Monthly Archives: December 2012

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

Inventing the Future of Christmas

By Mark Champkins

As Inventor in Residence, I was given the task of coming up with some inventions that we might see in the future at Christmas time.

A good starting point was to think about all the problems and minor annoyances about Christmas, then to try to think of solutions. It turns out there are plenty of Christmas gripes, from pine needles dropping all over the carpet, to eating Brussel sprouts and wrapping countless presents!

On the first weekend of December, I bought and installed a Christmas tree in my living room. I have been making a range of products for the Science Museum called “Beauty in the Making” that describe how and where products have been manufactured, before they make it into our homes.

Beauty in the Making

Beauty in the Making: Telling the story of how materials are manufactured

I started to wonder about where all the other things around me had come from including my new Christmas tree. Where had the tree been growing before it had been chopped down? Could it ever be replaced? I then struck upon the idea of the Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree, complete with soil and fertiliser that could be planted to grow a new Christmas tree.

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

The next problem I thought about solving was wrapping up presents. My solution came when I was thinking about a more robust alternative to wrapping paper that could be reused. Initially, I wondered whether Christmas wrapping cloth might catch on. Then I remembered using some vacuum pack bags to store away a duvet. It occurred to me that if these were produced in opaque with Christmas patterns, they would make a great way of wrapping things quickly and could be reused again. The result was Vac-Pac-Wrapping. I’ve tested the idea and it works really well!

Vac-Pac-Wrapping: The future of Christmas Wrapping?

Another invention idea was inspired by the feeling of excitement I used to feel as a child as the presents began to build up underneath the Christmas tree. Before opening them, my brothers and I would subject our presents to some rigorous scientific tests to figure out what was inside. Heaviness was usually a good sign!

Guess the Gift kit: Tools to investigate what a present might be

So I came up with the Guess the Gift kit. It comprises a range of tools that can be used to interrogate what a present might be, and after Christmas can be used to explore other mysteries! These include a magnet, a set of scales, a torch, a magnifying glass and dental mirror.

It’s hard to predict whether these inventions will catch on in the future, but I’m already thinking about the inventions next year might bring.

Mark Champkins is the Inventor in Residence at the Science Museum

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

Biggest intelligence test exposes the limits of IQ

By Adam Hampshire, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario

To what extent are some people smarter than others? For a century, psychologists have believed that we can boil differences in cognitive skill down to a single number known as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ). But does one number really represent an individual’s ability to remember, to reason and to think? The answer is an emphatic no, according to the results of a landmark experiment conducted on many tens of thousands of people with the help of Roger Highfield of the Science Museum Group.

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With Roger and my colleague Adrian Owen, who works with me at the University of Western Ontario, I describe our findings today in the journal Neuron.

Our  attempt to answer this simple question dates back more than five years, when Roger encountered work that I had conducted with Adrian at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge on a reliable way to carry out cognitive tests online so we could monitor rehabilitation after brain injury, the effect of smart drug trials and so on.

Roger wondered if we could use this test to carry out a mass intelligence test. Drawing on earlier data from brain scans,  Adrian and I came up with a series of tests which we knew would trigger activity in as much of the brain’s anatomy as possible, combining the fewest tasks to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills.

In half an hour, respondents had to complete 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities, as well as a fill in a survey about their background and lifestyle habits (Roger and Adrian describe the tests here).

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

We expected a few hundred responses. But thanks to articles in The Daily Telegraph, Discovery and New Scientist, 110,000 people took part from every corner of the world. Once I had used statistical methods to analyse more than a million data points on a representative group of around 45,000, I found that when a wide range of cognitive abilities are probed, the variations in performance can only be explained with at least three distinct components: short-term memory; reasoning; and finally, a verbal component.

No one component, or ‘IQ’, explained all the variations revealed by the tests.

To bolster our results, Adrian and I used a $5 million brain scanner, which relies on a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study 16 participants as they carried out all 12 tests.  We found that each of the three different factors identified by the analysis did indeed correspond to a different brain network: these differences in cognitive ability map onto three distinct circuits in the brain.

The results disprove once and for all the idea that a single measure of intelligence, such as ‘IQ’, is enough to capture all of the differences in cognitive ability that we see between people. Instead, several different brain circuits contribute to intelligence, each with its own unique capacity. A person may well be good in one of these areas, but they are just as likely to be bad in the other two.

Because so many people took part, the results also provided a wealth of information about how factors such as age, gender and the tendency to play computer games influence our brain function.

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For example, people who regularly played computer games did perform significantly better in terms of both reasoning and short-term memory. Smokers performed poorly on the short-term memory and the verbal factors, while people who frequently suffer from anxiety performed badly on the short-term memory factor in particular.

We are now launching a new version of the tests here. To ensure we do not bias the results of the new tests, we can’t say much about the agenda other than that there are many more fascinating questions about the true nature of intelligence that we want to answer.

Adam Hampshire works at the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Codebreaker wins Great Exhibition award

By Roger Highfield

The Science Museum’s critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, has been awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science.

First prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition went to Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy which commemorates the centenary of Turing’s birth by telling the story of how he helped lay the foundations of modern computing and broke the codes of the Nazis, nature and society too.

The exhibition traces the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12 to his final research on pattern formation in biology.

First demonstrated in 1950, Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

The standard of the submissions to the competition’s large display category was ‘extremely high’, said the BSHS, with entrants from North America, Europe and Britain, covering various subjects, from alchemy and acoustics to anatomy and computing.

James Stark, Chair of the Society’s Outreach and Education Committee commented that Codebreaker goes beyond basic biography:

This helps to move the public understanding of Turing beyond that of a solo genius. The objects used in the display are foregrounded well, especially the beautifully-presented Hodgkin B12 model, and interestingly juxtaposed: the theatrical set-like pieces worked well to conjure up different historical moments such as Turing’s work in Cambridge and Manchester. Overall, it presented a clear, coherent narrative, and showcased a wealth of content, illustrated with original objects.

The exhibition, designed by Nissen Richards studio and made possible with the generous support of Google, covers how Turing’s team cracked U boat codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War and features three examples of the German enciphering machine, Enigma, including one lent to the museum by Sir Mick Jagger.

Among the other items in the exhibition are a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at that time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he had accepted the hormone treatment.

The most poignant item on display is a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of Turing death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough of the poison to fill a wine glass.

The award for the exhibition comes as leading figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy was launched at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 with an event that featured, among others, David Rooney, Curator; Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies & Engineering, Emily Scott-Dearing, now Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, David Harper of Google  and Sir John Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing. Codebreaker will run until 31 July 2013.

The Second prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition was won by the Berlin Museum of Medical History at Charité for their exhibition Tracing Life.

The small exhibition category was won by the Royal College of Physicians, London, for ‘Curious Anatomys’, while joint second place was taken by the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, for Reconstructing Lives, and The Museum of Art at the University of Virginia for Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott.

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

Alan Turing

Pardon Turing say Leading Scientific Figures

A number of leading scientific figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), have called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon British mathematician and codebreaker, Alan Turing, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph published this morning.

Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954, following a conviction for gross indecency during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

Alan Turing

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

The letter – written by Lord Grade of Yarmouth and signed by two other Science Museum Trustees Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Dr Douglas Gurr – describes the Turing as “one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era”, and pays tribute to his efforts in deciphering the Enigma code and advancing computing:

We urge the Prime Minister to exercise his authority and formally forgive this iconic British hero to whom we owe so much as a nation and whose pioneering contribution to computer sciences remains relevant even today.

The Science Museum is currently celebrating the centenary of Turing’s birth, telling the story of this pioneering British figure, his life and legacy, through a new exhibition sponsored by Google. Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy beings with a look at Turing’s best known work, deciphering the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

German Enigma machine

The secret Enigma codebreaking work was carried out by Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park during the Second World War

However, Alan Turing was not just a codebreaker, and the exhibition details Turing’s life and legacy as a philosopher and computing pioneer as well. His ideas helped shape the modern world, from aircraft design to early computer programming and artificial intelligence.

Pilot ACE

Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

At the heart of the exhibition is Pilot ACE  (Automatic Computing Engine). One of the first electronic ‘universal’ computers, Turing was responsible for its fundamental design, writing the specification in 1945. Pilot ACE remains the most significant surviving Turing artefact in the world.

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Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy showcases Turing’s breadth of talent, offering an informative retrospective view of one of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century thinkers.

Barbie title

Visitor Letters – Flash! Bang! Wallop!

We love receiving letters from our visitors and we always try our best to write back as soon as possible.

In fact, most of the letters we receive are from primary schools that have just visited the Museum.

Kids being kids, they can be brutally honest in telling us their likes (e.g. big bangs!) and dislikes (also big bangs).

The pupils from South Park School recently saw the Flash! Bang! Wallop! Launchpad show on their outing to the Museum.  From the letters that we received, they appeared to have a blast!  They particularly enjoyed the fact that their show presenter claims to be “Barbie’s boyfriend”.

Click on any image to enlarge.

This is what Explainer Sam has to say about his special relationship:

Barbie and I are still going strong and love working together on the Flash! Bang! Wallop! show.  She knows she is in safe hands and what could be a better way to spend your time with your partner than to be shot out of a cannon!  I am really glad that our natural chemistry comes across in the show.  Many people have likened us to Jason and Kylie, Richard and Judy – not to mention Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh.  I hope that as well as learning science, the people who enjoyed our show have learnt another lesson.  Love comes in many sizes.

Explainer Fact: If you would like to send us a letter, please send it to: Launchpad Letters, Science Museum, London, SW7 2DD

Blue Marble

Apollo 17 – One last view of the Blue Marble

Forty years ago today, on 7th December 1972, Apollo 17 and three astronauts, Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, blasted into orbit. The three-day trip was to be the final mission of the US Apollo space programme, and forty years later, humans are still to leave low earth orbit to return to the Moon.

Launch of the Apollo 17 mission

This Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts Eugene Cernan (Commander), Ronald Evans (Command Module pilot) and Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module pilot), lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 7th December 1972.
Credit © National Aeronautics & Space Administration / Science & Society Picture Library

The Apollo 17 crew carried out many scientific experiments and broke several records – the longest time in lunar orbit, longest extravehicular activities on the lunar surface and the largest lunar sample return – as well as producing one of the most iconic and widely distributed photographic images in history: the Blue Marble.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting samples

Schmitt is seen collecting Moon samples by a large lunar boulder, with part of the Lunar Rover in the foreground.
Credit © National Aeronautics & Space Administration / Science & Society Picture Library

Five hours into the Apollo 17 mission, the crew looked back at the Earth, some 45,000 km away, to capture this famous image. The photograph is one of only a few to show a fully illuminated Earth – the Sun was behind the astronauts when the image was captured – and to the crew, our planet appeared like a glass marble, hence the name. 

Blue Marble

This picture, known as Blue Marble, was taken by the crew of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned lunar mission, on their way to the Moon in December 1972.

Aspiring astronauts of all ages have plenty of opportunities to see iconic space objects when visiting the Museum: A sample of Moon rock, brought back with Apollo 15 is on display in our exploring space gallery, with the Apollo 10 Command module – complete with re-entry scorch marks – on display in Making the Modern World.

Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan, was launched in May 1969 on a lunar orbital mission as the dress rehearsal for the actual Apollo 11 landing.
Image Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Families can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the last man to walk on the moon with the Legend of Apollo 4D Experience. Feel the impact of a Saturn V rocket launch and join the ground-breaking Apollo mission crew through NASA film archives and 3D computer animation. Legend of Apollo is suitable for ages 4+, flights take off throughout the day and can be booked here.

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Jennifer photographed with the new trophy for the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering.

Queen Elizabeth Trophy Competition Winner Announced

This tree-like structure that symbolises the growth of engineering has been chosen as the trophy for a new global prize. The Queen Elizabeth Prize is considered to be the Nobel prize for engineering and yesterday the winner of the trophy competition was announced by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Jennifer photographed with the new trophy for the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering.

The prestigious award was given to Jennifer Leggett, an A Level student from Sevenoaks in Kent, who was the brains behind the winning design. Jennifer fought off tough competition from a shortlist of ten young designers, aged between 16 and 22, to win the prize and will have the unique opportunity to see her trophy presented to the winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize at the inaugural ceremony in March 2013. Following the announcement the delighted Jennifer thanked the judges and congratulated her fellow competitors commenting on the quality and range of all the designs in the room.

3 of the 5 judges photographed with Jennifer Leggett and her trophy. From left: Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group; Yewande Akinola, Engineer; Jennifer Leggett; Nick Serota, Director of the Tate.

The panel, who had the tough job of selecting the trophy, consisted of: Science Museum Director and Chair of judges, Ian Blatchford; architect Dame Zaha Hadid; Director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota; Design Museum Director, Deyan Sudjic; and Engineer, Yewande Akinola. During the judging competitors were asked to explain the inspiration behind their design and what material would best fit their trophy but, on announcing the winner, Ian admitted that the judges had to add two additional criteria to help them whittle it down and come to a decision – whether the Queen would take pleasure from handing the prize and how the winner of the QE prize might feel when collecting their award. The winning trophy was described as “jewel-like” and was praised for its strong design which reflected the creativity, power and importance of engineering in the world today.

Reflecting on the competition Ian Blatchford said, “We set a challenge for young people to come up with an iconic trophy design that best embodies the wonder of modern engineering and reflects the merging worlds of science, art, design and engineering. Jennifer has shown real imagination and talent – all the judges were enormously impressed with her design.”

At the awards ceremony at the Science Museum’s Smith Centre, all ten of the shortlisted designers saw their trophy brought to life having had their design transformed into 3D printed prototypes by BAE Systems using the latest in Additive Layer Manufacturing technology. These replicas illustrated the intricate designs of each of the trophies which varied from Alexander Goff’s ‘Flowers and Thorns’ a towering structure of petals and sharp thorns, to Gemma Pollock’s ‘Bright Perceptions’ that centred around a double helix, and Dominic Jacklin’s ‘The Nest’ a vortex of geometric shapes which was concieved to represent the ubiquity of engineering in our lives.

The QE prize is a new £1 million global engineering prize, launched in 2012 which rewards and celebrates an individual (or up to three people) responsible for a ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity. The first winner of the QE prize will be announced in March 2013 and will be presented with Jennifer’s trophy by the Queen in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Motorola 8800X

SMS turns 20 with a touch of festive cheer

By Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer – Making Modern Communications

Every time we invent a new communications device, somebody has to decide what the first every message will be. Sometimes this is planned in advance and has a weighty meaning. For example, when the first American telegraph line was officially opened in 1844, the first message sent by Samuel Morse asked: What hath God wrought?

On other occasions, the inventors of the technology were taken by surprise, such as Alexander Graham Bell. His first words were less majestic: Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.

So, 20 years ago today, when 22-year-old British engineer, Neil Papworth, was trying out Vodafone’s new SMS system out for the first time, what did he send? Well, as it was nearing Christmas, there was really only one choice: MERRY CHRISTMAS

Motorola 8800X

This phone, the Motorola 8800X, was launched in 1992. The same year that the first SMS message was sent. Source: Science Museum

The first commercial SMS (short message service) system went into operation in 1993, after several years of tinkering with various text based messaging services. Mobile phone companies didn’t rush to get text messaging out there because they didn’t think anybody would be interested in sending such short messages.

In a way they were proved right, because it wasn’t until the late 1990′s when the first pre-pay phones came into use that texting really took off. Lots of users found texting to be a cheap way of sending a snippet of information, and by 2002 we were sending 2 million texts an hour in the UK alone.

Nokia 3310

You might recognise the Nokia 3310, it was launched in 2000 at around the time that sending text messages was really getting big. Source: Science Museum / Science and Society

The number of texts being sent around the world is still growing, but as our phones become the centre of our communications world, with social networks and email as well as texting and calling, the humble text message is going to have to work hard to stay in use.