Category Archives: Environment

60 years of conquering Mount Everest

Dr Helen Peavitt, curator of Consumer Technology, writes about the technology behind sixty years of conquering Mount Everest.

At 11.30am, on this day (29th May) in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the expedition team led by John Hunt. Despite the relative ‘ease’ with which the summit is climbed today by increasing numbers of people, the magnitude of the 1953 achievement cannot be underestimated. The mountain still maintains its mystique and reasserts its perilous nature during each climbing season, with an average of one death for every ten successful attempts on the summit.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks.

The Himalayas. Mount Everest (8846m) and Nuptse (7841m) peaks. Credit © DEA / BERSEZIO / Universal Images Group / Science & Society Picture Library

The infamous character of the Himalayan peak began in 1852, when George Everest’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of India established peak ‘b’ as the survey team first called it as the highest mountain in the world. Straddling Nepal and Tibet – both secretive, inaccessible countries at the time – it was perhaps inevitable that it would enter the imagination of many by providing another unknown, uncharted territory to explore. After the Tibetan government opened up the country to the British in the 1920s, attempts on the mountain’s summit from the north side by a rash of British-led teams began. The successful 1953 party scaled the mountain from the south side.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b'.

Theodolite used by the Survey of India team to measure peak ‘b’. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum holds a number of artefacts from some of the more well-known attempts on the summit. These reveal both the very private and the public nature of climbing the mountain. Although Hilary himself commented: ‘Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it’, much of the equipment developed for the 1953 expedition used cutting-edge technology. For example, the Pye wireless equipment used, including the walkie talkie in the image below, was specially adapted by Pye for the extremes of weather and temperature experienced on the mountain. This enabled the team to receive broadcasts from the world outside and to communicate with camps up to two miles away.

Pye radio set used on the successful 1953 expedition.

Some of the Pye radio equipment used on the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

An oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shows how even the air we take for granted has to be supplied for most climbing teams at such high altitude. The oxygen levels above 8,000m in the mountain’s Death Zone, are so low that the body uses its store of oxygen up faster than it can be replenished by breathing.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition.

Oxygen cylinder from the British 1922 Everest Expedition, shown with a modern oxygen cylinder and breathing mask, similar to those used in the successful 1953 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Many of the other Everest-related objects in our collections are more personal items of clothing. There are butter-soft silk gloves and a pair of special lightweight double clinker nailed climbing boots from the 1933 expedition; and a fibre jacket from a 1978 climb – the first successful ascent without bottled oxygen.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933.

Silk inner glove used on an Everest expedition in 1933. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Whilst these objects are all in the Museum’s stores, a lurid waterproof jacket and trousers by Karrimor, using Gore-Tex was worn by Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest on the 40th Anniversary Expedition in 1993; is on show in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition.

Rebecca Stephen’s jacket and trousers from the 1993 expedition. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

There’s also a pair of Indian puttees belonging to Dr Tom Longstaff from the 1922 expedition – the first which set off with the expressed purpose of reaching the summit. Longstaff advised against the expedition’s third attempt on the summit during which seven were killed by an avalanche. Many of these objects form poignant and intimate reminders of the very personal nature of climbing the most famous mountain in the world.

Music by Muzak

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, An Electronic Music Volunteer.

As Christmas draws closer, how many of you have found yourselves in a shopping centre listening to the dulcet sounds of an instrumental version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’?

‘Department Store by Grace Golden’ ( © The National Archives / Science & Society Picture Library )

Whether we notice it or not, music is always around us. Music by Muzak is a company who scientifically produced to create background music for shopping centres, offices and even lifts. It has been scientifically proven that music effects you and whatever you are doing, however continuous music would very quickly lose its effectiveness as the mind pushed it further back in to the sub-conscious. The solution with Muzak is that a Muzak programme is never repeated, it is designed to be heard not listened to.

The history of Muzak in the UK started in September 1959 but its potential was born in the minds of two English scientists in 1934 who themselves have been influenced by the use made of music by the ancient Egyptians in increasing the efficiency of their labour force while building the Pyramids.  

Music by Muzak Promotional Folder (Credit: Ellie West-Thomas)











This music service is designed to increase sales and employee productivity, attract the right customers, impact dwell time, create a competitive advantage, differentiate your brand and build loyalty. Muzak is specially orchestrated and recorded for the time, the place and the activity. To be of constructive use, music must give a pleasant emotional stimulus without demanding attention. The scientists behind Muzak believe that the average worker goes through a cycle of efficiency each day. The time when the worker is most efficient is in the morning and after lunch. Muzak’s functional music programmes are designed so that when the worker is at their least efficient it should bring them back up to a good level of efficiency. To represent this discovery we are currently acquiring the ‘Muzak Promotional Folder’.

The science is true in essence, for example when you have a louder, heavier piece of music on in the car then you tend to drive a bit faster compared to someone who is listening to softer music like a classical piece. 

Now have a think about what kind of music you would want to listen to in such an environment, different people may want to hear different things whilst doing certain tasks. So if you were Muzak adding to your extensive archive library what music would you have and what for?

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!

You Dirty Rats…

Dead rats

Rats killed at Paddington Station, London, 9 November 1921 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

The recent pronouncements by Scott Springer – Borough President of Manhattan – about the rat problem in New York received international attention. While they may have been motivated as much by politics as public health concerns, they once again highlighted our fractious relationship with these particular rodent.

Few animals have attained such universal levels of loathing, although more than one friend of mine has enjoyed keeping pet rats – ‘Dave’ being one still remembered with great fondness. But even the most committed animal lovers tend to physically cringe should a wild one scuttle past in the street.

Rat trap

Iron gin rat trap, England, c.1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pets aside, our interactions with rats tend to have pretty negative outcomes for one or other party. They are linked with disease, known as stealers and spoilers of stored food and generally associated with gutters, sewers and other nasty places, and we are pretty merciless in our actions.

Each year, we poison, trap and otherwise despatch many millions of these highly fertile beasts. We’ve even developed poisons that effectively mummify the rats to reduce the odour from the carnage – though one wonders what horrors await future generations of roofers and renovators.

Rodent housing unit

Lab rat housing unit, England, 1990-1999 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The benefits we have derived through decades of laboratory research on rats have done little to endear them to us.

The spreading of diseases such as plague, typhus and leptospirosis could be seen as the rats’ revenge, but in reality they tend to play the role of unknowing, if highly proficient, vectors of sickness. They also succumb to many of the diseases they are associated with sharing with us.

X-Ray of rat

Ex-rat X-ray, 1896 (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn to love or live happily with rats – the likes of ‘Dave’ notwithstanding of course – perhaps they are due a certain respect. Despite all we have done to them, they just keep coming back for more…