Category Archives: Exhibitions

How did we get the planes in?

Last week one of our visitors asked us a question via Twitter while looking round our third-floor Flight gallery:

Help me settle a debate @sciencemuseum, how did you get the planes in the flight exhibit into the building?

Good question. First opened in 1963, the gallery was refurbished in the 1990s when a couple of new planes (including our Hawker jump-jet and a Hawker Siddeley executive jet) were added.

HS.125 executive jet, 1965 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

To get the aircraft into the gallery, we took some windows out, built a platform out above the service road that runs alongside the building, and craned the aircraft up and inside. Most were dismantled before transportation – the wings were removed, for instance – and then they were rebuilt inside the gallery before being hung up.

We’ve got planes in other galleries, too. If you made it to the Making the Modern World gallery during your visit, you’ll have found a gorgeous Lockheed ‘Electra’ airliner swooping down on you, as well as an Avro 504K biplane, a Rolls-Royce vertical-take-off test rig and a Short SC 1 aircraft.

Short SC 1 aircraft and Rolls-Royce test rig, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As this gallery is on the ground floor, life was a bit easier. The aircraft were brought in to the gallery on low-loaders, reassembled on the gallery floor, then hung up by a team of rigging contractors. This was done before the smaller exhibits were installed, but it was still a real 3D jigsaw for the project managers to work it out.

Lockheed 'Electra' airliner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’ve found some lovely photos of the early-1960s aircraft installation. I’m getting them scanned, and I’ll post them here in a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

Deadly predators in Tate Britain

I visited Tate Britain last weekend to see a pair of fighter planes newly on show in the gallery’s central halls.

Sea Harrier jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

Created by British artist Fiona BannerHarrier and Jaguar sees a Sea Harrier suspended like a ‘captured bird’, according to the gallery, with a Jaguar nearby ‘belly up on the floor, its posture suggestive of a submissive animal’. It’s an arresting display.

Jaguar jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

There’s nothing else. Just the two jets, one stripped bare, flipped over and defenceless, the other hanging menacingly as if about to strike, both captured within the spare, classical surroundings of the art gallery.

Sea Harrier jet (detail) in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

I loved the simplicity of the show. With nothing to look at but the exhibits, I was soon lost in thought about what they meant, about the journey they’d made from manufacture, through use, to disposal and, ultimately, this display.

And, as with all experiences like this, it made me want to look at familiar things with fresh eyes. On show in the Science Museum’s Flight gallery is the first prototype that ultimately led to the Harrier, the Hawker P.1127, which first flew (half a century ago!) in October 1960.

Hawker P.1127 prototype jump-jet, 1960 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s a beautiful and terrifying craft, as Banner’s display brought home to me so strongly. A single jet engine with four swivelling nozzles enables the aircraft to take off vertically, hover, and fly forwards or backwards in a ballet of jet-powered precision – yet it’s a machine designed to kill.

Tough stuff – see both displays if you can.

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.

Birds’ Eye Views

I wonder if the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) had a little-known sub-section devoted to pigeon fanciers.  A branch, perhaps (or a wing)? How else to explain the preponderance of interesting  features high up on old buildings that are indistinct at street level but – presumably – clear as bread crumbs to passing pigeons?

I was mulling this over yesterday as I squinted at the figures and details of The Treasury’s Whitehall pediment, and then again while attempting to make out the features on one of Imperial College’s older buildings, just around the corner from the Science Museum.

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College (Doug Millard, 2010)

Albertopolis, as this corner of South Kensington has often been referred to, is awash with such elevated and hard-to-make-out architectural treats. Yesterday I was struggling to read the inscriptions on the other Albert Memorial, the one round the back of the Albert Hall and at the top of the steps (where Michael Caine fought Oliver MacGreevey in ‘The Ipcress File’).

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Doug Millard, 2010)

It’s a hugely important monument, commemorating as it does the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the proceeds of which paid for many of the buildings of Albertopolis (the educational institutions, the museums and, of course, the Hall) – and the man behind it, Albert Francis Augustus Charles Emanuel, The Prince Consort.

Harrison's Power Loom, 1851

This loom can be seen in the Science Museum's 'Making the Modern World' gallery but was first displayed in the 'Machinery in Motion' part of the Great Exhibition in 1851 (Science Museum/Science&Society)

But the exhibition itself was in Hyde Park and save passing references to its location on the maps at the Park entrances there is no monument at or near to where Paxton’s gigantic ‘Crystal Palace’ once stood.

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park (Doug Millard, 2010)

I wonder if, with the recent dry weather revealing ancient disturbances of the ground, it is the pigeons that once again are best placed to appreciate, I would argue, the under-recognised site of one of London’s most significant cultural events.

Liquid steel and an underground time machine

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day:

Hidden lift passage, Notting Hill Gate station, 2010 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour:

Science Museum 'Iron and Steel Gallery' poster, Notting Hill Gate station, c.1959 (London Underground / Mike Ashworth)

I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our 1865 converter. It’s now in Making the Modern World but back in the sixties it was in Iron and Steel, as shown here:

Science Museum audioguides, 1961 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

(Hand-held audioguides aren’t a recent museum phenomenon. We were trying them out in the sixties!)

In front of the converter you can see a flattened metal ring. It’s a section of round gun barrel, squashed flat by a steam hammer. It was done cold, and there’s no cracking.

Section of Bessemer steel hammered flat, 1860 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a demonstration carried out by Bessemer in 1860 to show the superb ductility (flexibility) of his steel, which made it such a useful material – giving us longer bridges, bigger ships, taller buildings, stronger machinery and rails to take heavier and faster trains. You can see it in Making the Modern World, too.

Iron and Steel was replaced in 1995 by our current Challenge of Materials gallery.

(Thanks to Mike Ashworth and London Underground for sharing their pictures.)

Science on the telly

The Science Museum is formally over 100 years old.

The Science Museum's permanent building under construction, 1916 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Over the century since 1909, it has had to compete with more and more media getting-in on the business of popular science.

A hundred years ago, popular science publishing was already a big scene, as Peter Bowler shows in his enlightening new book, Science for All.

Radio came along in the 1930s, and soon featured science. But our biggest competitor really got into its stride in the 1950s, when television began to get seriously interested, long before even Tomorrow’s World .

BBC producers had heated arguments about whether to treat science in highly-crafted documentaries, or as topical live programmes in the studio or out in the scientists’ labs.

Very often, the same subjects have been treated in books, radio, television and the Museum. Sometimes the same people crop up on television, in Museum displays, and also behind the scenes. One example is Lawrence Bragg, the distinguished physicist.

Bragg served on the BBC’s General Advisory Council, where he worked hard to promote the cause of science broadcasts. He was also on the Science Museum’s Advisory Council in the ’60s. His Royal Institution Lectures were the first to be broadcast live in 1959. There is a rare opportunity to see him in action, in Before Horizon, a special showing at BFI Southbank on Monday 7th June. Why not make a day of it and spend the afternoon at the Science Museum?

Our displays include at the X-ray spectrometer used by Lawrence and his father William in our Making the Modern World gallery.

Astronomers without borders

With last week’s opening of 1001 Inventions, we’ve been celebrating cross-cultural collaboration, and astronomy has plenty of examples. At the entrance to the exhibition you can see a display of objects from our collections, including this astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din in Lahore in 1666. The astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the universe that can be held in your hand. It is also a beautiful demonstration of the way knowledge is shared between cultures.

Astrolabe by Jamal al-Din, 1666 (Image: Science Museum)

The first astrolabes were probably developed by the Ancient Greeks. From the 8th century onwards, the instrument was improved by Islamic scholars who took it as far as India and China. The astrolabe was reintroduced to Europe via Moorish Spain. By the 17th century the craftsmen of the Low Countries were producing elaborate instruments like this one.

An astrolabe that can’t be held in your hand is the Yantra Raj, one of the instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India. This giant stone observatory was built for accuracy rather than portability, to help improve the calendar. In 18th-century India people used a combination of the lunar-based Muslim and the solar-based Hindu systems. Both relied on observations made centuries earlier, so became increasingly unreliable. Jaipur’s ruler, Jai Singh II, commissioned the new observatory. This model, on display in Cosmos & Culture , shows one instrument called the Rashivalaya Yantra, with sundials to track the Sun through each zodiac sign.

Model of part of the Jaipur observatory (Image: Science Museum)

The observatory at Jaipur is just one of the examples that historian Simon Schaffer will be talking about during Space … a real frontier? at the Dana Centre next Thursday. He’ll be joined by Craig Underwood of Surrey Satellite Technology and our own Doug Millard as we explore celestial collaborations through the ages. There’s still time to book a ticket for the event, which also includes tours of 1001 Inventions and Cosmos & Culture – hope to see you there!

Up and atom

If you’re planning to attend Monday’s Centenary talk on the Large Hadron Collider, you can spot a few of its distant ancestors as you pass through the Making the Modern World gallery en route to hear Brian Cox speak.

Looming large on the left of the central walkway is the cascade generator from John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton’s million-volt accelerator. This generated 1.25 million volts to accelerate protons and smash them into atomic nuclei, breaking the nuclei apart. During the Second World War this apparatus was used to study uranium and plutonium, contributing to the Manhattan Project.

Detail of the cascade generator (Image: Science Museum)

Detail of the cascade generator (Image: Science Museum)

The million-volt accelerator is a souped-up version of the appartus that Cockcroft and Walton used to split the atom in 1932, the first time this had been done in a controlled situation. This work, which earned them a Nobel Prize, provided the first experimental proof of Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. You can see this accelerator in miniature on the gallery’s model walkway (parts of the real thing are at our Wroughton store).

Model of Cockcroft and Waltons laboratory - spot the scientist in the shielded cabin to the right. (Image: Science Museum)

Model of Cockcroft and Walton's laboratory - spot the scientist in the shielded cabin to the right. (Image: Science Museum)

As you can tell from the size of the person in the model, this equipment was large and unweildy. Meanwhile in America, Ernest Lawrence and his student M. Stanley Livingston had been working on ways of repeatedly passing particles through the same accelerating voltage, to get a bigger overall effect. Lawrence proposed using magnets to whirl charged particles around in an ever-increasing spiral, so that they could keep crossing the same voltage gap  (his patent diagram helps explain it). The cyclotron, as the device came to be known, could split atoms in equipment that fitted on a laboratory bench.

In 1931, Livingston passed the magic million-volt mark with an 11-inch cyclotron, which prompted an excited telegram from the lab to Lawrence: “Dr Livingston has asked me to advise you that he has obtained 1,100,000 volt protons. He also suggsted that I add ‘Whoopee!”.  You can see an early example of this whoopee-inducing device in the bench case opposite Cockcroft and Walton’s cascade generator. Shortly after Cockcroft and Walton, Lawrence also succeeded in splitting the atom, and the invention of the cyclotron earned him a Nobel gong too.

Early cyclotron designed by Lawrence, 1932

Early 11-inch cyclotron designed by Lawrence, 1932

These early atom-splitters ushered in the age of Big Science, with particle accelerators getting bigger and bigger as physicists continued their quest to probe ever-higher energies. And as I’ve mentioned previously, the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest of big. Hope you enjoy the big ideas in Professor Cox’s talk!

This blog has gravity

Picture the scene. Two men are lurking at a London station, waiting for the Glasgow train. The train arrives and a third man disembarks, wheeling a suitcase. The three exchange some quick words of identification, the Londoners give the man from Glasgow an envelope of papers and he hands over the suitcase. The Londoners jump into a taxi with the suitcase … which contains a 23kg sapphire.

No, it’s not a scene from the latest Bond movie. The man on the Glasgow train was astronomer Martin Hendry and the others were my colleagues Doug and Chris. Martin’s department loaned us the sapphire for display, and rather than send our van the whole way to Glasgow and back we kept our carbon footprint down by arranging to  meet when Martin had to be in London anyway. Martin was back in London last weekend, and here he is with the sapphire in the Cosmos & Culture gallery.

Martin checks were taking care of his sapphire

Martin checks we're taking care of his sapphire

‘What sapphire?’ you might ask. If you were expecting something blue and multifaceted, look again. It’s the round clear object on the front shelf. It’s pure synthetic sapphire and it’s a test mass for an experiment called GEO600, which is using laser beams to try and detect gravitational waves, tiny ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein. To find out more about these types of experiment work, check out this video on our YouTube channel

Martin joined us to give a talk as part of our Cosmic Explorers Day event, which was supported by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrations.  The day looked at how we make sense of space (or try to) and the enduring influence of Albert Einstein. But Einstein’s influence has spread far beyond astronomy – here’s a fun example from our collections.

An unusual use of Einsteins image (Credit: Science Museum)

An unusual use of Einstein's image (Credit: Science Museum)

Why use an image of a German-Swiss-American theoretical physicist to sell an Australian shoe spray?  Well, Einstein did have sweaty feet (which, along with varicose veins, got him out of doing Swiss national service) and famously never wore socks, but the packaging makes no reference to this. The famous image of the white-haired scientist seems to have been used to reinforce the makers’ claim that the spray is ‘scientifically proven’ to eliminate shoe odours, showing how Einstein has become the face of science for many. Martin evidently approves – look at his Tshirt – although we are sure he has very fragrant feet!

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.