Monthly Archives: February 2012

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

Stephen Hawking Visits the Science Museum

By Alison Boyle and Roger Highfield

There was a huge buzz of excitement in the Museum on Saturday afternoon when a crowd of visitors sang ‘happy birthday’ to the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking.

There’s no better way to sum up the spirit of the Science Museum than this very public display of affection as the eminent cosmologist visited our new exhibit to celebrate his 70th birthday.

That he is now 70 is remarkable: it was in 1963, then a bright 21-year-old PhD student at Cambridge, that Hawking was told that he had a type of motor neurone disease (today we know it as an atypical form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was given about two years to live.

His visit to the museum on Saturday was in itself news: last month, illness had forced the Cambridge University physicist to miss our VIP reception in honour of the opening of the celebratory exhibit, and he had to pull out of a series of birthday celebrations in Cambridge.

We found out on Friday afternoon that he was well enough for a visit the next day, and organised lunch in the Museum’s Smith Centre.

There he was presented with a special gift from the Science Museum’s inventor in residence, Mark Champkins. Entitled “black hole light”, it consists of illuminated spirals of light to symbolise a black hole and ‘Hawking radiation’, a reference to his famous prediction that black holes will give off radiation. Prof Hawking typed ‘magic’ in response.

Here is a short video clip of Mark talking about the light

Finally, to the delight of crowds of onlookers, Prof Hawking asked to be taken on a tour of the museum, which he describes as ‘one of my favourite places’ and he remained here until 5pm.

Stepehn Hawking Visiting the Apollo 10 capsule at the Science Museum London

His tour included the Apollo 10 capsule in Making the Modern World (Professor Hawking is a keen advocate of human spaceflight) and the Cosmos & Culture gallery where he admired the works of illustrious predecessors such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein. He also checked out our latest exhibits including the Fenix rescue capsule and Oramics to Electronica, and enjoyed seeing younger visitors in our hands-on Launch Pad gallery – we would like to think that there’s a future Stephen Hawking among them.

When Prof Hawking left, he told us: “The museum is much better than when I used to come in the 40s and 50s”.

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

The exhibit in his honour represents the first ever display of items from the Hawking archive and encourages visitors to reflect on the relationship between Hawking’s scientific achievements, particularly the work that established his reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his immense success in popularising astrophysics. Hawking and his daughter Lucy have been involved in the selection of objects for display.


Visitor Inventions – Adult ideas

It’s not just our younger visitors who love drawing their ideas down on paper whilst inside our Launchpad gallery – adults do too!  Especially after a bit of alcohol and some silent discoing during one of our Science Museum Lates, which happen on the last Wednesday of every month except December.

Below are a selection of inventions drawn by some of our larger visitors – click  on any image to see bigger pictures.

The view from the audience at Beyond the Stars

Behind the scenes of “Beyond the Stars”

By James Bailey, Head of Marketing & Communications for NMSI.

Back in October 2011 renowned producer and composer, Craig Leon, approached us to partner on an audio visual project about space. His pedigree brought us great confidence in the project, he produced Blondie, discovered the Talking Heads and crossed over to classical with three number one albums with Izzy Cooper who was to star in this show.

Filming Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum

Our only proviso was that whilst we wouldn’t interfere with the artistic elements of the show we would insist on scientific accuracy. Enter Doug Millard, our Space curator who consulted on the script to ensure its veracity and also to add the latest understandings of our solar system.

Whilst our partners sourced footage from NASA including  imagery that had never been broadcast before we firmed up the commercial terms of the contract. Hannah Green, ‘our fixer’ then got to work as Project Manager to make sure that operationally we could deliver what we’d promised. This is no mean feat in a Museum the size of ours, things then get even more complicated when you add in a highly creative production team.

The ‘as live’ performance was on a Thursday night, but first the production had to move in, this was a very difficult logistical process given that we don’t allow any equipment to be moved through the Museum during opening hours. The first tranche of deliveries arrived on Monday night with plywood going down to protect the flooring from the heavy loads. The majority of equipment was in by 10am on the Tuesday morning, this included staging, TV cameras and trolleys, lighting, cabling, amps etc etc. Also, I shouldn’t forget, there was also a production team of 50.

Setting up Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum London


By Wednesday morning the lighting, video, audio and two of the biggest projectors in Europe had been fine tuned and were ready for the first rehearsal. The orchestra, ‘The Ricciotti Ensemble of Amsterdam’ were very flexible and responded to Craig’s direction with superb results. The dancing of Vanessa Fenton of the Royal Ballet brought a touch of Bond to this space odyssey.

The whole production team, including all the performers totalled 100, we then brought an extra 130 people into the mix as the audience. On the night these spectators had a huge part to play as the ‘live TV’ audience, their involvement was integral to the end result. In the final dress rehearsal I sat at the TV mixing desk where it dawned on me that no matter how good tonight was everything had been done for one thing and one thing only, making a TV programme. Everything was timed to absolute perfection, with second by second commands directing the various cameras to focus, pan and zoom onto different sections of the orchestra, crowds and stage.

Filming Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum London 

We brought the audience in, albeit 45 minutes late, this is ‘Live TV’ after all so not everything can go to plan. Avril introduced the night and reminded people that they were being filmed and if they were sat next to anybody they shouldn’t be then perhaps they should move. Nobody moved.

The performance went with no apparent hitches with only one unplanned re-take at the end and judging by the applause throughout everybody seemed to enjoy themselves.

 The view from the audience at Beyond the Stars

I left with the audience at 21.45 but Hannah and Jon Kaddish stayed on through the night to ensure that the get out was as smooth as possible. I met them the next day along with Avril and the Assistant Producer, Sam. All were dead on their feet but very happy that only twelve hours ago there was a fully working TV studio geared up for a major orchestral recording and broadcast where we stood and now it had gone with the exception of two large make up mirrors. As we left ‘Temporary Exhibition Space Two’ the next event moved in.

Notes: ‘Beyond the stars’, in partnership with the Science Museum, London and NASA will be broadcast on PBS in June 2012 with an accompanying DVD, CD and theatre tour across the US and Europe.


Screengrab of the Science Museum's new game Futurecade

Futurecade is here and wants you to play

By Micol Molinari  – Learning Resources Developer

What do robotic lobsters and genetically engineered bugs have in common?

They both star in Futurecade, our brand new suite of online games based on cutting-edge research.

Screengrab of the Science Museum's new game Futurecade

The games – Bacto-Lab, Robo-Lobster, Cloud Control and Space Junker - explore heavy-hitting science in a fun (read: addictive) way.

You won’t see science pop-ups explaining how things work, but you will be encouraged to consider your own opinion on the issues and hopefully you’ll be inspired to find out more. Because that’s the point, we want the games to generate interest and discussion around the science of today and tomorrow – and be so fun that you come back to them again and again!

If playing the games piques your interest in groundbreaking research, visit our Antenna gallery for up-to-the-minute news, exhibitions and live events around the science that’s shaping our lives.

Play Futurecade now!


Mark Champkin's with his gift for Stephen Hawking

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

By Mark Champkins

When I was asked to design Stephen Hawking a 70th Birthday present on behalf of the Museum, I have to confess, I was a little overwhelmed. I was chuffed to be asked, but didn’t really know where to start.

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

After giving it some thought I reckoned it would be worth talking to some people that knew him and his theories really well, so I approached the Museum curators, Boris and Ali, who have been responsible for putting together a display about his life and work.

They were amazingly helpful, explaining a little about his theories about Black Holes and his work to unite the field of quantum physics with the cosmological. They showed me some images of his office, and his most prized objects and awards, along with some models he had made of the way light falls into a black hole. They also directed me to one or two objects in the Museum that have relevance to his work, one of them being Geissler Tubes.

Geissler tubes are beautiful! Alison and Boris described to me how a fella called Geissler was experimenting with vacuums, and created Geissler tubes by pumping gasses into the vacuum tube, and passing a current through the gas. The gasses glowed as they emitted photons, and though they started out as a curiosity, they led to two developments that relate to Hawking’s work. Firstly, the tubes led to the development of the equipment used to discover the electron – the first sub-atomic particle, which in turn, arguably led to the field of Quantum Physics. Secondly, the Geissler tubes led to the creation of Crookes radiometer, which as it’s name implies detect radiation, linking with Hawking’s identification of his very own form of radiation, that which escapes from a black hole.

I then hit upon the idea of making a “Black Hole Light” using the closest thing available to a Geissler tube – neon tubes. I liked the pun, and how it alludes to Hawking Radiation.

The form I chose for the lamp was inspired by the profile of the model I had seen in Hawking’s lab, demonstrating how light is sucked into a black hole.

I rather liked the idea of uniting the technology that led to the birth of Quantum Physics (in the form of a Geissler-inspired neon tube), with a form that is representative of the path light would take spiralling into a black hole. Mixing Cosmology with Quantum Physics, and trying to reconcile them in one artefact. Something of a metaphor for Hawking’s work.

Having made the light, I am really pleased with it. I really hope it can also serve a practical purpose in his home or office, and that he’ll like it!

View the rest of the pictures in our Flickr set