MAGNIFICENT MILE — When YouTube educator and rocket scientist Destin Sandlin visited Chicago in May to guest-star on Emily Graslie's "The Brain Scoop," he was blown away by the city.
Well, more specifically: blown away by a fountain at Water Tower Place.
On Saturday, Sandlin uploaded some old video footage he took riding up and down the mall's main entrance escalators and marveling at the science behind the glassy, un-rippled water falling in-between each fountain level.
"A lot of people just see a fountain that’s neat, but to an aerodynamicist, I saw a completely controlled environment," he said in an interview.
In the video, he fawns over the water feature again and again in his Southern drawl: "That's so stinkin' cool. I love it."
Kyla spoke with Sandlin and the designer of the fountain about the video's popularity:
He didn't think the short video was particularly interesting, but it quickly racked up several hundred thousand views and earned him at least one new huge fan: the fountain's designer.
"It really is a great fountain, and I never really was sure if anybody appreciated how cool it was," said Jim Garland, who helped design it with the Wet Design firm in 1999. He laughed: "It took 15 years for someone to notice it, but I'm glad they did."
Sandlin's video gained popularity after being posted on Reddit, where Garland's 21-year-old son Max saw it and showed it to his father.
"It was crazy," Garland said. "I thought, 'This guy is a hoot.'"
Sandlin and Garland exchanged messages and a phone call, talking shop about laminar flow, the precise fluid motion that makes the falling water look like perfect glass vases.
"We geeked out together via email," Sandlin said. "If people know that their work is appreciated, they love it."
The Wet Design team faced the difficult task in 1999 of doing something out of the ordinary to complement the famous vertical shopping mall designed by architect Warren Platner in 1976. Waterfalls, or even jumping water, would have been too easy and expected with the slope of the escalators, Garland said. So, the "vase" idea was born, and then added to it were the tiny "marbles" of water shooting up from the middle of them.
"This is when it got a little complicated," Garland said. But for most tourists, "You aren’t aware how sophisticated the science can be. It just looks pretty."
Even though the designer has gotten messages from people over the years who appreciate his work, he'd never heard from someone interested in flow rates and cohesion before.
"His analysis was pretty good," Garland said. "From the person's point of view who designed it, it's nice to know somebody understands the thing."
Sandlin works as a rocket tester in Huntsville, Alabama, and explains aerodynamics and other physics concepts, like how cat always land on their feet, on his popular YouTube channel Smarter Every Day.
Garland has since left Wet Design, the company that is also responsible for the Bellagio Hotel fountain in Las Vegas. He's now the founder and president of Los Angeles-based Fluidity Design Consultants, which is set to create the fountains for the Navy Pier redesign.
For the engineer and designer, nailing down the science behind what makes a video viral is a bit more complicated than the science behind laminar flow.
Still, Sandlin has a hunch:
"It's the concept of a Southern man in Chicago being wowed by a fountain. Like, 'How cute! He’s a southern idiot,' and then, 'Oh, he knows about engineering," he said. "And by the end of the video, I think I convinced them to love the fountain as much as I did."
And for the record, as Sandlin's wife wonders in the video, (though Water Tower Place's official policy is that you should pay more attention to safely riding an escalator), yes, you can stick your hand in the art.
"Absolutely," Garland said. "I wanted it to be so hypnotic that you have to touch it. It would be a failure if people didn’t want to."
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