Monthly Archives: September 2012

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Heroes of Science

“If science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.” This was the key message from Dr. Roger Highfield, our Director of External Affairs, and this year’s recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, at his Royal Society lecture ‘Heroes of Science’ earlier this week.

Modern science is now so often a global collaborative effort, with thousands of researchers joining forces on gigantic scientific undertakings such as the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and the Polymath Project. As research teams have become the norm in scientific discovery, many are asking is modern science is too big for heroes?

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Roger disagrees, arguing in his lecture (and in this Daily Telegraph article) that “it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants.” The likes of Isaac Newton or Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes before dying due to prolonged radiation exposure, provide inspirational stories of scientific discovery, and these stories continue to this day through figures such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

These scientists would never claim to have worked alone, but this is often how they are portrayed. In the crowded realm of ideas, heroes are often the most viral transmitters of the values of science. Our fascination with heroes could perhaps be explained by recent brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, which show the existence of a hard-wired fondness for narratives in us all.

EEG hat

An EEG hat, used to measure brain activity

Roger ended his lecture with a final thought on the use of metaphors to convey complex ideas, noting that by the same token, heroic characters who appreciate scientific discovery are needed to express a vivid sense of the way science works.

The Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar lecture is given annually on a subject relating to the history, philosophy or social function of science. The accompanying Medal is named in memory of three Fellows of the Royal Society, John Desmond Bernal, Peter Medawar, and John Wilkins, the first Secretary of the Society. Previous recipients of the Medal include Melvyn Bragg, who lectured on the history of the Royal Society, and Professor David Edgerton, who discussed twentieth century science and history.

Green Babies

Green Babies

Walk into any baby shop and you will be bombarded by products claiming ‘green’ or ‘eco’ credentials. It no longer seems good enough to bring up a happy, healthy child; you now need a ‘green baby’!

Green Babies

A glance through the message boards of MumsNet shows there is a lot of debate about sustainable parenting: Disposable or renewable nappies? Organic cotton or hemp based baby grows? Bamboo fibre nursing pads (called banboobies!) or toys made of recycled plastic? It can be tough to know where to start.

At the Science Museum this Thursday (27th September) you can join our ‘Green Babies’ workshop to try and work through some of these issues. Journalist Annalisa Barbieri and other experts will be on hand to answer questions from new and expectant parents about how to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint and environmental impact.

It should be an excellent opportunity to pick up hints and tips, and debate with leading eco-experts on how to navigate the perplexing world of green parenting.

Join us on Thursday at 11am (with or without your tiny tots) in the Things Gallery on the basement floor of the Science Museum – visit the event page to book your free place.

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

Green Wednesdays: Revenge of the Electric Car

By Pippa Hough, Assistant Content Developer

The Science Museum’s Dana Centre was very pleased to host Nice and Serious last Wednesday night to screen the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car. For those who didn’t make it, you missed a fascinating insight into the burgeoning electric car market. We followed Nissan, GM, Tesla and Greg ‘Gadget’ Abbott, as they try to corner the market in electric vehicles (EVs), while staving off bankruptcy and, in the case of Greg, fire and a factory full of poisonous dust.

After the film we had an absorbing discussion with the Director, Chris Paine (from his garage in California!), and Clemens Lorf, a researcher from Imperial College on electric car batteries.

The big questions the audience wanted Chris and Clemens to answer? When and how will EVs become the norm on our roads?

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

Clemens, Chris and nearly everyone interviewed in the film agreed; EVs and renewable technologies, will only become a normal part of our lives when they make economic sense. There will never be enough eco-minded people with disposable income willing to buy an electric car instead of a cheaper petrol model to keep the industry afloat.

With rising oil prices and advances in technology bringing down manufacturing costs, the scales are beginning to tip in favour of EVs. As our societies become increasingly urbanised, owning an EV for driving around a city can be a very practical option. Most of your journeys are well within the battery’s capacity, and in a city you’re never too far from a charging station.

Our traditional notions of car ownership are evolving as companies like ZipCar allow members to rent vehicles with no notice, for a few hours at a time – ‘usership’ over ownership. These companies are increasing our access to electric vehicles by making them an affordable alternative.

The tipping point for a future full of electric cars is getting closer as the big car companies continue to take EVs seriously – but we’re not quite there yet…

This Green Wednesdays event is part of our Climate Changing programme, which is supported by Shell, Siemens, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and The Garfield Weston Foundation.

Ask a Curator Day

Is there a question you’d always wanted to ask a curator of the Science Museum, but never had the chance to ask before? Maybe what’s your favourite object? What’s the most famous object in your collection? Or why do you like working at the museum?

Science Museum

Well, tomorrow is your chance to ask those burning questions, because it’s Ask a Curator Day – a worldwide Q&A session which lets you put questions to museums around the world, and the Science Museum in London is taking part!

A crack team of Science Museum curators and other staff members will be standing by online to answer you – so start thinking of your questions now.

All you have to do is send your questions to us via Twitter using the #askacurator hashtag. Anyone can follow the questions using the hashtag, and we’ll be sharing the best questions (and answers) throughout the day.

We’ll do our best to answer your questions, although some might take us a little while and we can’t guarantee to answer every single one. Particularly insightful questions that we want to answer at length may well become the basis of a future blog post, like these two posts from David Rooney, our Transport Curator, on how we got the planes in our collection into the Flight Gallery on the third floor!

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902

World’s first colour moving pictures discovered

Today, our sister museum, the National Media Museum, unveiled the earliest colour moving pictures ever made. These vivid images are now on show to the public for the first time in over a hundred years at the Museum in Bradford.

These films were made by photographer and inventor Edward Turner using a process he patented with his financial backer Frederick Lee in 1899. Experts at the Museum have dated the films to 1901/2, making these the earliest examples of colour moving pictures in existence.

Lee and Turner’s invention has always been regarded by film historians as a practical failure but it has now been ‘unlocked’ through digital technology, revealing the images produced by the process for the first time in over a hundred years. It’s also a story of young death and commercial intrigue in the earliest days of the film industry.

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Find out more about this discovery on the National Media Museum blog

Jet Engine

There is an invention in all of us

We were joined recently in the Science Museum by renowned British inventor Trevor Bayliss OBE, who was keen to visit the Make it in Great Britain exhibition.

Inventing is Trevor’s life long passion, and after seeing a programme in 1991 about the spread of AIDS in Africa, he set about inventing a wind up radio. Three years later, his first working prototype ran for 14 minutes and it was featured on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme. By 1996, the radio had been awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design, and in the same year, Trevor met both Her Majesty The Queen and Nelson Mandela.

Yet despite Trevor’s achievements, his view that “there is an invention in all of us” has not changed, and he dismisses the suggestion that to be an inventor you have to wear a white coat.

Jet Engine

As Trevor strolled around the exhibition he looked up at the Rolls Royce jet engine (pictured above), describing the legendary inventor Frank Whittle, as just “a young lad with a good idea”. Trevor explained that ideas do not have to be as complex as the jet engine or as ingenious as BEA’s unmanned aircraft, the demon, and that often it’s just down to luck, “you do not have to be a genius, often inventions are just pure chance.”

Before he left, Trevor told us that “art is pleasure, invention is treasure”, and we hope the exhibition has gone some way to showcase this belief by championing one the UK’s greatest assets, its manufacturing industry.

The Make it in Great Britain exhibition can be found on the first floor of the museum. The exhibition closes on Sunday 9th September.

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

Switch To A Different You?

By Dr Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer

Do you look like your parents? Do you have your mother’s green eyes, or your father’s freckles? We’re so used to thinking of physical traits in terms of genes – genes for height, genes for eye colour, even genes for baldness. But new research reveals that your genes are only a tiny part of what makes you, you. In our new display case, Switch To A Different You? – the Science Museum explores the significance of a groundbreaking discovery.

Switch To A Different You?

Genes make up only around 2% of your DNA. So what’s the rest of it for? We used to think that most of our DNA was junk – but it isn’t. Scientists working on the Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements project – called ENCODE for short – have discovered that, in reality, our “junk” DNA is made up of millions of switches, which act to turn those few genes on and off. Your DNA is, in effect, a gigantic, dynamic, dancing switchboard.

What does this mean for science – and for our sense of identity? If our genes are such a small part of our DNA, then why do we look the way we do? How does our childhood environment influence the behaviour of our genetic switchboard? If we could live our life again, would we look very different? And how will the discovery of this vast genetic switchboard help us to understand – and maybe treat – genetic diseases?

The Museum is celebrating ENCODE’s groundbreaking discoveries in a unique way. Ling Lee, on the science news team here at the Museum, came up with the wonderful idea of visualising DNA replication via an aerial silk dance. So Ling, together with Ewan Birney, one of the ENCODE project leaders, worked with acrobat Michèle Lainé of Viva Aerial Dance to choreograph a spectacular (and scientifically accurate!) performance. Join us on the Who Am I gallery at 1.30 pm tomorrow, Thursday 6th September, to see the dance that Ling and Michele created – and to find out more about the science that inspired the display.

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

In Switch To A Different You?, we begin to explore the significance of ENCODE’s discoveries. We don’t have all the answers – this science is so new that we don’t yet know where it will lead us. But we want to know what you think. If you could live your life all over again, do you think you’d be the same person you are today?

Flower from Taiwan loves the Museum

Visitor Drawings – Love for Science

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, recently visited the Museum to give a presentation on the importance of science museums and their role in inspiring the next generation.

From the number of drawings we receive from our visitors expressing their love for science (and the Museum itself), we must be doing something right!

Here’s a selection of science-loving drawings created by our visitors when in the Launchpad gallery. Click on any image to see bigger pictures.

Explainer Fact: Web Lab (beta), a series of Chrome Experiements by Google, is now open to the public in the Basement of the Museum.