Monthly Archives: August 2013

Wonderful Things: Frost Ornithopter

Becky Honeycombe from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite objects in the Museum. 

Have you ever dreamed of being able to fly like a bird?  Well if you have, you’re certainly not alone.  The ability to fly has been a human obsession for thousands of years.  One of the earliest references to bird-like flight is found in the Ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus who attached feathers to their arms to escape captivity.  However, the story ends in tragedy for Icarus as after a brief flight he crashes to the ground.  Sadly, this has been the fate for many humans who have tried to imitate the story and reach the skies, either by attaching wings to their bodies or by making flying machines that mimic a bird’s flight.

Frost's experimental ornithopter, c 1900. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Frost’s experimental ornithopter, c 1900.
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These machines are known as ornithopters and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the earliest designs were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century, but perhaps one of the strangest can be seen in our Flight gallery. The Frost ornithopter, created in 1904 by Edward Purkis Frost, was designed to replicate the wings of a crow. He used both real and imitated feathers combined with an internal combustion engine in an attempt to get his machine off the ground. Frost avidly studied flight and designed a number of contraptions between 1868 and his death in 1922. Despite his best flight being only a ‘jump’ off the ground and his witnessing the development of the conventional aeroplane, Frost remained convinced he had pursued a worthy cause. When asked about his studies towards the end of his life he stated ‘I do not begrudge the time and trouble I expended upon the attempt. The investigations opened my eyes to the wonders of nature. It is a beautiful study’.

University of Toronto's human-powered plane

University of Toronto’s human-powered plane. Photo courtesy of Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies

Incredibly, despite the prominence and success of conventional fixed wing aircraft, contemporary scientists continue to be as fascinated as Frost with constructing the perfect ornithopter. In 2010 the University of Toronto successfully achieved the first level sustained flight by a human-powered ornithopter flying 475 ft over 19.3 seconds.

However, despite this success it may not be propelling man into the sky which eventually proves to be the best use for the ornithopter. Recent research has tended to focus on other uses of the technology such as conservation and surveillance. Researchers at the University of Illinois recently developed an ornithopter perfect for urban surveillance. Its ability to mimic the way a bird hovers and lands in confined spaces could make it ideally suited to cramped city conditions.

The history of ornithopters is long and varied, and research into their development and uses looks set to continue for a long time to come.

What other benefits might there be to using ornithopters?

Click and zoink – it’s your birthday!

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole takes a look at the story behind the Geiger counter

“The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink on the scale!”

Thus spoke Boris Johnson in his London Olympics opening speech a little over a year ago. The author of several popular histories including Johnson’s Life of London, is it conceivable Mayor Boris knew the Olympic summer coincided with the 104th birthday of the Geiger counter…?

On this day, 105 years ago, Hans Geiger and Ernest Rutherford published their paper on a revolutionary new method of detecting particles.

Geiger and Rutherford at Manchester, 1912. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Geiger and Rutherford at Manchester, 1912. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The first generation of Geiger counters did not produce the characteristic click we know and love today. Instead, an electrometer needle would suddenly jump, indicating an alpha particle had been detected.

They worked by picking up electric signals given off by electrons, which had been stripped from gas molecules by passing alpha particles. The beauty of them was that they provided another way to measure radiation, verifying the laborious and blinding method of counting light scintillations.

Once the technology improved, Geiger-Muller counters (as the later ones were called) became extremely nifty particle detectors, essential hardware for any cosmic-ray physicist. They are now used for many different purposes, from airport security to checking the levels of radioactivity in certain museum objects.

One of Geiger’s own counters made in 1932. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

One of Geiger’s own counters made in 1932. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

For a long time the device was just a tool used by researchers of radioactivity, an innovation that made Geiger’s task of counting by eye emissions of alpha particles from radium a little easier.

This is not to deny Geiger’s eyes were very effective counters of tiny flecks of light – produced by individual alpha particles as they hit a fluorescent screen. As Rutherford said at the time:

“Geiger is a demon at the work of counting scintillations and could count for a whole night without disturbing his equanimity. I damned vigorously and retired after two minutes”.

Arriving in Manchester in 1907, the German-born Geiger clearly was responsible for the nitty gritty side of the research. Ernest Marsden, a twenty-year old undergraduate, joined the pair the following year. The young student may not at first have realised that he was contributing to one of the most remarkable discoveries of the century.

In a darkened lab, Geiger and Marsden would take turns to count the sparkles of alpha particles as they hit a screen, having been fired straight through a sheet of gold leaf.

As the particles were much smaller than the gold atoms, it must have seemed slightly barmy when Rutherford suggested to move the counting screen behind the radium source and look for scintillations there.

The near-blind researchers hit gold, so to speak, and found the odd alpha particle had bounced back. Rutherford declared it the most incredible event of his life, “as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

The team discovered the atoms had a nucleus – a miniscule core that caused the occasional alpha particle to rebound. Rutherford would soon come up with an entirely new picture of atoms, which depicted electrons orbiting around this central nucleus.

Model of hydrogen atom, according to the theory of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. Credit: Science Museum.

Model of hydrogen atom, according to the theory of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. Credit: Science Museum.

Geiger recalled the glory moment: “One day (in 1911) Rutherford, obviously in the best of spirits, came into my room and told me that he now knew what the atom looked like”.

You will have the chance to see up close Rutherford and Bohr’s atomic model, and discover the objects that helped shape modern physics in Collider, a new exhibition opening this November.

Science: Not Just for Laboratories

Outreach Officer Laura talks about the Science Museum’s trip to the Lounge on the Farm festival.

Its festival season and the Science Museum’s outreach team are on hand to bring explosions and experiments to the muddy music festival crowds. That’s right, there is a place for science alongside the bizarre and off the wall experiences of a music festival.

Last month the outreach team returned for the 2nd year running to the Lounge on the Farm festival, nestled in the Kentish countryside on Merton Farm. Amongst a variety of acts including comedians, storytellers and the enigmatically named ‘Lord of Lobsters’ we performed some of our best-loved experiments for festival-going families.

Check out some of our favourite action shots!

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Making ice cream with Liquid Nitrogen

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Barbie gets ready to take off..

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Coke and Mentos fountain!

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Setting up the stupid egg trick

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Success! 3 eggs in 3 cups!

We love to bring a little something special to our audiences and there’s nothing like a splosh of liquid nitrogen for getting a gasp of delight or an exploding hydrogen balloon to keep people on the edge of their seats. But many of our experiments can be re-created at home or in the classroom, science is all around us, it is the way our world works and having fun with science is not reserved for lab-coat clad professors!

There’s no doubt that our first experiences of science are in the classroom and science teachers work hard to deliver lessons that are packed with science facts. But how do you keep those lessons fresh and engaging? Here at the Science Museum, bringing science to everyone is as much about making science fun as it is about spreading the word on how it has shaped our lives. So teachers, why not check out this video from our Punk Science duo for some tips on spicing up your science lessons.

Steampunk in the Science Museum

Our summer spectacular, The Energy Show, is staged in a steampunk world which blends the past and the future. Much inspiration for the show was taken from the Science Museum’s collection, especially the machines of The Energy Hall. Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, talks here about some of our ‘steampunk’ objects in the Museum. 

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Inv 1935-513

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Modern technology values function over anything else. Things are stripped down and smooth in appearance. Steampunk is a welcome kickback against this minimalist modern world we live in, reasserting the importance of form against function – and we can find this delicate balancing act played out in our collections.

Take this beam engine, for example. It’s a model of a full-size engine built in 1840 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton for a Leeds flax mill. It was an immense building, possibly the largest single room in the world. To animate the machines inside, Hick’s engine was certainly powerful, but in building it he gave full reign to his imagination. The result was  an Egyptian engine: It has columns with papyrus-headed capitals, a mighty entablature inspired by a temple overlooking the River Nile, and the ‘chronometric’ governor to control the engine’s speed takes the form of a scarab beetle.

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Later Victorian design became rather bulbous, even grotesque, in appearance. But Hick’s engine is a sinuous masterpiece of epic design and brute strength. It reminds us not only of our creative debt to bewhiskered, roaring, big-jawed machine-makers like Hick, but also the significance of amazing nineteenth century machines, not just as a means to the end of production, but as symbolising national affluence and virility. In our present situation, it’s a lesson worth remembering: if you mean business, build machines that shout it out to the world.

Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle telegraph, 1851, Inv 1884-95

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

A recurring theme in Steampunk is the application of nineteenth-century design ideas to modern digital technology: laptops, PCs, even memory sticks can be made antique with brass gearwheels, dials and mahogany cases.

Colliding state of the art technology with the Gothic isn’t just a recent thing, though. In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first successful telegraph system. It was mainly used on Britain’s evolving railway system, conveying messages via wires running alongside the tracks. A slightly lesser-known use of this pioneering system was to convey messages and reports across London, from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to clubs in St James’s.

The Electric Telegraph Company was formed in 1846 and this instrument was installed at the Houses of Parliament in 1851. As a ‘black box’ of purely functional appearance, it would have jarred badly against the Gothic Revival style adopted in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. So, the telegraph was fitted with its admirable Gothic casing, complete with pointed arch, finial, and delicately-realised columns. It must surely have lent a feeling of permanence and robustness to the room that it graced, reflecting the standing of Parliament – and also pre-empting one of the major pillars of steampunk.

Model of the side-lever engines of the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’, 1832. Inv 1900-41

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

The problem with modern technology is that so much of it is intangible, digital, virtual, ephemeral. This point of view certainly underpins many Steampunk projects.

It wasn’t always like this, of course: introducing steam power to ships during the nineteenth was the cutting edge of serious heavy metal technology, and was a highly demanding field to design machines for: engines couldn’t be too heavy, they had to have a low centre of gravity, they couldn’t take up too much space.

These prerequisites offered valuable motivation to innovate in engineering design styles. Rather than big, heavy, monolithic construction and great slab-sided machines, engineers evolved lighter cast-iron structures, with lots of space, openings, and details which could be embellished without adding too much weight. Gothic engines? Check.

This model was built in 1832 for the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’ by the London company Maudslay, Sons and Field. Maudslay was a prolific model-maker, trying out new ideas before committing to them full-size, and this model is one of the finest surviving. The delicate cast iron Gothic tracery of its framing would not look out of place in a cathedral – a very tangible record of the creative impulses afforded to engineering, and perhaps inspiration for those Steampunkers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Take a look at our own Steampunk set Science Museum Live: The Energy Show which runs until 31 August. Book tickets and find more information here.

#MMWTour – Tweeting a tour of Making the Modern World

We asked Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney to tweet some of the hidden gems in the Making the Modern World gallery.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

The full tour can be seen here

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about Making the Modern World here.

Wonderful Things: Brainbow mouse

This post is written by Alex, a 16-year old student who spent a week on work placement with the Learning team.

The brain is one of the most complex biological organs in the world, and even today our understanding of it is very primitive, but recent advances in the field of neuroscience could help us unpick some of its mysteries…

In Who am I? there is a little mouse with a big secret: its brain glows in a rainbow of colours. The Brainbow method maps out the large labyrinth of neurons in the brain using fluorescent proteins which flag up each individual neuron with its own colour. Through genetic engineering the brain cells in this mouse glow in a spectrum of different colours when under the right light. Brainbow has significantly helped scientists in attempting to map out the very complex, microscopic neural pathways and systems in the brain, using these strikingly coloured (and quite stunning) images.

This image from the Brainbow mouse reveals thousands of complex neural connections

The Brainbow technique is so interesting because researchers could potentially use the neural maps of the brain that it creates, when studying mental activities and behaviours to see what circuits are implicated. Another possible use is comparing these neural maps to see differences in the cellular structure of those with neurological disorders, to those without, in order to help identify and possibly even help develop treatments..

However, one limitation is that scientists so far have only used Brainbow to explore the brains of small animals such as mice and drosophila (the fruitfly), and the human brain is vast and much more diverse in neurons in comparison to these two organisms. There is also the ethical issue of genetic modification when it comes to working on the human brain – as Brainbow does rely on brain cells expressing proteins that have been genetically preprogrammed.

Would you accept genetic engineering in humans in order to get a better understanding of the human brain? 

The Brainbow genetically engineered mouse, and the beautiful image of its brain are on display in the Who am I? gallery, Wellcome Wing 1st floor.

If Particle Physics Did Parties…

With the Collider exhibition now open, Content Developer Rupert Cole explores some famous physics parties of the past. 

As it happens, Carlsberg did do particle physics. The Danish beer giant was an unlikely benefactor of the Niels Bohr Institute – one of the great centres of theoretical physics research.  

And Bohr himself even lived at the brewery’s “Honorary Residence” after winning the Nobel Prize, complete with a direct pipeline supplying free Carlsberg on tap! Just imagine what untold influence lager had on those groundbreaking discussions of quantum theory during Bohr’s thirty-year stay…

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

After my last blog about bubble chambers and beer, I thought, since it’s the festival season, why not go the whole hog and explore a few partying highlights from the history of physics.

The first Cavendish Laboratory Dinner, 1897

During the Christmas Holidays of 1897, the staff and students of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory had a memorable dinner party at the Prince of Wales’ Hotel.

It was a “rollicking affair”. JJ Thomson, Professor of the Laboratory, was remembered by a student to be “as happy as a sand-boy”. Thomson, of course, had been very busy that year discovering the subatomic world. Another physicist, Paul Langevin, sang La Marseillaise with such fervour that a French waiter embraced him.

That night was the beginning of a Cavendish tradition: singing physics through the medium of light opera. Lyrics about atoms and ions were put to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, long before Tom Lehrer. The next day, Thomson remarked that “he had no idea that the Laboratory held such a nest of singing birds”.

It must have been quite a noise, as the Proctors of the University came to enquire at the hotel what the “proceedings” were about. Fortunately, they did not enter the room – “being,” Thomson supposed, “impressed, and I have no doubt mystified, by the assurance of the landlord that it was a scientific gathering of research students”.

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The first dinner was such a hoot that it became an annual occasion. The merry songs that emerged at these events were soon immortalised in regular published editions of The Post-Prandial Proceedings of the Cavendish Society.

Feynman’s entire anecdotal oeuvre

“There’s so much fun to be had”

Not many Nobel prize-winning physicists can say they’ve played the frying pan in a samba band at Rio’s Carnival; made complex calculations on napkins in strip bars; or spent a sabbatical on the Copacabana drinking themselves teetotal and seducing air-hostesses. A raconteur of almost mythic proportions, Richard Feynman had a natural aptitude for partying.

Costume parties really brought out the showman in Feynman. He was very versatile, boasting a clothing repertoire that ranged from a Ladakhi monk to God. But it was on one April Fools’ Day that Feynman surpassed himself. Sat primly on a chair, looking regally and nodding graciously to other guests, Feynman was the very image of Queen Elizabeth II – wig, white hat, green dress, purse and gloves. At the end of the evening, he performed his royal finale: a striptease!

We must unfortunately cut short of the entire Feynman backlog of anecdotes, so instead click here for a video of Feynman playing “orange juice” on the bongos.

Higgs’ champagne moment, 2012

On a Saturday night in Sicily, Peter Higgs was dining with friends when the phone rang. Fellow physicist John Ellis had called to tell Higgs to come to CERN. Swiftly, travel arrangements were made and another bottle of white ordered. History was being written.

A few evenings later, Higgs was in Ellis’ Geneva home sharing a bottle of champagne with family and friends – that day he had read a note that confirmed the particle he had predicted to exist 48 years ago had finally been found.

The following day, on 4th July 2012, CERN held a conference announcing to the world the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Emotions running high in the packed lecture hall, Higgs likened the experience to “being at a football match when the home team has won”. Fittingly then, on the Easyjet flight home to Edinburgh, he turned down more champagne in favour of a can of London Pride.

See JJ Thomson’s 1897 cathode-ray tube, Peter Higgs’ champagne bottle, and experience more great moments of discovery at Collider, a new exhibition at the Science Museum.

Summer Invention Challenge

By Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor in Residence is challenging young visitors to design an invention to help solve a common summer problem. The winner will receive a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition

When we’re basking in a heat wave, spending a summer holiday in Britain can be the perfect way to unwind. But as we all know, a British summer can present it’s own problems – from annoying wasps, to superheated car journeys, and from rain-soaked barbecues to sand in your sandwiches.

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

This summer we are challenging young visitors to get their thinking caps on and come up with an invention to help solve a common problem that most of us experience at this time of year. The winner will receive a prize of a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition opening this Autumn.

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

Could it be an anti-wasp drink shield, or a sunshade for your ice-cream? Or perhaps a fan that can be clipped to your sunglasses, or a sunhat with a deployable umbrella?

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

To get everyone started we are asking people to think of the places they normally visit when they’re holidaying in Britain and the problems people might face in situations such as the seaside, in the countryside, on a long car journey or at home in the garden. Then think about the pet hates that you normally experience and devise a clever (or funny) solution that could help overcome the problem.

To join the summer invention challenge click here.

How we created ‘i-nstein’, the animated character in The Energy Show

One of the main characters in The Energy Show is lab assistant i-nstein. Nina Dunn, responsible for Video Design and Animation Direction, and Mike Wyatt from Attack Animation were the masterminds behind bringing i-nstein to life. Take a look at their process here.

Design:
We started off with a few rough pencil sketches. Then some orthographic representations of the sketches were created in Photoshop. Extra detail was added into the basic form to add interest.

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3D Model:
Using a 3D computer program such as ‘Maya’, the orthographic illustrations are used as reference to build i-nstein as a 3D polygonal model. The pink dots in the middle image are the vertices of the model. A ‘vertex’ is a point in 3D space. The blue lines are the ‘edges’ of the polygons, they are drawn between two vertices. A ‘face’ can be rendered between at least three vertices.  It is best to use 4 vertices for each face, so the polygon which is drawn has 4 vertices and 4 edges draw between these vertices. We call these polygons ‘quads.’

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Rigging:
The next stage is called ‘rigging.’ This is where the puppet strings are built into the geometric model. The individual elements such as the eyebrows, the moustache, and the goggles are ‘skinned’ to curves and joints, before being placed under the influence of ‘controller curves.’ It is then possible to ‘pose’ each element of the model, and to achieve different emotions in the way in which each controller is positioned.

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Texturing:
The ‘texturing’ process is where we add colour and shading to the model.  The geometry is ‘mapped’, as if you were skinning an animal, so that the surface is laid out on a flat, 2D image. This is called ‘UV Mapping’. Using Photoshop, colour information can be painted onto these flat images, which the computer then wraps back around the model.

Texturing

Animation:
i-nstein is animated by posing him in different positions over time. The animator sets ‘keys’ on the time-line, and the computer fills in the spaces between the key frames. Once the animation is complete, a low quality ‘playblast’ movie is created so that the director can sign off the animation before the character is lit and rendered.

Animation

Lighting:
Once the animation of a shot is complete, the model is replaced with a higher resolution ‘mesh.’ This Mesh has a much higher ‘poly-count’ than the low quality ‘proxy mesh’ used for animation. The more polygons the software has to display, the slower the feedback, so this is why make the substitution at this stage. Once the lighter is happy with the general mood and look of this view a render can be made.

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Rendering:
A ‘render’ is a high quality, full resolution image of a particular frame of the animation. It brings all of the underlying elements together and outputs them as one single file. It can take a very long time for the computer to calculate. It took 60 seconds per frame to render i-nstein. There are 25 frames per second. To render 1 second of animation took 25 minutes. We produced about 9 minutes of animation, which took 225 hours to render. That’s almost 9 and a half days of rendering!

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i-nstein is starring in Science Museum Live: The Energy Show at the Science Museum until 31 August. Read more information and book tickets here. 

Visitor Drawings – What’s your favourite science joke?

What’s your favourite science joke? Does it involve chemical symbols or scientific equipment? These are just some ‘Funnies’ that of our comedic visitors have come up with whilst in the Launchpad gallery. Click on any image for larger pictures.