Miniature Tornadoes and Other Joys of the Fleet Science Center

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, it turns out, is full of delightful secrets as well as science.

The San Diego Science Writers Association turned out on a chilly January evening to start 2019 with a tour of the city’s popular science museum. We began with a brief overview of the science center itself, and then were released (and encouraged) to find a partner and play alongside the children at the exhibits.

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SANDSWA members check out the Fleet’s wood shop. Photo: Steve Murray

The fun bit about science is that you’re never caught up; there’s always something you haven’t explored. The exhibit floor was home to a display with alternating hot and cold coils that taught you about how your body senses differences in temperature; the iconic whisper dishes that demonstrate how a murmur can pass undisrupted over the heads of screaming children from one side of the room to the other; and even a display that uses vapor to show the formation of a tornado, in miniature.

Yet, the highlight of the tour might have been traveling behind the scenes to see how the museum’s IMAX dome theater worked. According to the museum’s website, where you can find a list of current showings, the theater screen can generate images nearly eight stories high. But it’s the machinery behind it all that is so surprising. Two huge reels have to be loaded with the physical film before the audience can enjoy their show. The projector itself is equally massive, and rises from the floor with a deafening rumble. No one makes this technology anymore, which makes the film itself incredibly expensive to replace if it’s damaged. The IMAX dome theater at the Fleet is the last of its kind.

original imax projector circa 1970s
Original IMAX projector, ca. 1970’s. Photo: Lynne Friedmann

Moving into the future, the museum’s goal is to push for stronger connections between existing science education programs. Staff described an ongoing collaboration in Barrio Logan that provides the community with information on whichever topic they want to learn about, including nutrition. Also arriving at the museum in the coming months? An exhibit about the science behind magic — think levitation and invisibility. How would those magical acts work, if they were real?

The human brain loves newness, and so I love visiting places I’ve never been most of all. The tour of the Fleet Science Center was a treat. I’ll be coming back again, just to watch that IMAX projector in action!

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