Gallery 2

Vibrating Pin Screen

A table of pins forms fluid-like, shiny patterns as they vibrate in this science-art exhibit.

How it works

Press the button and watch pins shake at varying frequencies to form patterns resembling liquid.

Things to try or ask around the exhibit

Walk around the table to see where light is hitting the vibrating pins. View the pins from different angles, so you see light hitting the table from different angles.

Which pins seem to shine brightest or reflect the most light?


The pins vibrate to reflect light and form patterns that flow across the surface of the table like liquid.

Thousands of pins hang loosely through holes on this table. The table vibrates using a strong motor, causing the pins to shake in a programmed set of patterns. The heads of the pins act as tiny mirrors that reflect light into your eyes. The reflections resemble the surface of a rippling pool of water.

In the Vibrating Pinscreen, each pin exists in one of three states; receptive (before excitation), excited (moving) and refractory (after excitation). When a pin is in the excited state, it pushes the receptive pins nearby into an excited state as well. After being excited, it enters a refractory state where it will not become excited for a while. These simple rules add up to make a very complex work and a model of how some biological cells behave.

Finding the science in your world

What do pulsating colours on squids and pinscreens have in common? They both work using cellular automaton theory. In this theory, a larger object is composed of many small cells or domains. Each cell or domain can exist in one of a few states. The states of these domains influence the states of their neighbours. The neighbouring domains then go on to influence their neighbours, producing a complex pattern that is governed by simple rules.

Some squid use a cellular automaton mechanism to produce complex moving patterns on their surfaces without conscious control.