Plan Your Visit

Portal To Current Research Exhibits

Wildfire exhibit at Pacific Science Center

The Portal To Current Research space inside Building 2 showcases local scientists’ advances in current research through a combination of digital media, graphics, objects and interactive displays. Content and themes rotate throughout the year. The Portal to Current Research exhibits are included in general admission.


Past Exhibits


July – November 2019

Why do some parts of Washington have frequent wildfires?

Why does the smoke from distant wildfires sometimes hover over Seattle?

What exactly is a wildfire, anyway?

In Wildfire, we delve into these and other questions about living with this dangerous yet natural process.

How much do you know about wildfire’s history in the United States? Find out how scientific understanding and policy approaches have evolved over time, and why wildfires aren’t such a bad thing.

During your visit, you’ll learn about wildfire’s important role in the ecology of some forests, and can assemble a puzzle of diverse plants that thrive after a wildfire runs its course.

In this exhibit, you can explore fires burning in Washington state in real time. You can also witness Seattle’s dramatic, recent past. How different does the city look when smoke rolls in? Contrast the dramatically different views in multiple interactives.

First, experience the view from the top of the Space Needle on clear and smoky days in 2018, and compare the smoke forecasts for those same dates. Then, manipulate a digital photo interactive, featuring images from Crosscut, to watch the skyline change before your eyes.

Do you know what the risks are and how to stay safe? Find out why wildfire smoke is so bad for you, and how you can protect yourself during smoky summers.

Use a sorting game to test your knowledge of common fire hazards at both campsites and houses, and learn why some items pose dangers and others don’t. Compare masks that do and don’t filter out smoke’s fine particulates – are you already using the right kind, or do you need to make a change?

Learn about simple tricks to improve your personal well-being during fire season, as well as innovative community and design methods that are helping humans transition into a new era of fire safety.


Memory: Fragrant Flashbacks

Fall 2017 – Spring 2019

Smell has the power to transport us back in time.

Are there certain smells that evoke strong memories for you? The first drops of rain after a dry spell? A newborn baby’s head? Freshly-baked cookies? In Memory: Fragrant Flashbacks, learn how we acquire, consolidate, and retrieve our memories and why those associated with smell are different.

Smell stations will challenge you to recognize different odors and consider your emotional response to them. At the Smell Synthesizer test 19 basic odors and then put them together to create more than 500,000 unique scents to stir your memories! Learn how one local scientist conducted important research related to how our brains detect and process smells, while another solved the mystery of how some people lost their sense of smell.

The relationship between smell and memory is highly autobiographical. For some a whiff of smoke elicits memories of a house fire, but for others it brings up fond memories of camping. During your visit, we invite you to write down your memories associated with smell and add them to the exhibit for others to enjoy.

This exhibit series is generously funded by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Mission: Find Life!

March 18 – September 4, 2017

Are we alone? The universe is vast and includes billions of planets circling billions of stars. Most likely, there is life somewhere out there…but how can we find it?  We need to be strategic and narrow the search in order to find life.

Join us in learning more about NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), headquartered at the University of Washington. VPL’s mission is to find ways for us to detect life on other planets and determine which types of planets are more likely to support life.

In the exhibit, explore the universe on a giant touch screen. Play with a model of a distant solar system to discover how the Kepler space telescope (“the planet hunter”) provides scientists with subtle, indirect signs of the existence of distant planets. Discover why scientists are specifically looking for planets with liquid water. Could a planet with no oxygen support life? Maybe! Learn why the color purple might be the key.

Memory: Past Meets Present

September 17, 2016 – March 5, 2017

Our brains are masters of mental mapping. Learn how we acquire, consolidate, and retrieve our memories. Explore a model of a human brain and discover how our understanding of the brain has evolved over time.

Then, focus on spatial memory—memories about where things are. Research has shown the brain has its own built-in GPS system, which helps us make mental maps of where we’ve been. In order to find our way, we need to know where we are, what we’re looking for, and where we’re going.

Scientists have learned our goals and motivations determine what we pay attention to along the way and ultimately what we remember.  Make surprising discoveries about what gets included in your mental maps through a touch-table game about foraging for food in the forest. Challenge your memory skills by testing a technique used by ancient Greeks and Romans to memorize epic poems with the help of their spatial memory.

Current research from the University of Washington sheds light on how our brains record spatial information and also may help scientists develop a diagnostic tool to detect early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

This exhibit series is funded by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Chemists: Catalysts for Change

March 19, 2016 – September 5, 2016

The raw materials that make up medicine, microchips, eyeglasses and even dog toys come from one source: oil. Find out more about these chemicals and chemistry in general at Chemists: Catalysts for Change, the new exhibit in the Portal to Current Research space.

Get to know some of the chemists from the University of Washington’s Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (CENTC). Learn about their efforts to make chemical reactions happen faster and their search for new sources of raw materials for everyday items. Roll up your sleeves, put on your gloves and build a compound. Explore some of the chemicals we use every day—did you know table salt is a chemical?—and see the catalysts inside your car.

This exhibit is made possible by grant number CHE-1205189 from the National Science Foundation.

Memory: Past Meets Present

September 19, 2015 – March 6, 2016

How do your muscles learn to ride a bike, shoot a basketball or play the piano? In Memory: Past Meets Present, dive into procedural (a.k.a. muscle) memory and explore how practicing a specific action many times teaches your body to do physical tasks.

Train your own memory with a “save-the-prince” interactive game, and see if you can use your procedural memory to play a simple song on a keyboard. Meet UW graduate students working on a project called “vHAB” that could help patients relearn muscle memories after disease or injuries; then play a vHAB video game that uses sensitive motion-tracking technology to read your muscle movements and give you feedback on improvement.

Researchers estimate we each have about 86 billion neurons in our brains connected by 100,000 miles of axons—that’s equivalent to four trips around the Earth! While still don’t know exactly how our neurons talk to each other, scientists have made huge leaps in understanding how we acquire, consolidate and retrieve our memories.

This exhibit is made possible by a grant from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Investigating Arctic Ice Melt

Narwhals, polar suits and buoys, oh my! Come explore our new exhibit, Investigating Arctic Ice Melt, and see how sea ice moves, how oceans are like layer cakes and where narwhals go for the winter. Featuring research from five University of Washington scientists out of the Polar Science Center, Investigating Arctic Ice Melt uses pieces of complementary Arctic research to answer the question – what is going on with Arctic ice melt?

Explore how wind affects sea ice and how light reflects off it – and how this impacts our climate. Are you as tall as a narwhal’s tooth? Come find out, at Investigating Arctic Ice Melt

Meet the Scientists

Kristin Laidre – Kristin studies the movements of narwhals and polar bears in the Arctic, two species that call the ice their home. How is the changing ice landscape affecting these creatures? Kristin is working to find out.

Bonnie Light – Bonnie studies the physics and optics of sea ice – how the bright summer sun affects ice formation and movement, which in turn affects the atmosphere. Being able to answer these questions will give us more accurate predictions of future climate.

Ignatius Rigor – Ignatius studies Arctic sea ice, one of the primary indicators of global climate change. The ice waxes and wanes, driven by variations in sunlight and temperature. Changes in wind also play an important role by redistributing the ice across the Arctic Ocean, creating areas of open water, and by compressing this ice into ridges. Making sense of the complex interplay between the air, ocean and sea ice is a challenging puzzle that motivates his research.

Axel Schweiger – Axel studies the interaction of sea ice with clouds and radiation using satellite data, models and in-situ observations. Axel hopes his work will help lessen the negative impacts of our actions on the environment by developing better models that illustrate the risks of not addressing climate change.

Mike Steele – Mike is interested in the large-scale circulation of sea ice and water in the Arctic Ocean and loves making new discoveries that will change the world around us. Focusing on the effects of ice retreat and ocean warming, Mike hopes to answer how much of this is due to currents, and how much is caused by climate change.

Memory: Past Meets Present

September 20, 2014 – February 16, 2015

What did you do yesterday? What do you remember from last year? What memories guide your decisions and actions today? How do we remember? Why do we forget? Learn all about the science of memory in our exhibit Memory: Past Meets Present.

We are able to learn because we are able to remember. We learn abstract facts, we learn new skills, and we learn from experience. Our memory—our memories—make us and shape us. But what have we learned so far about the three-pound organ in our heads that makes this all possible? Learn how we have gone from looking at the brain and neurons to looking at chemical and electrical pathways. Then trick your brain with two of our memory demonstrations. Learn how distance changes what you see and what you remember. Then explore how our brains remember faces – can you remember who you saw?

This exhibit series is funded by a grant from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Exploring Our Solar System With Local NASA Scientists

September 2013 – February 2014

This exhibition features the research of UW’s Erika Harnett and the Space Science Institute’s Josh Bandfield. These researchers’ vastly different work may someday lead to the exploration of Mars. Erika looks at Solar Storms while Josh uses Infrared images to map the moon and Mars.

Meet The Scientists: Josh Bandfield

“I’ve been interested in science pretty much forever. After high school, I was living with my parents and going to a community college. So here I am, college freshman, and all the classes are full – except geology. And it turned out that geology is pretty much the most awesome thing ever. I realized that the people studying the planets aren’t astronomers, they’re geologists. I finished my geology degree and started an internship doing planetary geology at Arizona State, which led to grad school, which led to the University of Washington and NASA and Mars rover missions and everything else. A lot of my research is basic stuff – there’s a planet out there that’s different than our planet and we have some big basic questions that we’re trying to figure out: What is Mars made of? What is its climate like? Where can we land a rover?”

Meet The Scientists: Erika Harnett

“I’ve always been interested in science and space and what’s beyond Earth. When I graduated from high school I wanted to send people to Mars. Towards the end of my physics degree, I got some very bad advice – that I should choose something more practical. After studying hazardous waste containment, I decided to start over. I started my PhD in geophysics and ended up doing computer modeling by accident. I realized that I really, really loved it because I can create any world I want to in my computer. I want to make it safer and easier for humans to explore the solar system. And solar storms are one of the hazards we have to worry about.”

Chemists: Catalysts for Change

October 23, 2011 – February 11, 2012

Seattle researchers are doing something really big. The “holy grail” of big in the chemistry realm. And that’s very desirable to most of us since creating less waste, fewer toxins and more energy efficiency in chemicals and fuels is high priority in this savvy, environmentally conscious community. Looking at more efficient, inexpensive and environmentally friendly ways to make chemicals and fuels, this national network of scientists is headquartered at the University of Washington’s Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (CENTC).

What exactly is catalysis? Simply put, it changes how a chemical reaction happens. This process can speed up a reaction, it can make new reactions possible and can allow different starting materials to be used. The chemical that causes these changes is called a catalyst, which can be organic, synthetic or metal. The catalyst is not used up in a reaction (and thus can be used again and again).

Catalysis is extremely important to our economy. Nearly all industrial production of fuels, plastics, drugs and other chemicals relies on catalysis to be possible. Development of new catalysts is critical for the development of more efficient, economic and greener technologies.

Life in Extreme Environments

May 27 – October 4, 2011

This first exhibit focuses on “Life in the Extreme Environments,” an exhibit and program experience based on University of Washington Oceanographer Dr. Deborah Kelley research on hydrothermal vents. According to Dr. Kelley, 70% of the volcanism on Earth occurs beneath the surface of the ocean along a 70,000 km (roughly 43,500 miles) mountain chain that stretches around the planet like the seam of a baseball. As these rocks in the mountains cool and crack, seawater migrates miles down into the oceanic crust, forming the largest fractured aquifer system on Earth, creating hydrothermal vents.

Learn more about Dr. Kelley’s research in hydrothermal vents at Pacific Science Center’s newest exhibit and presentation space, Portal to Current Research, bringing guests up close and personal with Dr. Kelley’s work and other fascinating research happening in our region.


Made Possible By


Funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the Portal space is a platform created as part of Pacific Science Center’s commitment to connecting our public with current research in relevant, engaging and inspiring ways. In 2010, the Portal to the Public program also received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant for $576,000 to develop an updatable exhibit and program space that will feature changing regional health-related research. The exhibit space is located near the main entrance to the Science Center’s exhibit, Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health and Wellness inside Building 2.

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