Invisible Worlds

Aye-aye Behavior + Vocalizations

How do aye-aye lemurs communicate and capture food?

In this piece, you will learn to find food as a mother aye-aye, a nocturnal primate native to the island of Madagascar. Using a stick, which simulates the bony middle finger of an aye-aye, you must tap the log to forage for tasty grubs. As you improve, the baby aye-aye vocalizations diminish, letting you know that you’re providing enough food. Be sure to tap quickly or your family’s meal will get away!

The team hard at work on the piece in Emil Polyak's studio.

Sarah Albright sketching aye-aye graphics for the piece.

As dramatized in the science-fiction film Arrival, decoding the communication styles of other species is a frustrating but rewarding activity. Lemurs use vocalizations — barks, high-pitched shrieks, grunts, chirps, and other sounds — to alert fellow group members when predators are near, to warn competitors to stay away, or to communicate with other group members who might be far away in the forest. Although aye-aye lemurs (Daubentonia madagascariensis) have been at the Duke Lemur Center since 1987, their seven distinct vocalizations have not been well-studied for decades. Researchers are studying how aye-ayes respond to novel objects and humans vs familiar objects and humans, as well as the vocalizations of newborn aye-ayes. By understanding the circumstances that elicit different communications, we can gain new insight into how primates think and relate to one another.

Ultrafast Quantum Matter

What can we see when we slow down time?

In this piece, you become the master of time, slowing down the activity of 3 physical phenomena operating at different time scales. Using the handle, flip through the books and discover how a hummingbird’s wings allow it to fly (milliseconds), how sound waves are converted to light (picoseconds), and how electrons reacting to laser pulses (femtoseconds).

Ideation for the 3 speeds of physical matter.

The team, all smiles posing with prototypes in the studio.

Much of our understanding of the universe has come from leveraging tools that allow us to see beyond the naked eye. Similarly, we have developed ways to observe matter at different time scales than ours, including the atomic and electronic scales -- much faster than we can observe directly. By using laser pulses to produce still images to visualize electrons and their complex dance, we may unlock the emergent properties driven by quantum mechanics in matter. The Kemper group studies the fundamental physics of interacting electrons and atoms at their characteristic ultrashort time scales by modeling and simulating their behavior on supercomputers. In collaboration with experimental groups that use ultrafast laser pulses to produce sequence of still images every quadrillionth of a second — visualizing atomic particles as they move inside matter — resulting in a better understanding of quantum physics and quantum matter.

Force Networks

What sorts of forces are arise between individual particles in a pile of sand?

In this piece, you enter an environment that exposes the unpredictable patterns of force that act on grains of material like sand. The rings on the walls, ceiling, and floor represent packed grains, and the cadence of flashing white lights in a sea of color is initiated by the pull of tall elastic rods. Each component of the piece is designed to help the visitor better understand the intricacy of force networks and their beauty and complexity.

The team assessing a scale model of the piece.

John Durkee with a small prototype of the piece.

We’re familiar with force diagrams that represent simple situations - like a box on a slanted ramp. But what about more complex yet familiar situations like the sand on a beach, or cereal stuck in a box? If we could look underneath a beach, we would observe that each footstep transfers its forces downward through the points where the grains are in contact with each other. Tracing these paths reveals a tenuous network of connections between the grains. In our research, we study how the statistical properties of this force network provide an important control on how the bulk material behaves, from acoustical transmissions to particle slip and eventual flow.

Optimization for Radiotherapy

How can we use radiation to destroy cancerous tumors without affecting healthy tissue?

Step into this artistic simulation of radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer. As you interact with the piece, critical aspects of the radiation therapy process that rely on sophisticated mathematical optimization algorithms are unveiled. Use the console to direct radiation beams towards the metaphorical tumor using different angles and intensities to avoid damaging the healthy tissue in front of and behind it. This experience brings you face to face with the geometric optimization challenges of radiotherapy.

Nikki Knapp working on the console.

The team's testing and troubleshooting lab space.

The key to treating cancer is to destroy as much of the tumor as possible while preserving the healthy tissue. Cut too little and the tumor grows back. Cut too much and wreak havoc on the patient. Recent biological insights and technological advancements are worked into the mathematical optimization models and algorithms for radiotherapy. Conversely, mathematical analysis can lead to medical improvements! For example, our math research has found that the benefit of radiotherapy can be substantially increased by using a continuously modulated radiation beam whose shape and intensity is changing as it is rotating around the patient (“arc therapy”); and designing multi-day treatments that treat different parts of the tumor on each day of the treatment (“spatiotemporal fractionation”).

Dark Matter

How can we detect dark matter and how is it distributed?

In this piece, you journey into great expanses of space, as you walk through a narrowing hallway lit in mysterious ways. Despite its intangible nature, light is affected by gravity - bending towards dense clusters of mass. Our exhibit simulates the cosmic web and the gravitational lensing effect, illustrating how the distortion of light can reveal the presence of dark matter.

Detail of an early prototype of the piece.

Tania Allen talking the team through ideation and exploration.

Beginning in the 1930s,, scientists had noted that the motions of galaxies within galaxy clusters did not make sense unless there was a significant amount of unseen mass in addition to the visible stars. In the 70’s further evidence was uncovered to support this theory and today modern cosmology recognizes that dark matter, which is invisible and has not been directly observed, makes up about 80% of the matter in the Universe. One of the key detection methods is known as gravitational lensing, where dark matter’s gravity warps the shape of space itself, causing the light of distant galaxies to bend around it. Gravitational lensing allows us to map out the dark matter distributed in the Universe in a “cosmic web,” with dark matter coming together in clumps, sheets, and filaments.

Synthetic Antibiotics

How can we synthesize the tools to fight antibiotic resistant pathogens?

In this piece, you can join the fight against antibiotic resistant pathogens by designing synthetic antibiotics. Select the right functional groups and components parts and then test how well your creation fares inside the bio chamber.

Stephen Waddell prototyping the game.

Early ideation and visual inspiration.

Antibiotic resistant pathogens infect over 2 million people in the US every year and the CDC published a report in April 2018 documenting over 220 instances of germs with “unusual” antibiotic resistance inside the US. Researchers at the Williams Lab are developing a genes-to-molecules synthetic biology pipeline for the synthesis, diversification, and discovery of new-to-Nature molecules — using molecules from Nature as a platform for drug discovery. By studying how Nature constructs antibiotics and by learning how to reprogram Nature to make new versions of them, the Williams Lab is helping us defend against some of the most dangerous pathogens threatening humanity.



Nate DeGraff
NC State Sciences
Director of Marketing and Communications

Monique Delage
NC State Design
Director of Communications

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya
The Leading Strand