RMSC uses Iron Man and C-3PO to explain science

05:00 AM, Sep 29, 2013

Above, a life-size replica of Iron Man is part of the 'Alien Worlds and Androids' traveling exhibit on display through Dec. 22 at Rochester Museum & Science Center. (Provided photo)/


Written By Sandra Parker

If you go

What: “Alien Worlds and Androids.”
When: Through Dec. 22.
Where: Rochester Museum & Science Center, 657 East Ave.
Cost: $13; $12 for seniors; $11 for youths.
More information: (585) 271-4320 or rmsc.org.

Iron Man is busy fighting terrorists in a movie theater somewhere, so a life-size replica is the next best thing.

The superhero and other science fiction icons are part of the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s new exhibit, “Alien Worlds and Androids,” which opened Friday and will be on display until Dec. 22.

Rochester is only the second stop on the exhibit’s tour, which is already booked for the next three years.

Joining Iron Man are replicas of other Hollywood film heroes and villains: C-3PO, the intellectual android from Star Wars; Robby the Robot, the amiable robot from Forbidden Planet; Gort, the helmet-headed giant from The Day the Earth Stood Still; T-800, the ruthless skeleton-like cyborg from Terminator; and The Alien, the hideous insect-like creature from Alien.

These are images that all of us have grown up with,” says Calvin Uzelmeier, RMSC’s director of education. “It bridges the generations and marries this perfect world of content, interactivity and entertainment.”

Created with the assistance of NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the exhibit explains the latest technology, including robots and artificial intelligence, used by scientists searching for aliens in outer space, in the deepest recesses of the Earth and even in our own bodies.

In one interactive exhibit, kids can climb into a capsule and journey to Mars with the Curiosity rover and learn about analyzing the soil and atmosphere of the Red Planet. To explore mysterious life on Earth, kids can control robotic arms like those used in the submersible Alvin to collect extremophiles, creatures living in deep-sea hydrothermal vents and other harsh spots on our planet. In addition to the cool, fun part there’s also the cool, yucky part — extremophile replicas of giant tubeworms, crabs and ice worms.

The Hollywood science fiction characters are part of a display outlining how scientists developed artificial intelligence and clarifying such pesky questions as how robots differ from androids. Robby the Robot showcases early robotics with his chunky upper body and legs like stacks of bowling balls, while Iron Man looks like a futuristic muscle man in red and gold armor (updated from his original 1963 Marvel comic book look). The museum plans to set up compatible displays, such as ones featuring local robotics technology.

Producer Tyler Thornberg says he and the others at Global Experience Specialists, the Las Vegas-based marketing company that created the exhibit, “enjoy how pop culture and science fiction tie into real science.”

Thornberg says that as a boy he was interested in robots, particularly Gort, and so too were the scientists from NASA, especially those in its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he interviewed for the project.

Inevitably, they referenced movies and books that started them on a journey exploring the universe on behalf of mankind,” he says.

He hopes the imagery will draw in kids who will then be inspired by the content. “We want to get kids excited,” he says. “It’s not just people who are chosen by fate; everyone can do this.”

Uzelmeier has the same hope. “It’s important that people understand that science is not an antisocial experience,” he says. “It’s not just Einstein with crazy-looking hair working in the lab and not talking to anyone.”

Uzelmeier himself was motivated to study science after seeing a show called Chemistry in the Toy Store. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and then devised his own kids’ science show before signing on with the museum.

If we can spark that sense of wonder, if we can have someone leave with more questions they want to answer, that’s one of our goals,” he says.

The central question the exhibit raises — Are we alone? — is explored in displays featuring technological innovations and research that lead scientists to believe that life does exist out there in the dark.

We aren’t looking for Marvin the Martian in the Roman helmet — the life we find might not be humanoid,” Uzelmeier says.

In one display, the exhibit answers its own are-we-alone question. Based on the presence of microbiomes — bacterial species — it reads in visitors’ bodies, the answer is a definitive no.