Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Labels and Legends

Some of the most poorly written and boring informational writing gets millions of readers. I’m talking about the legends and labels that explain exhibits in museums, zoos and aquariums. Even as a child, as I read the facts on the small square above the lion’s cage in the Central Park Zoo—the Latin name, where it came from, and what it ate--I felt unsatisfied. I wondered about its behavior, which was usually sleeping in a cell of a cage that contained only a piece of a log as its minimal furnishing. I wondered how the lion really lived in the wild. Museums and zoos have improved over the years but the writing (usually done by museum staff) still leaves a lot to be desired.

So it’s no surprise that I have long harbored a secret wish to write a museum.I’m getting my wish! Well, I’m not exactly writing a museum, I’m writing a single exhibit. But, hey! It’s a start! A fabulous curved mirror, originally designed to produce a 3-D optical display for a flight simulator, has been donated to my new local library in Greenburgh, NY. It will go on display in about two weeks. In my enthusiasm for this project, I’m sharing with you the writing hoping it will generate some interest so you’ll want to see such a mirror in the future (there aren’t many of them around.)

The Story of this “Boomer” Mirror

It’s not easy to refuel an aircraft while it’s traveling at 500 mph six miles above the earth’s surface. Boeing developed the “Flying Boom,” a flexible, semi-rigid tube, to deliver fuel from a tanker plane to another aircraft while both are traveling at high speeds, six miles plus above the earth’s surface. The boom operator must be able to make many tiny adjustments in positioning the boom nozzle to dock with the very small receptacle on the receiving plane. Needless to say, this skill requires great hand-eye coordination, acute depth perception, and a considerable amount of practice.

A fighter being refueled by a tanker jet.

This is not a skill to be acquired on the job. Boomer operators are trained in a flight simulator, an on-the-ground exact replica of the inside of a jet tanker. They look at a three-dimensional display of a plane they might be refueling and that’s where this mirror comes in. This mirror was designed to create the optics for a “virtual reality” of the inside of the tanker aircraft above the receiving aircraft so that the boomer-operator-in-training can make mistakes without any fatal accidents.

View of the boomer and the receiving aircraft as it would look in a flight simulator

A duplicate for this mirror is currently in a flight simulator. This one was a spare. The mirror was designed by Eastman Kodak and built by Displays and Optical Technologies in Round Rock, Texas.

Some Cool Things To Do With This Mirror

See Your Own HUGE Eyeball Floating in Space

Put your eye 18 inches from the back surface of the center of this mirror (This spot is outside the case in the air.) This is the focal point of the mirror, the meeting point for all the light rays starting from your eye that are reflected back from the mirror’s surface. When you position your eye in at the focal point, you will see a humungous monstrous image of your eye looking back at you. If you move your eyes around this spot you can see your face with three eyes.

Shake Hands with Yourself

Position your hand 36 inches from the surface of the center of the mirror. (Again, this is in the middle of the air outside the case.) This is the center of the curve of the mirror. (The mirror is actually part of the inside of a sphere.) At this spot, an image of your hand is created that is upside down and reversed. When the image is directly on top of your hand, you can’t see it. However, when you move your hand right or left, a floating image moves in the opposite direction. If you move your hand up and down, you can shake hands with yourself. If you move a pointed finger towards this point, you will see an image of your finger moving towards you.As you move an object around in the vicinity of the center of curvature, the magnification and speed of the image changes. Verrrrrry strange……

I spoke to
Beverly Serrell, a noted expert and consultant on museum exhibit designs. I wanted to get her take on the writing of signs and labels for exhibits, (which is not a particularly lucrative profession.) “It is very important to watch people as they look at an exhibit,” she told me. When I told her I had written my first exhibit she said, “I promise you that it will change before you find its final form.” I can't seem to escape a learning curve.......


Wendie O said...

Wow, that sounds as if you really played around with that thing to discover all the neat things people can do with it. What fun! -wendie old

B.Serrell said...

Nice first draft. Here are my suggestions: Start with the concrete and specific--what is that thinkg you are looking at. Give background story information in a separate paragraph. Break up the text blocks on both sides of the mirror; don't put it all in one place. When you give directions, do it step by step or number the steps involved, not in one paragraph. Make simple illustrations of where to stand and put your head or your hand to interact with the mirror. Try it out with 10 different people and see what happens. Good luck!