Monthly Archives: August 2012

Wonderful Things: Human Genome books

From Keith Richards to Jordan, books about people’s lives fly off the shelves. But what if they looked like this….?

Dense bedtime reading in the Human Genome books

Created from the Human Genome Project, these replica books (a printed version can be seen at the Wellcome Collection) show the sequence of 3 billion bases of DNA contained within a human cell.

Who did this?

 Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome project, coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the national institutes of health, intended to identify human genes, develop understanding of genetic diseases and highlight key developmental processes of the human body.  Whilst initial analysis was released in 2001, the final sequence was completed in 2003.

 What exactly were they looking at?

They were looking at the biological data which makes us unique; the things which make us, us.

 Sounds simple. What about the Science?

Ok. To start with, a genome is all in the DNA in an organism, including its genes which carry information for making proteins.

DNA is composed of four letters carrying instructions for making an organism – A, C G AND T.  Three of these letters together create an Amino Acid. These combinations make up 20 different amino acids and come in a vast number of different orders to create proteins from keratin to haemoglobin.

 Got it.

The human genome is made up of 3 billion bases of DNA, split into 24 chromosomes. Each chromosomes contains a selection of genes – the human genome contains about 20,000 – 25,000 genes.

 Ah, so that’s all the letters?

Exactly. This information can be used to develop new ways to diagnose, treat and someday prevent diseases. Scientists also studied the genetic makeup of non-human organisms including e.coli, the fruit fly and a laboratory mouse.

 Sounds useful, if not a bit sci-fi.

 Yes and, as with much boundary-pushing scientific research, this can lead to opposition and criticism. This was the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues around data.  You might want to think about:

  1. Who should have access to this information?
  2. How much should people intervene with genetics material?
  3. How could this information be used?
  4. Could it be used for financial benefits?

 After all that, fancy some beach reading? 

 The Human Genome book is in the Who Am I? Gallery:  first floor, Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: Babbage’s brain

Would you expect to find human body parts in the Maths and Computing gallery?

Bizarrely, you can find one half of Charles Babbage’s brain which was donated to the Hunterian Museum by his son Henry (the other half is still with the Hunterian). Many brains of ‘great men’ were kept in the 19th Century to try and discover the nature of the link between the brain and consciousness.

Babbage was a computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, scientist, philosopher and political economist!

Babbage, who was seen as a brilliant thinker is regarded as the first computer pioneer. He used his genius-like brains well, excelling in many scientific subjects and after graduating from Cambridge University, he returned in 1828 as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. What a boffin!

During the 1820’s, brain box Babbage devised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured £1500 from the government and hired the engineer Joseph Clement. However, the project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over £17,000 to build the machine – equivalent to the price of two warships!

It’s widely accepted that the reason for the collapse was because Victorian mechanical engineering was not developed enough to produce such accurate parts. However, some have suggested that it was more to do with issues of economics, politics and Babbage’s temperament and style of directing the enterprise. Not such a genius then….

The Science Museum has a special relationship with Babbage and in 1985 the Museum used its own brain power and launched a project to build Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. It was completed and working in November 1991, one month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. This proves that had it been built during his life, it would’ve worked.

The figure wheels of Babbage's Difference Engine No 2. Not exactly a Casio calculator is it?

What computer gadget can you not live without?

Can you tell anything of a person’s abilities from bits of their brain?

How do you feel about museums displaying human remains?

Babbage also worked in the field of codebreaking.

With this in mind, why not create a trail for your students to visit our Alan Turing: Codebreaker exhibition, the Maths and Computing galleries to see Babbage’s brain and Making the Modern World to see the trial portion of his Difference Engine and the first Apple I Mac computer!

Babbage’s brain is in the Maths and Computing gallery on the 2nd floor of the Museum.

-Denise Cook

Purpose-built fuel cell motorbike

Make it in Great Britain: an update from our exhibitors

Have you taken the chance to visit Make it in Great Britain yet? The exhibition celebrates the importance and success of British manufacturing and features some of the most exciting British innovations happening today. Halfway through, some of our exhibitors review their experiences:

Geoff Bryant, Head of R&D, Mars Chocolate UK
‘The exhibition has given us the chance to showcase our ‘bean to bar’ story which captures every stage of the chocolate making process. It shows the journey from the Ivory Coast cocoa farms through to the state of the art production line at our Slough factory which produces 2.5 million Mars bars every day.

It would be easy to miss the scientific expertise that goes into food manufacturing whilst we tuck into our favourite chocolate treats. But you would be hard pressed to find a more diverse group of scientists and innovators.

There is a common misconception that the jobs available in science aren’t applied or interesting – this couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly within the food and drink industry; a sector continuously looking for solutions to challenges with raw ingredients and improving the nutritional credentials of its products. In 2010 we reduced the saturated fat content in Mars bars by 15% while maintaining the same great taste. We couldn’t have done this without the dedication and expertise of our R&D team, whose scientific and technical skills are so important to continually pushing product innovation and formulation development.’

The Mars Factory

Intelligent Energy
‘It was a great to be chosen as one of the companies in the exhibition, representing the best of British manufacturing, one of the most dynamic and important sectors in the UK economy.

Why were we chosen? Well, we design and develop fuel cell technologies at our Loughborough Headquarters, and then work with our partners and customers across the globe to manufacture and integrate that technology into their products. Our fuel cell systems power everything from consumer electronics, homes and other buildings, to a wide range of vehicles including the ENV motorbike and our fuel cell electric London taxis.

Our award winning ENV, which is on display in the exhibition, is the world’s first purpose built fuel cell motorbike. We chose to exhibit the ENV, partly because it is a world first, but mainly because we think it is very possibly the best looking example of fuel cell technology ever made!’

Purpose-built fuel cell motorbike

The Green Roof Tile Company
As you stroll around Make it in Great Britain you are instantly struck by the iconic brands: Jaguar Land Rover, BAE Systems, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, but in amongst these giants of industry there are examples of the small, innovative companies that provide employment for the bulk of the 2.5 million people involved in the UK manufacturing sector.

We are one such business – The Green Roof Tile Company. Established in 2007, we have designed, developed, worried about, manufactured and commercialised Envirotile – a roofing system manufactured from plastic containing over 70% recycled material.

In developing the groundbreaking design for Envirotile, we enlisted the help of the Caparo Innovation Centre at the University of Wolverhampton. Key features of the product include: rain water channels to facilitate run-off; drip water channels prevent rain water ingress under the tile and strengthening ribs and controlled variations in material thickness provide rigidity to the tiles.

Furthermore, the market potential for Envirotile is considerable. The export market for traditional roof tiles is virtually non-existent because weight and fragility makes it difficult to export, whereas a single Envirotile is 80% lighter than a traditional concrete rooftile and is virtually unbreakable.’

Make it in Great Britain Exhibition

Make it in Great Britain ends on 9 September and is free to enter. It was developed in collaboration with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

Follow the exhibition on Twitter and on the Science Museum Facebook page

Science of the sprint

Whether you loved or hated it, sport has been on everyone’s minds over the past few weeks.

How did the athletes do it- what’s the science at work behind their incredible feats? Genetics certainly comes into play, but many other factors influence an athlete’s performance, from footwear, to diet and sleep.

So let’s give a little love to the worlds fastest man, Usain Bolt!

There are plenty of videos online about the secret of his sprint- here’s a good one. In brief, it comes down to his stride (longer than the other athletes’ – genetically gifted I guess) and his strength (near-superhuman, probably- but he had to train for that one).

Where does footwear come in? Well, we recently had a team of scientists down from Loughborough University running (no pun intended) a live event in the Antenna gallery- they work on biomechanics and high performance footwear- and it is really quite incredible how much engineering actually goes into a pair of running shoes!

So that’s it guys- get yourself some amazing high-performance trainers, and see you on the starting block in 2016! ;)

 

LHCb VELO Modules

LHC Exhibition: From Liverpool to the LHC, via easyJet

In autumn 2013 an exhibition about the LHC will open in the Science Museum, and we’re currently scouting out objects and stories for the show. This post is the first in a series about the exhibition. Myself and Harry Cliff from the LHC exhibition team ventured to Liverpool to take a closer look at the detector that sits at the heart of the LHCb experiment.

LHCb VELO Modules

The Oliver Lodge building, home to the Universityof Liverpool particle physics department, is a typically plain post-war block. But inside, technicians and researchers constructed one of the most beautiful parts of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC): the LHCb Vertex Locator or “VELO”.

The VELO is a precision engineered piece of equipment, and we had to put on teletubby-style outfits to enter the clean room where the modules were painstakingly put together. A peek through a microscope at a spare module revealed the intricate detail in each board; hundreds of perfectly aligned connections, delicate strips of silicon and tiny computer chips.

But once assembled, the modules are surprisingly hardy. Some were taken to the LHC in Geneva in hand baggage on an easyJet flight; brave researchers drove the rest through the Channel tunnel in a hire car. Once they arrived, this incredibly intricate device was carefully put in position. It sits just millimetres from awesome power of the LHC’s proton beams, enduring high levels of radiation for years on end without missing a beat.

Most of media flurry about the LHC has concentrated on the hunt for the Higgs boson. LHCb has a different mission. As Dr Tara Shears explained, our universe is made of normal matter, not its mirror image, antimatter, and at LHCb scientists are attempting to find out where the antimatter has gone.

The LHC collides protons at near light speed. The energy of the crash creates new particles that spray out in all directions. Our host at Liverpool, Dr Girish Patel, explained that the VELO comprises 42 modules, which are lined up in pairs to form circular detectors – the proton beams travel through the hole in the centre of each pair. The pairs are lined up along the beam to record the trajectory of the new particles.

The VELO allows scientists to work out precisely where particles were created, to within a hundredth of a millimetre. It is surrounded by much larger detectors that identify what types of particle were made in each collision. LHCb is looking for a type of particle known as a bottom quark. It doesn’t detect the bottom particles directly, because they decay into other particles before they reach VELO. LHCb tracks these other particles, looking for the fingerprint of the bottom quark among the mass of data.

Thanks to everyone at Liverpool for a fascinating day, particularly Girish, Tara and Themis. For more info on the VELO, take a look at the LHCb website.

Image courtesy of CERN

AHRC logo small

Workshop: A History of Science on TV and at the Museum

BBC Science on Show broadcast from the Museum (credit: Science Museum)

Would you like to explore the linked histories of science on TV and at the Museum? Our ‘Intermedial Science’ project is investigating these aspects of the popular culture of science in Britainin the fifties and sixties (see previous post). We are comparing how topics such as space exploration and atomic energy were put on display at the Museum and presented in television programmes. This AHRC-funded project has been under way since early March this year and has proved very exciting. The Science Museum’s archives hold many hidden treasures, and so little has been written so far on Science TV in post war Britain that we are pretty much walking in uncharted territory. On 20th September, we will be sharing the excitement generated by this research.

BBC Science on Show broadcast from the Museum (credit: Science Museum)

On the day we would like to invite everyone who is interested in learning more about the history of museum display and science on TV to join us for a workshop in which we will present some of our findings, and share first thoughts on the next steps for this fascinating project. It will be the occasion to hear people who made this history, in theScienceMuseumand at the BBC science department, telling us their sides of the story. 

The event, starting early in the afternoon, will be in two parts. The first bit, more suited to people with a specialist interest, will be a research academic workshop. It will involve a presentation of findings from the research and a hands-on session during which participants will be offered the opportunity to reflect on an individual science broadcast. The second part of the day, open to the public, will consist in a ciné-club style session. A Horizon Special will be screened in the presence of former producers and editors of the programme. This will be followed by a roundtable discussion and then a Q & A session during which participants will be invited to reflect on the presentation of science on TV in the past forty years and more.

If you’re interested in attending, please drop us a line at:  PublicHistory@ScienceMuseum.org.uk

This event is part of the Intermedial Science project which has been made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Wonderful Things: Argo float

The Argo program was set up by a collaborative of research groups at the turn of the century in response to growing concerns about global climate change.

Named after Jason’s “Argo”, a ship in Greek Mythology that undertook the treacherous voyage to capture the Golden Fleece, this ambitious program involves the deployment of data-collecting floats in oceans across the world. They sink to depths of 1500m and only rise to transmit information in real time via a satellite which allows sea temperatures, salt levels (salinity) and ocean velocity to be monitored. There are currently over 3000 floats in circulation.

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

One of the most significant features about Argo data is that it is freely available to anyone (www.argo.net). The speed with which the information is recorded and published allows oceanographers to quickly draw seemingly conclusive analytical reports about trends and changes in our oceans.

However, the accessibility of the survey network can lead to problems. Information published has not always been accurate and science writers are quick to use Argo data to shape and support their theories, rather than allowing the data to collate over time to form more conclusive readings.

It is expected that in the not too distant future, the Argo global dataset will provide crucial indications that global warming is happening. Some feel that there is already enough evidence to support this theory and that we should take immediate action to combat its effects.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the people of the world have put their absolute faith in your hands. How would you use Argo data findings? Consider:

Can we really suggest global warming is occurring based on monitoring the oceans alone?

To get a truly conclusive indication that climate change is happening might take many more years of Argo data observation. Would you wait or take action now, potentially making decisions that will affect the lives of millions?

Would it be better if the data collected was less readily available, or do you feel that everyone has the right to such information?

The Argo float is in the Atmosphere Gallery, great for all age groups to explore the many issues concerning climate change in a balanced and engaging way.

-John Inch

USAIN-BOLT-SNAPS-AGAIN

Super speedy sprint

By Dr Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer

Reckon you could give Usain Bolt a run for his money? No, me neither. But with the help of scientists from Loughborough University’s Sports Technology Institute, we could at least achieve our own personal best.

USAIN-BOLT-SNAPS-AGAIN

Engineering Success

The Loughborough team, led by Dr Jon Roberts, are interested in how engineering know-how can be applied to the design of sports equipment. And as part of our Summer of Sport series of live events, they’re setting up a pop-up sports laboratory in the Antenna gallery.

So if you want to find out more about the technology behind running shoe design and construction, come along and chat to the team. You can even take part in real experiments – would you like to measure just how high you can jump? With a specialised bit of kit called a Force Plate, you can do just that.

And if you really do fancy seeing how you measure up against Bolt, you can time your speed on a five-metre running track. High-speed cameras will record your finish time – and you can even get a Photo Finish photograph to take away.

From Elite to High Street

Experts reckon that personalised sports footwear is the way to go, in terms of helping us perform at our best. The technology behind personalised footwear was originally developed fro elite athletes, but it’s now becoming more mainstream. From Elite to High Street, as Loughborough say.

Interested?

Interested in finding out more? Come along to Antenna next week, and try out the technology for yourself.

Wonderful Things: Trephination set

When suffering from a headache or migraine most of us reach for paracetamol, or aspirin. But, would you consider removing a piece of your skull to reduce the pain?

Trephination – or trepanning- involves making a small incision, by drilling or scraping, in the skull to expose the dura mater (the outermost, and toughest, of the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord), to treat problems related to intracranial diseases.  Whilst it sounds unusual – and very uncomfortable – this is believed to be one of the oldest medical procedures, with skulls as far back as the Neolithic period showing signs of trephination.

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

In Ancient Egypt, skull scrapings were used to create potions. Both Hippocrates and Galen mentioned the procedure, and it would continue throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with many people surviving, as seen in archaeological excavations where trepanned skulls show signs of healing around the edge of the hole.

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

There are several possible explanations for this procedure:

  • The collection of rondelles, or skull discs (small discs used as charms or amulets to expel demons).  
  • By cutting the bone away, practitioners believed it would cure convulsions, headaches, infections and even fractures by ridding pressure, or removing spirits

Although disregarded by many, the practice still exists in contemporary medicine, but is used mostly for the treatment of epidural and subdural haematoma (a ruptured blood vessel between the skull and the brain.)

Some people today still have the procedure carried out, with many purporting its benefits in increased levels of consciousness or intellectual capacity. 

  • Would you give trephination a go if it made you extra clever?
  • How do cultural or religious issues affect the treatment of pain and illness?

  • In the future, what contemporary medical procedures will seem unusual?

An example of a trephination set can be seen in The Science and Art of Medicine, 5th floor, Wellcome Wing.

 -Christopher Whitby

 

Hello bug-burger!

How will we feed ourselves in the future?

With more and more people on the planet demanding meat, whilst climate change threatens our environment and the price of food goes up, shouldn’t we be worried about where we will get our next meals?

Yes. And lucky for us, there are teams across the world working on how we are going to sustain our exploding population in the decades ahead. 

In the West, many of us are used to eating meat every day. But what if it became a luxury food again, and we had to resort to other sources of protein instead of our beloved burgers?

Insects – or mini livestock- are one interesting idea; many people in the world already eat them, spicy fried locusts, crunchy dried larvae… they are a good source of protein and easy to farm. They’d just need a bit of an image revamp to suit our squeamish sensibilities!

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do...

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do…

A worm kebab not doing it for you? What about algae bread? A lab-grown steak? Or making that Kit Kat taste sweeter by listening to bells as you devour it.  All these ideas are being researched now, some will catch on, and some definitely won’t.

One thing is for sure though- food and eating are the very basis of human survival and culture, so anything that impacts that will also affect us very deeply. I wonder what will our meals be like in 20 years time? (Here’s hoping I can still whip up a mean spaghetti al pomodoro without resorting to a can of spider eyeballs!)