‘Star Wars’ exhibit comes to Science Museum, but is it science?

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit's Robot Object Theater
© 2006 Museum of Science, Boston and Lucasfilm Ltd. Photo: Dom Miguel Photography
Visitors to the “Star Wars” exhibit’s Robot Object Theater will enter a large-scale model of the rusted-steel interior of a Jawa sandcrawler. Inside they will meet C-3PO and via video projection engineer Cynthia Breazeal will talk about today’s robots.

There is no question that Twin Cities crowds welcome the chance to rub up to Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, Princes Leia’s iconic white dress and R2-D2 with his droid friends.

The exhibit where they will get that chance, “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” doesn’t open at the Science Museum in St. Paul until June 13. But 12,556 people registered in advance — many of them last year — for priority-line tickets that went on sale in April.

And they are just the first wave. Regular individual ticket sales started Wednesday, and 7,747 were gone by Thursday afternoon. By comparison, it took three weeks to sell 6,430 tickets for the immensely popular Body Worlds exhibit.

Who could be surprised by the rush for tickets? Two generations have lined up at theater box offices for travel in fantasy to the far, far away galaxy where George Lucas staged his epic space operas. 

But will the empire truly strike a victory for science education? Or is the exhibit, like the film series, more enchanting entertainment than real science?

It’s both, said Mike Day, the senior vice president for museum enterprises.

“If it wasn’t science, it wouldn’t be at this institution,” Day said. “It wouldn’t meet our mandate, wouldn’t meet our mission, wouldn’t meet our strategic goals.”

The museum does sobering exhibits. This year it ran “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” which explored the history of Nazi eugenic programs during the Third Reich.

At the same time, a centerpiece of the museum’s strategy for 25 years has been to connect entertainment to education in a way that maximizes both.

Day prefers to call the entertainment component “engagement.” It is one of the core footings of education, he said.

“You have to make it engaging in order to attract people to science,” he said. “That’s not the same as dumbing it down.”

Intrinsic wonder lost?

But some critics of modern culture say the reach for entertainment and celebrity has gone too far in education and many other aspects of American life. One such critic is Susan Jacoby, author of the New York Times best seller “The Age of American Unreason.”

Susan Jacoby
Susan Jacoby

“The idea — through the commercial tie-in and the connection with brand name recognition — is to disguise the fact that it is boring old science they are purveying,” Jacoby said in a telephone interview. “The problem is that science is not boring. … Science is one of the easiest things in the world to get kids interested in because real science is fascinating in and of itself.”

To be sure, a pop culture hit as captivating as “Star Wars” is a powerful draw. And, used well, it can be an effective teaching tool. The risk, she said, is that the intrinsic wonder of science in and of itself will be sidelined.

“The fact that museums feel they have to do this, have to tie things that are interesting in themselves into a celebrity or commercial push shows how little faith we have in the ability of intrinsic knowledge to fascinate,” she said.

Not Shakespeare

But Thom Swiss argues that pop culture has become so central to Americans’ identities that teachers can’t ignore it. A professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, he specializes in pop culture and the classroom.

Thom Swiss
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
Thom Swiss

Schools are expected to teach Shakespeare. And certainly “Star Wars” is not Shakespeare.

“But it matters to most people more than Shakespeare,” Swiss said.

“Twenty years ago there used to be a difference between high culture and mass culture,” Swiss said. “High culture is what learned people did, and the rest of us did mass culture. … We are at a different spot now. There is a much closer relationship between the two.”

The trick to using “Star Wars” for effective teaching, he said, is to use the famous films as a portal into subjects you can probe with depth and breadth.

“If you bring ‘Star Wars’ into the classroom and simply talk about the movie, that’s the stupid way of doing it,” he said.

Lightsaber science
Indeed, students would come away seriously misinformed.

“Star Wars” portrays a lot of the trappings of science, but it’s more of a fantasy story than science fiction, let alone real science, said James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the book “The Physics of Superheroes.”

“They didn’t worry quite as much about the science as you see in some other types of science fiction,” Kakalios said. “At the end of the day, it’s more of a classical story of scorcery. … A ‘Star Wars’ story could be translated into a Middle Earth scenario: young hero on a noble quest confronts the dark father.”

Take lightsabers.

(Personal note to Nicholas who is 8; Andrew, 6; and Elsa, 4: If you are reading this, stop here. I don’t want to break your hearts.)

Lightsabers are sheer nonsense from a scientific perspective.

Light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles/second, Kakalios said. To have it jut out a few feet and then somehow become a rigid energy beam “doesn’t physically make sense,” he said.

“It’s light acting in very non-light ways,” he said.

But Kakalios is no meany. When he gives talks to kids about science and super heroes, he often is asked to explain lightsabers. His stock response: “As a wise man once said, ‘Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.’ (a Han Solo line.)”

James Kakalios
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
James Kakalios

Lucas was right not to worry about whether it was physically realistic, Kakalios said.

“He was telling a story,” Kakalios said. “This is the fantasy aspect of it, and it is a great aspect because it is so cool.”

George Lucas visited the exhibit when Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry displayed it last fall. He told the Chicago Tribune “‘Star Wars’ was designed to stimulate the imagination of young kids. It was to get kids to think and use their imagination and go home and draw pictures and make their own stories.”

But does that make it a suitable portal for learning science, given the liberties Lucas took?

Kakalios thinks so. For all of the fascination with science, people often are intimidated by it, he said. Their fears can be eased by hitching the science to something they know and enjoy. It’s one reason he draws superheroes into his talks.

“If you talk about Spider-man, people don’t get those same shields up right away,” he said. “They are more likely to remain engaged, more likely to ask questions.”

In fact, “Star Wars” has been so engaging that it drew many young people to careers in science.

“There are a fair number of people working in artificial intelligence labs and robotics labs who were inspired as kids because of “Star Wars,'” Kakalios said.

Droids and levitation

The exhibits coming to the Science Museum “turn on the science,” by focusing on robotics and transportation, Day said.

One feature is a Robot Theater where visitors enter a Jawa sandcrawler, meet the robot C-3PO, and listen as he debates the merits of his pal R2-D2 with a real-life expert.

R2-D2 and C-3PO
Photo © Lucasfilm Ltd.
R2-D2 and C-3PO

In the “Star Wars” universe, robots are droids. That is Lucas’ adaptation of the word “android,” which dictionaries define as an artificially created being that usually takes a human form.

Museum-goers will learn that a robot is a programmable machine that can imitate something humans do — say, install a vehicle part in a Detroit assembly line — without necessarily looking or talking like humans. The exhibits will offer visitors chances to learn about the sensors, motors, computers, power supplies and mechanical structures that make up a useful, working robot. They also can test their lab skills by trying to create and program a robot.

“As it says in the subtitle of the exhibit, it’s where science meets imagination that questions are raised,” Day said. “Could this be real? Could we have robots like C-3PO and R2-D2?”

For the transportation component, the exhibit will feature Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder from Episode IV and several other models, including a Naboo starfighter, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer Devastator and Queen Amidala’s Nubian Royal Starship.

Visitors also will get a chance to climb aboard a real-world hovercraft and experience levitation. There will be engineering stations where people can try building a hovercraft and manipulating the magnetic force needed to move it on a bed of air.

The exhibit was created at the Museum of Science in Boston with support from Lucasfilm Ltd and other museums in an eight-member collaborative which includes Minnesota.

Minnesota is the last member of the collaborative to show it. And waiting at the end of the line is a good thing, Day said, because each of the other seven museums enhanced the exhibit along the way.

After the exhibit leaves St. Paul Aug. 24, it will tour overseas.

Until then, the Force can be with you. 

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 05/23/2008 - 07:57 pm.

    Some of us will recall that in early 2000 the Minneapolis Institute of Arts hosted an exhibition called “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.” It included original costumes, artwork, props, and models used in the Star Wars trilogy. The exhibition debuted at the National Air and Space Museum and traveled to various museums around the USA. There was a bit of a brouhaha about whether such things should be shown in an art museum. I confess to attending opening night (with my husband and son, both Star Wars fans) and having a blast despite the long lines. Mary Abbe wrote an excellent article for the Strib called “Art Vader” that I would link to 1) if I could find it on the Web site, which I can’t and 2) if articles older than 7 days were available to view on the Strib site without paying for them, which they aren’t.

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