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Mirror images mesmerize kaleidoscopic explorers

Email|Print| Text size + By and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / June 26, 2005

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- In the grand tradition of the best children's museums, the kaleidoscope exhibit at the Children's Museum here seems like too much fun to be educational. The new permanent installation opened in April to emphasize math and science skills, and seems destined to join the model post office and replica submarine as one of the institution's most popular attractions.

Kaleidoscopes have intrigued children (and adults) since Sir David Brewster invented the first one in 1816 in Edinburgh. Essentially a cylinder with three mirrors mounted inside, the kaleidoscope works its magic by making multiple reflections of whatever appears at the other end of the tube, often a rotating box of colored glass, feathers, or other translucent material.

The museum's kaleidoscope area is replete with commercial examples of the device, as well as some clear-tube kaleidoscopes made by exhibitions director Susan Kaufmann to reveal the inner workings. A magnet board on one wall lets children design symmetrical figures like those a kaleidoscope generates. In a rare touch of high-tech, children can sit at a computer station to create a wide variety of brightly colored kaleidoscopic patterns with a few mouse moves and clicks. Even preschoolers take to the technology intuitively, quickly outshining any attempts by adults to demonstrate the equipment.

The piece de resistance, however, is the human-sized kaleidoscope. You wriggle on the floor to get inside and then look up through the three-mirror tube to another mirror on the ceiling. At first the impact of the fractured reflections seems tame. But once you start moving, the effect is almost hallucinogenic.

''Kids love to jump around and dance," says marketing director Heidi Duncanson, ''but sometimes adults don't want to see so many multiples of themselves."

Guess they think it doesn't reflect well on them.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers in Cambridge.

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