The Adler's Space Visualization Laboratory (SVL) is a unique place, one that I've had the opportunity to observe over the last seven years. During open hours, Adler visitors may come behind the glass wall and see an otherwise normal looking scientist waving his or her hands in front of beautiful galactic imagery, as if trying to communicate with other beings in outer space. The scientist seems to also be talking to someone behind a Tardis-sized pillar in the center of the room. Who? Oh, just another museum visitor. Actually many of them, seated around looking relaxed and curious.
What is going on, you may ask? This is an Astronomy Conversation, held regularly in the SVL. Not a class, not a lecture, but just a scientist open to any questions you may have ever had regarding the Universe we happen to be in. Some days a visualization expert (like me) may be there instead. In 2013, over 48,000 visitors met with researchers in SVL and asked their hearts out. Since everything we know is contained in the Universe, it is kind of hard to run out of topics.
What's with the hand waving then? Despite being loaded with screens and devices, the SVL has gone way past the technology and well into communicating science through showcasing immersive and interactive visualizations either made locally or at research centers around the world. Scientists and visitors who join in the fun have the chance of interacting with image data through the intuitive mode of body motion.
We have scientists acting like dancers for two reasons: The first being that scientists have an understanding of the data and the patterns showcased in visualizations. In fact, many of the visualizations are actual experiments since visualization allows us to better examine unreachable objects. The second reason is because the understanding of patterns in static or dynamic images is directly correlated to understanding body motion. This kind of interaction is one of the things we are experimenting with in order to enhance science education. All of this makes sense for a Space Visualization Laboratory, a unique place where Adler researchers, collaborators and visitors meet on the museum floor.
Written by Julieta Aguilera, associate director of the SVL at the Adler Planetarium and Ph.D. candidate at the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, UK. You can follow her down to Earth and cosmic musings about space on Twitter @julietaspace.