'Star Wars' and science: an exhibit with galactic potential

The traveling exhibit 'Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination' opens this weekend (March 19-20) at Pacific Science Center and runs through May 8.

The traveling exhibit 'Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination' opens this weekend (March 19-20) at Pacific Science Center and runs through May 8.

The Force is strong with Pacific Science Center’s newest exhibit “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” which explores how real life science relates to the iconic sci-fi franchise.

The traveling exhibit debuted in 2005 and has spent the last six years showing patrons why Star Wars and science go together like Carrie Fisher and cinnamon buns. The installation will be at Pacific Science Center through May 8 and features interactive areas like a droid-building station, more than 80 costumes and props from every Star Wars film, and — if you pay a little extra — a virtual spin in the Millennium Falcon.

The exhibit comes on the heels of the Science Center’s wildly popular “Harry Potter: The Exhibit.” But aside from showcasing movie props there aren’t many similarities between the two. The Harry Potter exhibit did an excellent job of creating a sense of atmosphere with lighting and music, and the combination of the Sorting Hat and Hogwarts Express added a sense of wonderment, making you feel as if you were in one of J.K. Rowling’s books. However, there wasn’t much interactivity.

This is one of the areas where “Star Wars" excels, as it hammers home some science lessons (you are at the Pacific Science Center after all). The droid-building station lets you put wheels on an R2-D2-style robot, maneuver it around various terrains, and make it react to its environment. The hovercraft station, where you get to ride an actual hovercraft, is equally challenging and fun. If those two things don’t sound like your cup of tea you can try to build a hovercraft of your own out of Legos and magnets.

The high level of interactivity makes the exhibit shine. But the display does lack the level of atmosphere "Harry Potter" featured and could definitely use a soundtrack, considering John Williams’ score is as iconic as the films themselves. "Star Wars" is a bit cheaper than "Harry Potter," though: $20 for adults as opposed to Harry Potter’s $26.

The exhibit itself is split into two main areas: “Getting Around,” which covers transportation in the Star Wars universe, and “Robots and People.” Upon entering, the first thing you’re likely to notice is Luke Skywalker’s unmistakable T-34 landspeeder. The landspeeder was one of my favorite toys as a child, and once I saw this one, with its three wheels and a gear shifter, I had to restrain myself from jumping in and taking it out on a womprat shooting spree.

After spending a few minutes with the landspeeder I gained my geeky composure and noticed I was surrounded by wookies, droids, jawas, Tusken raiders, and other characters from a galaxy far, far away. Models of X-wings, the Millennium Falcon, tie fighters and pod racers are displayed in glass cases. Factoids hanging on the wall explain things like how making a lightsaber would require a device the size of a house with a power supply that could support an entire city. Videos cover topics like the modern medical uses for robotic devices, and the differences between the forest planet of Kashyyyk (Chewbacca’s homeland) and the Earth’s rainforests.

The science is cool and all, but being able to see the actual props and costumes from the film is what gives the installation its big “wow” factor. And while the landspeeder was of big interest to me, other items of note include a Yoda puppet, Darth Vader costume, Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic cyborg hand from “The Empire Strikes Back” and more. Those are just a few of the dozens of items that are a part of this nirvana for nerds.

Of course it wouldn’t be a very good Star Wars exhibit without Darth Vader, and his area of the exhibit is one of the more interesting. Next to one of Darth Vader’s suits is an array of modern medical devices you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the Dark Lord of the Sith: artificial retinas, cochlear implants, neural interfaces that allow the brain to control machines. The display draws parallels between these seemingly bionic advances in medicine and Star Wars technology. You can expect to leave “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination” having learned a thing or two.

Upstairs you’ll find the “Robots and People” area, which explains how robots interact with humans in "Star Wars" and in real life. There’s more science and fewer props here, with installations that let you control the legs of a robotic skeleton and teach you how robots can see and recognize people. C-3P0 and R2-D2 are on display, as are a wide variety of modern robotic devices including a Roomba vacuum, which I found to be rather humorous. The upper level lacks the coolness of everything downstairs, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

The only disappointment was the Millennium Falcon Experience, which is a five-minute ride through the galaxy in the Millennium Falcon, narrated by Anthony Daniels (the voice of C-3PO). Housed in a separate building, the Millennium Falcon Experience will set you back an additional $3.

The ride is more or less an astronomy lesson that uses Hubble telescope images, and unfortunately it doesn’t match the fun factor of the rest of the exhibit. Then again, you get to sit in a replica of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, and that alone is a draw for any geek worth his weight in carbonite. Do be aware that the cockpit can hold only eight people at a time, four of them standing, so expect to wait in line if you purchase a ticket to ride in the Falcon.

Star Wars is such a beloved franchise that the Pacific Science Center won’t have difficulty attracting business. The props and costumes should be a huge draw, the science and technology is interesting, and the interactive elements are fun. All of those aspects — and the added bonus that Jar Jar Binks is nowhere to be seen — make “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Technology” a must-see for Star Wars fans of all ages.

If you go: “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” through May 8 at Pacific Science Center, 200 Second Ave. N., Seattle, 206-443-2001. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $15 for youth (ages 6-15) and $13 for children (ages 3-5). During "Jedi Nights," 6-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, admission is reduced to $13.


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