Think, Build, Create! New Code Builder Workshops

Audience Engagement Manager Jen Kavanagh explains how the new Code Builder workshop aims to inspire the next generation of programmers

The Science Museum’s new Information Age  gallery explores communication and information technologies and processes, including the development and use of computer networks. Computing is currently a hot topic for schools, with the launch of the new computer science curriculum coinciding with the opening of this new gallery. As a result, the team here wanted to explore how we could effectively respond to this through the gallery’s learning programme.

Early computing objects on display in Information Age tell stories of user innovation, from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT Cube computer to the Pilot ACE used by Alan Turing.

Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery.

Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery. Image credit Science Museum / SSPL

These amazing stories show the huge potential of computers, and our new tinkering workshop, Code Builder, aims to build on these further.

After an introduction, the group is set a task to use basic coding language to devise and input procedures into an online programme, test, rework them and see live results. These results come in the form of a small robot, Robotiky, which is programmed using bespoke online software.

A Robotiky robot created at a Science Museum Code Builder workshop

A Robotiky robot created at a Science Museum Code Builder workshop

Coded instructions are written and simulated on screen, and then sent to the robot via a USB connection, allowing the students to see their code in action. The session encourages the development of logic and computational thinking skills, through trial and error, as well as exploring the interaction between hardware, robot, software and computer programme.

This workshop is designed to complement a number of areas of the computing curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. These include evaluating and applying information technology to solve problems, as well as helping pupils understand the hardware and software components that make up computer systems and how they communicate with one another and other systems.

Code Builder runs twice a day every Thursday during term time. Sessions last an hour and are free for schools to attend. To book visit our website.

Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum: Objects from the Ancient World

Content Coordinator Ulrika Danielsson goes behind the scenes to explore our medical collections. 

I recently had the opportunity to explore the Science museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The fact that the museum has a Classical collection may come as a surprise to some readers; to quote a former colleague’s young son, ‘Planes, cars, trains and rockets!’ may more readily come to mind when thinking about the Science Museum. However, the collection does exist and has many interesting stories to tell, some of which will be included in new galleries dedicated to the history of medicine that will open in 2018.

Greek and Roman antiquities made their way into the Science Museum more or less entirely from the enormous collection amassed by Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). The great majority were transferred as a permanent loan into the Science Museum’s custodianship in the 1970s as part of a larger collection relating to the history of medicine. Looking at the Classical collection today there is a wonderful mix of ceramics, sculpture, glass vessels, surgical tools and coins just waiting to be discovered.

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Amongst the most eye-catching finds is the large number of anatomical votive offerings of terracotta and marble which include heads, abdominal viscera, feet, breasts, wombs, genitalia, eyes and ears. While the exact age and provenance of these anatomical models unfortunately remain uncertain, we know that they would have been brought to sanctuaries and shrines in the ancient world to express thanks or request healing or fertility from the gods believed to reside there. As divine property, the votives were not destroyed or recycled but instead packed into small buildings or rooms, or buried in sacred pits, which is why such large numbers have survived.

Votives were made from moulds and mass produced, most likely by family-run businesses located near shrines and on the major pilgrim routes. In some cases, the reproductions were modified to show specific pathological conditions, or even specially commissioned to show the specific limbs and features of individuals. You can see the former in this copy of a votive elbow covered in raised pustules in the Science Museum collection (below).

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Anatomical votives do not only tell us about religious medicine in the ancient world, but also of the Roman and Greek understanding of the body and of common ailments and afflictions affecting ancient populations. In some cases votive deposits confirm and underline what we know from written sources and other archaeological material, as is the case with for instance eye disease. Partial or complete blindness was a very serious condition in the ancient world as it would have prevented people from carrying out their livelihoods.

Eye conditions in general were common and feature prominently in both ancient literature and medical texts. Additionally, votive eyes have been found in large numbers and also feature prominently in the Science Museum collection. There is even a theory that different conditions can be gleaned from the way votive eyes have been depicted. Votive eyes showing eye balls may indicate conditions affecting vision (e.g. short-sightedness, detached retina and cataract) while those with eyelids and other surrounding tissues may point to infected lesions (e.g. trachoma or inflammation of the eyelid).

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

In the ancient world religious medicine was part of a bustling medical market place where individuals were at liberty to consult different practitioners in lieu of, or alongside, seeking divine help. Any comfort, psychological or otherwise, gained from religious medicine should not be underestimated. There is also evidence to suggest that healing shrines specialised in for instance injuries to hands and feet, or indeed eyes, and that practitioners specialising in treating the above would have set up shop near the shrine, offering their services and wares. Ultimately votive offerings and religious medicine in general needs to be considered when looking at ancient medical practice as a whole.

This and many more exiting stories will be told in the new Medical galleries opening at the Science Museum in 2018. If you can’t wait, why not visit our current medical galleries, The Science and Art of Medicine and Glimpses of Medical History.

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.

How did tea and cake help start a computing revolution?

Today (17 November) marks the 63rd anniversary of the LEO 1 (Lyons Electronic Office 1) computer, the first computer to be used in the workplace. 

In 1950 if you fancied a cup of tea or a piece of cake you might have gone to a Lyons tea shop. J Lyons & Company ran tea shops across Britain. But the company was also interested in improving the way its work was managed and conducted, so it decided to build a computer that could support the collection and analysis of this information. Brought to life on 17 November 1951, LEO I played a crucial role in the development of a new computer age.

Working with the team at the University of Cambridge that had built the EDSAC computer in 1949, Lyons developed the LEO I, assembling it at the Lyons main factory building in West London. The computer ran its first program on 5 September 1951, valuing the cost of goods that came out of the bakeries.

Leo I electronic computer, c 1960s

Leo I electronic computer, c 1960s

The company LEO Computers Ltd was formed in 1954 and went on to build LEO II and LEO III. These were installed in many British offices including those of Ford, Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue and the Post Office. The later models were exported as far as Australia and South Africa.

You can find out more about the LEO computer in our Information Age gallery, which looks at the last 200 years of how communications technology has transformed our lives.

Imitation Game Special Preview at the Science Museum

Laura Singleton, Press Officer, describes an extraordinary celebration of codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing at an exclusive screening of the new film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing’s remarkable story is “heart-breaking and shocking, but important to tell” said Morten Tyldum, Director of The Imitation Game, at a special preview screening at the Science Museum`s IMAX theatre.

Dave Calhoun, Global Film Editor at Time Out in conversation with Morten Tyldum, director of The Imitation Game. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

Dave Calhoun, Global Film Editor at Time Out in conversation with Morten Tyldum, Director of The Imitation Game. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills. 

Turing was “a puzzle and a mystery to explore” continued Tyldum when asked about his inspiration for making the film. He “wasn’t just a mathematician, he was a philosopher. It’s a tragedy he couldn’t stay with us longer” he added during a conversation with Dave Calhoun, Global Film Editor of Time Out about the making of the film, to a packed audience.

The conversation touched on the importance of authenticity – by finding locations (Turing’s old school and Bletchley Park) that worked best to tell the story, and praised the efforts of the actors for their emotional performances.

Morten Tyldum talks about  the making of the film to an audience in the Science Museum's IMAX. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

Morten Tyldum talks about the making of the film to an audience in the Science Museum’s IMAX. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, began proceedings by welcoming guests and thanking Studio Canal for choosing the Science Museum as the venue for the screening. He declared that “the making of this film represents yet another welcome sign that Turing is at long last getting the recognition that he so richly deserves.”

He spoke of the growing public recognition of Turing’s incredible achievements, demonstrated by a recent public poll, in which over 50,000 people voted, in which Turing’s Universal machine emerged as the most important innovation in science and technology in the past century. The vote demonstrated that “even arcane mathematics can garner popular support”, which the Museum is keen to exploit in the forthcoming Mathematics gallery opening in 2016.

He then moved onto Benedict Cumberbatch’s visit to the Museum’s  award-winning Turing exhibition to help his preparation for  the role of Turing and the Pilot ACE computer, now one of the star objects in the new Information Age gallery, before giving a warm welcome to Tyldum.

Guests admire an Enigma machine in the reception held in the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

Guests admire an Enigma machine in the reception held in the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

At an earlier drinks reception in the Information Age gallery, an Enigma machine, brought out specially for the event, attracted crowds as Tyldum was joined by members of Turing’s family to pose for photographs.

The Imitation Game Director Morten Tyldum pictured with members of the Turing family in front of 1951-164 National Physical Laboratory's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) pilot model and 1980-1200, Three-ring Enigma cypher machine. From Left to right; Mark Barnes (Husband of Rachel), Rachel Barnes (Daughter of Inagh Payne, Turings niece) Morten Tyldum, Tom Barnes (Son of Rachel) Shuna Hunt (Alan Turing's niece) Nevil Hunt (Son of Shuna Hunt).

The Imitation Game Director Morten Tyldum pictured with members of the Turing family in front of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) pilot model and 1980-1200, Three-ring Enigma cypher machine. From Left to right; Mark Barnes (Husband of Rachel), Rachel Barnes (Daughter of Inagh Payne, Turing’s niece) Morten Tyldum, Tom Barnes (Son of Rachel) Shuna Hunt (Alan Turing’s niece) Nevil Hunt (Son of Shuna Hunt). Image credit: Science Museum / Jennie Hills

The reception provided VIP guests including Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, science writer Marcus Chown and journalist and former Science Museum Trustee Janet Street-Porter, with an opportunity to marvel at the Pilot ACE computer and many of the other objects in the new gallery.

Best Festival Ever

David Finnigan from Australian science-theatre company Boho, explains what goes into making the Best Festival Ever

My name is David and soon I’ll find out whether audiences at the Science Museum can catch a stage-diving Dolly Parton. Since September, we’ve been in residence at the Science Museum preparing for the premiere of our interactive theatre work Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster.

In 2011, the University College London Environment Institute gave us the challenge of creating a theatre show looking at concepts from climate and systems science. Over the last three years we’ve created a work in which a playing audience seated around a table take control of managing their own complex system: a music festival.

A music festival is an excellent example of a complex system. In a lot of ways, a festival is like a temporary city, with tens of thousands of people coming together for a few days on a patch of land. Over the course of the show we examine some of the interesting ways in which systems behave and ask ourselves: how can we recognise and better think about the systems we’re part of?

I don’t want to give away too much about the show, but I thought I might share some of what audiences have to do to put on the best festival ever.

1. Programming the lineup

Obviously you want the best possible artists to play your festival: Do you take the 9-piece reggae collective over the teenage Youtube sensation? The folk ensemble or the glitchy electronica artist? But you’ll need to find sponsors to pay for them. As always in complex systems, there are trade-offs. Some sponsors may offer more, but may also be ethically… interesting. Whatever you decide, you’ll have to live with.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

2. Building a festival site

Putting on a festival sometimes means constructing, inhabiting and packing down an entire temporary city. You’ll be in charge of organising the layout of your festival – placing gates, stages, food stalls and face-painting stalls – and then making everything both quickly and beautifully. Of course, when everything is connected, decisions made in one place will have consequences throughout the festival, often in unexpected ways.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

3. Electricity

Festivals usually don’t run off the main grid. You’ll have to take control of the generators, ensuring that power goes to where it’s most needed. Managing this common-pool resource will involve prioritising: amazing laser light show on stage two vs turning on the water filters to stop sewage leaking into the river that flows into the nearby village.

4. Concerts

The most crucial part of any music festival, and also the hardest to manage. Can your security guards prevent fights from breaking out in the moshpit? Can you get the band onstage and hitting all the right solos? And are you ready if Justin Timberlake decides to jump right into the moshpit?

We’ll be presenting these shows at the Science Museum on 17-19 November, along with climate and systems scientists talking about the ways in which this show intersects with their own work. Book your tickets here

Stuff Matters Wins Science Book Prize

Materials scientist, author and TV presenter Professor Mark Miodownik has won the most prestigious science book prize in the world, with his personal journey through our material world.

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, was yesterday (10 November) named the winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

The £25,000 prize was awarded to the University College London professor by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning President of the Royal Society, with anatomist, author and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts hosting the event.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Miodownik told the BBC, “This stuff around us is speaking through me. Materials are not inert things, I hope I have given them a voice in this book. I think it’s an important story.”

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

The Science Museum’s Challenge of Materials gallery explores the changing use of materials, from Egyptian glass to a steel wedding dress. Perhaps the most striking features are a magnificent glass bridge spanning the main hall and Materials House, the first publicly commissioned work from designer Thomas Heatherwick. This enormous sculpture, made from 213 different materials, invites visitors to reflect on how materials are used in everyday life.

The six shortlisted books include The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson, The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira, Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, Serving the Reich by Philip Ball, Seven Elements That Have Changed The World by John Browne and Gulp by Mary Roach. Each of the shortlisted authors received £2,500 and interviews with the authors can be seen here. Last year’s winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books was best-selling author James Gleick, who recently helped celebrate the opening of the Information Age gallery.

The Prize is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, who’s founder David Harding has a long record of working with the Science Museum, having supported the Information Age gallery, the award-wining Collider exhibition and a new Mathematics gallery that opens in 2016.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaks at Information Age reception

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told a Parliamentary reception to celebrate the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery he believes innovation will continue to overcome big challenges facing the world and specifically those facing the World Wide Web.

Solutions to data security will, he predicted, lie in what he called `redecentralising the web` through local storage of data. He told the audience of leaders from the world of science and technology that through `collaborative systems that are very much more powerful` the web will play an important part in solving massive global problems such as climate change and cancer.

The reception at Portcullis House was hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), whose Chairman Adam Afriyie MP, introduced Sir Tim, remarking that he didn`t think it was `possible to overstate his impact on the development of modern culture’.

Adam Afriyie MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) welcomes guests to the event.

Adam Afriyie MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) welcomes guests to the event. Image credit: Earl Smith

Speaking modestly about his invention (`the thing that started when I wrote a memo`), Sir Tim recalled some of what he called the `nifty things` CERN did at the outset, such as agreeing that it wouldn`t charge royalties and letting him have a `machine to code the thing up`.

Thanks to that same generosity of spirit at CERN, the Information Age Gallery is now home to `that machine` – the NeXT computer on which Sir Tim invented the web. Having told the audience a little about the transformation in communications technology in which he has played such a fundamental role, Sir Tim urged the audience to `go to the Science Museum and learn about it`.

Alongside lighter moments such as his impression of a dial up modem, Sir Tim said he and others would continue ‘carrying placards’ to defend their original vision of the web as ‘neutral, like a blank piece of paper’, recognising that this would lead to ongoing robust exchanges with governments and others around the world.

Guests, including Professor Dame Wendy Hall and parliamentarians such as Sir Peter Bottomley MP and Baroness Jay, were invited to explore exhibits provided by the Science Museum and meet the Information Age exhibition team, including lead curator Dr Tilly Blyth. Future technologies were represented by Cubic Transportation Systems and Elsevier, which each showcased examples of how big data is shaping business, including transportation systems.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications at Cubic Transportation Systems, which sponsored the event, spoke about the need to “get a balance between benefit and privacy”.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications, Cubic Transportation Systems.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications, Cubic Transportation Systems. Image credit: Earl Smith.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum, spoke of her delight at the initial success of Information Age, which has already received 50,000 visitors, and thanked Sir Tim for his contribution to the gallery.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum. Image credit: Earl Smith

From the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America in minutes rather than weeks, to the advanced computing power of the modern smartphone, Information Age looks at the communication networks that created our modern connected world. The gallery features more than 800 stunning objects from a tiny thimble to the 6-metre high aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station that stands at its centre.

Last night’s event was attended by representatives of some of the organisations that helped to make Information Age possible such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT, ARM, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google, Accenture, Garfield Weston Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Bonita Trust and  Motorola Solutions Foundation.

The event followed last year’s successful reception for the Science Museum’s Collider exhibition, which was also hosted by POST and its Director, Dr Chris Tyler.

Earlier in the day, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham was among the guests at a POST seminar on Big Data and Governance.

The Imitation Game at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reflects on Benedict Cumberbatch’s visit to the Science Museum to prepare for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Book tickets for a special preview screening at the Science Museum’s IMAX next week. 

If you had been at the Science Museum one evening in September last year, you would have encountered Benedict Cumberbatch, adorned in a flat cap, wandering around our critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and philosopher.

Benedict Cumberbatch starring at Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Image credit: Studio Canal 2014. All rights reserved.

The Science Museum’s Codebreaker exhibition, which was awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science, has since closed, but its influence lives on in Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in the movie The Imitation Game, which he filmed in the weeks that followed his visit to the Museum.

You can see an exclusive preview of The Imitation Game in the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema plus a pre-screening talk from director Morten Tyldum, on Wednesday November 12.

One of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, Alan Turing is credited with cracking the German Enigma code, significantly shortening the war and saving many thousands of lives.

Convicted for an outdated criminal offence, though posthumously pardoned, Turing fell victim to an unenlightened British Establishment but his work and legacy live on in the worlds of mathematics and computing.

Curator David Rooney took the star of Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock and more around the exhibition (see a Twitter tour of the exhibition here), which traced the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12, to Turing’s final research on pattern formation in biology.

You can see the Pilot ACE in our new Information Age gallery, which was opened last month by Her Majesty The Queen, which looks at how communications technology has transformed our lives over the past two centuries. There are also many related objects on our website.

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Among the exhibits in Codebreaker were a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: after his conviction Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Perhaps the most poignant item on display was a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of his death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy had revealed that his stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a cyanide salt. Turing’s death was not accidental: there was enough poison to fill a wine glass.

The Science of Interstellar

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.

Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.

What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).

Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.

This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.


Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.

This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.

Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.

Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.

To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.

Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”

This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.

‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’

At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.

Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.

As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.

Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.

Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.

It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.

In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.

Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.

In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”

At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.

So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.

See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.