Category Archives: Astronomy

Happy birthday, XMM

It’s ten years this week since the XMM-Newton space observatory launched. The biggest scientific satellite ever built in Europe, it has studied black holes, tracked how chemical elements are scattered in supernova explosions, and revealed that Mars’s atmosphere is bigger than previously thought.

XMM stands for X-ray Multi Mirror (the Newton bit is in honour of a certain Sir Isaac). X-rays can pass right through ordinary mirrors, so each of XMM’s three telescopes contains 58 cylindrical gold-plated mirrors nested together. Incoming X-rays skim the inside of the mirrors, a bit like stones skimming off water, and come to a focus at the telescope’s detector. You can see what one of the mirrors looks like in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

XMM-Newton grazing mirror (Credit: Science Museum)

XMM-Newton grazing mirror (Credit: Science Museum)

Cosmos & Culture also has a whole X-ray telescope on display. The Joint European X-Ray Telescope (JET-X) is the largest telescope ever constructed in Britain. Unfortunately for the project team at the University of Leicester, the Soviet-led mission it was part of was cancelled after the USSR collapsed. But it’s fortunate for us, as it means we get to display a rare example of a real space telescope. Most of the space hardware you see in museums is prototypes or spares (like the XMM mirror), as the real thing is either waaaaaaaay up there, or has burned up on re-entry.

A view of JET-X from the Making the Modern World gallery. The project engineer reckons this is the highest the telescope has ever got above sea level. (Credit: Science Museum)

A view of JET-X from the Making the Modern World gallery. The project engineer reckons this is the highest the telescope has ever got above sea level. (Credit: Science Museum)

An example of a real space telescope that actually made it into orbit is the Spacelab 2 XRT (it stands for X-ray telescope, funnily enough). It flew on the Shuttle in 1985 and imaged the centre of our galaxy. XRT was in a pretty sorry state when we acquired it in 2005, as it had been dismanted and stored in a university building for years. The building was due for demolition so we had to collect XRT quickly before it ended up in a skip. We reunited the four members of the original University of Birmingham team at our Wroughton store. Working with our conservation team over several weeks they painstakingly pieced it back together, with only a few missing parts having to be re-made.

Spacelab 2 XRT in Exploring Space gallery (Credit: Science Museum)

Spacelab 2 XRT in Exploring Space gallery (Credit: Science Museum)

XRT now stands proudly in the centre of our Exploring Space gallery. It looks as it would sticking out of the Shuttle’s cargo bay, except that we haven’t put most of the white thermal blankets on so that you can see it better. The blankets also made it look a bit like a pair of giant space trousers…

Smashing machines

After over a year of delays, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has smashed its first particles together. The accelerator is due to commence full operation in the next few weeks (assuming it doesn’t get sabotaged from the future … or baffled by a baguette).

Particles in the LHC travel at almost light speed, guided by superconducting magnets. They travel inside a beam screen, kept at a temperature of 5 degrees Kelvin (-268 Celsius), which shield the magnets from the intense particle beam.  Here’s our section cut from a spare beam screen.

Section of a beam screen from the Large Hadron Collider, 2001 (Credit: Science Museum)

Section of a beam screen from the Large Hadron Collider, 2001 (Credit: Science Museum)

Today’s particle physics poses a curatorial challenge, not least because Big Science is getting bigger. A few years ago we collected the Central Tracking Detector from ZEUS, a UK built-experiment which ran in Germany’s HERA electron-proton collider from 1992-2007. (As you can imagine from that last sentence, another challenge is remembering what all the acronyms stand for.) The photograph below shows the CTD being unloaded at Wroughton. It’s a pretty hefty beast but was only a small part of the whole ZEUS apparatus, which weighed in at 3600 tons.

Central Tracking Detector being unloaded at Science Museum Swindon, 2008

Central Tracking Detector being unloaded at Science Museum Swindon, 2008

Techniques learned in building and operating ZEUS helped in the design and construction of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment, the biggest and most complex particle detector ever built. ATLAS is 45m long and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. In trying to preserve some record of it in our collections, we need to consider the implications of an experiment that dwarfs any of our galleries – how much of it would be enough to be meaningful in its own right? What do we do about the vast networks of cables and computers for sorting and analysing the data? And then there’s the small matter of getting large chunks of kit out of the LHC ring and back to the museum.

We don’t have all the answers, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot over the next few months as we’re actively adding to our physics collections. Watch out for future blogs on the subject. And in the meantime, why not book yourself a seat at our Centenary Talk with Professor Brian Cox on 18 January, where you can find out more about what’s going on at the LHC.

Chasing comets

The Rosetta spacecraft has just swung by Earth, on its way to a 2014 rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or Chewy-Gooey, as the project scientists like to call it). The ambitious mission aims to attach a lander to the comet with harpoons. On board the lander is an instrument called Ptolemy, which will analyse samples from Chewy-Gooey to help work out what it’s made of. Here’s a model of Ptolemy on display in our Exploring Space gallery:

Ptolemy model in the Exploring Space gallery

Ptolemy model in the Exploring Space gallery

In our collections you’ll find many objects showing how comets have fascinated us over the centuries. This beautiful illustration from a 16th-century commonplace book shows the comet of 1532, visible for over a hundred days.

The Comet of 1532 (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Comet of 1532 (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Great Comet of 1811 was clearly visible with the naked eye (its brightness has been surpassed only by Comet Hale-Bopp).  In the  early 19th century astronomy was all the rage, and the comet inspired many fads and fashions, including this French fan on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

French fan depicting the Great Comet of 1811 (Credit: Science Museum / Jaron Chubb)

French fan depicting the Great Comet of 1811 (Credit: Science Museum / Jaron Chubb)

Despite the public’s growing interest in science, the appearance of the spectacular comet still fuelled superstitions. In America it was blamed for a devastating earthquake, while Napoleon claimed it would bring him luck in invading Russia (which goes to show you shouldn’t believe in superstitions).

His compatriots fared better: 1811 brought excellent weather for vineyards and French wine-makers took the marketing opportunity of branding the fine vintage ‘Comet Wine’. Last year, a London auction house sold a bottle of 1811 comet wine for a staggering £37,900 – that’s around £400 a sip. I think in wishing Rosetta on its way I’ll raise a glass of something slightly less expensive…

Is this a stitch-up?

Museum objects are not always what they seem, as this intriguing embroidery – currently on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition  – shows.

Embroidered illustration of an astrologers prediction. Credit: Science Museum

Embroidered illustration of an astrologer's prediction. Credit: Science Museum

The label on the frame says that it shows an astrologer forecasting the birth of a child to King Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria. It’s also been suggested that the face rising from the frames is a tad beardy for a newborn and that the scene may forecast Charles’s execution.

The astrologer is surrounded by a circle of planetary and Zodiac symbols, with knowledge symbolized by astronomical and mathematical instruments. More arcane practices are hinted at by the crocodile (often found hanging in apothecaries’ and alchemists’ shops), and a cat, the symbol of witchcraft.

Snap shot - the crocodile is in the embroiderys top right corner

Snap shot - the crocodile is in the embroidery's top right corner. Credit: Science Museum

The label dates the work to 1621. But when our eagle-eyed conservator noticed that the netting on the Queen’s dress looks suspiciously machine-made, we started digging deeper. And the more we looked, the odder this object seemed.

Fishy net - the Queens dress looks too modern. Credit: Science Museum

Fishy net - the Queen's dress looks too modern. Credit: Science Museum

The embroidery has 22 sequins, all of regular shape and glued rather than sewn on. This suggests they were added in the 19th or 20th centuries rather than the 1620s. Of course, the netting and sequins could be later additions or repairs made to a 17th century object. But the style of the embroidery itself suggests otherwise.

Charles I is shown wearing a ruff and petticoat breeches  – dapper no doubt, but around 30 years ahead of the fashions of the 1620s. His face is painted, very unusual for an embroidery of this period.

And a final clanger for the 1621 date: Charles and Henrietta Maria didn’t marry until 1625.

The font on the label suggests it was added around the 1930s, before the object came to the Science Museum. Wishful thinking by a collector? Or deception by a seller trying to get a better price?

We’re intrigued to find out more … and maybe our Cosmic Collections competition will throw up some new information about this and other objects in our astronomy exhibition.

Wonder Wall: Cosmic Collections launch

At first glance, a replica of Isaac Newton’s telescope might not have much in common with a dark matter detector. And what could the first astronomical instrument with built-in photography possibly have to do with a tea towel?

Following the threads on the activity wall at the launch event for our Cosmic Collections competition, it all became clear. For the competition, we’re releasing data about more than 100 objects from our astronomy collection for people to incorporate into their own websites. We asked the event guests to build their own linking stories through a selection of the objects. The final result looked a bit like Jackson Pollock had gone crazy, but there were some great stories.

Cosmic Collections Launch

Cosmic Collections Launch

As to those links: the photographic instrument, which rejoices in the grandiose title of The Kew Photoheliograph, was taken to Spain to photograph the 1860 solar eclipse, proving for the first time that prominences are part of the Sun’s surface. And the tea towel is one of many delightful (or delightfully tacky, depending on your point of view) souvenirs of the 1999 eclipse. Throw in a photograph from the 1919 eclipse expedition to Brazil that backed up Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and you’ve got a story about eclipse-chasing and the science we’ve learned from expeditions.

Another string connected Newton’s telescope, the dark matter detector, gravitational waves and that 1919 eclipse photograph again. They’re all steps in the story of our understanding of gravity.

Other threads picked up on the tension between religion and science, homemade tools, extraterrestrial life, and the Herschel family as the ‘Linked In’ of astronomy – the last was presumably inspired by a fantastic performance from our very own ‘Caroline Herschel’.

Caroline captivates the crowd

'Caroline' captivates the crowd

If people can find that many different stories from the 20 or so objects we’d shown on the wall, imagine what they can do with the 100+ in the whole Cosmos & Culture exhibition. We’re looking forward to seeing the competition entries (reminder: they’re due in by midnight GMT on 28 November). If you’re interested in taking part you can find out more, check out resources, and sign up some team mates here.

Cosmic Collections launch event unveiled

Gaetan Lee is organising tomorrow’s launch event for Cosmic Collections, our website competition. Find out a little more about what to expect.

Gaetan Lee

Gaetan Lee

What should people expect at the event tomorrow?

Well they should expect to get a chance to meet some great people and really get a chance to contribute – to a certain extent its going to be a user-generated event. By coming along they will be able to hear the story of eighteenth century astronomer Caroline Herschel from one of our drama characters and delve into the secrets of the Cosmos & Culture gallery from Ali Boyle, our curator of Astronomy. Dr Chris Welsh from Kingston University will be on hand as well to give people a real insight into how we’re studying the stars today. More importantly though this is a bit of an experiment for the Science Museum, because although we have some great sessions from these experts, we also want the people coming along to add to it as well, sharing their own experience, ideas and talents.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

We’re going to be running a special wall activity whereby people can create their own narratives and links between museum objects in much the same way as the curators do when they start to plan an exhibition. We’re really interested to see what the attendees do and how they choose to link their own stories and objects together.

What kind of people will be there?

We’re hoping for a real mix of people, from people with a background in web development, in astronomy or just a general interest in science and technology. Once we get all these people together we’re planning to mix them up and get them working in teams, so it will be a mash-up of people as well as ideas.

Do you think it will give competition entrants an advantage?

By coming along tomorrow people will get a real chance to find other people to work with and but more importantly to get the inside scoop behind our amazing collection of objects. Plus it should be fun!

If you have any questions for Gaetan please leave them as comments below. You can also check out interviews with Mia Ridge, our Web Developer and Ali Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy.

Cosmic Collections: the geeky stuff

This Saturday (24 October), we’re launching our Cosmic Collections website ‘mash-up’ competition. Just in case anyone else is as baffled as me, I asked our Lead Web Developer, Mia Ridge, a few questions about the competition.

For the non-geeks out there, what’s a mash-up?

A mashup is a website or application that combines separate data sources and/or visualisation tools into a single integrated interface.

A really useful example is moveflat – you can search for housing by bus route or on a map of London.  The site mashes up data provided in housing ads with StreetMap and GoogleMaps so that the interface just works for the site visitor.

Why did you decide to run a mash-up competition for Cosmos & Culture?The idea of a mashup just seemed a perfect match for this exhibition.

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of discussion in cultural heritage technology forums about the need for APIs (instructions and methods for computers to request content and functions from each other) in museums. Some museums have released APIs, but it’s been difficult to find out how much real demand there is from non-museum programmers – I thought this would be one way to find out.

A comparatively small budget for web work in the original project meant we risked producing a bland museum microsite that might not do the objects and their stories justice.  There are so many ways of looking at these objects – as pieces of industrial design, as examples of the way we tell stories about the night sky, as artefacts from the history of science and technology, as personal items belonging to explorers and innovators, as beautiful objects in their own right… opening up the data to let people create their own sites seemed like a good way to enable other people to show us the collections as they see them.

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

A page from Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus celestium orbium

I knew there was an active online astronomy community, and that sites like Galaxy Zoo had ‘crowdsourced’ the classifications of galaxies, leading to some new discoveries.  One of the key messages of the exhibition was that amateur astronomers can still make important contributions, and that seemed to be a good match with the idea of encouraging people use our data in their own research.

Converting some of our web budget into prize money seemed like a concrete way of recognising the contributions and work of people working with our content.

How ground-breaking is it for a museum?

As far as I know, we’re the first museum to run a competition to crowd-source the creation of an exhibition site like this.

A few museums have produced APIs or published other ways to programmatically access their data and there have been lots of mashup competitions and hack days in the private and public sector but the combination is new. I’m very lucky – when I approached the curator with my idea, she could have thought I was being just a bit too experimental, but she decided to give it a go.

What might the finished mash-ups look like?

Good question!  I have absolutely no idea – which is both exciting and scary. Typically, mashups might use timelines or maps, but there’s some amazing visualisation work going on and tools like IBM’s Many Eyes make them really easy.

I’m hoping that the final submission date won’t be the end of it – we’d like to help build a community of developers who are interested in working with museum content. I’ll also be using the competition to work out how we can improve our collections API, and as input to on-going experiments with our online collections. I’m taking the approach of small experiments and iterative development that I can fit in around bigger project deadlines, partly because it’s a good match for the available resources and partly to test the benefits of a more agile approach.

If you have more questions for Mia please post them as comments below. To find out more about the exhibition and the objects on display check out our earlier interview with Ali Boyle, Curator of Astronomy.

Background on our Cosmos & Culture exhibition

Ali Boyle is the Curator of Astronomy at the Science Museum. She oversaw Cosmos & Culture, one of our newest exhibitions so I asked her a few questions about putting the exhibition together and the Cosmic Collections website competition that we’re just about to launch…

What’s the Cosmos & Culture exhibition about, and how did you select and organise the objects?

Cosmos & Culture looks at how people all around the world have interacted with the skies throughout history. It uses the Science Museum’s unique collections, and the stories of the people behind the objects, which makes it a very particular portrayal of astronomy that you won’t find elsewhere.

Armilliary Globe

Armillary Globe

The objects are organised around three major themes: the tools we’ve made to explore the cosmos, the ideas we have come up with to make sense of what we’ve seen, and how we’ve used astronomy in our daily lives. We tried several different ways of organising the exhibition content and settled on this as the best way to cover such a large subject area and historical span. But we could have organised things completely differently, and the web competition is a great way to explore what other themes might make for good storytelling.

Selecting objects for exhibitions is always a challenge, as we have far more objects in our collection than we could ever display in a gallery. Some objects are obvious choices – for example, we really wanted to display Thomas Harriot’s drawings to mark the 400th anniversary of his first lunar observations with a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map

Thomas Harriot’s Moon map. Lord Egremont / West Sussex Record Office

Some we choose because we know lots about them, which helps to tell stories. Some are beautiful and included for dramatic visual appeal on gallery, and there are always a few that the curators just have a personal affection for!

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