Category Archives: Physics

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

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?

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)

Northward Ho!

I’ve been rummaging through the Science Museum’s collections looking for objects related to terrestrial magnetism and scientific expeditions.

I smiled when I came across the musical scores for “Northward Ho! or Baffled not Beaten” in a popular song catalogue from 1875 - it really brought home just how much Arctic exploration captured people’s imaginations in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Sheet music cover of "Northward Ho!" (Alison Boyle / Science Museum)

Commander John P. Cheyne of the Royal Navy, who penned the words for this dashing tune, was himself an Arctic officer. He took part in several voyages to the north, including Sir James Clark Ross’s 1848-9 search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845.

Franklin had been searching for the North-West Passage, when he and his crew suddenly vanished. Over the next fifteen years or so several expeditions were launched to find the missing hero, but only a few ominous clues about the men’s fate were ever found.

Sir John Franklin, 1824. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Still, to Cheyne and others Franklin’s name would stand next to those of other revered explorers like Sir John Ross (James Clark Ross’s uncle*, as it happens) and Sir William Parry.

Lyrics from 'Northward Ho!" (Alison Boyle / Science Museum)

The cover print of the song shows three hot-air balloons, Enterprise, Resolute, and Discovery, preparing for flight in the Arctic. Balloons had been proposed as a method of reaching the North Pole as early as the 1870s as they could avoid some of the hardships and dangers of a journey by sledge or on foot, and could also provide useful platforms for making scientific measurements at higher altitudes.

Expeditions may have been a question of sport and glory, but they were also intended to gather accurate scientific data on a large number of natural phenomena, including the Earth’s magnetic field. Investigating terrestrial magnetism made a lot of sense in the nineteenth century, since the required equipment could improve the efficiency of navigation across the oceans.

'Proposed Method of Reaching the North Pole by Balloons', c 1880s. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Some brave explorers, like Franklin, didn’t make it back from the unchartered northern territories. But the lucky ones returned with the magnetic instruments that had made their voyages possible. Many of them are now in the Museum’s store rooms. More about these soon…

*[Edited on 15/09/10]

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 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).

Busy bees

Recently, searching the physics collections on our object database, I was intrigued by an entry for a ‘radiation detector built to detect bees marked with radium’. Some research from our wonderful volunteer Eduard revealed more.

A discharge (gas) tube from Gilbert Tomes's bee detector (Science Museum).

The device was designed by Gilbert Tomes in the early 1940s. Tomes, a keen amateur apiarist, was seeking a way to track swarms by detecting when the queen bee left the hive. He tried tagging the queen with a tiny magnet to trigger a circuit as she left  – but as you might imagine, attaching magnets to bees was a tricky job.

Dabbing them with luminous paint proved somewhat easier, but Tomes’s photocell detector setup was triggered by other light sources as well as the painted bees. Then he remembered that the luminous paint contained radium (despite increasing awareness of its dangers from the early 20th century, radium paint was widely used in WW2-era instruments).

As part of their work for the Baird Television company, Tomes and his colleague Alec Tidmarsh had been investigating Geiger-Muller tubes, which at the time were little used outside scientific circles. They made a simple device to detect the radioactive bees, which they showed to London Zoo‘s head beekeeper. Impressed, he sent a story to the Press Association, and suddenly the ‘Tomes Queen Detector’ was big news.

Tomes and Tidmarsh were deluged with requests for their Geiger counters and a few years later founded 20th Century Electronics (now Centronic), which became a global leader in detector technology.

Woodcut of bees in a herbal encyclopedia, 1497 (Science Museum).

Perhaps the company’s success improved Tomes’s wife’s opinion of his bee research. In his diaries on 19 September 1941, Gilbert noted: ‘Feeding bees with sugar syrup.  This was rather a sticky business and Mary did not like her kitchen being taken over.  She wanted to know why we had to feed the bees when they were supposed to be feeding us with honey’.

From Planck to pigeon poo

The European Space Agency has just released the first all-sky map from the Planck satellite. The centre of the map is dominated by purple swirls from the dust around our Galaxy, but Planck’s main business is to look closely at the blobby structures visible in the map’s outer regions. These ’blobs’ show temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. Irregularities in the CMB became the seeds of today’s galaxies.

Planck's all sky survey (ESA, HFI and LFI consortia)

The fluctuations in the background radiation were first mapped by NASA’s COBE satellite, launched in 1989. An instrument on board also measured the CMB’s spectrum. FIRAS’s moving mirrors created interference patterns in a radiation beam, enabling the precise spectrum to be reconstructed. To the delight of scientists, the results perfectly matched the predictions of Big Bang theory.

This prototype mirror mechanism for the FIRAS instrument is on display in Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum).

The FIRAS prototype is on loan to us from the kind folks at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.  NASM’s display about the 1964 discovery of the microwave background features one of my favourite objects in any museum, anywhere. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson initially thought that an annoying background hiss from their radio antenna was caused by pigeon droppings, and used this trap to try and capture the pesky critters. It turned out they’d accidentally found what other scientists had been looking for – the Big Bang’s echo.

Over the rainbow

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the mighty Victoria Falls. As I stood at the falls’ edge drenched in spray, I spotted double rainbows formed by sunlight being refracted through the water droplets.

A rainbow, with a fainter secondary companion above, at Victoria Falls. (Alison Boyle)

One of the first people to explain how rainbows form was the Persian mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, who was born around 1260. Using a glass sphere filled with water to represent a raindrop, he showed that sunlight is bent as it enters the drop, reflects off the back of the drop, and is bent again on its way out. If rays are reflected twice inside the drop, a secondary rainbow is formed with the colours reversed. Here’s a more detailed explanation. Around the same time Theorodic of Freiberg performed a similar experiment. The two were not in contact, but both had been influenced by Ibn al-Haytham‘s Book of Optics. You can find out more about al-Farisi and al-Haytham in the 1001 Inventions exhibition.

Rainbows have fascinated people for centuries, as this illustration from 1535 shows. (Science Museum)

Isaac Newton explained that the rainbow’s colours arise as a result of white light being split into its constituent colours. Many people will have childhood memories of making a Newton colour wheel with a disc of cardboard and a pencil. Here’s a late 19th century version.

A 19th century demonstration apparatus. (Science Museum)

As our understanding of the nature of light has continued to change, so has our understanding of the rainbow. For a detailed account of how people have portrayed rainbows in science and beyond, check out Raymond Lee and Alastair Fraser’s The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth and Science.