Parabolic Spinners

Topic: Physical Sciences Subtopic: Motion & Forces

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Paul Orselli

Published on May 01, 2007

  • Description and goals

    This exhibit started because we had some simple wooden spinning “turntables” we didn’t know what to do with. (Prototyping 101: Keep lots of cool junk around. And duct tape. And 2-Ton Epoxy.)

    After fiddling around with attaching various containers filled with different types (and viscosities) of fluids to the turntables, Fred Stein and I really liked the interesting parabolic shapes that we (and ultimately, visitors) could create.

    One of the very best fluids for the exhibit turned out to be corn oil. The color and viscosity were perfect! And of course, corn oil was cheap (as exhibit supplies go.)

    However… visitors kept asking “What’s inside the container?” and became more interested in identifying the “mysterious fluid” than creating shapes. In frustration, we finally decided to just epoxy the familiarly-shaped (to most visitors, anyway) plastic Mazola brand corn oil bottle (we removed the label, so people could more easily see the paraboloid shapes they created) to one of the turntables.

    It worked! Visitors really “tuned in” to experimenting with, for example, spinning the turntables at different speeds to create varying shapes now that they “knew” what the fluid was inside the spinning container.

    This “simple” exhibit component ties together the strands of prototyping, evaluation, and serendipity that makes developing exhibits so much fun. (“Parabolic Spinners” also became one of the inspirations to start putting together The ASTC Exhibit Cheapbooks as well.)

  • Exhibit Opened: 1990

  • Location: Acton, MA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $5,000 (US)

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