Hands up if you’ve mastered Magic Eye stereograms. You know, those ones where you gaze at a seemingly abstract pattern, you start seeing double, then the double image converges – and voila! A perfect 3D picture emerges. Then once you have it in focus, you can actually let your eyes wander round the image without losing the 3D effect. Aren’t they incredible? If you haven’t succeeded yet, keep trying and I promise the rewards will be worth it. Just relax your eyes and don’t squint.
For those of us who’ve never lost our sense of wonder at the tricks that our senses can play on us, the MindWorks exhibition – at Glasgow’s light and spacious Science Centre – is a paradise of optical and audio illusions, with a dose of good hard science at its core. There’s enigma, too: it can be immensely satisfying to lift the “How does it work/ Want to know more?” flap alongside an exhibit, only to be told that this particular illusion “is not understood by scientists”. It gives the sense that there is always more waiting to be discovered, another mystery to tantalise.
It’s useful to be reminded that our perceptions of reality are not always to be trusted and that even our eyes (or rather, the mind’s interpretation of the eyes’ raw data) can lie to us. As you wander through the exhibits, you see circles as spirals, rotations where there are none, phantom colours, shapes and movement materialising and vanishing- and Marilyn Monroe morphing into Albert Einstein, depending on how close you’re standing. It’s also gratifying to have scientific confirmation of what every artist and fashionista knows: that our perception of colour is not fixed, but depends on the surrounding hues. (Which is why “What’s your favourite colour?” is such a meaningless question: it should, of course, be “What’s your favourite colour combination?”)
The audio sections are likewise enthralling. You can have the Doppler effect explained to you while lounging in a very comfy cocoon-like seat enjoying a “Holophonic soundscape” (the aural equivalent to 3D). There’s also an area where you can sit and try out the so-called Precedence Effect for yourself. This is the principle whereby if a sound reaches either the left or right ear first, we automatically perceive it as coming from that side only – even if it reaches the other ear only a minuscule fraction of a second later. Another area highlights -rather spookily- how the distinction between speech and song is not as clear-cut as is often assumed, while the McGurk-MacDonald effect demonstrates how our innate lip-reading abilities can actually override what we are hearing. Try them out- they really work!
True, not everything worked on me. The Vortex Tunnel which is designed to make you feel like you’re rotating when you’re not- had zero impact (and trust me, I’m not immune to a bit of good old-fashioned motion sickness). Win some, lose some.
The Science Centre has huge wall-to-wall windows with a splendid view of the Clyde, and maximises the use of natural light. Its atmosphere resembles that of a particularly cheery, modern and progressive primary school science block. But the most striking feature of Mindworks is that it is really is interactive: far from merely offering a bit of token button-pressing, it genuinely challenges the mind and senses. The visitor can grab the opportunity to explore the science that underpins it all – or just enjoy the thrills at face value. With its subtle exploration of truth and illusion, and the evocative terminology (doesn’t “peripheral drift” sound delicious?) this is a place where science and philosophy converge to create something truly poetic.