Pinball as sci­ence?

Shh, don’t let the kids know that they can ac­tu­ally learn some­thing at this ex­hi­bi­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By AN­GELA HILL

SO there I was, bounc­ing off the walls like a hu­man ball in a room of bumpers, play­ing a 1999 At­tack From Mars pinball game at Chabot Space & Sci­ence Cen­ter in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia – un­of­fi­cially known cur­rently as the “Chabot Ar­cade”.

And while it was a blast slam­ming crabby, rude Mar­tians with a speed­ing sil­ver pro­jec­tile, I was se­cretly learn­ing stuff, too.

Things about an­gles, el­lipses, grav­ity, prob­a­bil­ity, mag­net­ics, pop cul­ture, his­tory. Darn you, Chabot, for mak­ing me use my brain!

Yes, the renowned sci­ence cen­tre’s new ex­hibit ti­tled The Art & Sci­ence Of Pinball – run­ning un­til Sept 24 – has 35 vin­tage ma­chines in the main ex­hi­bi­tion space, on loan from the Pa­cific Pinball Mu­seum in the city of Alameda. You can to­tally play them to your in­ner wizard’s con­tent – no to­kens re­quired.

And though it may seem an odd at­trac­tion in a space/sci­ence mu­seum, Adam Tobin, Chabot’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, says it scores as a per­fect fit.

“Pinball has it all,” he says, rais­ing his voice dur­ing a re­cent me­dia pre­view to be heard over the nos­tal­gic din of ping-ping, buzz, bo­ing-bo­ing-ping.

“It’s this great in­ter­sec­tion of art, sci­ence, and cul­ture. The art on the ma­chines was in­flu­enced by so­ci­etal changes, you can see how the tech­nol­ogy evolved from pins on a board to me­chan­i­cal de­vices, then to electro­mechan­i­cal, then dig­i­tal.

“The fact that sci­ence is fun is im­por­tant,” he says. “And there’s no bet­ter ex­am­ple of that than pinball.”

I took his word for it, but still tried not to learn too much as I moved over to a 1967 Beat Time ma­chine, with the im­age of a sus­pi­ciously fa­mil­iar-look­ing mu­sic group – The Boo­tles?

Then over to a 1980s Black Knight where the haughty horse­man gave a mock­ing me­chan­i­cal laugh as my ball was lost to an­other realm.

Then back in time to the sim­pler era of 1953 on Fly­ing High, a clas­sic wood­framed ma­chine with women pi­lots pre­par­ing for flight, their miniskirts flut­ter­ing in the wind.

Amid the bells, lights, and whis­tles are in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits – also more like games them­selves – de­signed and built by Pa­cific Pinball Mu­seum’s founder Michael Schiess.

He and his wife, Melissa Har­mon – co-cu­rat­ing the show – both went “tilt” for pinball long ago, amass­ing a mas­sive col­lec­tion of more than 1,300 ma­chines and open­ing the Pa­cific Pinball Mu­seum in 2004 (orig­i­nally Lucky JuJu).

As a tin­kerer who used to work on ex­hibits at San Fran­cisco’s Ex­plorato­rium sci­ence cen­tre, Schiess is all about ki­netic art and teach­ing sci­encey stuff in fun ways.

“Like, check this out,” he says, push­ing a but­ton on his Pin­bowl dis­play, a big Plex­i­glas bowl rimmed in blue neon with three pinball bumpers in the mid­dle. A ball leaps around like pop­corn ker­nels in a hot pan.

“If you stood here a thou­sand years, you could see pat­terns de­velop,” he says. “Chaos, over a pe­riod of time, is pre­dictable.”

Har­mon has al­ways been drawn to the art on the back­glass, the up­right part of a pinball ma­chine’s cab­i­net. They’re uniquely Amer­i­can de­signs which oft go un­no­ticed by the guy in the back of the Pizza Hut fu­ri­ously flip­ping flip­pers on a fu­tile quest for a multi­ball. And some of the works are a lit­tle bizarre.

She points to the 1961 Egg Head game. “It’s a silly cartoon style,” she says. “But when you re­ally look at it, there’s a lot more to it. It’s got bizarre im­ages of a sci­en­tist in the back­ground, a ro­bot play­ing tic-tac-toe with beau­ti­ful women smok­ing cig­a­rettes.”

We walk over to the North Star game from 1964. It’s back­glass shows a smil­ing Eskimo wo­man – her fur coat also a miniskirt ver­sion – with a sub­ma­rine in the back­ground. “It’s de­pict­ing when the Nau­tilus sub came up un­der the North Pole (in 1958), which was a real event,” Har­mon says. “But it has one of the sailors sit­ting on an ice­berg with a gui­tar, ser­e­nad­ing the Eskimo wo­man. I’m pretty sure that didn’t hap­pen!”

Along with the games and dis­plays – all fea­tur­ing in­for­ma­tion about me­chan­ics, math, his­tory, and other mat­ters – large can­vas re-cre­ations of colour­ful back­glass art by San Fran­cisco Bay Area mu­ral­ists Dan Fontes and Ed Cas­sel are hung through­out the ex­hibit.

The mu­seum also has sev­eral work­shops and spe­cial pro­grammes.

You might just learn some­thing. But, shh, don’t tell any­one. – The Mer­cury News/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

The Art And Sci­ence Of Pinball is on at the Chabot Space & Sci­ence Cen­ter (No. 10000, Sky­line Boule­vard, Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, United States) un­til Sept 24. Reg­u­lar ad­mis­sion is US$18 (RM77) for adults and US$14 (RM60) for youth. For more in­for­ma­tion, go to

The art on the back­glass, the up­right part of a pinball ma­chine’s cab­i­net, can be a lit­tle bizarre ....

Schiess demon­strat­ing one of the ma­chines.

Bumpers on a vin­tage pinball ma­chine at The Art And Sci­ence Of Pinball ex­hibit. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes vin­tage ma­chines vis­i­tors can ac­tu­ally play, while learn­ing about the sci­ence and engi­neer­ing that goes into the games. — Pho­tos: TNS

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