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'Speed' brings new perspective to Science Museum of Virginia
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'Speed' brings new perspective to Science Museum of Virginia

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Are you faster than an alligator? An Olympic swimmer? A black bear? A rat?

Which moves slower? Grass growing at the Virginia state Capitol or glacial ice?

If you blinked, would you miss the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane on a pass-through at full speed through the Science Museum of Virginia?

The answers are revealed in “Speed,” the heart-pounding new exhibition in the main concourse at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Get your juices flowing as you race an alligator on a 10-yard dash (Spoiler alert: He’s pretty fast, but you’ve got a decent chance). Chill while you find out whether moving at a glacial speed is faster than watching grass grow. (Hint: The grass was apparently not measured during a rainy spring).

Marvel at the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane hanging at a rakish angle from the ceiling. (Why the angle of attack? It was too big to fit inside without tilting it.) It’s one of only 19 Blackbirds on display throughout the country, and the only one suspended. On the second-floor crosswalk, don’t blink if you want to see lights racing across the ceiling to demonstrate the plane’s speed.

“We’re really using the architecture as part of the interpretation. The space is terrific,” said Richard C. Conti, chief wonder officer (i.e., CEO) at the Science Museum of Virginia, as he watched workers install the finishing touches on the largest exhibition project in the museum’s history, in terms of both size and cost. Approximately $10 million was invested in creating the exhibit and preparing the building to handle it.

Clap your hands at the Speed of Sound Dish and you’ll hear an echo from the other end of the concourse in a third of a second. In that same fraction of a second, the Blackbird could have crossed over 36 school buses, traveling more than three times as fast as the speed of sound. Light, however, could have circled the Earth 2½ times in that same amount of time.

“You need something that fast to understand how far away everything is in the universe,” Conti said.

“But just because something is fast doesn’t mean it’s good.” On the other extreme, he pointed to the world’s slowest machine, as certified by Guinness World Records. The machine has 17 sprockets, the first of which rotates approximately 2.6 times per second, the last of which does a full rotation once every 3.6 billion years.

Take the controls to see how time changes a person over 80 years from baby to wrinkled elder, fruit over two weeks from fresh to moldy, the James River over the course of a year and the Science Museum lobby over the course of a few hours (including the moment you walked in the door).

Speed contains 50 exhibits grouped in five categories:

  • Speed of Sound and Light
  • includes a wind tunnel where visitors can experience the force of an 80 mph hurricane, a laser range finder, the Speed of Sound Dish and the Mercury 7 space capsule.
  • Sports Speed Matters
  • includes a pitching cage to measure how fast you can throw a ball, the sprint track to compete against Olympic athletes or animals, a batting reaction-time game and a chance to second-guess the referee.
  • Too Fast to See
  • includes adjustable strobe lights to stop action on falling water, a high-speed camera studio that will slow down your own movements, a strobe light that illuminates the vibrations of a double bass string and a cosmic ray detector to show the tracks left by invisible cosmic particles.
  • Too Slow to See
  • includes tree rings, erosion, time-lapse photography and the spread of contagion.
  • Machines Fast and Slow
  • includes the chance to play air hockey against a robotic arm, compete in texting a message faster than a telegraph operator, guess what’s slowest on the Slowett Downs racetrack and see the World’s Slowest Device.

While assembling the new exhibit, the museum also installed other upgrades, including an elevator at the back of the building to improve access to basement exhibits and the event center planned to open in spring 2017.

Using speed as the theme for the main concourse offers a new way to explore and organize scientific content ranging from biology to physics, Conti said.

“The world is fascinating, and science is a great way to understand it,” he said. “Speed becomes a way to link things together. You can just come and do stuff and have fun, but you can have fun and also ... be armed with science, change your perspective.

“We really want you to think about the world differently, and we think the experiences in this gallery will help you do just that.”

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