Indoor tornado takes museum by storm

New permanent exhibit highlights science behind forces of nature
2010-03-25T00:05:00Z Indoor tornado takes museum by stormBY MOLLY WOULFE -, (219) 852-4329

Move over, baby chicks.

Gangway, U-505 sub.

Beat it, giant heart.

A new icon has the Museum of Science and Industry in a whirl.

"I wanna touch it," cried Danny Raclaw, 5, straining to touch The Tornado.

Alas, the roped-off cyclone swirled just out of reach, propelling him to try the wind tunnel booth instead. "Whoa! It's getting crazy," the Chicago boy yelled, his T-shirt and jeans fluttering in 40 mph winds.

Veteran storm chasers won't blink, but the museum's indoor twister -- and its companion attractions -- are blowing visitors away in a new permanent exhibit. The showpiece of "Science Storms," the nation's largest man-made tornado spins on cue like a "Wizard of Oz" stand-in.

Nearby, two hot air balloons soar and sink three stories, a study of convection in motion. As for those rubber balls floating over air nozzles, they illustrate the Bernoulli principle of air dynamics. The giant Tesla coil crackling overhead and the 20-foot avalanche disk compete for attention.

Mr. Twister "is very, very popular," confirmed Olivia Castellini, the museum's senior exhibit developer.

Then again, the whole blue-and-silver gallery, 26,000-square feet of hands-on activities, is over the top by design, she pointed out.

Americans take science for granted to the extent that the latest MP3 player is a blip on our collective radar. The museum "wants to inspire people, to get them out of their complacency, to start asking questions again," Castellini said.

Beyond weather

Despite its name "Science Storms" skirts meteorological matters, focusing on the physics and chemistry behind forces of nature ranging from tornadoes to tsunamis. The exhibit deconstructs and "tears them down to their tiniest components and really examines them," senior project manager Christopher Wilson said.

By virtue of its size -- and reputation in the Midwest -- The Tornado is a camera hog. The vortex of vapor stands 40-feet tall, so high that guests in the second-floor balcony can point lasers at its top to illuminate air-flow patterns. On slow-traffic days, select visitors will be invited to step into the "eye of the storm" to explore the interplay of vapor and air pressure.

The eye of the storm "is pretty gentle, " museum spokeswoman Beth Boston said. "And there's a cool, swirling mist."

Thrill-seekers are better off in the two wind tunnel booths upstairs. Shut the door, touch the computer screen, and a faint hum signals the start of gale-force gusts. The air pressure builds slowly.

In nature, tornadoes form when rising, warm moist air collides with cold, dry air during a storm. Buffeted by winds, the updraft begins to spin like a high-speed whirlpool, often taking the shape of a funnel cloud. When the funnel touches the ground, churning up dirt and debris, it is officially a tornado. In extreme cases, these violent windstorms can have winds up to 300 mph.

In contrast, the indoor tornado is a mild-mannered simulation. Designed by Production Resource Group and Norcon Inc., an ultrasonic fog system is concealed beneath the raised exhibit floor. Forty-eight fog modules atomize a pool of water into a mist that rises through a grate.

A ceiling fan draws the vapor upward and into a dehumidifier that helps manage the museum's humidity. Curved walls partially enclose the exhibit space so the spiraling column is clearly visible. Each wall contains a vertical duct system with dampers that direct air in a circular path to keep the twister moving. The controls and tornado-generating equipment weigh 75,000 pounds.

Other interactive stations focus on how fire responds to varying degrees of fuel, oxygen and heat, the power of ocean waves in motion, and how sunlight can be converted into heat and electricity. The 16,500-pound avalanche disk, also designed by Production Resource Group, uses sand and beads to illustrate how friction, acceleration and gravity can cause solids to behave like a fluid.

Super-sized videos, recorded interviews with scientists and 200 artifacts in glass cases round out the new permanent exhibit. Relics include the first light bulb, storm chasers' probes, and NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon's fire-resistant suit. Researchers from the University of Chicago, Harvard and NASA contributed to the multimedia display.

"Science Storms" permanent exhibit

Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Free with general admission, $15 adults, $14 seniors, $10 children ages 3-11.

FYI: (773) 684-1414, (800) GO-TO-MSI or

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