the founding partners of IYL is the Optical Society of America (OSA), the leading international professional society in optics and photonics. As a newly started student chapter of the OSA at the University of Waterloo, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass by.
We partnered with THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ontario to create an exhibit about light. The idea was to create a fun hands-on exhibit for all ages where we could educate and entertain the local community on the uses of light in everyday technologies. The concepts at play, light as a wave, polarization, the electromagnetic spectrum, refraction, and reflection would each have a module explaining and demonstrating the core principle with an activity.
Together, the exhibit would take up the museum’s entire fourth floor. We reached out to the University of Waterloo, the Institute of Quantum Computing, and were beginning to contact local companies working in optics. Everyone we talked to was excited about the idea. Moreover, we would surely have an audience. Waterloo region is recognized as unique in its community’s willingness and enthusiasm to learn and explore.
The problem was execution. How do we execute a project of such large ambitions? We were 6 graduate students working in optics at the university, so the science was the easy part. But for this to work, for the project to be successful in reaching out to the community, being educational wasn’t enough. It needed to be accessible, fun, and importantly, look good. Meet Angela Olano.
With over 10 years in museum marketing and exhibition management and now working at IQC, Angela was our Sean Connery. While I sometimes feel academia moves at “turtle” speed, we were now armed with her skill and experience. This was professionalism. This was execution. This was our team.
And so we got to work. When we were told by the Ontario Museum of Science that their colour mixing module would cost our entire budget to buy, we custom made our own for less than a twentieth of the price. When we found out that building a lens wall would be unaffordable through standard science educational companies, we had Science Technical Services machine acrylic sheets into lenses and Metal Maintenance, a company owned by Ian’s dad, polish them.
When we wanted a button to start a counter and display the elapsed time for the light race track, Tony Mantell of Wizard Labs rigged us up some red seven-segment display counters which we soldered on a board and wired to an Arduino FPGA loaded with our own trial-and-error code. On one hand, we were continually engineering custom made solutions to make the science work, while on the other, we were coordinating with the THEMUSUEM to organize the floor layout, develop a cohesive design for the exhibit, and most of all, make things kid-proof.
In the end, after over a year of planning in IQC’s fishbowl room, with the generous support of IQC, Christie Digital Systems Canada, Fibertech Optica, Teledyne DALSA, as well as the guidance of the Knowledge Integration students, the incredible help of Tony Manttell of Wizard Labs (this guy really is a technical “Wizard of Oz”) and the staff at THEMUSEUM, we built LIGHT Illuminated.
With seven different sections on light and over a dozen activities, we hope there is something for everyone to enjoy. For me, the experience will be memorable. And just like in my childhood imaginations, I got to practice a museum theft in a yarn maze during construction before attempting the real laser maze on the opening night.
LIGHT Illuminated will be on display at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener until March 28, 2016. Check it out when you have the chance and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it!