Monthly Archives: May 2013

Learning Apprenticeships

Guest post by Apprentices Jorden, Vicki & Toni

Hello everyone!  We are the bubbly young apprentices who work in the Learning department (mainly with the Explainers) at the Science Museum. We are here to gain vocational skills and experience in a working environment.  This will prepare us for work in the future and provides us with a Level 2 NVQ in Cultural Heritage and Venue Operations qualification, which is widely recognised by employers.

Apprentice1

Apprentices left to right: Jorden, Vicki & Toni

Jorden, 17 “I chose to do an apprenticeship because I didn’t like working in a classroom environment; in college I’d get bored really quickly, even in the subjects I was really interested in. But working at the Science Museum is the complete opposite, I’ve learnt so many skills and I really enjoy helping the visitors; the best part is interacting with the children and encouraging them to have fun while they learn something new. The environment is full of surprises and there are a range of different tasks to keep me busy, so no two days are the same. The Learning team is really friendly and the Explainers in particular have a strong team, they’re really enthusiastic about helping each other out and everyone does their part to make sure the day runs smoothly.

Apprentice Jorden refilling Launchpad exhibits

When I complete my apprenticeship, I’d really like to work with the Outreach team going round to schools and bringing some of the excitement from the Museum into the classrooms.”

Vickie, 17 “I decided to do the apprenticeship because I love doing anything to do with the Science Museum. I feel proud to say that I work at the Museum and I love what I do. The environment at the Museum is so friendly and you learn so much without even realising. The Explainer department is so exciting and inviting; you can make friends with everyone and not feel left out. When I complete this apprenticeship I would love to stay on as an Explainer and start to do shows. I love entertaining people and showing them really cool things, such as explosions in one of our Launchpad shows!

Apprentice Vicki setting up a Launchpad show

I would advise everyone to come to the Science Museum. You wouldn’t believe your eyes if you saw some on the amazing things we have to offer. My highlight so far has been seeing Will Smith in the IMAX cinema!”

Toni, 18 “I chose to go for this apprenticeship because I always came to the Science Museum when I was a little girl. So when I saw the ad on the apprenticeship website, I got excited and quickly applied. I was over the moon when I found out I got the job! When I first started I was scared of the Explainers, however, as time went on I realised they aren’t scary and I began to have conversations with them.

Apprentice Toni handing over lost property to security

I have recently performed demos to the Explainers at a meeting. One of these demos included using plastic cups and an air-zuka (the air-zuka looks like a plastic tube and handle with a plastic bag on the end). I had to pull back the bag and let go, shooting air out in a spiral vortex which knocked down the cups, in my case it knocked down 3 cups out of the 7. Performing the demos was one of the scariest things I have ever done because I was performing demos to the performers and it took a lot of practice and support to build up the courage to perform them. But once I started performing them to the Explainers, I started to feel calmer and they began to laugh because of the humour I had added. At the end of the demos, all the Explainers gave me compliments and said I did well. I now feel like part of the team and enjoy working with them. I have also learned some Makaton during my time at the Museum, which is a language to help communicate with those with special needs. After my apprenticeship, I want to apply to work as a full-time Explainer.”

Apprentice Fact:  If you combined the ages of all 3 apprentices together, it’s less than the age of the oldest Science Museum Explainer.

From Patches to Peake – celebrating 44 years since the Apollo 10 mission

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering, writes about Apollo 10 and four decades of space exploration.

Forty four years ago today, on 26th May 1969, NASA’s Apollo 10 command module and crew of three splashed into the Pacific Ocean after eight days in space. The mission, a dry run for Apollo 11, returned valuable information about our nearest cosmic neighbour ahead of the Moon landing later that year.

The team of three astronauts - Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan - returned with the most impressive images of the Moon surface ever seen. Thomas Stafford described the surface as “very smooth, like wet clay”. Two months later the Apollo 10 mission proved its worth as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan

Apollo 10 command module. Image Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Apart from the giant Apollo 10 command module on display in our Making the Modern World gallery (the only one outside of the United States), we have smaller, yet just as significant, objects from the Apollo 10 mission in our collection, including mission patches.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts. Image credit: Science Museum

Mission patches have been an important part of the military long before humans were sent in space. Many of the first astronauts started their lives as pilots of planes not spacecraft. With this background the tradition to wear specially designed patches became, though not smoothly, a custom of NASA missions. Interestingly the astronauts are heavily involved in the design of their mission patches and the Apollo 10 mission was no different. Gene Cernan explained that his team, with the help of artist Allen Stevens, wanted a badge which showed the mechanics and goals of their mission. They decided on a patch in the shape of a shield with the mission number written in Roman numerals stretching from the Moon to their space capsule orbiting above.  The name of the mission and the astronauts are clearly visible around the edge of the shield.

Each culture has used space mission patches in its own way.  In 1963 the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova blasted into space in the spacecraft Vostok 6.  Not only did she became the first woman in space but she is also considered the first cosmonaut to wear a mission patch, two years before the US officially introduced them into their space programme. Tereshkova’s insignia was a white dove with the letters CCCD stitched below. We now have another patch to look forward to seeing, that of Tim Peake, who was announced as the UK’s first official astronaut last week at the Science Museum.

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Peake will be launching into space in November 2015 to spend six months on the International Space Station (ISS). Although his mission may be different to that of Valentina Tereshkova and the crew of the Apollo 10, Peake is not unlike space explorers of yesteryear as he will be continuing to push the boundaries of human endurance and explore the unknowns of space.

LHC. Camera. Action! (part 1)

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about his work on Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013.

In the past year, I’ve become a regular passenger on the evening flight from Gatwick to Geneva, home of CERN and the mighty Large Hadron Collider.  I think I could recite Easyjet’s pre-recorded safety announcement pretty much word-for-word if pushed. But this was a rather special trip, as I was visiting CERN perhaps for the last time on museum business.

I was accompanied by a team with a dazzling array of skills. Creative mastermind Pippa Nissen had marshalled exhibition designersgraphic designers, a sound artist, an animator, a camera technician and a radio producer. Not to mention our video designer, Finn Ross, fresh from his win at the Olivier Awards, and the inevitable after-party hangover. And me, a quantum superposition of particle physicist, curator and travel rep.

Our mission was to capture the essence of CERN so that it can be (almost literally) recreated in the Science Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Collider. All this material was to be gathered in just three days, using only cameras, microphones and the minds of our design team.

Day 1, Wednesday

One does not simply walk into CERN. Its gates are guarded by unfailingly helpful, though rather formidable, security personnel and to gain access you must produce a CERN ID card or a visitor pass.

CERN security gate.

CERN security gate. Image credit: Science Museum

We had rather brilliantly chosen the 1st of May as our day to arrive, a national holiday in Switzerland, meaning the reception where we would normally collect our passes was closed. I had arranged for them to be left with the security guard at the main gate, but conveying this to him proved a challenge in my halting GCSE French. Finally, with a bit of gesticulating and some help from our more linguistically capable graphic designer, we located the passes and stepped across the threshold into the world’s largest physics laboratory.

CERN is the size of a medium-sized town, spread across several sites, the largest of which straddles the border between the Swiss suburb of Meyrin and the French village of St-Genis-Pouilly. The lab grew up organically from its beginnings in the 1950s and is a peculiar hodgepodge of office buildings, warehouses and laboratories. CERN’s rather shabby above ground stands in stark contrast to the shining machines that inhabit its subterranean spaces. As far as is possible, the money goes underground, spent on CERN’s reason for being: exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world.

Our job on day one, however, was to explore CERN’s above ground world. The first few hours were spent photographing the exteriors of buildings to act as backdrops in the exhibition. There was a particular warehouse door, in varying shades of rust and faded blue, that really caught the team’s attention. It will take me a while to forget the image of the design team gathered around it while Finn took high-res shots with his £20k camera. That’s designers for you I suppose.

The long beige corridors of CERN's Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

The long beige corridors of CERN’s Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

Then we ventured into the star of the show, the enigmatic Building 2, a 1970s block that houses a large number of institute offices. Along its long beige corridors you find offices of universities from all over the world, including the room where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and my own home-away-from-home, the Cambridge LHCb office. We spent a happy afternoon photographing the office doors, each with their own personal details that do more than any museum text panel could in getting across just how international a place CERN is. We owe a particular debt of thanks to a PhD student from Bristol, in on a holiday to work on her thesis, who obligingly allowed us barge into her office to take photographs.

Meanwhile our sound designer was busily recording the soundscape of CERN from the clanging of doors and the echo of footsteps on lino to the hum of electrical equipment. Once we had recorded enough material to rebuild Building 2 in its entirety should any calamity befall it, we made a brisk trip around nearby parts of the lab, taking in the main auditorium where the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced to the world, and a series of labs and warehouses including the LEIR accelerator ring, the machine responsible producing beams of lead ions for our muse, the Large Hadron Collider.

But after all that, we had only scratched the surface of the sprawling laboratory. The next day it would be time to go underground…

Hempcrete Store Wins Sustainability Awards

The Science Museum has been honoured for its green credentials this month by scooping two prestigious awards for its new Hempcrete storage facility at Wroughton.

The innovative storage building which is made from hemp and lime, was honoured for its sustainable design by winning the Sustainability Award at the Museums and Heritage Awards – beating stiff competition from the BP Showcase Pavilion at the Olympic Park and the Museum of Surfing.

The Science Museum won in the Sustainability category at the Museums and Heritage Awards. Picture credit: M&H Show

The Science Museum won in the Sustainability category at the Museums and Heritage Awards. Picture credit: M&H Show

The project was also recognised earlier this month at the Greenbuild Awards, where it won the Best Workplace New Build category – fending off competition from organisations such as Co-op and Network Rail.

Like many other national museums, the Science Museum only displays 8% of its collections to the public – there is just not enough space to display any more. The other 92% of the collection is housed in storage facilities. One of these storage sites is a former airfield near Swindon, which holds 16,000 objects including large scale items such as aeroplanes, trains and cars.

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

The Hempcrete facility was designed as a radical new solution to protecting objects including horse-drawn carriages, fine art works, wooden ship models and paper archives. Many of these objects are sensitive to changing climate conditions such as light, heat and moisture so providing the right environment is essential to prevent deterioration.

The solution was to create a zero-carbon storage building from hemp and lime – low carbon natural materials which provide temperature and humidity buffering and ensure that the museum’s collections are maintained for future generations.

The Hempcrete store is a new solution to preserving the museum's sensitive objects. Picture credit: Science Museum

The Hempcrete store is a new solution to preserving the museum’s sensitive objects. Picture credit: Science Museum

Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development, Science Museum said “I’m delighted that the Hempcrete project has won these awards and been recognised by the museums and building sectors. The project is part of a wider remit to reduce emissions across all our sites. Using science and engineering to look after the Science Museum collections seems to be a perfect solution to one of our biggest challenges.”

Hempcrete is a material made from hemp fibre and lime mortar mixed and moulded in precast, pre-dried cassettes to form Hemclad panels. The material is typically used to provide sustainable building materials for housing and industrial building sectors.

As well as protecting objects from deterioration, the Hempcrete facility allows the museum to reduce carbon emissions and make significant energy savings. The new store will be used to house valuable objects from the Science Museum as well as those of its sister museum – the National Railway Museum.

Science Museum launches Britain’s first official astronaut

By Roger Highfield and Doug Millard. Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group. Doug Millard is Deputy Keeper Technologies & Engineering and is currently leading on content for a major new exhibition of Russian space exploration opening in 2014.

The Science Museum has welcomed many astronauts and cosmonauts over the years and each time our visitors have been spellbound. Today, we witnessed the announcement of Briton Tim Peake’s mission to visit the International Space Station, ISS.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station. Image: BIS

Peake (who tweets as @astro_timpeake), will join Expedition 46 to the ISS, and will be carried aloft by a Soyuz mission in November 2015.

His selection by the European Space Agency was announced to the world’s media in the Science Museum’s IMAX at an event introduced by Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Peake, who is based in the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, said  that he is ”absolutely delighted” and saw the mission as the culmination of everything he had worked for during his  career, though he admitted that he had misgivings about the disruption caused by moving his family – he has two young sons – to Houston.

However, he was not concerned about the risks of the mission, since his future career was ‘probably safer’ than past career as helicopter test pilot.

His tasks once in orbit will include helping to maintain the space station, operating its robotic arm and carrying out science experiments in Esa’s Columbus laboratory module, which is attached to the front of the 400-ton ISS complex.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Credit: NASA/SSPL

Peake said that he hoped there would be space biomedicine experiments and that the UK scientific community would rise to the opportunities presented by microgravity experiments.

“Major Tim” told the press conference that in preparation for this challenge he had lived in a Sardinian cave for a week, flew on what is popularly known as a ‘vomit comet’, has spent 12 days in Nasa’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, an underwater base, and he has undergone training with Russian and American spacesuits so he will also be able to perform a spacewalk.

The recently returned ISS commander, Canadian Chris Hadfield, attracted a big following for his tweets, videos and songs from the platform which Peake said built a worldwide audience. However, Peake dashed any hopes of a pop video by admitting: ‘I do play the guitar but very badly.’

Peake hails from Chichester, and is the “first official British astronaut” for the European Space Agency, selected from 8000 candidates. Previous UK-born individuals who have gone into orbit have done so either through the US space agency (Nasa) as American citizens or on independent ventures organised with the assistance of the Russian space agency.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Thomas Reiter, a former astronaut and Director of ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, congratulated Peake ‘It is a remarkable moment for your country. You all can be proud of Timothy.’ And Dr David Parker of the UK Space Agency said nothing inspires like human explorers at the final frontier.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said that this mission is part of effort to rebalance the economy – the UK space industry is worth £9.1 billion to the economy – and pointed out that the space sector is growing by 8 per cent each year.

He added that the mission underlined the inspirational values of space – the ‘Apollo effect’ – and will encourage more young people to take up STEM (science, technology and maths) subjects at schools and universities. ‘I have high hopes it will interest a generation of students in science and technology.’

The minister said that the objects in the Science Museum are a reminder of the UK’s distinguished history in space exploration and that he is now looking into a competition for schools based on the mission to the ISS.

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Prime Minister, David Cameron, commented:  “This is a momentous day, not just for Tim Peake but for Great Britain. Tim was picked for this historic role from over 8,000 applicants from around the world. I am sure he will do us proud.”

Helen Sharman was the first Briton to go into space in 1991 in a joint venture between a number of UK companies and the Soviet government and spent a week at the Mir space station.

Sharman spoke at a recent event at the museum to celebrate International Women’s Day. The museum has her space suit on display and, only a few weeks ago, she stood before her suit as she told leading figures in drama and theatre about her experiences in orbit.

The most experienced UK-born astronaut is Nasa’s Michael Foale, who completed long-duration missions to both the ISS and Mir.

The Dambusters, Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb

Seventy years ago, in the early hours of the 17th May 1943, 8 Lancaster bombers flew back to RAF Scampton and into the history books as part of the daring Dambusters raid. The 617 squadron, formed only two months earlier, had successfully destroyed two dams (Mohne and Eder), and damaged a third (Sorpe) using the ingenius invention of Barnes Wallis – a four tonne bouncing bomb.

Shortly before he died, Wallis donated the bulk of his papers to the Science Museum, including design notes, photographs, correspondence and reports relating to his work. We’ve picked out a few images below to tell the story of the bouncing bomb.

Taken from Wallis' report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Taken from Wallis’ report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even before the war begin, the UK Government had identified the three German dams as potential targets, but had no suitable weapons to launch an attack. Wallis’ idea is simple to explain, but was far more complex to put into action: bounce a 4 tonne rotating bomb across 400m of water until it hits the dam, sinks and explodes.

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Bouncing bombs allowed Wallis to completely avoid the torpedo nets protecting the dam. However, to get the bounce just right, the Lancaster bombers needed to approach the dams flying just 20m above the water while traveling at 230mph (more on how this was done can be read here).

At exactly 389 metres from the dam wall – calculated by triangulating with the dam’s towers – the bombs were released. Wallis calculated that backspin would stabilise the bombs in ‘flight’, help create the bounce and forced the bomb to cling to the face of the dam once it sank.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis. Credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even with practice runs, it took many attempts to bounce the bombs correctly, and trials with live ammunition were only conducted three days before the raids. To this day, the skill and bravery of the 617 squadron (113 men in total), who flew low over enemy territory under the cover of darkness, remains breathtaking.  

After the war, Wallis continued his work on aircraft design (before WWII he was a pioneer of geodetic design, used to build the largest airship of its time, the R100), designing “swing wing” aircraft suited to hypersonic flight. 

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Our Senior Keeper, Andrew Nahum, was recently interviewed about Barnes Wallis, his bouncing bomb and other work. The full interview can be read here.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Guest post by author Tony White, who writes about his new novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, the Science Museum’s 2013 Atmosphere commission. Download the novel here.

I’m really excited that the moment you turn the corner from the lifts on the 2nd floor of the Science Museum you get a clear view right across the Atmosphere Gallery to a large logo on the opposite wall, twenty-feet high, which seems to be melting or dripping down the wall but which still recognisably spells out the words ‘Shackleton’s Man Goes South’. This is the title of my novel which has just been published by the Science Museum, the first novel that the Museum have ever published!

Beneath this large wall graphic you will find a touch screen where you can email yourself a free ebook of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, and there is a special display showing some of the scientific and literary inspirations behind the novel. (Listen to an audio extract. Download the novel here until 24 July.)

Shackleton's Man Goes South

Shackleton’s Man Goes South display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image: Science Museum

The novel was inspired by two things: a science fiction short story warning of climate change that was written on Antarctica in 1911 by a polar explorer and atmospheric scientist called George Clarke Simpson, and secondly by silent black and white film of Antarctica, shot during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic expedition of 1914-16; the first moving images of Antarctica that most people at the time had ever seen.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson. Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

My novel fuses these ideas to tell a new story about Emily and her daughter Jenny, climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it as Shackleton had done, in a hot world rather than a cold one, but a world in which the Shackleton story has become a founding myth of the new continent, much as the story of Christopher Columbus gave symbolic value to historical migration to the United States of America.

I wanted to try and communicate some of these ideas in the Shackleton’s Man Goes South logo, so I approached leading British designer Jake Tilson, who is well known for his work with the likes of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and many others.

Shackleton's Man book cover

Shackleton’s Man book cover

In our early conversations Jake and I both wanted to relate the logo to polar-themed books and films of the Shackleton era, so he created an Art Nouveau-style typeface and used this to spell out the title of the novel, before using computer software to ‘morph’ the lettering, as if it were melting and dripping down the page: ‘going south’ as the title suggests. Normally one associates the name of Shackleton with snow and ice, with cold colours such as pale blues or white, but we wanted to  reflect the kind of colouring that is used on maps to communicate global temperature increases. Our logo is spelt out in bold yellow, and as it melts the logo changes subtly to a warmer orange.

Jake Tilson’s logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South is a crucial part of the designs for both the novel and the Atmosphere Gallery display. It has been a huge privilege to work with a great British designer like Jake Tilson. I hope that his melting logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South will intrigue Science Museum visitors, as well as giving some clues about my book and the story it contains.

2013 Annual Director’s Dinner

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner held in the Museum. 

The Science Museum unveiled the next major stage in its development last night at the Director’s Annual Dinner, with the help of Cédric Villani, winner of the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal.

The Museum already plans to launch a £4 million platform for photography, art and science, called Media Space this autumn; a £1 million immersive show about particle physics, Collider, in November; and a £16 million Information Age gallery in 2014, as the world’s foremost celebration of information and communication technologies.

Director's Annual Dinner at the Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Annual Dinner hear the Museum’s plans for development. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Director, announced at the annual dinner that the next major project would be to deliver a maths gallery on the second floor of the museum in 2016, quoting Churchill, who famously described how his Harrow master ‘convinced me that mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics.’

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner. Image: Science Museum

The project will draw on the expertise of Jim Bennett, previously director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and the advice of some of the country’s best popularisers of mathematics, Prof Marcus du Sautoy and Alex Bellos.

Guests at the Director's Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Appropriately, the guest of honour and keynote speaker at the dinner was Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré (UPMC/CNRS) who was awarded the 2010 Fields Medal and is as well known for his ‘19th century poet’ look – white cravat and long hair– as his playful, inspirational approach to mathematics.

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner. Image: Science Museum

His lecture deftly intertwined physics, economics and geometry and he referred to the curse of mathematicians who, like in the legend of the Lady of Shallot is condemned ‘ to look at this world only through its reflection.”

Villani’s research (described in his TEDx talk above) is based on kinetic theory, which scientists use to describe a system of interacting particles such as a gas or liquid in which billions of molecules are moving in all directions.

He has extended this theory to include the long-range interactions between molecules, the second law of thermodynamics and the Boltzmann equation, which describes the behaviour of particles in a low density gas. He illustrated his talk with a picture of himself taken in the central cemetery, in Vienna, next to Ludwig Boltzmann’s grave. Because the second law of thermodynamics predicts that entropy – a measure of disorder within a system – always increases, Villani has in effect figured out was just how fast our world is falling apart.

Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Later in the evening, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was made a Science Museum Fellow in recognition of his contribution to the world of science.

The black tie event, which was addressed by the Chairman of Trustees, Dr Doug Gurr and sponsored by Champagne Bollinger, was attended by leading figures including Jim al-Khalili, broadcaster and physicist; Evan Davis, Presenter of Dragons’ Den and the Today programme; entrepreneur and model Lily Cole; Science Minister David Willetts MP; Imran Khan, CEO of the British Science Association; Anthony Geffen, CEO & Executive Producer of Atlantic Productions; Daisy Goodwin, television producer, poetry anthologist and novelist; Deborah Bull, Executive Director, King’s Cultural Institute; Simon Singh, author; Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre; Sarah Sands, Editor of the Evening Standard; and Professor of Genetics, Steve Jones.

The 2013 Director's Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum

The 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum

A hundred years of the quantum atom

Alice Lighton, content developer for our Collider exhibition, writes about the history of quantum physics. Colider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment opens in November 2013 with a behind-the-scenes look at the famous CERN particle physics laboratory. 

A few years ago, a friend asked a question that took me somewhat by surprise. “Alice,” he said, “is quantum physics right, or is it just a theory?”

At the time I was in the midst of a physics degree, so my initial response was “I hope so!” Quantum physics matches up to experiment extraordinarily well – it is often called the most accurate theory ever. But the question, and subsequent conversation, made me realise how little many people know about the subject, despite its profound impact on modern life and the way we think about the universe.

This year is the centenary of the publication of one of the theories that laid the foundation for our understanding of matter in terms of quanta – packets of energy. According to quantum mechanics, light is not a wave, but lump of energy called photons. Max Planck came up with the idea at the end of the 19th Century, though he considered his light ‘quanta’ a useful model, rather than reality.

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr, one of the founders of modern physics.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the young Danish researcher Niels Bohr sent a paper to the Philosophical Magazine in London that used these quanta to solve a serious problem with theories about the atom. At the time, scientists thought the atom was like a solar systems; electrons orbit a nucleus of protons and neutrons. But anything that moves in a circle gradually slowly radiates energy, and so moves closer to the centre of orbit. Eventually, electrons should fall into the nucleus of the atom.

But they blatantly don’t, otherwise everything in the Universe would collapse, and we wouldn’t exist. Bohr proposed that electrons could only sit in discrete orbits or distances from the nucleus – and therefore when electrons change orbit transitions between orbits emit only emit energy in discrete packets (quanta), not gradually. The electrons therefore stay put in their orbits, and don’t fall into the nucleus of the atom.

A hydrogen atom is made from one electron orbiting a proton. Photo credit: flickr/Ludie Cochrane

Bohr was the first to show that packets of energy could successfully explain and predict the behaviour of atoms, the stuff that makes up you and me. His results were only approximately correct, but a big improvement of previous theories.

Generations of scientists have built on Bohr’s insight to understand and create the modern world. When my friend asked whether quantum physics worked, I pointed at his laptop. Computers, nanotechnology, and the Large Hadron Collider owe their existence to the physics that began with Bohr’s generation.

The CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider tries to work out the rules governing the sub-atomic world. Photo credit: CERN

Bohr’s original papers are clear and comprehensible, a beautiful read for physicists. The mathematics involves nothing more difficult than multiplication and division, yet the philosophical implications are immense. Max Planck never fully accepted quantum physics; neither did Albert Einstein, despite winning a Nobel Prize for his work on the subject.

Bohr also won a Nobel Prize for his quantum theory, but his work did not stop. He founded the Niels Bohr Institute, a centre of theoretical physics in Copenhagen, worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb, and continued to make contributions to quantum mechanics.

And he has a lovely link to the exhibition I’m currently working on, about the Large Hadron Collider. Bohr was influential in the founding of CERN, the Geneva laboratory that is home to the LHC. If he had his way, the LHC would be in Denmark, but other scientists objected – Northern Europe was too cloudy, and had too few ski resorts, for Italian tastes.

A Great Exhibition

Harriet Lamb, Senior Individual Giving Executive in our Development team, writes about the history of the 1851 Great Exhibition. 

Early May marks the anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and therefore the origins of both the Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum). 100,000 objects from art to machinery, from all over the world were on display in an enormous purpose built glass structure –  so big that it arched over two of the trees in Hyde Park. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

In five and a half months, over six million people visited the exhibition from across the nation to satisfy their interest in the latest innovations and technological and manufacturing marvels of the 1850s.

There was initial concern about the cost of the Great Exhibition and building its giant glass structure, but to everyone’s surprise the exhibition made a profit of £168,000. That’s over £16m in today’s money! This money was put to good use, and following on from the phenomenal success of the Great Exhibition part of the profit was used to set up the South Kensington Museum (pictured below).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum). Image: Science Museum / SSPL

This museum housed art and science objects in new buildings on a road named after the success of 1851 – Exhibition Road. The collections grew so large that by 1893 both the science and arts collections had their own directors, with the Science Museum officially opening in 1909.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

It’s amazing to think that an exhibition visited by millions of people more than a century and a half ago is part of the reason the museum is here today. Last year, our 3 million visitors generously donated almost £1m to help us continue bringing the history and future of science to life. If you’d like to support us, find out more here or speak to a member of staff next time you visit.