I AM….

In Emily’s second post, find out about one of her favourite art pieces in the Science Museum

Sitting there, watching Listening Post, I was strangely mesmerised. The computer synthesised voices read out posts in different, monotonic keys, creating a calm chorus of gentle noise. I was completely hypnotised and probably could have sat there for hours… 

Listening Post at the Science Museum

Created by artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post is an art project which came to the museum in 2003. It displays small sections of live conversations from public internet chat rooms or bulletins. All the information is uncensored and picked up randomly from English sites so it could be anything. There are seven ‘scenes’ which do various displays on 200 tiny screens. Sounds from the real electronic world are also simulated like clattering of typing, the tone from an answering machine, and in some scenes, a calm, simple musical soundtrack will accompany.

My favourite scene was one where the computer voices read out single lines from a conversation, each one displayed on a new screen, eventually filling the entire display, each sentence designated to a screen on a constant loop. It was a pattern of sentences beginning with ‘I am…’ I was surprised at how much I smiled when the synthesised voice read out ‘I am happy,’ and I suppose I was touched at how someone, somewhere was happy. Along with this, there were some loops which had some rather amusing content and I was forced to hide my chuckle because the whole space was silent aside from the light clattering of changing text and the drone of the electronic voice.

Listening Post at the Science Museum ( Image Graham Peet )

The other scenes had different displays. One read out whole paragraphs of conversation, layering them and creating a harmonised symphony of undecipherable words. It was interesting to see that different ways people used networking. Meeting new people, talking to old friends. It made me feel small and insignificant, that these sections of text and words were only a miniscule fragment of what was out there on the internet at the present time. It also made me more aware that what I might be posting on the internet isn’t private and that it will remain there forever, imprinted on the walls of the World Wide Web.

Experiencing the Science Museum

This blog post was written by Emily to share her thoughts on her placement at the Science Museum

I came to the Science Museum for a two week work experience placement and was surprised at how much there was going on! Going to a museum for a school trip, or even for a day out with my family, I’m used to seeing people in the Learning department, working at the café and in the shop but being behind the scenes, I discovered there was much more then meets the eye…

Emily with Helen Sharman’s space suit ( Science Museum, London )

Walking into the building on day one, the first thing I noticed was that staff had a separate entrance with their own receptionist – there must be a lot of people working here. Then, on my quick look around the museum, half of it was looking at the galleries and exhibitions, but the other was walking around all the hidden away offices, conservation rooms and more. There was so much going on and it was all immensely interesting. Working in the Collections Office, I was opened to the opportunity to do a wide variety of tasks and experiences: Going to interesting meetings, contributing to website creations, visiting Blythe House, and doing things that actually made a difference around the museum.

Computers at Blythe House

 I’m quite a shy person. Usually, I find it very difficult to talk to people I don’t know or have never met and I become extremely passive. Working at the museum, however, with everyone being so friendly, I felt very comfortable in the work place very quickly. I was even shocked at myself at how I could so easily talk to people I had only just met and I think that being so warmly welcomed was a big contribution to that.

There were some stressful bits of work; guiding a group of people from one place to another, although a simple job, it had to be executed smoothly, and being a naturally worried person, it was quite a big thing for me to do. None the less, it was completed successfully so I was rather proud of my self. This was, after all, work experience, and it was good for me to see some of the less relaxed parts of a full time job.

Pharmacy jars at Blythe House

But, of course, this experience couldn’t be complete without a tour of Blythe House, a store for objects, and a wind down with a milkshake, IMAX film and Learning show. I enjoyed working at the museum and will undoubtedly miss my time here. But, I will leave with a fully enriching experience and I cannot thank everyone who made it such a nice time for me, enough.

 Join us soon for a second blog post by Emily on her favourite art piece at the Science Museum.

 

 

Blink and you’ll miss it

How many people do you know that have had a cataracts operation? Cataract (the clouding of the lens of the eye) have been operated on for hundreds of years. One of the earliest operations was couching – pushing the clouded lens out of the way to restore some vision. By the 1740s, methods were developed to remove the lens completely.

Diorama showing a cataract operation, Persia, AD 1000 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

However it wasn’t until the 1940s, that a successful artificial alternative to the eye’s lens was found, the intra-ocular lens. While working with injured pilots during the Second World War, Sir Harold Ridley and others found that Perspex slivers in embedded in the eye were not rejected by the body. This held the key to finding the right material for intra-ocular lenses.

Intraocular lenses for the eye, England, 1979 ( Science Museum, London )

Working with Rayners Limited, Ridley implanted an intra-ocular lens made from using a plastic known as PMMA (polymethylmethacrylate). On 29 November 1949 the first intra ocular lens was implanted into a patient in secret at St Thomas’ Hospital London. In 1951, Ridley announced his work to his peers to some scepticism before it became widely used.Today’s intra-ocular lenses have a variety of designs with over 1500 being registered. Our tiny examples are on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. If you want to find out more, try MuseumEye, the website of the British Optical Association Museum

For his services to ophathlmology Sir Harold Ridley was knighted in 2001.  and was on the Royal Mail’s Medical Breakthroughs stamp set alongside Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir John Charnley, Sir James Black (who developed beta-blockers, Sir Ronald Ross, and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.

First Day Covers, September 2012 ( The British Postal Museum and Archive )

In 1967, Harold Ridley set up the Ridley Eye Foundation to raise funds and awareness about cataract. In 1999 the Ridley Eye Foundation had a tribute dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lens, you can see the man himself giving a talk about his discovery among the backdrop of our Flight gallery.

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.

Magnesium ammonium phosphate model by Kathleen Lonsdale, c. 1966. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

X-ray crystallography at 100

In 1913, following the discovery that crystals produce patterns when subjected to X-ray bombardment, father-and-son team William and Lawrence Bragg formalised the laws of X-ray crystallography. In 1915 they won a Nobel Prize for their work – Lawrence, at 25, remaining to this day the youngest winner. To celebrate the centenary of X-ray crystallography, the Science Museum has just opened Hidden Structures, a new display of molecular models made using the technique.

Why water boils at a 100°C and methane at -161°C; why blood is red and grass is green; how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever complex forms – the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis. - Max Perutz

Since it was first developed, X-ray crystallography has been the preeminent method of analysis of molecular structure, leading to a profound understanding of the way various substances are built. The spectacular patterns revealed by the technique and the necessity of constructing large-scale molecular models has resulted in some of the Science Museum’s most striking objects.

By far the most famous result of X-ray crystallography is the structure of DNA, discovered by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The context of this vital work is not usually talked about – the Science Museum’s display shows that proteins, viruses and other molecules were being intensively studied in the years after World War II. And the timing isn’t a coincidence: some scientists who considered the atomic bomb to be an abuse of physics turned to molecular biology, as a way of working with the fundamental physical structure but for a benign purpose.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about X-ray crystallography is that it has played an important part in the story of modern design. At the 1951 Festival of Britain – an even famed for its colourful and innovative look – one of the main visual motifs was atomic structure. We hope we’ve captured something of the spirit of 1951 in this display of important and intriguing models.

Brois Jardine is Curator of History of Science at the Science Museum. Hidden Structures, a new display case celebrating the centenary of X-ray crystallography, opens today until the end of 2013.

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

March marks the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The first was a Morris-Oxford Light Car. William Morris began making and repairing bicycles in his work and gradually went onto to hiring and repairing cars before making his own. Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris went on to dominate the British car industry and was made a baron in 1934 and 4 years later Viscount for his services to car manufacturing. He would become known as Viscount Nuffield.

Morris Minor MM, 1950 ( Science Museum, London )

You may be wondering why a medical curator is writing about car manufacturing? Well to us medical folk, Lord Nuffield is more well known for providing hospitals across the UK and what was then the British Empire with iron lungs. Over 5,000 iron lungs were donated and we are lucky enough to have one in the collection, that was donated to the Memorial Hospital in Darlington.

Both-type iron lung donated to the Memorial Hospital Darlington, c.1950s ( Science Museum, London )

During the late 1940s and 1950s, polio was cutting its way across the UK and the rest of the world. The vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still years away. Polio can and did affect people, especially children, in different ways. As an infectious disease affecting the central nervous system, some people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, or of the chest muscles. For the latter, the only treatment option was an iron lung. Few hospitals were able to afford the £1000 each machine cost.

Nuffield began his mission to spread iron lungs across the world in 1938 after hearing a plea for a iron lung on the radio and offered a part of his factory to manufacture them. At the time, the Both iron lung that Nuffield begin to make was not seen as the best model on the market and he was for his “wasteful benevolence.” Nuffield went on to maufacture 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. In total Nuffield donated over 5000 iron lungs. One is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. If you look closely at our iron lung, many of the parts, look at those they were modelled on car parts.

Handle of the Both-type iron lung ( Science Museum, London )

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed including Nuffield Department of Surigcal Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and the Nuffield Foundation. So the next time you see a Morris car, think about the man behind the motor.

‘For mica’ forever!

This blog was written by Helen Peavitt, Curator of Domestic Technology

Formica is 100 this year. Best known as the laminate associated with the 1950s and 60s colour explosion in surface coverings, what’s probably less well known is that it was originally an insulation material for the electrical industry. Formica literally stands for ‘for mica’, as it was developed as a synthetic plastic substitute for expensive mineral mica. It was made by binding layers of cloth or paper together with a phenolic resin (originally Bakelite). Engineer Dan O’Conor filed for a patent for it in February 1913 and by May the Formica Products Company (set up by O’Conor and Harold Faber) was already taking orders. 

Dark brown Formica was a success, buoyed up by its use for radio casings in the 1920s and 30s, giving the colour, feel and finish familiar to any collector of vintage radio sets. Soon it was furnishing interiors with the glossy, smooth, jet, brown and black style associated with the Deco 1930s. 

 

Formica swatch, 1960-1975 ( Science Museum, London )

Used wherever a tough, easy to clean surface was required, Formica was increasingly popular: found in public buildings, paneling the state rooms aboard the Cunard Queen Mary and the walls of Second World War prefab military barracks, used to toughen wooden airplane propellers and, with the growth of youth and café culture after the Second World War, on café tables and kitchen counters everywhere.

Cafe table with laminated Formica top, unsigned, British, 1955-1965 ( Science Museum, London )

Formica’s popularity was challenged in the 1970s, in part by a growing preference for ‘honest’ real-wood finishes and historic designs. By the 1980s however, new ColorCore – Formica with solid colour all the way through – became popular with influential architects, designers and jewellery makers including Wendy Ramshaw

c 1950s advertisement with a formica kitchen ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Formica is currently in vogue. One reason for this is its ability to constantly reinvent itself, mimicking wood, stone and just about any colour and pattern. Finishes in the 2013 catalogue reflect current cultural preoccupations and colour trends. Retro-style designs include ‘Citrus halftone’ (released for Formica’s 100th anniversary ) and the enduringly popular Charcoal Boomerang, designed by Brooks Stevens as ‘Skylark’ for the optimistic 1950s and updated by industrial designer Raymond Loewy a few years later. Both indicate Formica’s ability to move with the times and, in its 100th year, celebrate its origins and heritage.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

The multiple lives of Alan Turing

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month, and this year the focus is on mathematics, science and engineering. Here, David Rooney, curator of the Science Museum’s award-winning Codebreaker exhibition, discusses mathematician Alan Turing’s contributions to science and society.

Alan Turing’s life had many facets. He is perhaps most widely known today for his wartime codebreaking exploits at Bletchley Park, where he devised processes and technologies to crack German ‘Enigma’ messages on an industrial scale. The intelligence uncovered at Bletchley was central to Britain’s war effort and may have shortened the conflict by up to two years. Winston Churchill described the site’s cryptanalysts as his ‘golden geese that never cackled’.

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

Turing’s first major contribution to science had been a paper written in 1936, when he was just 24, on an abstruse theoretical problem in the philosophy of mathematics. ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ attacked German mathematician David Hilbert’s so-called ‘decision problem’, which sought a formal underpinning of mathematics. Turing’s paper was a philosophical bombshell which destroyed the consistency of the subject.

This work brought Turing to the attention of a small group of mathematicians and philosophers, but it was its theoretical description of a ‘universal computing machine’, capable of carrying out any computable task, which was later seen as the conceptual basis of today’s stored-program computers. For Turing, his 1936 universal machines were simply thought experiments, but for others they signalled the future of computing. Turing himself wrote one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, later realised as the ‘Pilot ACE’, on display in the exhibition.

The first demonstration of the pilot ACE at NPL, December, 1950.

Alongside his work in cryptanalysis and computing, Turing is also widely remembered for his work on machine intelligence after he left wartime Bletchley Park. The ‘Turing test’, sketched out in his seminal 1950 paper ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, has become a popular trope in artificial intelligence. It was Turing’s response to a philosophical stumbling block. First he asked, ‘Can machines think?’ He then proposed that this, itself, could never be known. Instead, if a machine could appear to be intelligent in a guessing game, then it could be assumed to be intelligent.

The relationship between thought and matter was a common theme throughout Turing’s life. As a teenager at Sherborne School, Dorset, he became closely attracted to a fellow student, Christopher Morcom, who was a year older. Morcom was, if anything, even brighter than Turing, and more devoted to mathematics and science. The pair became close friends, although Turing’s love of Morcom was unrequited.

Meeting Morcom was a watershed in Turing’s life, acting as an emotional catalyst that converted the previously ill-focused, undisciplined but undoubtedly clever boy into a young man constantly attempting to improve himself. Morcom died, aged 18, from tuberculosis, and the rest of Turing’s life seemed to be an attempt to keep Morcom alive and make him proud.

If Morcom’s friendship and death was material in Turing’s intellectual development, it can also be seen as a focus for the complex ideas about intelligence and the mind that Turing developed towards the end of his own life. Writing to Morcom’s mother soon after her bereavement, Turing said, ‘when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body’. Even in his 1950 paper on machine intelligence Turing showed great interest in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and psychokinesis that were at the fringes of scientific respectability even then.

Turing’s science remained resolutely off the mainstream. Having broken codes for the nation and conceived new paradigms in mathematics, computing and intelligence, he produced final work that was so avant-garde that it was virtually abandoned after his death in 1954, only to be picked up again relatively recently. Morphogenesis – the development of pattern and form in living things – occupied his thoughts for the last four years of his life as he ran computer simulations of the mathematics and chemistry of life itself.

The intercept control room in hut 6 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, the British forces’ intelligence centre during WWII. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

At Cambridge University, where he studied in the 1930s, and at wartime Bletchley Park, Turing’s homosexuality was relatively tolerated. But in post-war Britain a new morality was rapidly emerging. Britain’s future rested on repopulating the country with young men to replace the millions slaughtered at war. Homosexual people – men and women – were increasingly characterised as deviant and harmful to the fitness of the race, and their presence in society became a matter of national concern.

The Cold War intensified these concerns, as gay people were assumed to be at risk of blackmail, endangering the security of the nation. Turing held some of the nation’s most secret knowledge in his head.

Alan Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in 1950. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1952, following an unlawful sexual relationship, Turing was tried and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ under the anti-homosexuality legislation of the day. He was stripped of his security clearance and his post-war consultancy to Bletchley Park’s successor, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), ended. He was offered a choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of hormone treatment to suppress his libido, and he took the latter. It was chemical castration.

Turing appeared to recover well from the sentence after its effects subsided, but by then he was under police surveillance and it is likely that his actions had become of grave concern to the security services. On 7 June 1954 he ingested a large amount of cyanide solution at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire and was found dead the next day by his housekeeper. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, opining that Turing’s ‘mind had become unbalanced’. Turing did not leave a suicide note, and the full circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

For further information visit Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy at the Science Museum, which runs until summer 2013.

 

Unpacking bags of Science: Diamonds in the rough

This post was written by Tara Knights, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts where we have been exploring the lives of our ancestors by looking at a collection of tool bags from the Science Museum’s collections. This time we will be looking at the mining industry. We might think we’re fairly familiar with the tools of the mining trade, with the Davy lamp and pickaxe especially being mining icons. But do you know what kind of instruments mining engineers would use?

 

Mineralogical test kit (Science Museum)

Mining engineers played (and still play)  an important role in the consultation of almost every stage of a mining operation. They first analysed the potential of a mineral deposit, and then determined the profitability of a mine.

When the minerals had been successfully extracted, this mineralogical test kit was used to perform a mineralogical analysis in order to identify mineral species and understand their characteristics and properties. In order for a substance to be classified as a mineral it had to pass a series of tests, and this kit contains the tools needed for mineral testing, including a blowpipe, tweezers and chemicals.

The flame test indicated the identity of the substance being tested by the colour of the flame it produced. For example, a potassium compound burns with a lilac flame. Blowing through the blowpipe over a candle providing a heat source produced a tiny area of intense heat on a charcoal block, and created the right conditions for separating metals from their ores. After the process of mineralogical testing had taken place, this Tutton’s goniometer for cutting, grinding and polishing minerals may have been used. It was manufactured by Troughton and Simms, London c. 1894, and designed by Mr. A.E. Tutton.

 

Tutton’s goniometer (Science Museum)

 

Who was that one-armed lady pianist?

Amongst our peerless collection of artificial limbs are a number which have been designed or adapted for very specific functions.  For example, the special attachment that allowed a one-armed WW2 bomber pilot to hold the joystick in his plane or the artificial leg terminating in a hollow metal half-sphere that prevented a keen beachcomber from sinking into the sand.

artificial arm

A very special arm (Science Museum)

The arm pictured above is one of the most intriguing examples we have.  Acquired from Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, it’s a right arm made to fit below the elbow of the wearer, but the most unusual feature are the fingers.  Carved from wood, the middle three digits are disproportionately small while the rigid thumb and little finger are stretched out and covered with small fabric pads.

The catalogue entry for this object explains that it was made for a woman and that the stretched hand allowed her to cover an octave when playing the piano.  The maker of the arm is listed as a Mr Rowden – who was a surgical instrument maker based in Northampton.

hand

The octave-spanning hand (Science Museum)

The other snippet of information we have been passed down is that, apparently, our musician played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall while wearing this arm in 1906.

But who was the one-armed lady pianist?  It would be wonderful to re-connect a name to the appendage!  If true, her public appearance over a century ago seems worthy of reporting at the time.  But despite some research and a number of enquiries, including to the Royal Albert Hall’s archivist, she has so far eluded us.

Any ideas out there?