Come up and see me sometime
A new publication explains how art, architecture, and science converge in the new science center
On Feb. 3, workers moved a huge but very fragile 7-foot cross section of a Douglas fir out of storage—where it had been waiting in climate-controlled isolation for three years while the Thompson Hall renovation progressed—and placed it back on display outside the geology department. The artifact joins examples old and new that make up “science on display” in public spaces throughout Harned and Thompson halls. As Arches went to press, a fascinating pamphlet featuring a walking tour of display items was in the works. Among really cool items we gleaned from its pages:
Union Avenue Facade
The exterior facade of Harned Hall features six flat stone panels engraved with the Bohr atomic model of electrons in circular orbits around the nuclei of heavy elements. Framing the building’s entrance are two curved panels. The symmetrical pattern on the left side of the entrance depicts the relative motion of Earth and Venus, representing the physical sciences. On the right is a traditional Celtic image called the “Tree of Life,” representing the life sciences. Both curved panels are bordered with an ornamental motif known as the Greek key, a classical design relating to the folding pattern of proteins.
Gray Whale Skeleton The 27-foot-long skeleton hanging from the Harned Hall lobby ceiling is that of a male, juvenile gray whale. He is about half the size of a mature whale. In March 1973 while migrating north from Baja, Calif., the 14-month-old whale beached itself and died at Chinook, Wash., near the mouth of the Columbia River. The specimen was donated to the Slater Museum of Natural History.
Age of the Earth The floor-tile pattern in the first-floor corridor of Thompson Hall traces periods in the geological timeline of the Earth, each tile representing about 9 million years. The longest period (salmon-colored tiles representing the Precambrian era) starts in the north wing of Thompson and ends in the middle of the hallway, with the advent of animal life. Three blue sections comprise the time dinosaurs were present on Earth. On the scale presented, the span of human existence would occupy a piece of tile slightly thicker than two pennies stacked together.
Planetary Orbits Mosaic This two-story-high mosaic uses 4-inch-square tiles to depict the orbits of the planets, inscribed over a view of Western Washington and Puget Sound as seen from space. Blue represents water, greens represent lowlands and forests, and off-white shows the location of snow and glaciers. The western coast of Washington, Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and Vancouver Island are visible. Mounted metal bands trace each planet’s orbit, with the orbits of Neptune and Pluto seen to be crossing in the upper left. (Pluto was considered a planet at the time the mosaic was designed.) The center of the solar system is Tacoma!
Sierpinski Carpet One of the largest science-on-display installations lies in the pattern of the bricks in the Brown Family Courtyard called a Sierpinski Carpet. The pattern begins with a large, square, brown brick. This large square is divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically, like a tick-tack-toe grid. The central square is a contrasting color (red brick). This leaves eight brown squares around the edges of a red square. Each of these eight squares is divided into thirds and given a central red square, creating 64 smaller squares to again subdivide. The procedure can be applied infinitely, resulting in a pattern referred to as a fractal—a shape that appears similar at all scales of magnification. The design was first described by Polish mathematician Waclaw Sierpinski (1882–1969).
Pi in Binary The border of the third-floor hallway is made up of black and gray tiles illustrating the numerical value of pi in binary code. Black tiles correspond to the digit 1, and gray to 0. The pattern represents roughly the first 500 places of pi. The small red square is the “binary point,” not a decimal point.
Foucault Pendulum, Penrose Tiling Located in the center of Harned Hall’s spiral staircase is a Foucault pendulum, which demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. The pendulum appears to swing in an ever-changing plane (very slowly, taking about 32.5 hours to make a complete rotation). Actually the plane remains stationary and Earth rotates beneath it. If the pendulum were located directly above the North Pole, it would make a complete rotation every 24 hours. As latitude decreases, the time to rotate increases, so our pendulum takes more than a day to make a complete rotation. Hung from the ceiling of the third floor, the cable pendulum is suspended over a wooden base of inlaid tiles in a Penrose pattern, designed and constructed by Professor of Physics Alan Thorndike. The tiling is aperiodic and has no translational symmetry, meaning the shapes form a regular but nonrepeating pattern.
Thompson Hall Tower Carved into the stone of the Thompson Hall clock tower are traditional symbols and icons representing physical constants (such as Planck’s constant), mathematical notations (the integral sign), notations representing the solar system (the sun, Venus, Mars), and other images representing animals, formations in nature, and minerals (a bird, a snowflake, a pickax).
Research and Teaching Garden Flanked by the Berg Cascade Water Feature, the research and teaching garden is used by biology faculty and students to explore native plant species. Except for the ginkgo trees in pots at the entrance to Thompson Hall, all the foliage in the courtyard is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.
Thomas L. Ray Gazebo The glass gazebo located at the southern end of the courtyard is designed to have faces and symmetry reminiscent of crystalline structures found in nature.