Author Archives: Alison Boyle

About Alison Boyle

Deputy Keeper of Science and Medicine | @ali_boyle

From blazing skies to bogus shamrock: Giants’ Shoulders 57

Today we’re hosting The Giants’ Shoulders, a monthly event providing a taster of some of the best history of science the blogosphere has offered this month.

News of a meteor breaking up over Russia and the close approach of an asteroid inspired many bloggers including Rupert Baker at the Royal Society Repository, Darin Hayton, Lisa Smith at the Sloane Letters Blog and Greg Good at Geocosmohistory. On the Board of Longitude Project blog, Alexi Baker surveyed how attitudes to inanimate objects such as meteorites have been affected by changing beliefs and the status of the person or technology mediating them.

An exploding meteor, 23 November 1895, by Charles Prichard Butler (Science Museum).

As the horse meat scandal rumbled on, Mary Karmelek uncovered some 19th century Scientific American articles advocating dining on Dobbin. Historians at the University of Manchester provided the Crufts dog show judges with a precedent: a pointer called Major. More exotic creatures featured in My Albion, which traced the development of illuminations of the bonnacon and elephant, and National Geographic, where Brian Switek explored how crocodiles and tortoises were recruited in 19th century studies of Chirotherium tracks.

Several bloggers, including Teal Matrz at the Royal Society and David Bressan at Scientific American, tied in with International Women’s Day. While women have a much greater presence in the sciences than they did at the time of this Nature article uncovered by John Ptak, Christie Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner argued that profile authors need to stop defining female scientists by their gender.

Anniversaries abounded. Frank James celebrated the bicentenary of Michael Faraday’s appointment to the Royal Institution. For the bicentenary of John Snow’s birth, the Wellcome Trust displayed his famous cholera map, while the Guardian recreated it for today’s London and Richard Barnett at the Sick City Project revealed the man behind the hero myths. There was more myth-busting at Genotopia, skewering some of the stories that have been built up in the 60 years since the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Myth in the Museum: the famous double helix model on display in our Making the Modern World gallery is a post-1953 reconstruction using the original components. (Science Museum)

Finally, for St. Patrick’s Day, a quick roundup of some blogs on subjects with Irish links. On The H Word Rebekah Higgitt explored Jonathan Swift’s satirical attacks on the Royal Society and Isaac Newton, while Collette Kinsella highlighted the often-overlooked John Tyndall.  Unfortunately for the 17 March souvenir trade, Mary Mulvihill revealed on Ingenious Ireland that there’s no such thing as shamrock.

Next month’s Giants’ Shoulders will be hosted by Mike Finn and Jen Wallis at Asylum Science Blog on 16 April. In the meantime, you’ll find links to plenty more blogs I didn’t have space to mention at Whewell’s Ghost or on Twitter.

History Carnival 116

Something a bit different from Stories from the Stores today – we’re hosting the History Carnival, and bringing you a roundup of last month’s blogs on history (and a few other links we just found interesting). Don’t worry – in true STFS style, we’re still illustrating it with objects and images from the Science Museum’s collections!

Slaughter, Shakespeare and squibs

November’s remembered for gunpowder treason and plot, for which Guy Fawkes suffered a traitor’s execution: hung, drawn and quartered. As Kathleen McIlvenna points out at the Royal Armouries blog, the more merciful swift beheading was reserved for the rich. Fawkes remains an iconic figure: Sheila O’Connell at the British Museum explores allusions from Macbeth to Occupy. The BM’s Shakespeare: Staging the World Exhibition, which has just closed, featured the lantern Fawkes was carrying on that fateful night (well, maybe) – you can see it on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And of course, the fifth of November is commemorated with fireworks. OxfordWords explores the origins of damp squibs, Catherine wheels and Roman candles,  while Rupert Baker showcases the Royal Society’s copy of John Babington’s Pyrotechnia and the Whipple Library Books blog explores John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art. Here’s another illustration from the Science Museum Library’s copy:

Fireworks on a rope between two trees, John Bate, 1635 (Science Museum).

 Furry faces and health reforms

In recent years, November’s also become associated with male facial hair, to raise awareness of men’s health. Curators, librarians and archivists worldwide haven’t been able to resist raiding their catalogues for moustachioed splendour: here are some bristles from Essex Record Office, Artinfo, Penn Museum and Europeana.

For some more impressive facial hair, here’s Edwin  Chadwick. As Vanessa Heggie shows on the H-Word, his sanitary reforms addressed the spread of disease, but not the suffering of workhouse inmates. Meanwhile, at the Quack Doctor, Caroline Rance describes how William T Davison aimed to provide wider access to patented medicines.

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome Library, London)

American adventures

This November also saw the US Presidential Elections. While the Smithsonian’s curators have been busy collecting on the campaign trail, bloggers have been turning to past elections and presidents: JD Thomas at Accessible Archives compares voting rights across states in 1838, while at Victorian Commons James Owen charts how 19th century British MPs viewed proceedings across the Pond. We’ve seen two sides to Abraham Lincoln: the wartime President exerting his authority over General McClellan at the History Tavern and the grieving father sitting by his son’s body at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Meanwhile, Michael Kramer notes that though it’s tempting to try and use timelines to understand the narrative arc of folk music in the US, in reality history is much more messy

Abraham Lincoln, c.1840 (Science Museum)

And finally…

It seems appropriate for a History Carnival blog to close with two posts exploring how the web is changing the practice of historians. At the H-Word, Becky Higgitt celebrates 50 years of the British Journal for the History of Science (you can read past editors’ picks here) at a time when many are questioning how academic publications will adapt to an increasingly digital, open-access world. Meanwhile, Mia Ridge is looking for participants into her study of how online resources have (or haven’t) affected how scholars work.

Next month’s History Carnival is at The Recipes Project – see you there!


Champagne scientists: collecting the Higgs

Champagne corks have been popping at CERN today, with news that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has glimpsed the elusive Higgs boson, or at least something that looks very like it. We’re hoping that one or two of the champagne bottles will find their way into the Science Museum’s collections. Bottles of bubbly might seem a rather strange addition to a museum physics collection, but they’re one way for us to capture news like this morning’s for posterity: ironically, sometimes ephemera are the best way of keeping a long-term material record.

Just in case: champagne on standby for some big Higgs news (Source: Aidan Randle-Conde's blog at

The latest addition to our collections comes courtesy of a press conference run by the  Science and Technology Facilities Council in London this morning, simultaneously with CERN. After a scramble for a printer and some hasty autograph-hunting, we now have a copy of the UK’s Higgs press release signed by this morning’s panel: STFC chief John Womersley, and Jim Virdee and Jon Butterworth who spoke on behalf of CMS and ATLAS, the two giant LHC detectors that have seen the Higgs.

This morning's press release (Image: Alison Boyle)

 The document will find its way into our Archives for safe keeping and might get an outing fairly soon as part of our major new exhibition on the LHC to open in Autumn 2013. And this week, you can keep up to date with the Higgs hunt via our Antenna Science News gallery. There’ll be a special news exhibition on display from tomorrow, and on Friday the Museum’s very own LHC physicist Harry Cliff will be discussing the news and its implications at a lunchtime event. Keep an eye out for more details on our homepage!

Viewing Venus

UK astronomy enthusiasts are in for a serious case of Venus envy next week, as the planet transits the Sun. People in other parts of the world will have a good view, but while the 2004 transit was seen across the UK, this year’s – the last until 2117 – mostly happens after nightfall in these parts. Only the final stages will be visible at sunrise on 6 June, but that’s not stopping intrepid observers, who will be hoping that Britain’s infamous summer weather proves kind. Here’s a map of events if you would like to join in.

Venus starts its journey across the Sun's face in 2004 (Jamie Cooper / Science and Society).

Or, if an early rise doesn’t appeal, why not concentrate on past transits instead? There are recorded observations for six transits from 1639 onwards (here’s a map of where some took place) and it’s a rich history of ambitious voyages, international collaboration and competition, precision instrumentation and personal sacrifice.

The most famous transit expedition is that of Captain James Cook, who sailed to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit – although the main aim of his voyage was to claim the Southern Lands for the British Crown. From today, there’s a small display on the transit at the rear of our Exploring Space gallery, featuring one of the astronomical quadrants made for the Royal Society’s 1769 expeditions. These were used to establish the observers’ locations and help check timings, so that measurements from around the globe could be correlated in an attempt to establish the Earth-Sun distance.

Astronomical quadrant made by John Bird for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

We can’t say for sure that this instrument was the one used by Cook – his account of the voyage states that the quadrant was taken and dismantled by the Tahitians, and had to be hastily repaired; this one bears no obvious signs of mending. We do know that one of the clocks made for timing the transits, now on display in our Making the Modern World gallery, accompanied Cook on his third South Sea voyage in 1776.

Regulator clock made by John Shelton for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

Although less celebrated today, the two 19th century transits (1874 and 1882) also saw major expeditions, and were widely reported in the public sphere. This image shows the set up for the New Zealand station of Britain’s 1874 expeditions. It’s not clear if it was taken there,  or at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where the equipment and observing huts were assembled and tested prior to departure.

British Transit of Venus expedition to New Zealand, 1874 (Science Museum).

In the 21st century, there is no longer an imperative to mount large-scale co-ordinated expeditions, as the Earth-Sun distance is readily measured by other means. But it’s still an opportunity for interesting science: the Hubble telescope is going to use the Moon as a mirror to observe the Venusian atmosphere, contributing to the search for extrasolar planets. It’s also a great chance for people around the world to take part in amateur observations, which can be done without expensive equipment.

You can read more about previous transit expeditions in recently-published books by Andrea Wulf and Nick Lomb. And if you are going to try and see the transit for yourself, here’s how to do it safely. Hopefully you’ll have more luck than Guillaume le Gentil, the most desperately unfortunate transit-chaser ever. Happy viewing!


A star-crossed birthday for Dickens

Today, people around the world are celebrating Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday. Hopefully they’ll enjoy themselves more than Dickens himself did on a youthful birthday outing:

‘Slow torture’ … ‘it was awful’ … ‘very alarming’ … ‘I thought if this were a birthday it were better never to have been born’.

Is Dickens recalling that terrible birthday? (National Media Museum)

Dickens looked back on this beleaguered birthday in an All the Year Round article of 1863. The subject of his ire was an astronomical lecture, a popular entertainment of the time. The young Dickens was unimpressed with the ageing and shabby demonstration instrument, ‘at least one thousand stars and twenty five comets behind the age’, with poor likenesses of the celestial bodies and malfunctioning light effects. The lecturer also droned on, tapping away at the model ‘like a wearisome woodpecker’.

Dickens might have had better luck with Mr Bartley’s lectures. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but turned his talents to astronomy when the comedy shows stopped for Lent.

Would Mr Bartley have entertained Dickens? (Science Museum)

19th century astronomical shows were often spectacular theatrical events – perhaps why Dickens was so disappointed with the shabby and outdated performance he encountered. Lecturers travelled the country, advertising their wares with increasingly outlandish names for their demonstration instruments.  Audiences might encounter the Eidouranion in Rochester, or be dazzled by the Dioastrodoxon in Wakefield.

You can find out more about scientific showbiz in Richard Altick’s The Shows of London, or Iwan Rhys Morus’s When Physics Became King. Or why not sample the Science Museum’s present-day versions? I wonder what Dickens would have made of them…



Remarkable radium

100 years ago today, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. The citation recognised ‘the discovery of the elements radium and polonium … the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element’.

Marie and Pierre Curie as portrayed by Imp in Vanity Fair magazine, 1904. Pierre was killed in a road accident two years later. (Science Museum)

Isolating radium from pitchblende was a laborious process, with a ton of ore yielding only a tenth of a gram of the new substance. In the early 20th century radium was a hot commodity, with the world’s small supply in demand for scientific, medical and industrial research. Curie established a Radium Institute in Paris to carry out research into radioactivity and continue production of radium and other substances.

Certificate specifying radium content, signed by Curie in 1926 (Science Museum).

Radium’s reputation as a wonder-substance led to a public craze for radium therapies. The vast array of quack cures for sale included filters to make water radioactive, radium buttons, soap, and even toothpaste.

Advert for a compress made by Radium Vita Limited which operated 1933-54 (Alison Boyle).

The dangers of radioactive substances only became widely understood later. Curie herself died in 1934 from illness related to years of exposure. You can find out more about Marie Curie in the Science Museum’s online exhibit. And if you want to know what William Crookes did with radium, come along to this talk by my colleague Jane on 15 December…

Marvellous moustaches

It’s November, which means that some of your friends may sprout some dubious facial hair over the next few weeks.

Yes, it’s that time of year again when thousands of blokes bid goodbye to their razors and grow a moustache to raise awareness for men’s health issues. For anyone unsure which style to adopt, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in the Science Museum.

The most famous scientific moustache is of course Albert Einstein’s, which has spawned some truly terrifying memorabilia (none of which, I hasten to add, carry a Science Museum endorsement).

Einstein tries to work out the equation for the perfect moustache curvature (AP / Science & Society).

However, Einstein’s bristles are roundly trumped by Henry Wellcome, whose extraordinary collections are housed by the Museum. Follow the growth and decline of his moustache in this online exhibit from our friends at the Wellcome Library.

Henry Wellcome's hirsute splendour (Wellcome Library, London)

Even these marvels pale into insignificance beside 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe, although only the very ambitious would attempt to emulate his legendary silver nose.

Tycho Brahe's facial hair features prominently in this engraving of 1586 (Science Museum).

Such hirsute frivolity won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the clean-shaven should spare a thought for the 634 men of the South Eastern Railway Company who in November 1877 signed this petition asking for a ban on ‘taches to be lifted ‘believing and being advised that the wearing of Moustaches is a protection against the inclemency of the weather’.

More moustaches, please - an 1877 petition (National Railway Museum).

Some of the Science Museum team will be growing moustaches for the month, so watch out for hairy guys when you visit the galleries!

Our stormy Sun

Astronomers have announced that they can now track sunspots forming before the tell-tale dark spots reach the Sun’s surface.

The spots are caused by magnetic activity inside the Sun, and are associated with solar storms, massive bursts of material coming from our star. NASA recently released these staggering observations of our little blue planet being swamped by a sunstorm.

Better prediction of solar storms is vital to protect our communication, navigation and power systems. In 1859 the biggest solar storm on record zapped telegraph systems around the world, with some equipment even bursting into flames. Magnetic compasses went haywire. Aurorae lit up the sky. In today’s wired world, a big storm could be catastrophic.

In 1859, Richard Carrington observed a large group of sunspots, and two solar flares. The flares' path is marked A-C and B-D. This was one of the first observations of solar flares, which Carrington suspected were the cause of the disruption on Earth. (Science Museum)

Accurate space weather predictions would allow authorities to prevent the worst effects of a solar storm by taking satellites offline and shielding power grids. With changes in the Sun’s cycles of sunspot activity, this could become increasingly important over the next few decades.

Today’s solar weather forecasters are the latest in a long tradition of sunspot-spotters. Here are a few illustrations from our collections.

A 1612 illustration of Galileo's observations of sunspots. Galileo was one of several astronomers who independently observed sunspots with a telescope in 1610 (Science Museum).

James Nasmyth's painting of a sunspot, 1860, reveals the extraordinary detail visible through his 20-inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum).

This X-ray map of the Sun's active regions was based on photographs taken from the Skylab space station in 1975 (NASA / Science & Society).

While solar weather can be troublesome, here’s hoping for sunny weather of a different sort for the last few weeks of school holidays. Once again, the Great British Summer has been a bit of a damp squib. Some things never change…

Braving the chill on Brighton Beach in 1966 (NMeM / Tony Ray-Jones).

Einstein was right!

We sometimes find that objects in our collections suddenly become newsworthy because of events beyond the Museum. This beautiful, but small and unassuming, object on display in Cosmos & Culture is now one of them.

Small, but perfectly formed (Science Museum)

It’s a prototype gyroscope from the Gravity Probe B experiment, which has been testing predictions made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that a massive body such as the Earth should warp and twist the space-time around it.

Four spheres like this one – among the most perfect ever made – were set spinning on a spacecraft precisely pointed towards a guide star. Scientists spent several years ploughing through data to see if the angle of the spheres’ spin was altered by the warp and twist, and yesterday NASA announced the results. They’re just as Einstein predicted.

We acquired the gyroscope back in 2005, while the spacecraft was busy gathering data, and I was lucky enough to meet chief scientist Francis Everitt.

At the time he was non-commital about what the experiment might reveal: ‘There’s many reasons for thinking that as magnificent as the advance General Relativity gives, it’s not quite the final answer. Whether, for example, in our experiment or not one will find anything different from Einstein, I’ve no wish to make any prediction about. Our job is to do the experiment. But physics advances, science advances, by measuring things’.

The results are a huge vindication for the Gravity Probe B project - it was in the planning for over 40 years and the mission faced cancellation several times. But, as Everitt says, we still may not have the final answer.

General relativity is so complex that there are many other predictions of the theory which are yet to be confirmed, and other scientists are busy making their own measurements. Some of the experiments haven’t even started yet. This is a prototype part for Advanced LIGO, a ground-based experiment due to be completed in 2015.

Will Advanced LIGO also prove Einstein right? (Science Museum)

Here‘s how it works … and here‘s how we put it together for exhibition display (cue lots of head-scratching from our Workshops team). Some time after 2015, might this object also be hitting the headlines?

Women of substance

Continuing our Women’s History Month theme, today we’re celebrating International Women’s Day. As the theme for 2011 is ‘equal access to education, training and science and technology’, it seems like a good day to celebrate Kathleen Lonsdale, who in 1945 became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, along with microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (only 285 years after the men).

Kathleen Lonsdale in 1957 (Science Museum).

Lonsdale was a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography, in which scientists fire X-rays at crystals and study how they are scattered. This enables them to infer how atoms are arranged inside the crystal.

Lonsdale's models of the structure of ice, 1955 (Science Museum)

In the early days, it was an arduous process. Capturing X-rays on film could result in burns to the fingers. Calculating the atomic layout from the X-ray patterns had to be done manually, involving hours of slogging. Things got somewhat easier with the advent of scientific computing. The Pegasus computer on display in our Computing gallery (the world’s oldest working electronic computer) was used by Lonsdale’s group at University College London.

Pegasus speeded up crystallographers' calculations (Science Museum).

Lonsdale faced the additional challenge of being a woman in a man’s world, and for a time struggled to combine scientific work with raising a family. Her mentor William Henry Bragg arranged for a grant to help support her at home so that she could carry out her world-class research. Lonsdale said that to succeed as a woman scientist one must be a first-class organiser, work twice the usual hours, and learn to concentrate in any available moment of time.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, the field of X-ray crystallography was unusual in having a number of high-profile women scientists, including Lonsdale, Helen Megaw, Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray photograph of DNA was infamously used by Crick and Watson in determining the double helix structure, and Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin. Hodgkin always resisted being singled out as a ‘woman scientist’, but cannot have been impressed with the Daily Mail’s headline announcing her award: ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize’.

Dorothy Hodgkin in the 1940s (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Things are easier for women in the sciences today but a 2010 report suggests that, in the UK at least, the picture’s still not so rosy – despite an increase in females studying science, technology and medicine, women still only make up 12% of the workforce. And women are noticeably absent as the famous faces of science. There’s still some way to go before the likes of Lonsdale become the norm rather than the inspirational exceptions.