Are these the Droids™ you’re looking for?

by Damon Lowe, Chief Curator of Science & Technology and Curator of Biology

robot_RobotAreaIntroR2_D2_SmallTo many people, the term “droid” conjures up one of two images: a sleek new smart phone, or a somewhat annoying, but equally endearing protocol robot that is “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” It is the second one that is the most fascinating because the reality of these types of robots isn’t as far away as we might think. Sure, we don’t have C-3PO or other “droids” acting as ambassadors and diplomats like they do in the Star Wars® movies, but we are moving much closer to that reality.

The Star Wars saga shows droids performing many different tasks, from repairing Luke’s injured hand, to fixing vehicles and even fighting battles. It may not come as a surprise that contemporary robots can do most of these things too, but the level of sophistication they are achieving makes them seem like they would be right at home in the Star Wars universe. There are many different types of robots in the real world, and they don’t all fit the definition of droid, which is “a mobile robot usually with a human form.” Human-controlled surgical robots have been around for a couple of decades, but these are merely extensions of the surgeon’s arms, just like the welding robots used for industry are replacements for part of a human’s functionality, not the entire being.

robot_RobotAreaIntroC_3POPuppetUpClose_SmallIt really gets interesting with the newest advances, where the droids start looking like they stepped right out of the Star Wars universe. One of these robots, Honda’s ASIMO, is humanoid in appearance and movement, and even has some form of artificial intelligence that allows it to assist people who lack full mobility. ASIMO can run, open screw top containers, pour juice, recognize people and even stand on one leg! Another human-like robot is Boston Dynamics PETMAN, which is being developed to test chemical protection suits for the military. Like the Star Wars droids, these real world robots don’t have unlimited power supplies, and they need wires or battery packs that require frequent recharging. While technology hasn’t quite caught up to the Star Wars universe, we aren’t light years away either. Visit the Indiana State Museum to check out the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination and learn about droids and other out-of-this-world technologies!

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, presented by Bose Corporation®, was developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, and Lucasfilm Ltd. Star Wars objects in this exhibition are on loan from the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum.
TM & ©2013 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.
This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0307875.

Local Sponsor: McDonalds of Central Indiana
With additional local support from WISH-TV8 and Hamilton Exhibits

Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand

by Damon Lowe, Chief Curator of Science & Technology and Curator of Biology

I remember watching Star Wars®: The Empire Strikes Back as a young boy and being totally devastated when my hero, Luke Skywalker, lost his hand to the evil Darth Vader. That sadness was quickly replaced with a sense of awe as I watched two medical droids fix him up with a brand new hand! Wow, to be able to suffer a devastating injury like that, and then to have a fully functional replacement would be the ultimate in technological advancement. I was quickly disappointed again when my older, more knowledgeable brother explained that, while Luke could get a new hand, in the real world it was impossible. The technology didn’t exist yet.

prosthetic_SWMedicalUpClose_SmallFast forward 30 years and, while we aren’t quite capable of affixing a fully functional hand that can feel and do everything the original hand did, we can come pretty close. Take for instance the new i-limb ultra prosthetic hand. This amazing piece of technology is made from aluminum, contains a rechargeable battery, and has a rotating thumb and individually powered fingers — each with their own tiny motors and powerful microprocessors to make it all work together. This allows for a surprising amount of dexterity in an artificial hand. The i-limb ultra allows its users to perform tasks such as tying a shoelace and using a computer mouse. It even has senses when things are slipping and automatically tightens its grip!

Another cool thing about the i-limb ultra is how users interface with it. The i-limb is myoelectric, meaning that is uses small electric signals generated by the muscles in the remaining arm to control the hand. These signals are detected by electrodes placed on the arm and the signal is transmitted to the tiny computer in the i-limb, which then controls the movement of the hand. If this isn’t high tech enough, the i-limb can also be controlled by your iPhone! It connects via Bluetooth and the user can choose from 24 pre-programmed grips or gestures, but light saber grip isn’t one of them … yet. So, while we aren’t quite able to have droids replace hands when an evil Sith Lord chops them off, we are getting much closer. Come to the Indiana State Museum to see Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, May 25 through Sept. 2, and see what other science fiction technologies have become real!

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, presented by Bose Corporation®, was developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, and Lucasfilm Ltd. Star Wars objects in this exhibition are on loan from the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum.
TM & ©2013 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.
This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0307875.

Local Sponsor: McDonalds of Central Indiana
With additional local support from WISH-TV8 and Hamilton Exhibits

Lovina Streight: Portrait Conserved, Story Preserved

 by Meredith McGovern, Arts and Culture Collection Manager

It took a village — or so it seemed — to conserve and display Lovina Streight, an 1880 painting of an Indianapolis woman who fearlessly marched with her husband, Colonel Abel Streight, and his troops during the Civil War, nursed wounded soldiers on battlefields, and whipped a pistol from beneath her skirt to escape the Confederate enemy. After 130 years and multiple transfers from Mrs. Streight’s parlor to the Statehouse to the Indiana State Museum, the brittle canvas had torn in six places. Patches applied to hold the torn edges together bulged and puckered from misalignment; previous efforts to replace flaked paint resulted in pools on the surface. The portrait was not suitable for display.

Thanks to a grant through the Lockerbie Square Chapter of The Questers, an organization dedicated to heritage preservation, the painting was conserved in the fall of 2012 by Michael Ruzga. The patches were replaced, the pools of paint reduced, and layers of dirt removed from the canvas surface. Details that were previously undetectable now popped: the delicate diamonds glittering in Mrs. Streight’s earrings; her cameo ring; the swirling scrollwork in the rug; and the artist’s signature. The portrait was again ready to tell the story of the bold and spirited Lovina Streight.

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In a stroke of serendipity, just a couple weeks after I picked up Lovina Streight from the conservator, the tour coordinator at the Indiana Statehouse asked to borrow the portrait for programming. It took a lot of synchronization, but we were able to display it on the fourth floor of the Capitol with the help of staff from the museum’s exhibition, collections, conservation and new media departments; a driver from the Indiana Commission on Public Records who transported the painting; and a crew from the Indiana Department of Administration Facilities Management who helped hoist the 8-foot, 80-pound portrait high into the air and secure it to the wall. Many thanks to all involved, particularly The Questers for helping make this project possible! Watch this video to learn more about Lovina Streight and the conservation project.

Visit the Indiana Statehouse to see the newly-conserved portrait on display until August 2013.

Is it a solid? A liquid? It’s Silly Putty!

by Shannon McKinney, Sales Associate in the Indiana Store

As a kid, one of those thrilling, childish moments came about upon my discovery of Silly Putty and its amazing properties. It’s not quite a solid, not quite a liquid, and its uses are nearly endless. For those of you who are old enough to remember when newspaper ink was petroleum-based, you probably remember experimenting with Silly Putty’s ability to lift the ink from the page, creating a perfect mirror image of the text or pictures when pressed against them. Unfortunately for this particular experiment, it is no longer likely to work, as newspaper printing has shifted to the use of non-transferable inks.

But what else can Silly Putty do?

Silly Putty Frosty! Ain't he cute!

Silly Putty Frosty! Ain’t he cute!

Let’s back up a minute and first discuss a bit about Silly Putty’s history. Did you know that it was developed during World War II? The war in the Pacific Theater, where the U.S. had been importing its rubber, created massive rubber shortages and a significant demand for an alternative thanks to rubber’s vital military uses. In the process of attempting to develop a synthetic rubber, scientists created what would come to be known as Silly Putty. At the time, no one could quite think of a practical use for the substance.

Everything changed in 1949 — four years after the war had ended — when toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter placed the bouncing putty in her toy catalog at the recommendation of an advertising executive named Peter Hodgson Sr. Hodgson soon came up with the name “Silly Putty” and, beginning in 1950, the toy became a national hit. Ever since, it has been a favorite among youth and adults alike.

Silly Putty Frosty has melted!

Silly Putty Frosty has melted!

Back to Silly Putty’s uses. The toy is both practical and fun. Astronauts on Apollo 8 took it to the moon to ensure that their tools would be secure in zero gravity. As a toy, it bounces, stretches, tears and shatters, depending on the whims of the user. And these days, you can even purchase “thinking putties” with interesting, unique properties that the original does not possess, such as magnetism and the ability to glow in the dark.

Regardless of whether you purchase the original, pale-pink putty that we carry in the Indiana Store or the newer, more expensive thinking putties, you are sure to enjoy playing with the substance and experimenting with its different uses.

The art and science of window washing

by Bill Lackner, Tour Guide at Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, and Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager

When it comes time to cleaning windows at the Lanier Mansion, there are extra things to consider. After all, some of the glass dates back to 1844!

First, there is the old method of using  gravity as the main method to flatten the surface of blown glass.  Because this system wasn’t perfect, the imperfections and distortions you see can make weak areas in the glass.  Also, this method did not allow them to make large panes, so we have many tiny windows supported by wooden frames instead of one large window. This makes the job even harder! 

Then there is the new technology to consider: A thin film filter was applied to the interior surface of the glass to block ultraviolet light. This filter protects textiles, papers and other surfaces from damaging sunlight coming through the windows. Any abrasions to this delicate film can cause damage from the sun in the future.

Then there is the outside. These windows are large and very high up in the air! They are pretty hard to get to and you need to take great care to prevent damage to the old window panes, the window frames and blinds (today we call them shutters). So, where do you put the ladder? It gets tricky.

Of course the biggest hazard is falling off the ladder. Any volunteers?

Fake it ‘til you make it

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Here in the Conservation Lab we’re pretty serious about artifacts. When we treat an artifact we’re guided by a code of ethics that tells us, among other things, that our actions should not permanently remove, alter or obscure any part of an object. But what happens when vital parts of an artifact are missing? That’s when we fake it, and it’s the point where ethics become really important. We’re not trying to create forgeries or be fraudulent; our goal is to stabilize the artifact without creating visual distractions. Sometimes it’s more work than using original materials.

We recently had to “fake it” while treating losses on an early 19th century beehive. The hive is made of coils of straw bound together with flattened sapling “stitches.” Along a section of the lower edge, the sapling stitches were broken with part of each stitch missing and some of the original straw also missing (figure 1). We couldn’t use new saplings to stitch the straw back in place because then we would have to remove the original bit of sapling stitch remaining in each stitch hole, and we didn’t want to use new straw to replace the losses because it might be mistaken for the original.

Fake straw was made by cutting thin strips of Japanese tissue paper, wetting the strips, twisting them in to shape and drying them under tension. We made about 100 pieces of fake straw. After drying, the fake straw was adhered to the broken ends of the original straw along the outer edge of the coil. Additional fake straw was simply inserted into the core of the coil to provide bulk and approximate the original size of the coil. In Figure 2, you can see that some of the fake straw has been attached, and some is still on the table. Strips of sanded polyester film were adhered to the remaining pieces of sapling stitches to secure all of the original and fake straw into the shape of a coil.

The strips of sanded polyester film holding the coil together were disguised by small pieces of two-ply mat board that were cut and painted to match the appearance of the original sapling stitches. They were then adhered to the surface of the polyester film. In the close-up of Figure 3, you can see original straw and an original sapling stitch on the left and to the right is the fake straw and several fake sapling stitches.

When complete (figure 4), the strips of fake saplings stabilized the original straw to prevent additional loss of straw, and the fake straw gives the correct shape and support for the damaged coil. Once upright again, the beehive was ready for exhibition (figure 5). You can see the beehive in person in our Level 2 galleries.

Witch’s Brew

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Conservators have all the trappings of a magical enterprise — a stock of arcane ingredients, “potions” that we mix up ourselves, tongue twisting phrases that we use and transformative powers on objects. Don’t believe me? Well, I might not have eye of newt or puppy dog tails, but I sometimes clean an object with my own spit; I’ve used things like fish skin glue and lamb intestine for repairs; and I regularly use an ethyl methacrylate methyl acrylate copolymer.

A cast iron tea pot before (above) and after (below) Gaby works her magic.

In order for the “magic” (a.k.a. work) to happen, a conservation lab needs lots and lots of ingredients and tools. There is such a huge variety of objects that come through the lab with such a range of problems, that a certain treatment might be performed only occasionally and thus only a small amount of a certain supply is needed. Sourcing just a little of these supplies can be a challenge. Imagine my dismay when I was missing a few milliliters of one crucial ingredient for the solution needed to treat a collection of cast iron cookware and fire dogs from Corydon Capitol State Historic Site that had been damaged by water leaking from a chimney. My magic wand was broken!

The ingredient I needed — phosphoric acid — is so common that I couldn’t imagine not finding it sold locally. It’s what gives some colas the “bright” taste, it’s a homeopathic medicine, brewers and hydroponic gardeners use it to lower the pH of their mash and water respectively, it can be used as a flux for soldering metals, and it’s used as a rust and hard water scale remover. Everyone I called either didn’t have it or didn’t have it in the pure form that I needed. It was hard to fathom that I would need to have it shipped from elsewhere, like a rare and precious commodity.

Fire dogs before (above) and after (below) conservation.

Just as I was about to give up, Tuxedo Park Brewers Supply came to the rescue with what I needed. I’m used to buying supplies from some interesting places, but theirs is at the top of my list. Their shop exterior is a brightly painted scene of orange and yellow wheat fields with a bright blue sky that you can only find by going down an otherwise drab, nondescript alley in Fountain Square. Yes, that’s right, their storefront is the alley.

This was a simple potion that I mixed for the treatment of the corroded cast iron, just some tannic acid and phosphoric acid. Tannic acid is a product that has been used since ancient times for making inks, in fabric dyeing and leather processing; it occurs naturally in tree galls, the bark of some trees and in tea leaves. It sounds scary, but it comes in the form of a fluffy, tan colored powder. Luckily, I had a whole bottle of tannic acid powder and once I mixed that with some de-ionized water, added a few drops of the phosphoric acid and heated it up, it was ready to be applied onto the surface with hog hair brushes. Through the magic of chemistry, the rust is converted to a stable, black colored corrosion layer. You can see for yourself what a few ingredients can do to change the appearance of some frightening looking objects. If you want to see them in person, you’ll have to visit Corydon Capitol State Historic Site.

Time on their hands …

There are only 12 steam clocks in the world, and the Indiana State Museumis lucky enough to have one of them. No one else had even imagined a clock powered by steam before Raymond Saunders of Vancouver, British Columbia, had the idea to build one in 1977 for the Gastown area of Vancouver. That one was built to cover a central heat steam vent in the sidewalk. Saunders since went on to build six more, including ours.

The 17-foot tall Indiana State Museum steam clock is located on the sidewalk on the canal side of the museum. It has four 24-inch diameter dials, back-lit by neon. The clock’s eight brass whistles play a few bars of “Back Home Again in Indiana” every 15 minutes, with a fuller rendition played at the top of every hour.

However, the clock has been out of order this summer and needed to be repaired. Turns out it was somewhat of a plumbing issue, with leaky pipes to the eight solenoids that feed into the eight whistles playing “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

So for now, the HVAC people are fixing the leaks. But eventually Mr. Saunders may need to travel from Vancouver to tune the whistles … stay tuned! Yes, pun intended.


From corn to car parts?

by guest blogger Angela Harris, Research Engineer at Ford Motor Company

This past year, I had the incredible opportunity to work with the Indiana State Museum to help develop an exhibit called Amazing Maize, which highlights the history and many uses of corn. Throughout the development of the exhibit, I was able to share with them how Ford Motor Company is actively researching opportunities to develop new, sustainable materials for our vehicles. At Ford, we believe in taking a total green approach to vehicle development and design, stepping beyond fuel efficiency and what’s under the hood; to incorporating sustainable materials into the vehicles we build.

Samples of materials and parts made from PLA.

Did you know traditional plastic materials are most commonly derived from petroleum? We realize petroleum is a limited resource and are looking at many different ways to reduce our usage. One way to achieve this is by using crops that can be grown as a renewable feedstock for plastics. We have already been successful developing and implementing soy-based foams for seat backs, cushions and headrests in the majority of the vehicles we produce. Our team has also included wheat straw as a filler in storage bins on the Ford Flex. Another material we are now actively researching for future use is a biodegradable plastic that is 100 percent corn based, called polylactide (PLA).

I’m sure plastic car parts are not the first thing that come to mind when you think about uses for corn, is it? So how do you get plastic from corn? Basically, the PLA plastic comes from corn starch, which can ultimately be processed into a part, fiber or film. Even though we are early in the development phase with PLA, we see many future potential automotive uses for this eco-friendly plastic in vehicle carpeting, upholstery and interior trim pieces. We are actively pursuing each of these applications and hope one day you will find corn-based plastic inside your next Ford vehicle. You can get a first-hand look at some of our prototype PLA parts we have developed, as a part of the Amazing Maize exhibit!

As I mentioned, PLA is biodegradable. In fact, PLA plastic parts will degrade to produce energy — carbon dioxide and water — in 90 to 120 days under the right composting conditions, compared to traditional petroleum based plastic which takes up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Since this plastic is compostable, we are researching ways to ensure that the PLA meets our durability and performance requirements. After all, we don’t want your car to compost while you’re still driving it! When we introduce a new material into our vehicles, that material must meet all of our stringent specifications and standards.

The Indiana State Museum’s Amazing Maize exhibit, opening Sept. 24, will give museum-goers a first hand look at Ford’s bio-materials research program, as well as a look inside our corn-based ethanol technology. It’s a great example of significant, industrial uses for corn and innovations for the future of corn. We, at Ford Motor Company, are so excited to be a part of this educational exhibit.

A yo-yo Fountain of Youth

Eric Todd, Science & Technology Program Specialist

Earlier this month I turned 27 years old. The main gift I received from my mom was a rice pack. If you’re unfamiliar, and most are, this is a cloth bag filled with rice that can be heated in the microwave or chilled in the freezer for use in the relief of bodily aches and pains. Now, I’m certainly not willing to admit that I’m getting old, but I definitely felt younger when I was tearing open birthday packages filled with action figures or sports equipment than when receiving a bag designed to erase the daily toll life takes on me.

If I work hard enough, the 2012 contest is within reach.

The point is, I loved being a kid, and I often feel that the simple joys of my youth have now passed me by. Wow, that sounded incredibly depressing. But the truth is, I’ve recently been inspired to rediscover the fun of my personal yesteryear. With the rice pack serving as the latest reminder that my life and hobbies are not quite as youthful and fun as they once were, I have embraced the museum’s preparation for the 2011 Indiana State Yo-yo Contest as a miniature fountain of youth.

I’ve always enjoyed playing with a yo-yo. Now, I hate to brag, but I happen to think I’m pretty good too. I mean, you hand me a yo-yo, I can keep that baby humming for quite some time. Sure, it’s not easy, and as I’ve been practicing at my desk I’ve found that yo-yoing is a challenge that has its ups and downs — I felt obligated to work that in — but I stood confidently by my yo-yo skills. Until I saw this video. This video rattled my self-image and shattered the very core of what I thought I knew about yo-yoing. And I loved it.

That video was my first introduction to what I would be seeing at the yo-yo contest. With the upbeat music and fast-paced tricks, it never dawned on me that something with such a modern feel could have such a long history. With yo-yo contests dating back more than 80 years and the Indiana contest being one of the longest running in the United States, I can’t help but feel that I’ll be witnessing history on April 29 and 30 at the 2011 Contest. With competitors coming from all over the country, I feel spoiled to think that my first yo-yo experience will feature the best of the best. Plus, with vendors on hand and the competitors accessible with tips, I’m selfishly hoping to exploit their expertise to add a trick or two — I’d be happy with one — to my own repertoire.

I cannot confirm the legitimacy of this MVP award, but maybe I should have stuck with baseball.

As a closet full of toys and games in my bedroom back home can attest (to my parents, if you’re reading this: do not throw anything away), I attempted many things in my day, but mastered few. And while I don’t regret casting aside my Pog collection and rarely lament my failure to collect every WWF wrestling figure (full disclosure, I’d still like to have those), watching these yo-yoers has caused me to wonder what could have been. Maybe it’s not too late for me to be the next great Erector Set architect, but for now, I’m looking forward to living vicariously through the competitors at the 2011 Indiana State Yo-yo Contest.

The Indiana State Museum is hosting the 2011 Indiana State Yo-yo Contest on April 29 and 30.