Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Celebrating the best of British engineering talent

The finalists have been announced for engineering’s answer to the Oscars: the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Here, the Chair of Judges and leading nuclear engineer, Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, describes the three finalists for 2015 and the importance of engineering innovation in society.

Three British companies are in the running for the UK’s most prestigious and longest-running engineering prize, the MacRobert Award:

  • Artemis Intelligent Power, based in Edinburgh, has developed a digital hydraulic power system that could improve efficiency and unlock the potential of offshore wind turbines as a cost-effective, sustainable future energy source.
  • Cambridge-based Endomag has pioneered a new diagnostic tool that could end the postcode lottery for breast cancer staging.
  • The third finalist Victrex, based in Blackpool, has developed the world’s highest-performing ultra-thin plastics, used in the speakers found in over a billion mobile devices.

The MacRobert Award recognises technologies that show how outstanding engineering achievement provides value to the economy and society. Many previous winning technologies are now ubiquitous in modern medicine, transport and technology. The very first award in 1969 went to the Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine, used in the iconic Harrier jets, and in 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Despite operating in very different sectors, all of this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate the application of engineering innovation to tackle social and technological challenges.

The finalists are great examples of home-grown innovations that have achieved commercial success in the UK and abroad. It is hardly surprising that recent statistics show that the UK is first in the world for engineering productivity, and that engineering-related products make up almost half of our total exports.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Yet the continued success of the UK’s engineering industry could be under threat in the future if we cannot overcome the huge challenge of securing future talent. Engineering still suffers from old, stereotyped perceptions, which can be off-putting to many young people when considering their career choice. This means that we’re facing a shortfall of people with the skills to use technology to overcome some of the world’s biggest challenges.

We must also attract more women into engineering – only 7% of UK professional engineers are female. I have been lucky enough to have a really rewarding and enjoyable career in engineering and I am delighted that government is taking this issue seriously. The Your Life campaign, launched at the Science Museum a year ago, aims to increase the number of students – especially women –  studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 50% within three years.

As this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate, engineering is a humanitarian as well as a technical endeavour, with the potential to transform every aspect of life. Anyone who is passionate about changing the world for the better should look seriously at a career in engineering.

If you’d like to know more about what you can do with engineering, visit the Engineer Your Future exhibition at the Science Museum.

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov heralds Cosmonauts Exhibition

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Half a century after he risked his life to become the first person to go on a spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov today joined Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford to announce the museum’s most ambitious temporary exhibition to date, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Tickets are now on sale for the exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015 and will feature the greatest collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever assembled in once place, including eight that had to be declassified for this project, to provide a vivid insight into how the Soviet Union kick-started the space age.

Speaking at a news conference this morning at the Science Museum, Leonov told journalists he was convinced the Soviets could also have beaten the U.S. to the first manned orbit of the moon but for the conservatism of those running their highly secretive moon programme following the death in 1966 of Sergei Korolev, the lead rocket engineer and spacecraft designer on the Russian Space Programme.

Leonov told the audience that he and Yuri Gagarin argued for pressing ahead with the manned orbit but were overruled: “Both Yuri and myself went to the Politburo and asked that we go ahead. But our bureaucrats said it was too risky so let us try a sixth (unmanned) probe. And of course it landed a few hundred metres from where it was supposed to….so unfortunately it didn’t work out for me.”

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will include the monumental five metre tall LK-3 lunar lander that Leonov trained on in Star City. Designed to take a single cosmonaut to the moon, three Soviet lunar landers were tested successfully in space although none ever touched down on the surface of the moon.

Ian Blatchford spoke of the honour of having Alexei Leonov alongside him (see Leonov’s dramatic account of his battle to reenter the spacecraft here) as he announced the “most audacious and complex exhibition in the history of the Science Museum and indeed one of the most ambitious projects ever presented by any great museum”.

He then invited journalists to see the first of 150 objects to arrive from Russia -  including Vostok-6, the capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space, and safely returned her to Earth in 1963.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

The Science Museum Director described how the exhibition will explore a critical moment in the history of humankind, when people first set forth beyond the confines of their home world: “the Russian space programme is one of the great cultural, scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century.”

Cosmonauts, which has drawn on the help and support of the first generation of Soviet space pioneers, will explore the science and technology of Russian space travel in its cultural and spiritual context, revealing a deep-rooted national yearning for space that was shaped by the turbulent early decades of the 20th century. The exhibition will feature rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s extraordinary 1933 drawings of space flight, depicting spacewalks, weightlessness and life in orbit almost thirty years before it became a reality.

Ian Blatchford also thanked all the cosmonauts, partners and funders who have made this exhibition possible. Cosmonauts represents a major collaboration between the Science Museum, the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. The support of many other institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia has also been crucial in the development of the exhibition.

The exhibition opens on 18 September 2015 and will run until 13 March 2016 at the Science Museum in London. The Museum will be open until 10pm every Friday evening during this period to allow visitors more opportunities to see the exhibition.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age has had additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

50 years after his death-defying first spacewalk, Alexei Leonov will speak at an event this evening hosted by Starmus and the British Interplanetary Society in our IMAX Theatre. Professor Stephen Hawking and Dr Brian May will be present as Alexei Leonov’s guests.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

Planning Human Voyages to the Moon

On this day (18 May) in 1969 Apollo 10 launched, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan to the Moon. This was a dry run for the mission (Apollo 11) that would put the first men on the Moon.

You can see the Apollo 10 Command Module on display in the Museum (and inside it in our Journeys of Invention app). It is an incredible sight and remains the fastest ever manned vehicle, exceeding 24,790 mph (39,887 km/h) on its return to Earth.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

But away from public view, NASA produced millions of documents to prepare for each mission. The immense level of detail required in planning human voyages to the Moon is captured in this Apollo 10 Lunar Module Descent Monitoring Chart, which we recently acquired for the museum.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

These photographic charts were widely used by NASA to show the surface features that the spacecraft would fly above as it orbited the Moon. Generated from unmanned Lunar Orbiter missions of 1966-67, the charts provided an accurate prediction of where each Apollo spacecraft would be and what features would be visible to the crew and mission controllers at any specific time.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

This particular chart was produced for the Apollo 10 mission (using a 24 May 1969 launch date rather than 18 May, the date finally chosen), which tested the lunar module (lander) down to 11 km altitude above the lunar surface. Combining the technical with the aesthetic, the chart shows target landing site number 5, one of several earmarked for future landing missions.

You can discover more about space in our Exploring Space gallery and see the Apollo 10 Command Module in our Making the Modern World gallery. 

Galvanising speech amid glamour of Director’s Dinner

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Strong calls for evidence-based policy-making and gender equality were made last night by guest speaker, Professor Anne Glover, at the Science Museum’s Director’s Annual Dinner.

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Speaking on the day the European Commission (EC) revealed that her previous role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the EC President will now be performed by a committee of high level scientists, the biologist warned of the perils of preventing scientists who advise Government from speaking openly about their work.

Professor Glover, Vice Principal for External Affairs and Dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, urged the scientists among the high-profile audience to be bold in speaking up about evidence and challenged everyone in the room to do more to nominate talented women (as well as men) for positions of influence in our society.

Earlier Science Museum Group Director (SMG), Ian Blatchford, had welcomed the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, noting the Group’s delight on discovering that the evening was his first official engagement. Later that night the minister tweeted: 

The Director took the high profile audience on a whistle-stop tour of the year’s highlights including the Queen’s first tweet at the opening of the Information Age gallery; a celebration of two hundred years of London science with the Royal Society; our plans for the Clockmakers’ museum; and the announcement that Zaha Hadid will be the designer for our new Mathematics gallery.

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

That last project was made possible by the largest private donation in the Science Museum’s history from David and Claudia Harding. So it was no surprise that David Harding, a noted philanthropist and dedicated supporter of maths and science, was one of the two distinguished guests bidden to the stage by SMG Chairman, Dame Mary Archer, to accept Science Museum Fellowships. He and Nobel laureate Professor John O’Keefe were described by Dame Mary as “rare individuals who’ve given exceptional service to science and to SMG” as they were invited to receive their scrolls.

Professor John O'Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer in the presence of Ian Blatchford and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP © Science Museum

Professor John O’Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer (centre) in the presence of Ian Blatchford (far left) and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP (far right) © Science Museum

Dame Mary also told the audience how the Group is “equally ambitious for our very own Northern Powerhouse — our museums in York, Manchester and Bradford.” She highlighted their plans, including a stunning new exhibition gallery planned in Manchester for 2018, generously funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Treasury, and an exhibition on graphene, first synthesised in 2004 at the University of Manchester.

To underline the significance of the two million children who visit SMG museums each year, Dame Mary emphasised how the country’s economy depends on the understanding and application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics yet, she added, “Britain is desperately short of engineers, only 20% of young people in the UK do any maths beyond GCSE, and more than 80% of postgraduate STEM students in our universities come from — and mostly go back to — countries outside the European Union.”

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

The MC of the event was the SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield and other guests included the new Director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan; film producer Michael Wilson; Trustees David Willetts, Lords Grade and Faulkner; Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport; Director of the Science Media Centre Fiona Fox; Pestival Director Bridget Nicholls, photographers Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low; Emmy and Bafta award winning director and producer Anthony Geffen; Naomi Weir of the Campaign for Science and Engineering; Wellcome Director of Strategy Clare Matterson and double Oscar-winner Paul Franklin.

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

The Pegasus Computer

Volunteer Chris Burton reflects on helping maintain and run Pegasus, one of the oldest computers in the world. Chris is a member of the Computer Conservation Society. 

Surrounded by paper tape readers, paper tape punch and teleprinter, I am in control of an early electronic computer named Pegasus. The imposing array of switches, lights, knobs and display screens, gives me command of a powerful yet responsive machine. There is a lot of noise from the cooling air blowers, and occasionally the machine emits strange sounds from its loudspeaker indicating the progress of an application program. This is how the original operators of Pegasus would have felt in the 1950s.


Sometimes an operator would be the person who actually designed and wrote the program, taking hands-on control to ensure the program worked correctly. Operators became wizards at manipulating the control switches to direct what the machine does, as well as monitoring the binary data shown on the cathode ray tube screens. While the program was running, they rolled-up any punched-paper tapes to be kept, or glanced up at the clock to write the next log-book entry. There was a pervading feeling of warmth, comfort and order.

The Ferranti Pegasus computer was developed in the early 1950s by a team of former Elliott Brothers Ltd engineers using a technology pioneered in the Elliott/NRDC 401 computer. The engineering of Pegasus is outstanding. It is assembled from hundreds of plug-in electronic modules (see below) about the size of a paper-back book which contain two or three valves (vacuum tubes – pre-dating the use of transistors or microprocessors)

Some of these modules are used as the internal memory of the computer but the main memory is based on magnetised spots on the surface of a rotating drum, similar to a modern day magnetic disc drive. Data input and output is via 5-track punched-paper tape. No typewriter keyboard or display screen!

Ferranti Pegasus computer circuit boards, 1956. © Science Museum / SSPL

Ferranti Pegasus computer circuit boards, 1956. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pegasus was the first “user friendly” computer, and about forty Pegasus systems were sold, between 1956 and 1962. Scores of programmers and users of the machine have commented on the ease of programming and operation. A fundamental part of Pegasus was a simple operating system, a set of routines called Initial Orders which was stored permanently in a write-protected area of the drum. Pressing the “Start” key caused the Initial Orders to be executed, and they gave the programmer facilities for inputting programs and data, for debugging, for assembling large program systems from sub-sections and libraries, and so on.

Ferranti Pegasus II computer in use, c 1958. © Science Museum / SSPL

Ferranti Pegasus II computer in use, c 1958. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pegasus and the Science Museum
The Science Museum Pegasus, serial number 25, has been re-located at least eight times in its life, including a period in Sweden. The museum acquired it from UCL London in 1983 and it was initially displayed in Manchester where it was occasionally maintained by a colleague and myself. After a couple of years the machine moved back to London.

When the Computer Conservation Society was formed in 1989, a group of expert volunteers re-commissioned and demonstrated Pegasus at the museum. It was put on prominent display in the Computing gallery in 2000, where for the first time in its long life, Pegasus was on view to the public. It is a tribute to the quality of the original engineering that Pegasus survived this repeated stripping down, moving, and re-assembling.

For nearly a decade Pegasus was demonstrated every fortnight, but in 2009 a fault with the machine required it to be shut down and Health and Safety considerations subsequently stopped further operation. This historic, 60-year old computer continues to be an important artefact in the Science Museum’s Computing and Data Processing collections.

For more information on Pegasus, read “The Pegasus Story” by Simon Lavington published by the Science Museum. In 2015, the Computing gallery will close, reopening in late 2016 as the new Mathematics gallery. You can discover more about the history of information and communication technologies in the Information Age gallery, opened in October 2014.

Single onion orientation research. © Andy Woods

Rotating plates: How orientation can make your food taste better

Charles Michel, chef and researcher on food aesthetics at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, explores the initial results from an experiment in the Science Museum’s Cravings exhibition.

Have you ever found yourself rotating your plate once the waiter has placed it down before you at the restaurant? It is something I usually do rather unconsciously, as an automatic response to seeing food – as if the waiter had not placed it exactly as the chef wanted it to be.

This everyday action that some of us do might hint at the fact that we all enjoy our food more when it is ‘oriented’ in the best way possible. Indeed, by arranging the food to ‘look better’, we might be unconsciously enhancing its perceived value, and hence our enjoyment of it. But what exactly makes a given arrangement of the food on the plate feel more pleasing to look at, photograph, and possibly even eat?

Red Onions, Tapioca, Sugar Cane Vinegar, Peanut and Fermented Cream. © Rafael Facundo & Pedro Santos

Red Onions, Tapioca, Sugar Cane Vinegar, Peanut and Fermented Cream. © Rafael Facundo & Pedro Santos

A year ago, we stumbled upon this picture of one of the signature dishes of Alberto Landgraf, a Brasilian chef recently awarded one Michelin-star at his restaurant Epice, in Sao Paulo. It caught our eye because its main ‘visual feel’ seemed to point away from the diner. Note how the individual v-shaped elements of the dish (pickled onions) had all been arranged so as to point upward, but also that the Gestalt (‘whole’) forms a triangle whose orientation points upwards.

With Andy Woods and Professor Spence, we created a new online test to assess the impact of different visual orientations of this image of food on people’s expectations. Two hundred people took part in the first experiment, and the results suggested that if the food has an explicit point or angle, then people prefer the dish if the individual elements are oriented pointing ‘up’, or ‘away’. The data also shows that people attribute a higher value, and are willing to pay significantly more, for the optimally oriented dish (the data was analysed using circular statistics, with the kind help of Professor Makus Neuhäuser).

Single onion orientation research.

Single onion orientation research.

We then replicated this experiment in collaboration with the Science Museumas part of a live science experiment in the Cravings exhibition (you can take part here). The image below shows the visual representation of the data gathered from the experiment between 20 February and April 2015. The ideal angle to orient this particular plate of food is indicated by the arrow (3.20° clockwise), with the dots representing the orientation chosen by each of the 1667 participants.

Results from the Cravings experiment.

Results from the Cravings experiment.

We are already very excited about the insights we’re gaining from the experiment, in what is probably one of the largest experiments regarding the psychology of food ever conducted. As I write, 12,171 participants have taken part so far and that number is growing everyday.

In the first published article using data from the Science Museum experiment, our research suggests that visual shapes presented during a dining experience, and their orientation, could have an important role in modelling certain implicit psychological associations about the food, how we feel, perhaps even modelling the social interactions around the table. In the end, every single food component on the plate, but also the non-edible elements on the table, could be affecting the pleasure elicited by food.

Certainly, anyone wanting to optimise the pleasure of food that they serve and eat might want to look further than just the design of the food, and think about how it is consumed and visually presented. I believe much can be gained from developing a better understanding of the pleasure of food and exploring how aesthetically pleasing food compositions on a plate can really enhance our everyday food experiences.

This research was published in May 2015 in one of the premier food science journals, Food Quality and Preference, and can be read for free here. Discover more about the science behind your desires for food in the free Cravings exhibition at the Science Museum.

Cravings: Can Your Food Control You? is generously supported by GSK (Major Sponsor) and Danone (Associate Sponsor), with additional support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council. 

paint tin

Science Alive in Hong Kong

Last month my colleagues and I embarked on what we are proud to now call our ‘annual trip to Hong Kong’, it now being the 3rd year of the outreach teams involvement with the British Council’s Science Alive festival. As team members though, it was the first time any of us had visited Asia’s world city.

This year we were pleased to bring the exciting, explosion-filled Material World show to the Hong Kong Science Museum and schools across the region. We also investigated chemical reactions and how things behave by showing families how to make slime and their very own fizzy bath bombs using everyday materials. Check out our website to try out the bath bombs for yourself.

One of the major challenges of delivering this kind of event internationally is anticipating the response of the audience. Translating one person’s idea of fun, a complex explanation and or even a cheesy joke can be tricky when everything goes through an interpreter. Not everyone thinks wearing a nappy on your head to investigate polymers is funny!

One significant change for us this year was the opportunity for our Learning Resources team to deliver teacher development workshops. Running workshops for primary and secondary school teachers over the course of a week was rewarding, tiring and most of all a great success for the team. Working with a variety of teachers from both international and local government schools gave the team an insight into the often surprising similarities and differences between Hong Kong and UK education.

Amongst all the hard work we did get to do some sightseeing and sample the delights of this busy, dazzling city. We tucked in to some amazing food, shopped for bargains on the markets, were surprised by hidden city temples and took many a selfie with that iconic Hong Kong skyline.

We even learned a few things on the way…here are some fascinating Hong Kong science facts you never knew:

The Bank of China Tower is a testament to the triangle. The tower is formed from 4 prism shaped towers, which take advantage of the strength of a triangular structure. This means no load bearing structures are required inside the building and the rooms are as big as they can possibly be.

The Hong Kong Science Museum boasts the largest energy transfer machine in the world. It is 22 meters high and occupies all four storeys of the museum.

Hong Kong citizen Charles K. Kao (also known as the Godfather of Broadband) pioneered the use of fibre optic cables for communication. Ground breaking discoveries made by him paved the way for the communication systems we have today.

The Mong Kok district of Hong Kong is officially the most densely populated area of the world. There are 130,000 people per square kilometre! This demonstrates just how important maximising space through clever engineering has been for Hong Kong.

Riding the Victoria Peak Tram will mess with your brain. Scientists at the University of Hong Kong have discovered that passengers riding the steep, 120 year old tramway to Victoria Peak are likely to experience an illusion where the skyscrapers of Hong Kong will appear to lean to one side as if about to fall!

To find out more about the outreach team and book a visit from us, have a look at the website here. For science activities to do at home or in the classroom have a look at our fun resources here.

The eye, as seen through a microscope, c.1862. By Richard Liebreich. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richard Liebreich’s Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy

During the middle decade of the nineteenth century, the inner workings of the human eye were explored for the first time thanks to the invention of the ophthalmoscope. The Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy by Richard Liebreich offered the medical profession the means to understand a living retina.

Liebreich’s book simultaneously championed and harnessed the technological development of the ophthalmoscope, while also offering a brilliant guidebook for the identification and treatment of fundus disease. A third edition of this 1863 publication is currently on display in the Science Museum’s Glimpses of Medical History gallery.

Richard Liebreich, who was born in Konigsberg, Germany in 1830, was able to work with some of the main protagonists in the development of modern ophthalmology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw significant changes in how ophthalmological medicine was understood, with many of these changes taking place in Germany. As a consequence of this, Germany is still regarded as a centre of ophthalmological research excellence to this day.

Hermann von Helmholtz, German physicist, c 1860-1880.

Hermann von Helmholtz, German physicist, c 1860-1880. Credit © Science Museum / SSPL

Liebreich worked as Hermann Helmholtz’s assistant, who in 1851 invented the first ophthalmoscope capable of viewing the internal workings of human eyes. British engineer and mathematician, Charles Babbage is recognised in some quarters for inventing the ophthalmoscope in 1847.

However, his failure to promote the discovery ensured that the majority of credit was passed to Helmholtz. Liebreich also worked as the assistant of famed ophthalmologist Albrecht von Graefe between the years of 1854 and 1862, and during this time also devised his own ophthalmoscope that improved upon Helmholtz’s original design.

A Liebreich type ophthalmoscope, an improved version of Helmholtz’s original design. Credit: Science Museum.

A Liebreich type ophthalmoscope, an improved version of Helmholtz’s original design. Credit: Science Museum.

Liebreich’s Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy was dedicated to Helmholtz and Von Graefe, and contained 57 colour drawings of the eye. Liebreich benefitted from being an incredibly skilled artist, and it was this ability which underpinned the success of his Atlas. The founder of the Royal Eye Hospital in London, John Zachariah Laurence, described the images contained within the Atlas as “scrupulous copies of nature”.

The great quality of the Atlas was that it mapped and recorded the inner workings of the eye, successfully combining technological improvements with medical understanding. The Atlas gave doctors around the world beautifully comprehensive comparisons between healthy and diseased retinas, as well as demonstrating the appearance of certain optical conditions.

Liebreich’s Atlas vividly depicted the inner eye nearly twenty years before accurate photography was possible, and as such made significant contributions to the burgeoning discipline of scientific ophthalmology.

The eye, as seen through a microscope, c.1862. By Richard Liebreich. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The eye, as seen through a microscope, c.1862. By Richard Liebreich. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Atlas had worldwide reach and influence. It was originally published simultaneously in French and German, but soon after versions appeared in both Spanish and English. The third edition currently on display in the museum is from 1885.

Liebreich’s work ensured that he was a respected figure within nineteenth century ophthalmology and in 1870 he was offered a significant role at the newly opened St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

The Lancet opposed his appointment because they felt it was “a gratuitous and unwarrantable insult to English ophthalmologists”. The Medical Times and Gazette defended Liebreich, insisting that his close associations with the German school were to be of huge importance to the fledgling hospital. They reasoned that in order to advance St. Thomas’s, and English ophthalmology in general, they had to “begin by assimilating all that Germany” (and hence Liebreich) had to teach.

Upon leaving his post at St Thomas’s Hospital in 1878 Liebreich slowly withdrew himself from the influential central spheres of ophthalmological medicine, focusing his energies instead on the impact optical disease had on the paintings of artists such as J.M.W Turner. He died in Sicily in 1917 having contributed significantly to the previous centuries advancements in the study of ophthalmology.

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

What makes you laugh and cry?

Professor Sophie Scott explains her latest experiment at the museum, exploring the science behind laughter. 

Last year, we had a mouse somewhere in our flat, and we were all stressing out about it a bit. I was at home on my own when I thought I felt something running over my foot. It was a hair pin falling out of my hair, but before I had realized this, I screamed out loud. I screamed loud enough and long enough for me to have time to think things like “Why am I screaming?”, “I am not afraid of mice” and “Pretty sure that was a hairpin”.

The really interesting part of the mouse incident was that my scream was involuntary – I really did not mean to do this (there’s a great example here). Involuntary vocalizations are produced via a neural system we share with other mammals, but a separate network in the brain controls speech. This speech network, which evolved much later, allows us to produce the complex movements which underlie speech and song and to do so voluntarily – we choose when to speak.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency.  This shows the acoustic complexity of speech.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency. This shows the acoustic complexity of speech. Credit: Sophie Scott

The older, involuntary system is associated with emotional vocalizations in humans – like my screaming or a cry of surprise. These emotional sounds (such as crying, screaming, laughing) are more like animal calls than they are like speech.

This shows laughter. Note how much less complex the sound is. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows laughter. The sound is much less complex than speech. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see  spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

Our more recent voluntary system is associated with speech and song (and other vocal skills such as beatboxing). If this system is damaged, for example, due to a stroke, people can be left with aphasia – a persistent problem with talking. They very often can still make emotional noises, such as laughing, suggesting that the stroke has not damaged this older pathway.

For my research, we are studying what it means to make voluntary and involuntary vocalizations – for example, laughter is used a great deal during conversational speech. Even babies use emotional expressions like crying and laughter in extremely sophisticated ways.

This all suggests that there may be both voluntary and involuntary kinds of emotional sounds. Are laughs and sobs produced in a voluntary or an involuntary fashion really different? How do they sound to us? How does this change as we age?

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

To help discover the answers to these questions, we are running an experiment at the Science Museum. We ask people to listen to ‘real’ and ‘posed’ laughter and sobbing sounds to find out how they sound to people. So if you are interested in knowing anything more about voices and emotion do please come along and take part in our research – we promise not to make you scream.

Equations in Action

Ben, an Explainer at the museum, looks at some of the equations in action in our Launchpad gallery.

In Launchpad, if there’s one scientist we can’t get enough of, it’s Sir Isaac Newton. Although he lived around 300 years ago, the influence of his brilliant ideas still pervade many of our interactive exhibits and, if asked to name a famous scientist, his name is never far from people’s lips. A true giant of maths and physics, it wasn’t until Einstein that scientists found a different set of shoulders to stand on in order to see further.

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Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton Image credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Much could be said about his work in optics (he named the spectrum, for example) or his work in aiding the entry of pets into the home (supposedly, he invented the cat flap), but it is his work into classical mechanics that we constantly refer to in Launchpad, i.e. how stuff moves.

The Water Rocket is a perfect example of his laws of motion. In this hourly demonstration, a mixture of air and water is pumped into a plastic bottle, leading to an increase in pressure inside the bottle, so that, when the launch button is pressed, the “rocket” speeds down a track at up to forty miles an hour.

It is Newton’s third law of motion that is most obviously in evidence here: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When the air and water fly out of the end of the bottle with a certain force, this pushes the rocket in the opposite direction with an equal force.

Newton’s second law (The force moving an object is equal to its mass multiplied by its acceleration, or F=ma) sneaks in too, as the fact that the bottle is lighter than the ejected air and water means that it undergoes a greater acceleration from the same force, and so it flies further and faster down the track.

All of these laws, as well as many other scientific ideas, were written down by Newton in his impressively named book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This book (understandably often shortened to simply Principia) was written entirely in Latin, as was the style at the time, and was published in 1687. And there is a copy in the Science Museum, in the Cosmos & Culture gallery.

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Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica Image Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

It is difficult to appreciate how important this book was to the world of science. As well as being ground breaking to physics, it also introduced the world to mathematics involving calculus. Rarely has a book been packed with so much!

Although there are controversies surrounding Newton and his work, particularly regarding his treatment of contemporary scientists Hooke and Leibniz, there can be little doubt that the impact he had on physics deserves recognition. So go and see the book in which the principles were all written down and then go to Launchpad and see this exciting physics in action.

If you are a teacher planning a visit to Launchpad with your students, you can find out more information here