Monthly Archives: January 2013

Yes, (Science) Minister

By Robert Bud, Keeper of Science and Medicine

The science ministers may change, but problems endure. The single issue that most preoccupies thinking about science research policy has remained constant for more than two decades: what policies will best support translation of laboratory brainwaves into commercial success for UK PLC.

The perennial problems of turning scientific excellence into commercial success without damaging the research base was the central issue discussed at a remarkable gathering of the individuals who have been in charge of British science since the early 1990s, held at the Science Museum and cosponsored by the Mile End Group of Queen Mary University of London, and the Royal Society.

The Minister responsible for science, David Willetts MP, was joined by Lord Waldegrave, Science Minister from 1992-1994 (and former Chair of Trustees of the Science Museum) and Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science 1998-2006 in an event chaired by the historian Lord Hennessy.

Before them was a who’s who of the British scientific establishment, including the current Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington and his predecessors, Sir Bill Stewart, and Lord May. There were former vice-chancellors too, Sir John Ashworth (Salford and LSE), Sir Alan Wilson (Leeds), Sir Roger Williams (Reading) and the current VC of Queen Mary University of London, Simon Gaskell. Others guests included Sir Walter Bodmer who chaired the first committee to explore Public Understanding of Science and Sir Geoffrey Allen, founding Secretary of the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1981.

The problems of managing science have not fundamentally changed in half a century, and David Willetts emphasised continuity between Lord Waldegrave’s White Paper “Realising our Potential” (1993), Lord Sainsbury’s “Race to the Top” (2007) and Willetts’ current concerns with helping British industry avoid the ‘Valley of Death, where projects are considered too embryonic for industry to fund and too commercial to be backed by the research councils.

David Willetts emphasised his belief that greater American success in taking university innovations to market was the result of better American government support measures than any cultural differences. Innovations by American scientists receive support at an earlier stage from American government measures than their British counterparts, which enables the US industry to take lower risks when delivering a novel technology to a market. But a note of warning and wise advice based on hard experience was given by Lord Waldegrave, who commented that put scientists and politicians too close together nearly always ends in catastrophe. Lord Sainsbury pointed out that offering to contribute to solving the problems that bedevil the Treasury is a better approach to the extraction of resources than demanding support.

Lord Sainsbury questioned the assumption that public knowledge of science would lead to the public boosting its appetite for science. However, Sir Walter Bodmer pointed out that his committee never believed that widespread knowledge of science would equal public understanding of it, but was rather a prerequisite. This distinction had got lost subsequently. Regulation also has a role, with Sir John Ashworth pointing out the role of research-supported standards and regulation was one way to ensure the best quality in industry.

The speakers vigorously agreed that it was in the interest of British industry to have strong government funded research institutes in a landmark meeting that distilled some of the basic truths to emerge from science policy over the past few decades.

A number of tweets from the night have been storified and a transcript of the entire meeting will be mounted in a blog to follow soon.

A zombie with its handler

ZombieLab: Grappling with consciousness

On Wednesday night, the zombies outbreak began, driving over 5,000 people to the Science Museum’s Lates to search for answers and a better understanding of consciousness. 

A zombie with its handler

A zombie with its handler

Scientists from across the UK will gather in the Science Museum this weekend (2/3 Feb, 11-5.30pm) for ZombieLab. Worried members of the public are invited to study zombies and the science of consciousness as society searches for answers. 

Here’s our guide to ZombieLab and the murky world of consciousness…

First, you must prove you’re not already been afflicted with Quarantine. With ten minutes until the safe house doors slam shut, complete the tasks to show you’re fully conscious and you might survive…

Next, watch experts from Cambridge and UCL give a live clinical diagnosis of one of the afflicted, before Prof Anil Seth answers the questions you’ve always wanted to know in his Are Zombies Conscious? talk.

Visitors must prove they are not already afflicted through a series of tests at ZombieLab

Maya Kaushick at Imperial and Frank Swain, author and zombie expert, will look at what affects our behaviour, the way we experience the world and whether current research could explain the cause of a zombie outbreak? We also ask how our senses drive our conscious experience, and how can we use this knowledge to better understand how zombies hunt?

As the Zombies lurch towards you, can you escape their grasp? Adrian, the neuroscientist behind new smartphone app Zombies, Run! will be on hand to explain how fear and hungry are powerful motivators while you outrun a zombies pack, and Collective behaviour experts Edd Codling and Nikolai Bode of the University of Essex will put you through your paces in the zombie predator-prey game, Horde.

Pro-Zombie Action Group

Zombies are people too!

Time passes, and as a cure is found, society asks are zombies accountable for their actions? Join the Trial and decide whether zombie-killers should be imprisoned, not celebrated. The Community Jury Initiative needs you to decide. Outside the Trial, the Pro-Zombie Action Group will be in full swing: Zombies are people too! Stand up for zombie rights with banners, speeches and impromptu demonstrations.

If zombie films are more your thing, buy tickets here for our exclusive Sunday afternoon showing of Warm Bodies.

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If you’ve enjoyed ZombieLab, please make a conscious decision and donate £3 to the Museum. You can text Zombie to 70500 or donate here.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Polio: On the edge of eradication

Billionaire computer entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bill Gates, is to discuss the impact of polio on humanity at this evening’s annual BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture. His speech, which will be broadcast from the historic Royal Institution, will be supported with the visual aid of an iron lung from the Science Museum’s collection (1.03 mins in).

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The global effort to eradicate polio, which has reduced the number of recorded polio cases by 99 percent within the last two decades – from 350,000 cases a year in the late 1980s to 205 last year – has been funded, in part, by billions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation on the planet.

The effects of polio can be seen in the range and development of technology designed to relieve suffering. At its worst, polio survivors are unable to breath without assistance, and this lead to the development of the iron lung, or cabinet respirator, in the 1920s by Philip Drinker of Harvard University.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Although life-saving, early models were alarming and uncomfortable for patients, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Captain G T Smith-Clarke, a British engineer, devised a vastly superior device. Patients encased in the cabinet had pressurised air pumped into the chamber causing the lungs to inflate and deflate, enabling the patient to breathe.

The Smith-Clarke ‘Baby’ iron lung in our collection was acquired in 1990 from The Royal Free Hospital in London, where it had been standard equipment in the 1960s, but by 1990 they had become rare indeed.

With polio now prevalent in just three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – and with a continued global effort, total eradication is, for the first time, within our grasp.

Plan for Babbage's Analytical Engine

Iconic Babbage drawings to go on display

By Cate Watson, Content Developer on the Babbage gallery

Plans for a Victorian computer and a giant calculator are going on display in the Science Museum next week.

Charles Babbage (1792-1871), computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, philosopher and political economist.

Charles Babbage, the Victorian mathematician and inventor spent much of his life designing calculating machines, first the Difference Engine, and then in later years, the Analytical Engine that bear so much resemblance to modern computers. Unfortunately, Babbage never got to see any of his machines built. After quarrelling with the government his funding dried up and he couldn’t afford the costs of construction. All Babbage could do was endlessly refine his plans for the engines.

Apart from a few test models, which are on display in the Science Museum, technical plans are all Babbage left of his inventions.  The Museum – which holds the Babbage archive, the most complete collection of Babbage’s technical drawings and notebooks in the world - used these plans to build Difference Engine no. 2 in 1991, proving that the engine would have worked. Visitors will now be able to compare Babbage’s own drawings to the modern model of the Difference Engine in the Computing gallery.

The plans of the Analytical Engines show the many similarities between it and our electrical computers although it was designed over 170 years ago. The engine has a memory, a central processor, an input device in the form of punched cards that could program the engine and a printer. Instead of modern day circuit boards and silicon chips, a combination of cams, clutches, cranks and gears would have worked out calculations.

The most iconic plans of the Difference and Analytical Engines will be on display in the Computing Gallery from Thursday 24th January. This is the first time these drawings have been on show, complete with an annotated breakdown of how the engines would have worked.

Enjoy Christmas all year round with a Christmas tent

Visitor Inventions – What they really wanted for Christmas

“Wow! It’s what I always wanted….” is the standard response when you receive presents from your friends and family.  But was it really?  Whether you received the latest gadget, perfume or socks – some of our visitors dream of receiving jetpack boots, a time machine and a walking toilet.

Below is a selection of inventions that our visitors came up with when in the Launchpad gallery.  Click on any image for larger pictures.

Explainer Fact:  The Museum is only closed 3 days a year – 24th-26th December

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

What *should* we be worried about?

By Pippa Murray and Will Stanley

Ask most people what is worrying them and their answer is often personal. Ask leading thinkers and you could end up worried yourself.  The latter was put to the biggest science minds for this year’s annual question – What should we be worried about? – from the good people at Edge.

Each year, this online literary salon poses a new question – previous examples include ‘What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ and ‘What will change everything?’ – and requests that each contributor responds with a scientifically informed argument. The aim is to step away from the pressing news of the day, and share something new and thought provoking.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950
Credit © Photography Advertising Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

With this in mind it seems right to start with Larry Sanger’s essay, the co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, which looks at the rise of internet silos. In Sager’s opinion, these online websites for news or opinion breed hostility and single mindedness by hosting ‘objectively unsupportable views that stroke the egos of their members,’ that make us ‘overconfident and uncritical’ about the world around us.

Continuing on the theme of modern technologies, Nicholas HumphreyEmeritus School Professor at the London School of Economics, raises his concerns on fast knowledge. While many view today’s easy access to smartphones, search engines and the information that they provide us at the click of a button as a good thing, Humphrey argues the opposite. He states that nowadays, ‘everyone finds themselves going to the same places, when it’s the arrival and not the journey that matters, when nothing whatever memorable happens along on the way, I worry that we end up, despite our extraordinary range of experience, with less to say.’

In contrast to Sanger and Humphrey, Simon Baron-Cohen dissects an age old debate, that of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ from 1969. In his essay, Baron-Cohen recognizes the efforts of literary agents and publishers to make science more accessible, particularly to non-scientists, but states that in other fields of science, such as sex differences in the brain, these two cultures remain separated by a deep chasm.

Among these 140 contributors is one from our own Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, who argues the need for more science heroes to step forward, stating that ‘When it comes to selling the magic of science we need to accept that the most powerful way is through heroic stories.’ Highfield worries about the decline of scientific heroes, because their function as ‘viral transmitters of science in the crowded realm of ideas’ is of vital importance. He concludes that scientific literacy is vital for a modern democracy to function.

Other contributors, such as Steven Pinker, take an alternative approach, eliminating some of the problems that people fixate on. In Pinker’s case he looks at the causes of war, suggesting new and more relevant approaches to these worries. Kevin Kelly chose to turn the focus of a well known topic on its head, sharing the lesser-known worry of under-population.

And while reading all these essays may lead you to worry about many more things than you usually do, a common theme of these essays is the importance of sharing knowledge and challenging the status quo in today’s society, which is not such a bad idea after all.

Read more of what you should be worying about here

LHC home screen Jan 3rd

The LHC’s Christmas Holiday

Over the past three weeks, deep under the Jura Mountains on the Swiss-French border, a monster has been sleeping. Over Christmas, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest experiment, takes a break from colliding protons together in an underground tunnel. The machine normally runs for 24 hour-a-day, seven days a week, but for four weeks in January and December, it is switched off.

LHC home screen Jan 3rd

So long, and thanks for all the fish! The LHC operators look forward to their Christmas holiday.

There are several reasons for the extended break. The physicists, engineers and support staff who operate the machine and experiments are human. Yes, they are devoted to the search for the fundamental laws that govern the Universe, but they also like to indulge on Christmas pudding and see their families.

That explains why the LHC doesn’t run on Christmas day, but why does it shut down for three weeks?

Because it’s cold outside.

The cold doesn’t affect how the LHC works – far from it, as the machine is cooled to -271ºC. But it does affect the power supply.

One of the most intriguing facts I’ve learned over the course of working on the Science Museum’s upcoming LHC exhibition is that even though the LHC does an extremely specialised and power-consuming task – accelerating protons so they have the energy of a high speed train and are travelling at nearly the speed of light – the machine takes its power from the French grid. The same nuclear, coal and hydro-electricity plants that provide the energy to light the Mona Lisa and charge your mobile on holiday also power the LHC.

When it’s cold outside French electricity consumption spikes. In December, France uses about 50 percent more electricity than it does in August, heating, cooking and lighting dark days. When all systems are go, CERN can use as much as a third of Geneva’s power, or the same as a large town. So during darkest depths of winter, when the French grid is being stretched the most, the LHC powers down.

The time off isn’t wasted. Repairs and upgrades are always needed, so engineers have been busy tweaking to ensure the LHC is in tip-top condition for its run in 2013. From next week LHC will fire protons into lead nuclei for a month. After that short run, the machine shuts for two years for a serious upgrade.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

Happy New Year

We’re welcoming in the New Year with a look at just a few of the exciting things happening here at the Museum in 2013.

Zombie hordes will invade the Museum in late January as we explore the science of consciousness and debate the ethical implications of a Zombie attack. Running during Lates and over a weekend, ZombieLab will feature live games, performances and talks from leading consciousness researchers across the UK.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

British philosopher and mathematician Charles Babbage, famous for his designs of automatic calculating machines, will be the focus of a new display this spring, as the Museum showcases the newly digitised Babbage archive and its collection of technical plans, drawings, scribbling books and letters.

In the summer, we’ll open Media Space, a brand new 1800 m² venue with two exhibition spaces and a café bar. A collaboration with the National Media Museum, Media Space will showcase some of the 3.2 million items from the National Photography Collection in a series of temporary exhibitions.

Media Space

Before work began on Media Space. Image © Kate Elliott

Photographers, artists and the creative industries will use our collections to explore visual media, technology and science through the wider programme of exhibitions and events at Media Space.

Finally, we’ll end the year with an exploration of one of the great scientific and engineering endeavours of our time: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.

Opening in autumn 2013, this new exhibition will give visitors a close-up look at remarkable examples of CERN engineering, including the vast dipole magnets. We’re working with CERN scientists and theatrical experts to produce a truly immersive experience which transports visitors into the heart of the LHC.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector at CERN

Also on display in the exhibition will be historic objects from our collections, including the apparatus used by JJ Thomson  in his electron discovery experiments and the accelerator Cockcroft and Walton used to split the atom.

So whether it’s Zombies, Media Space or the Large Hadron Collider that interests you, there’s something for everyone in the Museum this year.