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Sparking Curiosity


Where would you hide if you were stuck in a lightning storm? Ideally in a car or a building with a lightning rod, right? However, would you feel safe from lightning inside a giant metal birdcage? Moreover, should you feel safe? To find an answer, a place to look would be at the ever popular Theater of Electricity, located at the crossroad between the electromagnetism exhibits and the weather exhibits at the Boston Museum of Science.

The Theater of Electricity is literally a theatre; the center of attention is a live-action display of electricity that is performed regularly — and with educational instruction! The Theater certainly has an impressive aura. Giant metal cables encase the stage of the Theater, separating the stage area from the audience. On the stage are the gadgets of electricity, like a kite, big coils, and even a human-sized birdcage. But most attention-grabbing are the two giant metal columns in the center of the stage, topped by two giant conjoined metal spheres: this is the largest Van de Graaf generator in the world.

Standing 37 feet tall, this contraption is capable of generating 2 million volts (by comparison, your ordinary disposable battery can only produce 1.5 volts). While smaller-scale Van de Graaf generators frequent museums and science classrooms, their uses are often limited to producing small sparks and making people’s hair stand up. The Theater’s giant Van de Graaf generator is reserved for the more dramatic task of creating lightning. After all, lightning bolts are just very large sparks, and this very large Van de Graaf generator is capable of producing very large sparks.

The show’s electrical spectacles are run by a museum staffer who not only controls the Theater’s electrical gadgets, but also performs an interactive narration that addresses many curiosities you or your kid may have about electricity: How was electricity discovered? Why does lightning come with thunder? What is St. Elmo’s Fire? How are electricity and magnetism related? Why does static electricity give you funny hair? Can you stay safe inside a bird cage during a lightning storm? Well, the museum staffer decides to answer the last question by bravely entering a giant bird cage onstage that becomes absolutely engulfed in lightning! Yet the museum staffer stays safe, intact and unzapped.

How can that be? Despite the gaps between the metal bars of the birdcage, lightning cannot pass through due to an electrical phenomenon known as the “skin effect.” As one show staffer simply put it, the cage becomes a magnet when lightning strikes it; as a result, the charges are pushed out and away from the inside of cage. Thus, any person completely inside the cage is left unharmed. Have trouble believing that? Then go see a show!

Chances are you would not tire from even repeated viewings of the Theater of Electricity. While the wow-factor of real indoor lightning may be enough to encourage revisits, the shows at the Theater switch up material from session to session. Every show has multiple demonstrations, each of which dazzles and enlightens the audience on some aspect of electricity, and these demonstrations vary from performance to performance. In one show, the museum staffer zapped a kite with lightning while telling the iconic story of Ben Franklin’s discovery of electricity and the science that goes along with it. In another show, an audience member was invited onstage to power a light bulb with a bicycle, demonstrating the use of magnets in creating electrical power. But of course, there is always the same eye-popping finale: the indoors lightning storm.

So you want to see the drama of electricity at the Museum of Science? Well, you best arrive early for seats. The Theater of Electricity often fills up fast, and many audience members stick around to watch even if they have to stand. Some people go to the show for the loud bangs and bright lights. Others go for the educational experience. Many go for both. Regardless of your motivation, the Theater of Electricity rarely fails to impress.

The Theater of Electricity’s live demonstrations are performed regularly at the Boston Museum of Science, including throughout the Festival. Click here for demonstration times.

(Be mindful, however, that the show does come with loud bangs and bright flashes. As electrical charges rip through the air, that energy is converted into heat, light, and sound. Therefore, the creation of lightning is a hot, bright, and loud process, whether it is created in thunderclouds in the sky or in the Theater of Electricity. Children and adults uncomfortable with bright lights and loud noises should not attend this show.)

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