Contrary to Wednesday’s headline “Black holes suck in visitors,” black holes don’t suck — at least, not according to a “misconception alert” posted on the wall at the Yale Peabody Museum’s “Black Holes: Space Warps and Time Twists” exhibit.
The journey begins with a computer, where Khadija (one of the virtual “black hole explorers” present throughout the exhibit), grins and greets the visitor from touch screen (cyberspace?). The computer took my photo and asked me to create an explorer’s identity (you may now refer to me as Galactic Zoom), then issued me an ID card, which I can use to review my exhibit journal online and “request cool stuff,” as Khadija said.
ID in hand, I worked my way through the videos, games and informational panels that make up the exhibit. Throughout the room, the technical jargon that dominates astrophysics — Schwarzschild radii, gravitational constants, and general relativity – was nowhere to be found. In its place were sexier descriptions, like “the biggest, meanest black holes in the universe” and “giant black holes on a feeding frenzy.” Charles Bailyn, an astronomer at Yale, explained that these are “necessary simplifications.”
“The properties of black holes can only be fully understood mathematically,” Bailyn said. “The exhibit, rightly, doesn’t go into the math to any significant extent. But the information as presented is accurate, and gives a good flavor of what’s going on.”
During my hour at the exhibit, I found myself using a warped acrylic lens to see how black holes bend time and space, sending steel balls flying into a magnetic black hole, and playing God, using a joystick to create a black hole by colliding galaxies and compressing two billion years into 60 seconds. I especially enjoyed the “Black Hole Adventure,” a small-scale video game that takes explorers into the wreck of an alien spaceship – but only after a virtual tour guide ensures that the adventurer’s “liability form” is on file.
Peter Hastings, a Peabody Museum security guard, claimed that “Black Hole Adventure” was his favorite part of the exhibit as well.
“I love the little booth where you fly off into space,” he said wistfully. “I can change hats from a security guard to a wide-eyed child.”
Maddie Oliver ’13 and Russell Wald ’13, who share the identity Dr. Flash (Wald being “Doctor” and Maddie being “Flash”), said that the exhibit’s features, especially the games, were much more exciting than “Planets and Stars,” a course they took together last spring.
“This is easy to understand and it keeps you awake,” Oliver explained. “Plus we got to go skeet shooting around a black hole.” She was disappointed, however, that a black hole e-card she tried to send to her mother from the exhibit did not go through.
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Chocolate Flash, aka Eileen Goldshmidt, a retired (read: 70 plus) New Havenite visiting the exhibit, agreed with Oliver and Wald. As in, the exhibit is clearly aimed at a post-Y2K crowd, but no one can resist Khadija’s interstellar appeal.
“[The exhibit] is terrific and very informative,” she said. “I get to have fun while being informed.”
And, according to Bailyn, this is precisely the goal of the exhibit.
“‘Black Holes’ started out as a concept on the boundary between theoretical physics and science fiction, as objects with maximal density from which no radiation or information can escape, that warp space and time, and so on. And now we’ve actually identified these things out in space, they really do seem to behave in these bizarre ways … The idea [of the exhibit] is to use a hands-on experience to try and generate an understanding about how these strange objects work.”
Hands-on it was, and though black holes may not suck, this exhibit certainly pulled me in.