One week before the opening of Franklin Institute’s “A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature,” there were already handprints on the walk-through puzzle’s glass.
“We just let staff go through it for the first time today,” said the institute’s Stefanie Santo. “No one made it to the center.” They did, however, escape the shiny labyrinth — with a little help from their hands.
The 1,700-square-foot funhouse is the challenging centerpiece of an exhibition about geometric patterns — specifically, spirals, the Golden Ratio, Voronoi patterns, and fractal branching.
“Numbers” occupies the second-floor space in the Mandell Center. The entire exhibition replicates “Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. The MSI debuted the math-y permanent installation in October 2014 — you could say its name mirrors the one in Philadelphia. Franklin Institute is the first host of the exhibition’s traveling sibling.
Inside the Mandell Center, the modular structure really does resemble something you’d find at a carnival. Visitors who choose to enter immediately discover a disorienting path, “a sea of triangles,” according to MSI’s website, illuminated by 30,000 color-changing LED lights set to ambient, otherworldly music.
The object is to reach the center of the labyrinth, a small room where puzzle-solvers are rewarded with more puzzles, images, and secret “artifacts,” according to the Franklin Institute. It’s not easy.
The show’s content is aimed at middle-school-age visitors, but representatives from the Franklin Institute and MSI said preschoolers through grown-ups would enjoy and learn from the visual, easy-to-digest displays.
Like most exhibitions at the tristate-area’s most-visited museum, this one is largely interactive. There are heavy wheels to turn to demonstrate fractal branching, a big blue dot to stand on to measure your body’s symmetry, Lucite tiles you arrange to make music that plays forward and backward, and a peephole that reveals against a blue screen your eye’s floating blood cells and branching vessels.
Other smaller exhibits include a work of origami by father-son MIT professors Martin and Erik Demaine, ants’ intricate tunnels, a pixilation demonstration, and lovely photographs of natural and human-made wonders.
Math is integral to all science, said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute. “No matter what field of science you’re in, math has to be part of your expertise,” she said. Math is “embedded” throughout the institute, from Foucault’s Pendulum to Your Brain, she said, yet, the institute has no math-specific exhibit.
This lack of math isn’t specific to our local science museum. Olivia Castellini, senior exhibit developer at MSI, knew there was a need to give more credit to the last letter in STEM. As MSI developers “talked to other colleagues across the country,,” she said, “they all voiced a similar idea: They wanted to represent math in their museums.”
The team from MSI soon realized that such an attraction would not be an easy sell.
“Early on in the creative process, I spent a lot of time talking to visitors here at MSI,” said Castellini, who helped create the exhibition. “If I told them right off the bat that I was going to talk to them about math, they had no interest in talking to me. They’d say, ‘I’ve got Omnimax tickets,’ or, ‘I’ve got to go see the U-505′” submarine.
Their “knee-jerk” reaction, she said, was, “’I’m not good at math. I don’t like math.’”
“But when we started showing them the picture of a spiral galaxy or a spiral ear, the same pattern you find in nature, that really drew them in. At the end of the conversation, I would tell them we were planning an exhibit about math.”
MSI developers knew they’d need to “ease” visitors into their educational displays. But to get them through the doorway required a “big draw,” said Castellini.
The solution: the mirror maze. It works because it’s fun, she said, but it’s also “just a giant pattern that would get into patterns in nature,” which, in turn, gets visitors into numbers.
At MSI, most adults exit at the first opportunity, said Castellini. Children, however, embrace the challenge. “They finish at one end and want to try and go do it again,” she said. Few guests get to the center. Some get lost. (In case of an urgent need to escape, visitors can shout for help, and lights illuminate the way out.)
“I helped design the path,” said Castellini, “and I still get lost in there.”
The maze accommodates 150 guests at a time. Most spend 10 to 15 minutes trying to solve it. “We’ve heard from Chicago that people absolutely use their sense of touch to explore,” said Das. MSI staff cleans the glass’ maze multiple times a day.
Castellini’s advice for getting through it: Be patient. “Go slowly. If you see your reflection getting larger, stop moving.”
“A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature,” May 27-Sept. 4, The Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., $25 (adults), $21 ages 3-11 (includes general admission), 215-448-1200, fi.edu