Sci-Fi Meets Sci-Fact: 'Alien Worlds And Androids' At CT Science Center

When Richard Thomas was young, he loved sci-fi movies. His favorite was the 1956 classic "Forbidden Planet." That film was set at the end of the 21st century when "men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon."

As everyone knows, it didn't take that long. Men in rocket ships landed on the moon in 1969.

"A lot of stuff that at one point was fiction is now becoming real science," says Thomas, director of exhibit development and design at Connecticut Science Center in Hartford. "We can't go into hyperdrive beyond the speed of light, but we're getting closer to it."

The Science Center's show,"Alien Worlds and Androids" acknowledges the fine line between science fiction and science fact, in a way that will delight youngsters. The exhibit has tons of information about robotics, artificial intelligence, microbiomes, the solar system and other scientific subjects. Scattered throughout the gallery among the educational displays are replications of movie characters that have inspired both love and fear in generations of science fiction fans.

"Is that the real C3PO?" a boy asks his father as they enter the gallery. His father plays along, responding "I don't know." The boy runs to the statue, his arms open wide.

Near the shiny "Star Wars" droid is his best friend, the stumpy bot R2D2. Off to the side, a shiny bust of the T-800 from the "Terminator" movies glowers out of a display case. Iron Man, the Alien, Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and Robby the Robot from "Forbidden Planet" complete the robot-and-alien invasion of the gallery. It's an exhibit made for selfies.

"Using iconic characters to draw people in and teach them something is more interesting than saying 'let me tell you about microbial life'," says John Bordeaux, the science center's vice president for advancement. The exhibit "relates to a body's microbiome, which help us survive and thrive."

The show was assembled in a collaboration between NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Alien is scary looking, with his two sets of sharp teeth, his spiky tail, six fingers and long fingernails. However, it isn't the creepiest-looking thing in the gallery. That would be something that looks like an alien but isn't, the giant spider crab, which has the largest leg span in the arthropod family. The otherworldly-looking creature dwells at the ocean floor, near hydrothermal vents. It is one of the animals referred to as "extremophiles," which live in extreme conditions of heat, cold, acidity or other factors.

"They are the aliens among us. They live in entirely different ecosystems. In these extreme conditions, things look freakish. It's all about adaptability," Bordeaux says. "Looking at an animal that lives near, say, a methane fissure is a possible way to look at life on other planets. Perhaps on another planet, this is happening."

One display tells how the communication devices from "Star Trek" were the inspiration for the design of the first flip phones. An interactive display near C3PO lets visitors use a robotic arm to grab things, similar to "claw" arcade games. Modern-day robots such as drones and roombas are seen.

A short video shows early test phases for the Curiosity rover, which is now on Mars. Another video shows robotics teams competing. NASA and JPL research on solar-system exploration and life on other planets is discussed, and phases in android development are illustrated, including one photo of a robot that is so human-looking it's creepy.

"There's a term, translated from the Japanese, called the 'uncanny valley,' about the feeling people get when a robot looks too real," Bordeaux said. "People don't like it."

ALIEN WORLDS AND ANDROIDS is at Connecticut Science Center, 250 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford, until Jan. 7. It is included in regular admission rates: $16.95 for ages 3 to 17; $23.95 for adults; $21.95 seniors. Members free. ctsciencecenter.org.

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