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‘Strange Matter’ makes science fun

A new traveling exhibition aims to get kids and grown-ups thinking about modern materials and the science behind them.
Weaver Hill, left, and his brother Isaak  are protected by plastic glass as they watch a bowling ball crash into a large pane of tempered glass, at an exhibit called "Strange Matter" at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.Mike Derer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When you look at a computer, do you think about the materials in it? When a basketball ricochets off a transparent backboard, do you marvel at how strong the glass is?

Probably not. But a new traveling exhibition aims to get kids and grown-ups thinking about modern materials and the science behind them. And if that means slamming a bowling ball into a plate of glass or posting a sign that asks, “Want to feel something really weird?” — so much the better.

“Strange Matter,” designed by the Ontario Science Centre, has just begun its North American tour at the Liberty Science Center, with a smaller version at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, N.M. Both versions will be on display until May 2.

Future stops aren’t firmly scheduled yet, although the larger version will open at Boston’s Museum of Science this autumn.

A bowling ball's 'whump'
At the New Jersey museum the other day, the 6,000-square-foot installation was filled with the sound of children, punctuated by the plonking of xylophones and the “whump” of a red bowling ball hammering a plate of tempered glass.

The ball rests on the end of a long arm like the head of a hammer, and visitors pull a lever and push a red button to launch another assault. At one point, a counter on a nearby sign said the glass had withstood 152,162 blows, but a pile of shards on the floor of the display showed it was not invincible.

By the xylophones, a sign reveals that the metal slabs sound different from the plastic ones when visitors strike them because of differences in their inner structures. Elsewhere, visitors drop ball bearings on metal discs to see which metals are the hardest. “Harder metal means more bounces,” a sign says.

Children will find the exhibit pitched to their tastes, with such features as a description of materials in a large red snowboard displayed on one wall and an analysis of the makeup of a sneaker.

Fun with 'ferrofluid'
Perhaps the weirdest sight for kids and their parents is a demonstration of how a black liquid reacts to a magnet that visitors lower toward its surface. The liquid spouts spikes, and it flows upward and onto the magnet. Visitors can see little black stalactites and stalagmites on the magnet and in the pool below.

It’s a “ferrofluid,” containing tiny iron particles that crowd together along the lines of the magnet’s force.

All pretty cool, these exhibits, but do the kids really learn any science?

Some do, says Bill Dissinger of Passaic, N.J., who volunteers at the museum as an on-the-spot explainer.

“When you explain something to some kids, they light up like a light bulb,” Dissinger said. “To tell you the truth, that’s why I’m here.”