I meet with the photographer a couple of minutes before the Copernicus Science Centre opens to visitors. School trips are already waiting for it and the whole Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie Street, where the centre is located, is packed with school buses. I call Katarzyna Nowicka, spokesperson for the CSC, who will let us into the underground area where exhibits are made. “You have to walk pass the main entrance and find small doors facing Świętokrzyski Bridge. I’ll be right there!”. After a moment are inside a lift going down.
The article was published in Futu Magazine, issue 11–12 (25) 2015
Article: Jonasz Tolopilo
Photo: Wojtek Woźniak/Makata
“Developing an exhibit is not an easy thing to do. First, you need inspiration. Then you have to decide which phenomenon will be interesting to demonstrate,” says Paweł Wójcik, exhibit designer. “Sometimes ideas just come to me when I’m walking on the street. Just like that! Just recently I was wandering and I started thinking about movement, its phases and sequences. Now together with my team we are trying to figure out how to make a mechanical stroboscope that will show our visitors how they move. You can’t see that with the naked eye, because movement is smooth.
Exhibits are usually the result of team work. First, someone comes up with an idea and presents the general concept. Then we talk about the looks and functionality of the potential exhibit. Next, the idea is presented to our engineers, who prepare the necessary mechanical documentation.
“We choose for example a certain propulsion type, clutch system and method of supplying energy,” says Maciej Mieczkowski, constructor. “We also use 3D printer which really accelerates the whole designing process as we are able to create many prototype elements which would cost a fortune if we wanted to make them in the traditional way.
We ask Maciej how he found such an interesting place of work. “They were looking for an engineer and I was looking for a job. I was invited to the job interview and then given 10 days for solving the test task, which was to design a jump-o-meter – an exhibit that measures how high a given person is jumping”. It was a success – Maciej got the job and jump-o-meter is still on display at the Copernicus Science Centre.
Some exhibits require parts that can be very hard to get. As Paweł recalls: “Once we wanted to make a mirage, a really big one. In order to do so we needed a one-metre diameter spherical mirror. We found out that such mirrors are used in telescopes, so we contacted one company that produces such mirrors and soon after they sent us their preliminary valuation. It said the mirror would cost 400,000 euro!
The team had to find a cheaper supplier, so Paweł tried to contact producers of circular traffic mirrors.
“They produce convex mirrors and we needed a concave one. Contrary to what may seem, it’s not such a big difference. Unfortunately, they said that rearranging the whole production line in order to make just one mirror doesn’t translate into profit for them.
Finally, after almost six months of research, the team managed to find a producer in the USA, who agreed to make the mirror they needed at a reasonable price.
CSC employees first check hands-on how a given exhibit works in order to identify possible flaws and remove them.
– “We try to check what might break quickly and how to improve a visitor’s interaction with the exhibit. Then we reach the optimum which will later be verified by children and teenagers a couple of floors up,” says Maciej.
“Everything has to be intuitive,” adds Paweł. “Down here we can’t really guess what visitors will do with a given exhibit. It has to be checked in real life”.
That is why the construction team first creates a prototype which is labelled with „I’m learning to be an exhibit” and then placed in the prototype zone.
“The creator of the exhibit sits somewhere near their “child” and makes notes: this man first pulled the lever; this child wondered for a long time what to do with the exhibit. After some time the exhibit comes back to us, to the underground, and thanks to the tests conducted in the prototype zone, we know what needs to be improved in it”.
“We also check if the exhibit description is clear to all visitors. Each button should have a description panel. That is why when we make a prototype, we use a cutting and engraving laser to create a temporary description. Only after we see that the users understand it, we engrave it in metal, which is an much more expensive process”.
Underground level of the CSC is where new exhibits are created and broken ones – fixed.
“Currently only 3-4% of our exhibits are broken. When we opened it was 20-30%,” says Paweł.
“At the beginning we just didn’t expect our Polish youth to be so curious and inquisitive. We estimated that exhibits would require fixing approximately once every six months but it turned out that sometimes we had to fix parts every month”.
“We also underestimated our popularity. Instead of the 300,000 visitors annually that we had assumed, we got over a million people that came our Centre this year!”, he adds.
Most repair works can be done without moving exhibits to the underground area.
“We try to standardise parts and we have a storeroom with the ones that break most often,” says Paweł. “The Centre opens at 10 am. At 6 am we start our morning checking routine during which we fix the exhibits. The same happens in the evening after the Centre closes”.
“Is fixing an exhibit overnight even feasible?
Feasible? No! But possible,” says Maciej, laughing.
On our way to the exit we pass by a huge one-metre diameter steel ball that weights 250 kg and swings freely on a rope a dozen or so metres long. As Paweł explains:
“Foucault pendulum brought us sleepless nights for almost two years. To cut the long story short: it’s an experiment which proves that Earth does continuously rotate around its reference axis. Now, continuous swinging of the ball together with the movement of the Earth give people standing in front of the exhibit the impression that the pendulum swings in two planes. Why? Because the ball swinging plane is not related to Earth, whereas the visitor standing on the ground is”.
This exhibit is the result of work of the whole team of constructors. At the beginning they spent a lot of time on calculations but were unable to make the ball follow a specific trajectory. Every couple of days they would triumphantly announce to the other team members “We’ve got it!”, and the day after it would turn out the exhibit doesn’t work again. Finally, after almost two years, they found out why.
“At some point we had the strangest thoughts like maybe something happened to Earth and it started rotating the other way round? Well, it turned out that even if the visitor simply pokes this huge, heavy ball it impact its trajectory. Something that the constructors said it was impossible”.
“Have you managed to solve each problem in a similar way?”
“That would be a very optimistic assumption! I think only someone like the legendary McGyver could to do that,” says Paweł, laughing and saying good-bye.