Author Archives: Alison Boyle

About Alison Boyle

Deputy Keeper of Science and Medicine | @ali_boyle

Christmas Science Spectaculars

Hope everyone enjoyed the holidays. If you got a bit bored of watching re-runs of the soaps while chewing on leftover turkey, you could have entertained yourself by tuning in to the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures.

This year, materials scientist Mark Miodownik talked about everything from chocolate to elephants and you can still catch the lectures on  BBC i-Player.

The RI’s Christmas Lectures began in 1825 and have continued ever since, pausing only during World War II. The roll of past lecturers includes such famous names as David Attenborough and Carl Sagan. But the person who’ll always be most associated with the Christmas Lectures is their founder Michael Faraday, with 19 of the annual series to his name.

Faraday first gave the festive lectures himself in 1827-8. His series of family lectures on chemistry wowed audiences and the press. By 1855, when this lithograph was made, lecture-goers included such distinguished guests as Prince Albert.

Faraday's lecture of 27 December 1855 (Science Museum)

The Royal Polytechnic Institution, famous for ‘abominable smells and… the odd explosion’, also started running a popular series of Christmas lectures. Such shows became a festive feature at institutions around the country.

An Illustrated London News engraving of 'Christmas at the Polytechnic', 1858 (Science Museum)

The RI lectures aren’t the only festive legacy of the 19th century – the aforementioned Prince Albert is often credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. Actually, some people (including the royal family) had adopted the German tradition years before, but it was Albert and the popular Queen Victoria who made it widely fashionable. I guess it’s about time to get round to vacuuming up those pine needles…

Enjoying the Christmas tree, c.1948 (NMeM / Photographic Advertising / Science & Society)

Fantastic fireworks

It’s that time of year when leaves cover the ground, there’s a chill in the air, and household pets look distinctly nervous.

Hallowe’en has just passed and this weekend will see fireworks displays throughout Britain as the bonfires are lit for Guy Fawkes Night. But even the most spectacular pyrotechnics would be hard-pressed to beat these 17th-century creations.

Fiery dancers and a dragon, 1635 (Science Museum)

This engraving is from the Science Museum Library‘s copy of Pyrotechnia or, A discourse of artificial fire-works, written by John Babington and published in 1635.  A musical device ‘with anticks dancing’ is followed by a dragon spewing flame from its eyes, mouth, and … ahem … anus.

Pyrotechnia's water-borne fireworks (Science Museum)

There were also firework devices designed to float on water – this illustration shows a sailing ship, a mermaid, and another dragon about to do battle with a trident-waving Neptune. We’ve digitized more pages from Pyrotechnia on our Ingenious website.

It wasn’t all fun and games – Babington, a gunner, was also aware of the applications of gunpowder in warfare, and experimentation with devices such as these was a good way to try out about different powder ingredients. You can find out more in this book by Simon Werrett.

In the meantime, have fun at the fireworks if you’re off to a bonfire this weekend – hope you enjoy them as much as this young man!

Blowing the pocket money on fireworks, 1949 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Great Men and gruesome mementos

A few weeks ago, Stewart talked about relics in our collections – often mundane objects that have gained mystique through association with famous historical characters. Recently, I got a close-up look at what’s possibly the ultimate scientific museum relic: Galileo’s body parts.

The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand has been on display at Florence’s history of science museum for many years. The museum’s recently been refurbished and (in what’s possibly a cunning marketing tool to entice visitors from the Uffizi around the corner) renamed the Museo Galileo. A gallery which contains the only surviving instruments made by Galileo himself has the finger in pride of place – and also another finger, thumb and tooth that were recently found.

Galileo's fingers on display (Alison Boyle).

The display stands, made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforce the idea of saintly reliquaries. It’s questionable whether these remains can tell us much about Galileo and his work – certainly less than studying the instruments he made, or his books and papers in the Museo’s archives. But during my visit they were by far the most popular objects in the gallery.

There’s an enduring fascination with the relics of ‘Great Men’.

Several apple trees around the country are claimed to be descended from Newton’s inspiration for the laws of gravitation, despite the story being almost certainly apocryphal: he only related the tale of watching an apple drop a few years before his death (possibly with a view to furthering his posthumous fame) and the story only gained wider currency centuries later.

It’s now unstoppable – a fragment of ‘that tree’ has even been taken into space. But if you prefer something a bit closer to the man himself, a number of Newton’s death masks survive.

An engraving based on Newton's death mask (Science Museum).

Almost anything associated with Einstein is highly collectible – his brain, removed during autopsy, had its own adventure, including a road trip across the US in the boot of a rental car. You can read more about the strange story of Einstein’s brain on our Ingenious website, or in Carolyn Abrahams’ book Possessing Genius.

We seem to crave such relics of genius – and the more gruesome the better.

Could studying Einstein's brain ever reveal his reasoning? (Associated Press / Science & Society)

A glass act

Today in 1839, John Herschel made the first photograph on glass. The plate, with the image now faded almost beyond recognition, is in the care of our colleagues at the National Media Museum.

The first photograph on glass, 1839, is kept in a commemorative case (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

The image was of the 40ft telescope built by John’s father William, something of  a tourist attraction due to its size. By the time this photograph was taken only the telescope support frame remained, with the tube already removed – the structure had begun to rot after years of disuse and John set about dismantling the telescope for the safety of his small children.

This is one of only 25 prints made from the original photograph (Science Museum).

A few years later, Herschel discovered the cyanotype or blueprinting process. His friend Anna Atkins used this process to make the first book with photographic illustrations, Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins's cyanotype of a British Fern, 1853 (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

In 1867 another female pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, made this extraordinary portrait of the ageing Herschel, who had been a longstanding supporter of her work.

Herschel at 75, by Julia Margaret Cameron (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed by now that I tend to bang on about the Herschel family a lot (like here, or here). It’s rather hard not to, as various members were hugely influential across a wide range of the sciences. And I haven’t even started on the younger members of the family yet … more blogs to follow, no doubt!

Winding the Wells

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights switched from horsepower to electric power. Here’s a video.

A 1961 travel advertisement for Wells (NRM / Science & Society)

Other parts of the clock remained hand-wound, carrying on a tradition of over 600 years. It’s a time-consuming job and the clock is now going to be wound automatically.

However, the original medieval clock from Wells Cathedral is still wound by hand. The mechanism, which was installed in the cathedral in 1392, was replaced in 1837. It came to the Patent Museum in 1871, and has been part of the Science Museum’s collections since 1884. Currently on display in our Measuring Time gallery, it’s the second-oldest working mechanical clock in England, after the one in Salisbury Cathedral (although that is not regularly run).

A detail of the Wells clock (Science Museum).

The daily job of winding the clock is done by Richard from our Conservation team. Each morning, he winds the clock’s three gear trains (one would have controlled the interior and exterior clock faces, one the hour actions and one the quarter-hour actions). The whole process can take up to half an hour and Richard says it’s a very good workout! Read an interview with him here.

Fast hands: Richard winds the Wells (Alison Boyle).

The clock keeps very good time, only losing a few seconds per day. And our Conservation team keeps other clocks in the gallery running too – more about that in a future blog.

Einstein on the beach

Are you off to the beach this August? Lucky you – I’m stuck at work (hey, but life’s always a beach here at the Science Museum). If you’re planning a holiday in the UK, you could tread the sands at Cromer, and follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein.

A poster promoting rail travel to Cromer, 1923-47 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

Einstein’s trip to Norfolk in 1933 wasn’t a holiday. As a famous German Jew, he had been subject to Nazi threats. He was invited to stay in Cromer by the MP and antifascist campaigner Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson.  

Einstein’s visit has (very loosely in some cases!) inspired several works, including Mark Burgess’s radio play Einstein in Cromer, Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, and a song of the same name by Counting Crows.

Einstein with Locker-Lampson, 1933 (NMPFT/Syndication International/Science & Society)

More directly inspired by Einstein’s Cromer sojourn was a bust by Jacob Epstein. The famous scientist sat for the famous sculptor in a hut at nearby Roughton Heath. You can see our copy in the Inside the Atom display on the second floor.

Epstein's bust of Einstein (Science Museum).

It has been suggested that Epstein, who was also Jewish, was instrumental in persuading his sitter to speak out publicly against Nazi persecution. At a meeting in London’s Royal Albert Hall, carefully stage-managed by Commander Locker-Lampson and attended by thousands of people, Einstein spoke in faltering English about the responsibility of all citizens to guard Europe against another disastrous war. On 7 October 1933, he set sail from Southampton, leaving Europe behind for a new life in the United States.

The Meteor Man

Have you had any luck with the Perseid meteor shower? Some UK skywatchers were foiled by the weather, but many people here and around the world enjoyed stunning views.

1866 was also a good year for the Perseids. Alexander Herschel observed the shower from his family home at Collingwood in Kent. For several years, Herschel had been carrying out a regular programme of meteor observations, using a spectroscope to look for the characteristic signatures of different elements. As well as the Perseids, he observed the Leonids, Orionids and many less well-known showers – once, according to a friend, making use of the good viewing conditions at Ipswich Racecourse.

Alexander Stewart Herschel (Science Museum)

As well as his spectroscopic observations, Herchel helped to identify the radiant points of various meteor showers, and link the appearances of the showers to various comets. His work on the Leonid meteors enabled Giovanni Schiaparelli to pinpoint their source as Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Alexander was the son of John Herschel, and was born in Feldhausen during his father’s famous observing trip to the Cape of Good Hope. The family returned to England when Alexander was two. 

John Herschel's observing site at Feldhausen, 1834 (Science Museum).

Alexander’s career took in the Royal School of Mines and physics professorships at Glasgow and Newcastle. After retirement, he moved back to his grandfather William‘s old home at Observatory House in Slough. In later years he became reclusive, devoted to his meteor studies and often forgetting meals. He is buried at St Laurence’s Church, Upton, close to his illustrious grandfather. You can find a more detailed account of Alexander in this article by Peter Millman.

Take a peek at the Perseids

It’s that time of year again, when the annual Perseid meteor shower lights up the skies. This year’s display promises a good blaze, weather permitting, as there’s no interfering moonlight.

The meteor shower occurs as the Earth passes through debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle and meteoroids burn up in our atmosphere. It gets its name because the radiant, the point in the sky the ‘shooting stars’ seem to come from, is in the constellation of Perseus. Look for this near the familiar W of Cassiopeia.

A woodcut of the Perseus constellation, 1488 (Science Museum)

People have  observed meteors for thousands of years, but their origins were unclear. When this print of the great meteor of 1783 was made, there was still debate over whether meteors originated in the Earth’s atmosphere (‘meteor’ comes from the Greek for ‘in the sky’) or from space.

The meteor of 18 August 1783, observed from Windsor Castle (Science Museum).

By the time of the spectacular 1833 appearance of the Leonids, another annual shower, it was becoming apparent that the celestial streaks had an astronomical origin. Some decades later, Giovanni Schiaparelli linked the Perseids to Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This 1850s teaching card on comets and aerolites (another name for meteors) shows the 1833 Leonid showers in the corners (Science Museum).

If you fancy having a go at Perseid-spotting over the next few nights, here are some tips. And if you’re lucky enough to see some, why not contribute to the Great Twitter Meteorwatch?

The Northern Lights head south

In recent days, the aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, have been visible at more southerly latitudes than usual thanks to solar storm activity.

If you tried to have a look but were scuppered by the weather, or like us at the Science Museum you’re just too far south, enjoy these images of the aurora from our picture library instead.

The aurora and icebergs in the Arctic, as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1849 (Science Museum).

This 19th century magic lantern slide shows the aurora (Science Museum).

The Northern Lights over Iceland, 2005 (Jamie Cooper / Science & Society).

Of course, if you’re far south enough, you’ll be looking for the Southern Lights instead. The aurora australis is particularly elusive, as there’s a lot less inhabited landmass at high southern latitudes than in the north. It’s also been putting on a more widespread lightshow in recent days. But it would be hard to beat this view…

A time exposure of the Southern Lights, as seen from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, 1994 (NASA / Science & Society).

Last chance to see: Thomas Harriot

Monday marked 401 years since Thomas Harriot made the first recorded astronomical observation with a telescope - so one year since we opened our Cosmos & Culture exhibition celebrating Harriot and other astronomers.

For the last year, we’ve been lucky enough to have some of Harriot’s drawings on display, but for their long-term preservation it’s time to remove them from the light. This weekend is your last chance to see the centuries-old originals before we return them to their owner’s care and replace them with facsimiles.

Harriot’s first drawing of our Moon pre-dates any other telescopic observations. But Galileo beat him to it in discovering moons around Jupiter. Harriot probably read Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius around July, but by then Jupiter was too near the Sun for him to check it out. This drawing shows his first observations of the moons in autumn 1610. The first night wasn’t too successful – he noted, ‘I saw but one, and that above’ – but over the next year he made 98 further observations and tracked all four Galilean satellites.

Harriot tracks the Galilean satellites (Lord Egremont/West Sussex Record Office, used with permission)

By winter Harriot had turned his telescope on the Sun, risking blindness by viewing it directly with only mist to shield its fierce glare. In December 1610 he saw sunspots – one of several astronomers to independently discover them around the same time.

Harriot notes 'three blacke spots' on the Sun (Lord Egremont / West Sussex Record Office, used with permisson).

So with all these achievements, why isn’t Harriot as famous as Galileo? Well, unlike his Italian counterpart he already had rich patrons, so didn’t need to publish his work to attract sponsors. He may have also preferred to keep a low profile after a brief stint in prison as a Gunpowder Plot suspect. After his death, his astronomical papers lay undiscovered for over 150 years, so not many people have seen them in the last four centuries. If you’re in London this week, take a good look while you still can.