Museum of Science and Industry Dives Into Finding the Extraordinary in Ordinary Things

The refrigerator magnet just sticks. The plastic handle just fits our palm perfectly. The ceramic tile just happens to keep the space shuttle cool. We take so many items for granted each day. We go about our business and the things around us stay strong and keep their shape with a precision and steadfastness that once seemed like magic.

But it wasn't always so simple. The scientists and engineers often put decades of work into developing a new form of plastic or a special metal alloy to do a job that was once impossible and a new exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL wants to honor this unseen and often unappreciated genius.

“The goal of this exhibit is to showcase for guests just how much scientific research and testing goes into developing and improving upon the materials that are all around us,” Dr. Patricia Ward, MSI’s director of science and technology.

And so there are items to touch and see, but displayed so we can notice what makes them special. That aluminum rod isn't just a piece of aluminum from the same furnace that forges soda cans. It's a special lightweight aluminum alloys and carbon fiber composites that make it possible for Boeing's newest jets, the 737 and the 787, to fly higher and longer with less fuel. There are heat shedding ceramic tiles that let the Space Shuttle re-enter the atmosphere without burning up. Without either of these materials, these flights would be impossible.

There are also more playful examples, like a series of plastic parts that show how Lego evolved from 1939 to today. Without the right mixture of lightness and strength, the parts would not click together and we wouldn't have the ability to build and rebuild our models.

All of these materials depend upon precision machinery and the exhibit illustrates this with an Atomic Probe Field Ion Microscope, a silver globe that lets us look how atoms are arranged because some of the newest materials are formed by carefully placed in the right pattern, atom by atom. There's also a 3D printer that will spit out plastic gadgets from a spool of material.

The traveling exhibit opened today, March 19th, and runs through January 2016 in the Museum's Lower Gallery.