Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

Lord Heseltine on Science and Industrial Strategy

Boffins, crazy ideas and blue sky research might not sound like the building blocks of an industrial policy. However, one of the most seasoned figures in modern politics argued this week that science is not just a cultural activity but plays a central role in driving the nation’s economy. Lord Heseltine, the former deputy Prime Minister, delivered this message to a 300-strong audience attending the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture.

Speaking in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre, Lord Heseltine, who described the Museum as “very impressive”, called for science to help drive economic growth in the UK (the full speech can be read here) as well as discussing research, industrial strategy and the ability of technology to inspiring young people.

Lord Heseltine gives the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture. Image credit: John Russell

Drawing on the development of IMAX technology, which has seen decades of advances in technology to improve the public’s cinematic experience, Lord Heseltine noted that if just one student went “to school tomorrow with a renewed enthusiasm for their science lessons, then the pioneers of IMAX technology would surely have done a worthwhile job.”

Lord Heseltine last delivered the CaSE Annual Lecture in 1989, when the organisation was called Save British Science, just a fortnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event, and the political harmony that followed, drove economic collaboration across Europe, helping create today’s global economy.

How to keep up with other nations in the global economy is central to Lord Heseltine’s recently published report: No stone unturned in pursuit of growth. Lord Heseltine called for the government to “place educational improvement, the raising of basic standards and the complete intolerance of sink schools” at the heart of the growth agenda – a key theme of his report.

In his speech, Lord Heseltine was optimistic about the future of science education, noting that “science has never been so accessible or exciting,” and encouraging members of the audience to visit schools and meet students, “Every child remembers the brilliant adult who sparked a flame of ambition in their head, who changed the course of their life forever.”

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineer’s is a vital part of the Museum’s mission. Engaging with 400,000 school children a year, the Museum’s Learning team work with thousands of science teachers across the country to help them develop innovative tools and techniques to deliver outstanding science lessons.

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

The speech concluded with a look at industrial strategy, “It is about government working hand-in-hand with business to help our industrial base get ahead,” before a Q&A discussion with audience members. The Q&A touched on the benefits of blue skies research; with Lord Heseltine commenting that research must not only be done for its own sake, but also for the pursuit of growth.

Lord Heseltine’s comments here at the Museum come in the wake of a recent speech at the Royal Society by the Chancellor, who emphasised the central role of science in driving a modern, dynamic economy.

Behind the ‘i.am+ foto.sosho’, launched by Will.i.am yesterday, lies his commitment to become a role model to help inspire young people to pursue science, engineering, mathematics and technology. Photo credit: Matt Writtle

Will.i.am’s quest to discover the next Bill Gates

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

The musician and entrepreneur will.i.am gave a classic demonstration of the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique yesterday as part of his quest to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

He announced that he has led a global consortium of technologists to develop what he called a ‘social camera’, a turbocharged version of the iPhone.

Behind the ‘i.am+ foto.sosho’, launched by Will.i.am yesterday, lies his commitment to become a role model to help inspire young people to pursue science, engineering, mathematics and technology. Photo credit: Matt Writtle

At a press conference held at the Fashion Retail Academy in London, The Black Eyed Peas frontman referred to his donation of £500,000, via his i.am angel Foundation, to The Prince’s Trust to fund education, training and enterprise schemes in the UK with a focus on technology and computer skills development.

The Trust is working with Toby Parkin of the Science Museum to enable it to engage young people with science. The museum currently reaches over half a million students per year through school visits and outreach. With the Trust, the museum will focus on inner city schools where children feel socially excluded and standards have been in decline.

Will.i.am says he wants his initiative to ‘help transform the lives of disadvantaged young people living in under-privileged neighbourhoods.’ He added that he was going to learn coding next year, though he stressed ‘I want to be in the classroom as well as the club.’

When I asked him if he wanted to come to the Science Museum to pass on his skills to the hundreds of thousands of children who visit each year, he joked it would probably take him eight years to get up to speed, or become what he calls ‘the rocking-est coder.’

Will.i.am is not alone in embracing geek chic. Earlier this year, the Hollywood actor and rapper Will Smith told children in the Science Museum that he had a hankering to become a computer engineer.

Will Smith meets a group of school children and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford beside the Apollo 10 command module on a visit to the Science Museum, London.

Will.i.am grew up in East Los Angeles, one of the roughest neighbourhoods in the United States, where his life could have turned out quite differently without the support of his family and a good education.

Because he feels London is his second home (‘it broke the Peas’), and because the city is at the forefront of fashion and culture, will.i.am decided to combine these passions with the launch of his device.

Called the i.am+ foto.sosho, it will turn an iPhone4/4s smartphone into a fashion accessory and a point-and-shoot digital camera with on-board editing, filters and social media connectivity that will be distributed by Selfridges.

After he came up with the idea in February of this year, during a meal in  the fashionable restaurant Nobu, he founded and self-funded the development and manufacture with experts located in China, Denmark, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.

He also said that, by the end of next year, he wants to launch an X-Factor style spin-off show to give young people the chance to express themselves in science and maths so he can identify another technology entrepreneur of the stature of a Gates or Jobs.

James Gleick

The Information wins science book prize

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

The bestselling author, James Gleick, has won the world’s most prestigious science book prize with his revelatory chronicle of how information has become the defining quality of the modern age.

Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Fouth Estate) was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

James Gleick

The bestselling author James Gleick was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society, London

Gleick, who spent seven years working on the book, said he was surprised, and startled in an event at the society chaired by the comedian, actor and popular science writer, Ben Miller, and broadcast by Tom Clarke of Channel 4 news.

After thanking his agent, editor and wife, the New York born journalist remarked on how, unlike researchers who write popular science books, he felt like he was an outsider with his ‘face pressed against the glass.’

The veteran American writer made a huge debut with his first book, Chaos (1987), an international bestseller which provided insights into the apparent disorder in complex systems and made everyone aware of the extraordinary influence of the ‘butterfly effect.’ Since then he has written Pulitzer-Prize shortlisted biographies of two heroes of science, Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton.

Gleick’s latest work tells the story of information, from the theory of information proposed by American Claude Shannon to the current revolution in biological information, replicated and transmitted in the form of DNA since the origin of life, and the tsumani of data that now engulf us to become the very quintessence of 21st century society.

Along the way the reader encounters many figures that are also celebrated in the Science Museum, such as Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Lovelace, the dazzling daughter of the poet Byron, who became the first true programmer, and Alan Turing, who lay the foundations of modern computing and cracked both the codes of nature and the Nazi war machine.

The stories behind the revolutions that created today’s information age will also form the core of a forthcoming multi-million pound gallery, Making Modern Communications, scheduled to open in the museum in 2014.

The judges on this year’s judging panel included the authors Jasper Fforde and Tania Hershman, BBC Commissioning Editor for Science Kim Shillinglaw and Royal Society University Research Fellow Samuel Turvey. The panel was chaired by Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who said the decision was difficult, though unanimous. “The Information “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”

The prize, award by Society president Sir Paul Nurse, saw off strong competition from a heavyweight shortlist:

• Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), on his quest to understand human memory.

• My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank, published by Oneworld, a personal perspective on personal genetics

• The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which explores parallel universes and the laws of the cosmos.

• The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent over the millennia.

• The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which examines the world of viruses and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic and how to remain ahead of the threat.

Sir Paul remarked that there had been a renaissance of science writing and admitted it was a ‘pity that someone had to win.’ Despite the lack of British writers on the shortlist, many were present in the audience, including Armand Leroi, Tim Radford, Jo Marchant, Martin Rees, Stuart Clark, Helena Cronin, Philip Ball, Graham Farmelo, Alex Bellos and Jim Al-Khalili.

Set up in 1988 as the “Science Book Prizes”, it became the Rhône-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books from 1990 – 2000, then became the Aventis Prizes for Science Books from 2001 – 2006 and the Royal Society Prize for Science Books from 2007 – 2010. Now in its 25th year, the book prize is now sponsored by the global investment management company Winton Capital Management. David Harding, Founder and Chairman , congratulated James Gleick as ‘ a worthy winner in a strong field’ and thanked the shortlisted authors for helping to turn the sea of scientific information into knowledge.

Roger Highfield is an author, editor of book shortlisted for the prize in 2008 (A Life Decoded by Craig Venter) and Director of External Affairs of the Science Museum Group.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000

Oh Brother where art thou…

By Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering

Clack clack clack clack… ping! The sound of a typewriter sweeping across the page, already becoming a faint memory, will soon fall silent as the mass manufacturing of this technology ends in the UK. Typewriters are iconic machines and have served as the tool of communication over the last 130 years. Whether it’s the legacy of the Beat generation of authors; William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac capturing post-war America on the page, or images of secretaries fiercely typing away, the typewriter has been indoctrinated into our historical and cultural heritage.

Marking the end of UK typewriter production

The place which marked the end of UK typewriter production was Ruabon, at the Brother Factory set within the beautiful Welsh countryside. The factory’s 200 employees witnessed the final model of the Brother CM-1000 being packed into its box to a soundtrack of emotional sighs and cheers. This object is the 5,855,533rd of its type to be produced but the only one which has a place in the Science Museum collection. Brother have kindly donated this last British made typewriter to the Museum, which will be an invaluable addition to the 200 typewriters already in our collection.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000 (l) and Wheatstone telegraph printer (r), which share a similar printing mechanism

Interestingly, the CM1000 (above left) shares a similar mechanism with another object in our collection, one of the earliest telegraph printers built by Sir Charles Wheatstone in the mid 19th century (above right). This latest addition to the collection will enable us to tell the story of how technology has evolved and been shaped by our communication needs.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

The boring boson?

Last week scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva updated their colleagues on the newly-discovered Higgs boson. They revealed what they now know about the particle – and so far, it is behaving exactly as they expected. While this might seem like good news, for some people it is the opposite, because a well-behaved Higgs might rule out some intriguing new physics theories.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

The Higgs – the particle which explains why others have mass – is incredibly unstable and only exists for a fraction of a second before decaying into other, more common particles. Any information about it comes second-hand from these other particles, and working out the properties is rather like putting together clues in a Sherlock Holmes tale, only with more mathematics.

Finding the Higgs in July was a wonderful coup for the LHC, but there now follows years of painstaking work to determine its precise properties. If the Higgs behaves even a smidgen differently from predictions, then it might point scientists in the direction of a new theory.

One particularly popular idea has the rather grand name of “supersymmetry”, which as we wrote on this blog last week, is looking less likely to be true.

There are lots of problems with current theories about the Universe – they don’t explain dark matter, and particle physics is completely incompatible with Einstein’s theories of gravity. Supersymmetry solves some of these issues in a whizz of complicated mathematics, but requires the existence of a whole family of new particles. If they exist, the Higgs’ properties should reveal them.

The results announced on Wednseday in Japan don’t lend the under-fire supersymmetry any more support. They suggest that so far, the Higgs behaves just as our current theory predicts it should. Specifically, when it decays, it turns into different types of particles at the rates we expect.

To some in the community, the Higgs’ conformity is rather disappointing.  But not all of the analysis was ready for the Japan conference and there is still uncertainty around the results that were announced, and supersymmetry still could work.

Even though the LHC has already analysed more data in two years than its predecessor managed in twenty, the measurements are not yet particularly precise, and the Higgs may still harbour surprises. The LHC still has not detected a Higgs decaying into quarks (the smallest unit of matter), for example – we just know that since we haven’t seen it yet, it can’t happen often. In other words: watch this space.

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013.

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling!

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling! Ninety years ago today, at 5:33pm on 14th November 1922, the first British Broadcasting Company transmitter, 2LO, crackled into life – a moment when radio listening changed from a specialist hobby to a national pastime.

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

The BBC 2LO transmitter at Marconi House. Despite 22,500 volts running through the transmitter, the only attempt at health and safety was a flimsy metal barrier and small ‘Danger’ signs visible at the back of the picture. Source: Marconi Company

To celebrate this 90th anniversary, we invited the BBC to broadcast a special edition of Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime show live from the Science Museum and in front of invited guests, including acting Director General Tim Davie,  and part of the original BBC 2LO transmitter.

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

At 5:33pm, marking the exact time of the first ever BBC broadcast, 2LO Calling, a specially commissioned piece of music curated by Damon Albarn, was simultaneously broadcast to almost 80 million people across the globe via 60 BBC radio stations. This was an ambitious first for the BBC and a great way to celebrate the enduring power of radio.

Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public Histories at the Science Museum and Damon Albarn discuss the history of 2LO live on BBC Radio 2 in front of the original 2LO transmitter.

In the museum, we’re celebrating with a new exhibition opening on Nov 15, The Voice of the BBC. You can explore the history of early radio with the legendary 2LO transmitter used for the first BBC broadcasts, a ‘meat-safe’ BBC microphone and a 1923 copy of the Radio Times in this special exhibition.

The ‘Meatsafe’ Microphone

Known as “Meatsafe” due to its appearance, these microphones were wheeled into studios for recording. Source: BBC Photographic Library

These objects are part of the BBC Heritage Collection; 946 historical broadcasting objects celebrating 90 years of BBC history which have been donated to our sister museum – the National Media Museum - some of which are now on display in Bradford.

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View of the LHCb cavern

Supersymmetry in a spin

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a new discovery at CERN for our blog. A new Science Museum exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider will open in November 2013, showcasing particle detectors and the stories of scientific discoveries.

There were high hopes that the world’s most powerful particle collider would find evidence for the theory of supersymmetry, which postulates that every member of the known bestiary of sub-atomic particles has a related but much more massive “super-partner”. The theory is considered more elegant than the current Standard Model of particles and forces and is particularly appealing as some of these supersymmetric particles, or “sparticles”, could account for the “dark matter” that sculpts the structure of the visible universe.

But the experiment I work on at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has spotted of one of the rarest particle decays ever seen in nature, a result that poses a serious challenge to supporters of “new physics” theories like supersymmetry.

View of the LHCb cavern

View of the LHCb cavern. Image credit: CERN

Results presented at the Hadron Collider Physics conference in Kyoto early this morning show the first convincing evidence for a particle called a Bs meson decaying into two muons. The decay was seen by my colleagues at the LHC beauty (LHCb) experiment, a gigantic particle detector on the 27km LHC ring at CERN, near Geneva.

This process is predicted to be very rare in the Standard Model, but if ideas like supersymmetry are correct then it could be much more common. However, the decay seems to be just as rare as the Standard Model predicted.

As we sat sharing a coffee at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, Dr Marc-Olivier Bettler, a member of the international team who produced the result, told me it puts “strong constraints” on supersymmetry.

Rarer than winning the lottery
The LHC has been smashing protons into each other at close to the speed of light almost non-stop since November 2009. Each collision creates a shower of new particles, and occasionally a Bs meson is produced. The LHCb detector was built to study exotic these exotic particles.

Dr Bettler and his colleagues churned through hundreds of trillions of collisions produced by the LHC in search of the decay. The huge amount of data recorded by the LHCb experiment was processed using a world-wide network of computer processors known as the Grid. In the end they turned up just a handful of likely candidates.

Their results show that the chance of a Bs meson converting to two muons is about one in 300 million. That’s thirty times less likely than winning the jackpot on the lottery with a single ticket.

New physics hiding
Finding evidence of the decay is a triumph for LHCb, but will be a big disappointment for theorists who have spent many years working on supersymmetry. Prof. Val Gibson, leader of the LHCb group at the University of Cambridge said “this key result is putting our supersymmetry theory colleagues in a spin”. The result also makes it much less likely that the other main LHC experiments, ATLAS and CMS, will discover signs of supersymmetric particles any time soon. “If new physics is present then it is hiding very well behind the Standard Model” said Dr Bettler.

Even though it may be less thrilling than discovering new particles or forces of nature, these extremely precise measurements are crucial to improving our understanding of the Universe. “This result is important because it tells us what new physics isn’t.” Dr Bettler certainly didn’t find the outcome disappointing, describing his reaction at seeing the results for the first time two weeks ago as “wow! I was very excited. It has been a very exciting two weeks, that’s for sure.”

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013. The exhibition will showcase real pieces of the LHC, including an intricate particle detector from the heart of the LHCb experiment.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner drops into Science Museum

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner had just seconds to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view, before stepping off his capsule and reaching supersonic speeds as he fell into the void.

Twenty four miles and a little over five minutes after leaving the capsule, Felix was back on Earth, having broken the sound barrier and reached speeds of up to 834 mph as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

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Today Felix visited the Science Museum where he told the museum’s Roger Highfield how, with only 10 minutes of oxygen remaining, he had just a few seconds to enjoy the majestic view of his home world before continuing with the mission protocol. Felix also talked about the first few terrifying moments, when he spun out of control in the near-vacuum conditions.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, Felix took a quick tour, starting with the Making the Modern World gallery, the museum’s ‘greatest hits’ of modern science and technology, which includes the Apollo 10 Command capsule.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Stopping to admire the Apollo 10 capsule, Felix discussed the differences with his own capsule and took a special interest in Apollo’s battered heat shield – a testament to an achievement that seems greater today, in 2012, than it did in 1969.

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Felix visited the museum with his mentor Joe Kittinger - an 84-year-old former U.S. Air Force colonel who set the previous freefall record in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800 feet. Joe was the “Capcom” (capsule communications) and primary point of radio contact for Felix Baumgartner during his remarkable mission.