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Step into the Light

New Science Museum exhibit provides fun, interactive learning about the science of light in our daily lives.


In an exhibition filled with cool things to play with, the kaleidoscope may be the coolest.

As part of the Science Museum’s new exhibit “Playing with Light,” visitors can make themselves the focal point of a human-sized kaleidoscope. There’s one catch: you’ve got to be able to duck under one of the three walls that shape the kaleidoscope and while it’s not limbo-low, it’s bound to challenge some while delighting others.

Once inside, the reward is the endless-seeming images of your own reflection, making it possible to stare into your own eyes without looking at the image of yourself directly in front of you.

Using a variety of science disciplines, 21 interactive experiences and a decided sense of fun, “Playing with Light” allows guests to discover the science behind how the world is illuminated. Each station has clear instructions as to what to do as well as suggestions on what to look for and questions about possible conclusions. Should the science not be of interest, the playful interactivity alone is worth the trip.

To help explain the concepts of phosphorescence and fluorescence, visitors are asked to strike a pose in front of a screen and wait for the light. A museum assistant lines up a group of school children against the screen, instructing them to face away from the light so it won’t hurt their eyes and then “vogue,” causing each to strike a distinctive pose.

After the flash, the students stand back amazed to see that the images of their poses remain on the wall. Phosphorescence, he explains, is a process where light is absorbed by a material and then slowly re-emits it, while fluorescence means the object keeps glowing after the light source is switched off. What have we learned today, children?


Visitors can play laser dodge, attempting to cross a small room without breaking the laser beams. One visitor takes a step into the room and turns to his companion saying, “It’s just like in the movies!” and backs away, apparently not willing to take on the challenge.

Several of the interactive stations deal with color, or colour, as it’s written on the signage. That’s because “Playing with Light” was created by Scitech in Perth, Australia, and produced by Imagine Exhibitions. Those Aussies really know how to engage visitors, even those who may not think they’re interested in the science of light. Wisely designed for guests of all ages, the touring exhibition features full-body interactive exhibits with a multitude of outcomes in an open-ended and enjoyable, instruction-free style. Doing so offers the opportunity for exploration, creativity and, most importantly, experimentation, a key tenet of the scientific process.

At the Colour Changes station, guests learn that color is the result of light striking an object and being reflected into our eyes. They can peer through a window and choose different colors of light to shine on objects such as food and toys, considering how appetizing a pink banana or blue apple might be. A sign at the station explains that supermarkets and other stores use lighting to make products look more appealing so consumers will be more likely to buy them. “Now, that’s interesting!” observes a woman, pointing at a photograph of a beautifully lit fruit display and perhaps wondering about her own supermarket choices.

There is no shortage of ways to play with light, from using a light wand to draw with infrared “paint,” to making a laser beam bounce across water, to building a personalized telescope powerful enough to see minute detail in another room. Visitors can use their bodies to make colored light shadows which show up in cyan, magenta and yellow, creating an Andy Warhol-like triptych in vivid colors.


Rainbows and sunsets are prime examples of optics in nature, while practical applications include mirrors, lenses, telescopes and microscopes. Optics led to the development of laser surgery, fiber optic communication, and holographic security. To get a sense of fiber optic transmission, guests can hold their hand at the end of a bundle of bent optical fiber and look through an eyepiece and see their hand. “All those video games and I never really thought about how it got there before,” noted a man as he left the eyepiece. One more real-life application of science.

And if that’s a bit high tech for some, the bendy mirror should speak to the child in every visitor. Unlike a funhouse mirror at a carnival, this mirror lets you see what happens to your reflection as you change the size, shape and orientation of the mirror.

Spoiler alert: there’s a whole lot of science behind the weird ways your body looks in the bendy mirror. Whether you care about that or not, “Playing with Light” is a whole lot of fun.

“Playing with Light” runs through Aug. 20 at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St. Buy tickets here.