Tesla coils, exploding balloons and dangerous critters are all part of the fun at Discovery Place
Each day, the walls of Discovery Place Science echo with the squeals and shouts of children wriggling through its many marvels, its aquariums and rain forest, its puzzles and floor shows.
More than 700,000 visitors are drawn there annually. A hands-on science museum geared to younger minds, it is one of the biggest attractions in Charlotte and one of the leading institutions of its type in the Southeast. Generations of kids (and their minders) have been dazzled by its exhibitions.
It’s a happy, energetic place. But if you look behind the scenes, you’ll learn there’s something a tad sinister. Dangers lurk at Discovery Place that must be carefully managed.
They come in the form of claws, fangs and razor-sharp incisors. In residence are wary crustaceans packing hidden clubs. There are explosive gasses to be contained and lightning bolts to be avoided. Beneath its giddy surface, caution is a byword at Discovery Place, and for good reason. Making science fun, it turns out, is a tricky business.
Come, let us meet its menaces. Here are five from the top of the list.
Tiny the tarantula, and her secret weapons
If you want a formal introduction, it is a Chilean rose-hair tarantula (Grammostola rosea if you like to get fancy). But within the ramparts of Discovery Place Science, people just call her Tiny.
If you can look past her eight furry legs, menacing fangs and eight eyeballs, Tiny seems like a happy camper. Legging it like a precision chorus line, she likes to scamper about the hands of Juliann Chavez, the museum’s director of public experiences, when it’s showtime.
“Spiders have sensors in their legs, so she knows it’s me,” said Chavez, who doesn’t easily get creeped out. “She’s so sweet.”
When she’s not charming visitors with her curvaceous looks and outgoing personality, Tiny is a natural-born killer. Crickets are her main dish, and when the dinner gong sounds, Tiny is all business, as spiders generally are. A jab of the fangs and in goes the venom. It’s a specialty blend that not only seems to paralyze the victim but liquefies its innards. Then Tiny returns to slurp out the nutrients, “like drinking a milkshake,” Chavez chirped.
Humans are too big for appetites like Tiny’s. Given her druthers, she’d prefer flight over fight when a big biped comes a-clomping. But if you push it, she’s got some nasty moves. Her venom wouldn’t be fatal, but it could leave a wicked sting. And on her back, she packs an armory of irritation like a porcupine. She’s got what are called urticating hairs that can be slung out to snag in the skin of an opponent. They’re as annoying as fiberglass splinters, about as difficult to remove and can be allergenic.
Tarantulas are native to the scrublands of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Tiny is one of six tarantulas who make their livings at Discovery Place. She’s 8 years old and is expected to live to be about 30. Stay on her good side.
A shrimp that packs a punch
Douglas is one of the great artworks of the sea. His bedazzling shell is awash with vivid oranges and blues, greens and reds. Nature was clearly in an Impressionist phase when peacock mantis shrimp started pouring off the assembly line 500 million years ago. Nearly a half-foot long, Douglas is a shy masterpiece, content to pass the hours peering from his rocky burrow.
Want to pick a fight with this little shrimp? You’d better read the terms-and-conditions page first.
“They’re called thumb-splitters in the aquarium business,” said Elliot Provance, director of collections at Discovery Place. Crustaceans like Douglas have hard, switchblade-like appendages tucked beneath their bellies. In combat, it can snap out at the speed of a .22 caliber bullet, cracking through the shell of a mollusk or whacking a fish in half.
“It can easily smash a coffee mug,” Provance said. “It makes a little sonic boom.”
And don’t be fooled by Douglas’ googly eyeballs, which give off a bit of a Mr. Magoo vibe. Nature designed this model to see and be seen. Peacock mantis shrimp are believed to have the most wondrous vision in all the animal kingdom. Humans have three color-receptive cones; Douglas and his kin have 16. That means they see about 10 times as much color as we do and resolve ultraviolet wavelengths.
Their two eyes can rotate independently. And they see just fine in the dark. So now, the next time you’re diving on a Pacific reef, you’ll have something to worry about besides sharks.
Teeth, tail and claws on the move
When Discovery Place hosts a “Science on the Rocks” event with a “Game of Thrones” theme, Bowser gets his tail in gear. Outfitted with costume wings, he makes a pretty convincing dragon. At 4-feet long and about 20 pounds, the mangrove monitor slips into his harness and leash and prowls with a samba swish through the admiring cocktail crowd, tongue a-flicker.
While the airborne reptiles of the HBO fantasy blaze a dramatically deadly flight path, ground-bound Bowser is no slouch in menace department. His teeth are razor sharp, and his claws are like dagger points. His powerful tail can propel him handily through water.
Mangrove monitors can have vicious appetites and even eat small crocodiles. Eggs, mollusks and rodents are also on the menu in the wild. Since arriving at Discovery Place in 2014, Bowser likes to munch on frozen mice, said Stephanie Wicks, manager of exhibition and exhibits.
When Bowser goes for a stroll, his handler on the other end of the leash is politely but firmly keeping admirers at a safe distance. Bowser is 8 and is expected to live to be about 20.
Bowser’s busy tongue is like reptilian radar. He flicks it out to gather scents of potential prey. Keep that in mind the next time you encounter him in dragon mode.
A real shocker
Nikola Tesla was an eccentric scientist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose zeal for taming electricity led to 300 patents. Hurling electricity through thin air was one of his passions and is responsible for Discovery Place’s newest attraction, the Tesla coil.
Sitting on stage, it looks a bit like one of those goofy robots from a low-budget 1950s sci-fi thriller, a tall cone topped by a metallic sphere. But keep your distance —the coil intensifies the 240 volts fed into it by many magnitudes. Soon the sphere is flinging lightning bolts of a million volts up to eight feet in all directions.
By modulating the energy, technicians can turn the crackling emissions into musical notes that the gadget burps out in sizzling baritone. This coil has 20 songs in its repertoire, from “Stars and Stripes Forever” to the theme song of “Game of Thrones.”
Dangerous? You bet. There’s an unmarked no-go zone around the coil. Getting zapped by a million volts is said to be most unpleasant. Rows nearest the stage are off-limits and an unblinking electric eye stands guard to shut the coil off should anyone manage to dash toward the stage.
When “Tommy Thunder’s Heavy Metal Lightning Show” debuts in June, there’s another safety back-up. As actors begoggled like cartoon Minions do their mad scientist skits, you might notice they’ve got a small device in hand. It’s a kill switch for instant shut-down should someone venture near unexpectedly, said Douglas Coler, manager of shows and floor programs. “Our people have their finger on trigger at all times.”
It ends with a bang
Hydrogen is the most ordinary thing around. Its simple atoms are believed to have been the first formed after the Big Bang and make up about three-quarters of the mass of the universe. Toss some oxygen at them and, splash, you get water.
But hydrogen also likes to burn. You can just glance up to get an idea of its efficiency. Our sun is powered by the stuff. Closer to home, you’ve heard of other toxic encounters of hydrogen and sparks, like the Hindenburg airship disaster.
Discovery Place uses hydrogen at an industrial clip. Balloons filled with it bob playfully during floor shows to demonstrate the properties of various elements. Young audiences marvel at the percussive blast when a flame hits the hydrogen balloons. By adding a pinch of copper, the explosions are a flaming green. Add lithium to the gas and the fiery ball turns pinkish. Magnesium burns white.
“Hydrogen has a ‘wow’ effect,” Coler said. “It’s dangerous and fun to watch.”
It’s the dangerous part that concerns anyone who works with it. Hydrogen is delivered to Discovery Place in tanks of compressed gas. It is stored deep within the museum and locked in a storage cage. About a dozen signs ask handlers the same question: “Are the valves closed?” Even a tiny leak could allow the gas to build up inside the storage area to explosive levels.
“Sometimes we even joke with each other, ‘Are the valves closed?’” Coler said.
Well, sort of joking, anyway.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.