Category Archives: Current science

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.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

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 quantumdiaries.org)

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!

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?

Batteries not included

What’s the one gadget you couldn’t live without? Your mobile phone, PDA, music player, game console – or all those things combined in a sleek smartphone?

No matter which device you choose, the one thing that all these gadgets couldn’t exist without is their rechargeable battery - the beating heart of the modern world.

The first rechargeable battery was the Lead-Acid battery, invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté, but it was the Nickel Cadmium battery invented in 1899 by Waldemar Jungar that really paved the way for the future of mobile technology.

The very early mobile phones used Nickel Cadmium batteries, but the batteries were so enormous they had to be stored in the boot of a car. As demand increased improvements were made and soon you were able to carry your battery around with you in a handy carry case.

Vodafone transportable mobile phone, 1985. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1983 the first stand alone mobile phone had been developed using the Nickel Cadmium battery the Motorola Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage (DynaTAC 8000X). By 1989 they could even fit in your pocket – though it might have to be quite a large pocket.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone, 1993. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Today the battery that probably powers the phone in your pocket and the laptop on your desk is a Lithium battery, most likely a Lithium-Ion battery.

Introduced in 1990 these batteries have emerged as the best energy to weight ratio, meaning they last longer but weigh less, and they have enabled mobile phones to become smaller and smarter.

Sony Ericson T68i mobile phone, 2002. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The iUnit concept car in our Plasticity exhibition is proof that in the future lithium batteries could be used to power even more aspects of our mobile lives.

Toyota i-Unit concept car, 2005 (Science Museum website)