Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sceptics, change your tune

No, this isn’t about the Olympics… I’m sure you’ve all heard so much about Olympic fever (you may even be deep in the grips of it), so we’re going to give you a break from it for a minute.

This is about climate change (and we’ve heard so much about that too!). That the climate has been changing is almost universally accepted inside and outside scientific circles- but that the fluctuation is actually due to human activity has been a matter of debate for some scientists.  Now a groundbreaking study has given powerful indications that the 1.5C rise in temperature over the past 250 years is due to our busy work on the planet- and has even turned some sceptics!

So what is different about this study compared to all the others? First of all, it analysed data as far back as 1753 (previous datasets only collected from mid-1800s), and instead of having a human organize the data, it was done entirely by a computer (eliminating the criticism that scientists would apply their own bias to the data). The research plotted the upward temperature curve against suspected ‘forcings’ to analyse their warming impact- for example solar activity, or volcanoes. It turned out the best match was for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels- which as we all know have been on the rise, linked to our use of fossil fuels and the ice caps melting.

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Interestingly, the results of the data analysis were all released before this paper was even published- another move aimed at appeasing the climate sceptics! So whilst some continue to be vocal about their dissent, others including Prof Richard Muller (who started the whole project!) have changed their tune: “We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds.”

That’s really powerful, because we don’t always think of scientists having an agenda, but they do- just like any other people they have beliefs and theories about the way the world works. But if we are to get closer to understanding the way it really does work, we must be open to changing or refining those ideas if new evidence arises.

Luckily we aren’t the only ones who say this! Einstein said ” The important thing is not to stop questioning…” and that is one of the most important skills for your students to pick up, not just scientifically but applicable to all walks of life.

We like to model this for teachers and students using Mystery Boxes - try it out as an icebreaker, and to teach How Science Works in a fun, hands-on way.

Wonderful Things: Henry Molaison’s brain

When you think of the world’s most famous brain, whose comes to mind?

 Freud’s? Einstein’s? Marie Curie’s perhaps?

True, all these had quite a lot to offer in the grey matter department, but when it comes to offering the world a clearer picture of the human brain and providing vital insights into the formation and storage of memories, the prize goes to a man by the name of Henry Molaison.

In 1935, 9 year old Henry got in an accident with a cyclist in his home town of Hartford, Connecticut; he hit his head and later developed intractable epilepsy. In 1953 at the age of 27, in an attempt to correct his seizures, he was referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, for treatment. At that time, neuroscience was quite rudimentary and the procedure carried out on Henry was unprecedented. Scoville removed both temporal lobes of his cerebral cortex and a sea-horse shaped structure called the hippocampus. That’s quite a lot of brain tissue gone.

Brain model- green sections indicate the Temporal lobes removed by Scoville

The operation succeed in dissipating his seizures, but unfortunately he emerged unable to form new memories. They had removed a part of his brain that was responsible for storing short term memories! Neurologists refer to this state as profound amnesia.

He lived the rest of his life this way, remembering events that occurred before his operation and unable to form new ones after it. He knew  his mother was Irish and also about World War 2, recalling almost nothing after that. Luckily for the world of neuroscience, Henry wanted to help people and gave himself to neurological research for the rest of his life until his death in 2008.

Before Henry Molaison (or Patient HM as he is often known to psychology and neuroscience students), memory was an abstract idea, now, thanks to Henry and his brain, we can see where long and short term memory areas are formed in the brain.

Section of HM's brain indicating where tissue was removed

Had Henry not being so willing to help science to better understand the human brain, many people may not have received the treatment they needed to help with their conditions.

How do you feel about donating your body to Science?

Can you think of any reason that would prevent people from doing so?

 Would you donate your pet’s body to science?

If you would like to see and hear elements of this fascinating story, visit the Who Am I gallery on the first floor in the Wellcome wing of the museum.

-James Carmody

Vince Cable, Business Secretary at Make it in Great Britain exhibition

Make it in Great Britain

By Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor in Residence

Britain has always been a nation at the forefront of global manufacturing. From the Industrial Revolution onwards we have been pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and seeking to be ever more innovative. The Make it in Great Britain Exhibition, here at the Science Museum, is a fantastic showcase of cutting edge UK manufacturing and the most ingenious of ideas.

Vince Cable, Business Secretary at Make it in Great Britain exhibition

I had the pleasure of being one of the judges for the “Challenge” competition and was thoroughly inspired by the lateral thinking, ingenuity and technical excellence of the entries.

The response to all the competition entries has been amazing. There are five categories and they will showcase their creations on a weekly basis. Some of the successful entries include a new technology which could offer relief to tinnitus sufferers, an eco-friendly alternative to everyday cement and a pushchair that can be folded down into a 32 litre rucksack. The exhibition, which runs until 7th September. will include the competition finalists alongside formula one cars, powerboats, jet aircraft, and a host of other fantastic exhibits.

Britain has a proud manufacturing heritage, and is responsible for developing world-beating new technology and production techniques. Manufacturing in the UK is endlessly creative, brilliantly practically, constantly evolving and generates £137 Billion for the UK economy which is significantly more than the Financial sector. We too often downplay and undervalue manufacturing’s importance but The Make it in Great Britain exhibition is an inspiring and timely reminder of just how good we are here in the UK.

Visit Make it in Great Britain at the Science Museum from today

Follow Make it in Great Britain and the Science Museum on Twitter to learn more about British manufacturing

A picture from Mick Jackson's memoir - My Running Hell’ - an everyman’s jogging memoir

Writer in residence Mick Jackson publishes a short memoir

Our Writer in Residence, Mick Jackson, has published a short memoir, ‘My Running Hell’ commissioned by the Museum as part of his residency and to tie in with the season of sport in London this summer.

Find out more about the memoir in Mick’s guest blog post and head along to Lates on Wednesday where he will be reading small excerpts

By Mick Jackson

I’m your typical middle-aged man: balding, bespectacled and with a bit of a beer-gut. There’s not a lot I can do about the first two, but I try to keep the beer-gut in check by running two or three times a week.

Running’s great – you get to patronize those friends of yours who do no exercise, plus you can get stuck into that great slab of Battenburg, safe in the knowledge that the same calories will be burnt off within seconds of pulling on your running shoes. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

I’ve been running since my teens, when I was actually built for running and if I need the physical benefits – cardio-vascular workout, etc – more these days, then I also need the mental benefits. After an hour or so shuffling along the Downs I can feel almost human.

A picture from Mick Jackson's memoir - My Running Hell’ - an everyman’s jogging memoir

So when the Science Museum was scouting around for ideas for a booklet to tie in with the Summer of Sport I thought that perhaps it was time to celebrate the everyday runners who, like me, may fall a little short of Elite standards, but whose heroism is marked by the fact that they manage to crawl out of bed on a Sunday morning and head out into the rain.

The booklet will be launched at the Science Museum Lates event on Wednesday, 25th July. The event is free. The booklet’s free. It’s going to involve a balding, bespectacled middle-aged man puffing and panting on a running machine. What’s not to like?

Follow Mick on Twitter and find out what other projects he is working on throughout his residency.

Wonderful Things: Water testing kit

The leading UK charity Oxfam is currently running its biggest ever emergency appeal for Africa. The failure of the late 2010 rains has meant that more than 10 million people from the Horn and East Africa are in desperate need of food and clean water. Since the late 19th Century, we have been all too aware of the risks of consuming dirty water, but for these people in the affected areas of Africa, contaminated water is sometimes the only option. Unfortunately, a dreadful consequence of this is that many people are now suffering from water-borne diseases such as Cholera.

Cholera is caused by the ingestion of bacterium Vibrio cholerae present in faecally contaminated water and is characterised by the onset of acute watery-diarrhoea; leading to death by de-hydration. However, Oxfam is working to stop the spread of water-borne diseases by treating the water that is used for drinking, cooking and washing.

However, how do we know what’s in the water before we learn that it’s contaminated? Take a look at this piece of kit below:

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This is water testing apparatus; used between 1865 and 1900. During this period, many cities including London were in the grasp of deadly water-borne diseases, including cholera. This object tested for the presence of organic matter and chemical pollutants in water; thereby being a useful tool in the prevention of disease.

This kit came less than a decade after John Snow first argued that cholera was a water-borne disease. Before this time, the medical profession preferred the idea of germ theory, championed by Louis Pasteur who argued that diseases were spread by noxious ‘bad air’.  Fortunately, we now know differently and this knowledge is going some way to educate people and purify drinking water. In fact, Robert Reed at the University of Northumbria and Isaac Bright Singh at Cochin University in Kerala, India, are collaborating on a research project exploring the possibility of using sunlight to decontaminate water. Could this be a cheap and limitless way of protecting people from water-borne diseases?

If access to clean drinking water is a human right, should everyone be responsible for helping people in developing nations get ahold of it? 

Get your students to work out how much water they use on an average day. How could they cut down?

Visit the Water Wars feature in the Antenna gallery to find out about the water footprint of our food.

-Denise Cook

A Bersey taxi in one of the Royal parks

The surprisingly old story of London’s first ever electric taxi

By Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine

Taking in the streets of London in 1897, you would have seen one of Walter Bersey’s electric taxis. Fast forward over 100 years later and you can see one of the few surviving examples in the Wellcome Wing as part of the Climate Changing Stories programme. We tend to think of electric cars as futuristic, especially in a bid to cut emissions but they have a much older history.

With a top speed of 9-12 mph, Walter Bersey’s taxis were the first self-propelled vehicles for hire on London’s roads. Cars on London’s roads got off to a slow start in Britain thanks to the “Red Flag Act” which stated that any vehicle other than a horse drawn must be preceded by a man carting a red flag as a warning to passers-by. Once repealed in November 1896, vehicles began to make their mark in Britain. The origins of the now annual London to Brighton road race have their roots in celebrating the repeal of the law.

Walter Bersey shared the ideas that there were great hopes for electricity. He said:
“There is no apparent limit to the hopes and expectations of the electric artisans… short [it] is the natural power which shall be the most intimate and effective of all man’s assets.”

A Bersey taxi in one of the Royal parks

A Bersey taxi in one of the Royal parks. Credit: Science Museum, London

Exhibited at a South Kensington motor show in 1896, 12 electric cabs, the Berseys first appeared on the road on 19 August 1897. When the taxis were first unveiled, they undertook the London-Brighton race. According to reports, the taxis could not complete the 60 mile journey and completed part of the race by train.

Rates were the same as horse drawn cabs. The cab could take two passengers and was fitted with electric lighting both inside and out. Electric illumination was not welcomed by all “for the comfort of people of a bashful disposition……[who felt] as conspicuous as if they were on the stage with the limelight.” The then Prince of Wales was said to have taken a taxi ride in a Bersey.

Each taxi was licensed by Scotland Yard under four conditions:

1. each vehicle was accompanied by a driver
2. drivers were capable of stopping the carriage on demand
3. the taxi could turn in a small space
4. be able to climb the steepest hill in London, Savoy Hill

The Bersey was known as the “Hummingbird” from the sound of the taxi and the yellow and black livery. Batteries were replaced using a hydraulic lifting system that took 2-3 minutes at the sole re-charging station in London. Electricity was expensive to generate so the company started producing their own at great expense.

However, after 6 months of use, the noise and vibration escalated. Vibrations damaged the delicate glass plates, the tyres wore out incredibly quickly given the 2 tonne weight of the cab. Breakdowns were frequent. Horse drawn cabs were often faster as well.

Two years after their debut the Bersey taxis disappeared from the roads. Taxis were not only vehicles Walter Bersey designed. He designed a range of private electric vehicles but none are know to have survived.

BPS Curator of Psychology Phil Loring showing participants objects from the medical collection. (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

Science Museum History Open House

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

On Saturday the 16th June, the Research and Public History department organised a History Open House event at the Dana centre. The event showcased how the Science Museum’s collections, library and archives could be valuable resources for people who are researching their local or community heritage. The event was attended by members from local community groups, history societies, arts organisations and subject enthusiasts who had an interest in their Science, Technology, Engineering or Medical heritage.

Associate Curator Merel van der Vaart presenting at History Open House (Credit: Hilary Geoghegan)

The participants were firstly provided with the opportunity to attend two gallery tours of Making the Modern World and the Science and Art of Medicine, where they could explore some of the collections already on display in the Museum. Afterwards there was the opportunity to talk to staff and ask questions about the resources available to them and the ways in which they can be accessed. Please follow this link if you would like to learn more about the collections or wish to search the collections online.

Secondly, the participants were shown around the Science Museum’s Library, where they learnt about two dimensional collections. Not only do these include books and journals, but also original histories, biographies and digital sources.  The Science Museum Library is based inSouth Kensington, but there is also an Archive collection held at Wroughton. Wroughton Library and Archive  contains original scientific, engineering and technology material from the last 500 years.

BPS Curator of Psychology Phil Loring showing participants objects from the medical collection. (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The day aroused great interest from the attending participants, and many were surprised with the wide variety of resources that are available in the Museum and Library and Archives beyond the display cases and exhibits.

For participants that were interested in funding opportunities for their research project, an external representative for the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was invited to talk about the All Our Stories grant scheme. This scheme is a wonderful opportunity for projects that intend to explore, share and celebrate heritage and range from £3,000.-  to £10,000.-. More information about All Our Stories can be found here.


The Science Museum History Open House was made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Higgs seminar

Higgs boson discovered

By Roger Highfield

The world’s most wanted subatomic particle, the Higgs, has been found, ending a quest that dates back decades.

Thought to give all other particles their mass, the existence of the particle was predicted by Peter Higgs, who was recently interviewed by the historian of science Graham Farmelo in preparation for a major new exhibition next year at the Science Museum, which Higgs himself plans to attend.

Though only one of those who predicted the existence of the particle in the 1960s, the modest emeritus professor from Edinburgh University is now synonymous with the quest. A small exhibit in the museum’s Antenna science news gallery is planned this week to mark the announcement today of the discovery of the Higgs boson by two teams, each consisting of 4000 scientists, at the CERN laboratory, Geneva, which operates the £5 billion Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

‘It is a powerful and optimistic day for science and a triumph for amazing patience and rational thinking,’ commented Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

‘It’s really an incredible thing it’s happened in my lifetime,’ said Higgs, who is in CERN.

There, the resulting splash of energy and particles is dissected by the ‘eyes’ of the machine, huge detectors – ALICE, LHCb, ATLAS and CMS – which reveal traces of new particles and phenomena.

The LHC is designed to answer the most profound questions about the universe and, being the most famous experiment on the planet, is going to be the subject of a new exhibition at the Science Museum next autumn, developed in collaboration with CERN.

Alison Boyle, Science Museum curator of modern physics, says that the forthcoming exhibition will include components of ATLAS and CMS, as well as pioneering explorations of the atom by JJ Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, and others. She adds: ‘Discovery of the Higgs boson is a great success but there’s still lots more physics to do, and our exhibition will follow the LHC’s scientists and engineers as they explore even higher energies.’

Peter Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

The history of physics is full of tantalising hints of the Higgs that could have been revolutionary, but then evaporated. This time, however, we have concluded the final chapter in the quest, involving 10,000 scientists and engineers from 100 countries.

Excitement about the Higgs has been building for the past six months explained Harry Cliff, the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, who divides his time between the museum and the University of Cambridge team where he works on one of the experiments at CERN.

He explains the current discovery: “’Strictly speaking, it’s the Higgs field that gives most particles mass and the Higgs Boson is a wave travelling in that field – so finding the Higgs Boson is like seeing ripples in the Higgs field.’

Last December, rumours circulated regarding hints of the Higgs at energies of around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), roughly 125 times the mass of a proton. But the catch was that this was around what scientists call a 3-sigma signal , meaning that there is a 0.13 per cent probability that the events happened by chance. This is the level at which particle physicists will only say they have “evidence” for a particle.

Earlier this week scientists sifting information from 500 trillion collisions at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Tevatron collider, east of Batavia, Illinois, said they had found their strongest indication to date for the particle.

A spokesman said: ‘Our data strongly point toward the existence of the Higgs boson, but it will take results from the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to establish a discovery.’

In the rigorous world of particle physics, researchers wait to see a 5-sigma signal, which has only a 0.000028 per cent probability of happening by chance, before claiming that the Higgs has been truly discovered. Higgs himself told Graham Farmelo that he wouldn’t drink champagne to celebrate ‘unless and until they have a 5-sigma signal.’

Thanks to the results coming from the two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, today these preliminary findings appear to show a dramatic 5-sigma signal.

If this is indeed a new particle, then it must be a boson and it would be the heaviest such particle ever found.

Speaking at an event in Westminster to discuss the findings, the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “This news from CERN is a breakthrough in world science. Professor Higgs of Edinburgh University has now secured his place in history.”

Prime Minister David Cameron later announced the news is ‘profoundly significant’.

The flurry of publicity today has come as a crowded seminar in CERN, introduced by Director General Rolf Heuer, was held to discuss the CMS and ATLAS 2012 data analysis, on the eve of the International Conference on High Energy Physics, Melbourne.

“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” said Heuer. “The observation of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

The Higgs boson is the final piece of the Standard Model , a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

The Standard Model contains many other particles – such as quarks and W bosons – each of which has been found in the last four decades using vast particle colliders, but the Higgs had remained elusive.

The Higgs boson is critical to the Standard Model, because interacting with the Higgs field is what gives all the other particles their mass. Not finding it would have undermined our current understanding of the universe.

While discovery of the Higgs is a remarkable achievement, many researchers are also eager to hear all the details from the experiments, and how they compare, which may indicate that the Higgs boson has slightly different properties than those theoretically predicted.

Any deviations from theory could suggest the existence of heretofore-unknown physics beyond the Standard Model, including models such as supersymmetry, which posits a heavier partner to all known particles.

‘This discovery is just the start,’ I was told by John Womersley, Chief Executive of the STFC. “This could be the gateway to supersymmetry. Now on to dark matter, dark energy and the theory of everything”

Although most physicists call the particle the Higgs boson, one Nobel laureate gave it the grandiose title of the “God particle”, after his publishers refused to let him call his book “The Goddam Particle”: everyone agrees that it is, without doubt, the slipperiest particle of physics.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC, and plans to talk about the quest next year at the Science Museum. Although the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, has today lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery, he says that Higgs deserves the Nobel prize.

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When he walked into the crowded CERN seminar today in Geneva, there was a touching round of applause. After a wait of half a century, he is at long last able to celebrate his insight into the mystery of mass with a glass of champagne.