Monthly Archives: October 2013

Impossible trees grow in the Science Museum

My evening with the entrepreneurial Lily Cole, by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A little copse of ‘giving trees’ will once again sprout in the entrance to the museum’s Wellcome wing as part of our highly-successful Lates events.

The olive trees first appeared at our last adults-only evening to celebrate the work of the actor, activist and entrepreneur Lily Cole. That night Lily and I met in the museum to discuss her ‘gift culture’ social network Impossible.com, which is now being developed into an App.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

The last time we encountered each other, we discussed her work with the World Land Trust to help elephant migration routes. This time around, and before a packed IMAX, Lily and I compared notes on the ideas behind her grander vision of cooperation, as seen in her website impossible.com, which is currently in beta. 

She conceived the idea for her new sharing economy during the depths of the financial crisis and has followed through with admirable determination on her plans to create a moneyless system for exchanging goods and services. Or, as Lily put it:  ‘What if technology could communicate people’s needs?’

Lily has consulted many people for her project, including Muhammad Yunus, who won the noble peace prize for micro finance. Indeed, one of her investors was so inspired by his first meeting with her that he started work on her app without any prompting.

At the core of Lily’s thesis lies her belief in the universal kindness between strangers, one that impossible.com taps into, which challenges our bartering economy through a currency of “thank-yous” instead of money.

While she approaches the question of cooperation from the perspective of her Cambridge University background in arts, anthropology and economics, I adopted that of my co-author Martin Nowak of Harvard University, who has done experiments to study the origins of cooperation, whether by studying idealised mathematical agents or people.

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

What Nowak has shown, with the help of a famous game theory experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, is that evolution undermines cooperation without the help of mechanisms.

We know such mechanisms must exist because cooperation is so ubiquitous. Some of my examples from nature were familiar to the audience, such as leaf ants, bees who tirelessly harvest pollen for the good of the hive, and naked mole rats.

Because of the many parallels between these societies and multicellular creatures, where the job of reproduction is specialised, mole rate colonies, ant nests and beehives are known as superorganisms.

Some of my examples were downright odd, such as the ‘unicorn of the sea’, or pyrosome. These are composed of thousands of individuals, called zooids,  which form hollow bioluminescent cylinders up to 20 m long and large enough for a scuba diver to swim inside.

Cooperation is ancient, dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, more than three billion years ago. Among filaments of cyanobacteria, for example, one dies every 10 or 20 to feed its neighbours with nitrogen. Other bacteria forage in groups, much as a pride of lions hunt together.

Slides from the Science of Cooperation discussion

Martin Nowak has identified five basic mechanisms of cooperation: direct reciprocity (I scratch your back, you scratch mine); indirect reciprocity (I scratch your back and someone else scratches mine); spatial selection (exploiting population structure, whether due to geography, friendship or common interests); multilevel selection (I will sacrifice myself for the greater good) ; and, finally, kin selection (we help our relatives – nepotism). People use all five – that’s why Martin and I call them supercooperators. Of that list of mechanisms, Lily’s impossible.com makes the most use of ‘indirect reciprocity,’ which is linked to the evolution of social intelligence and language.

Our views of cooperation overlap on one key point: that to prevent environmental catastrophe, we need to improve the way that we work together not just for our own good but also for the benefit of future generations: we need to do more to cooperate with the unborn, if you like.

After the event, Lily and I returned to the little copse where museum visitors had been encouraged to write their wishes on wooden boards, following the Shinto tradition, in the hope that at least one of the 4000 people who visited that night could make it come true.

Jimmy Wales, American Internet entrepreneur and a co-founder of Wikipedia had joined the milling crowd earlier that evening as they penned their wishes in Sharpie onto small wooden boards and hung them on the trees. Later we met Science Minister, David Willetts, who was there to meet the winners of the Medical Research Council’s Max Perutz prize, and Dr Penny Fidler and her colleagues from the Association of Science and Discovery Centres, who were attending their annual conference.

Lily has also been 3D scanned for a new museum exhibition 3D: Printing the Future (try to find the resulting mini Lily on the exhibition wall) and contributed to a mass experiment on music, #Hooked, organised by our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Our experience with Lily was, in its own way, a wonderful testament to the power of cooperation.

The next Science Museum Lates is space-themed and runs from 6:45-10pm on Wednesday 30th October.

X&Y at MOSI’s 1830 Warehouse for the Manchester Science Festival

X&Y, a new show from mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Complicite actress Victoria Gould, starts at the Manchester Science Festival next week.

Blending maths with theatre, it explores big questions about our universe – is it infinite? Does it have an edge? With a stark and simple set, X&Y creates its own little ‘universe’ inside a brightly lit cube, making it perfect for unconventional ‘pop-up’ theatre spaces.  For its London run at the Science Museum earlier this month, it was performed in a converted empty exhibition gallery.

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

The Manchester Science Festival takes place in venues across Greater Manchester from 24 October – 3 November and X&Y is taking up residence for 5 days at MOSI’s stunning Grade 1 listed 1830 Warehouse at Liverpool Road Station.

1830 Warehouse

Liverpool Road Station was the Manchester terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first purpose-built passenger and goods railway. The original coach offices (passenger station), warehouse and intervening viaduct survive, making this the world’s oldest railway station. All four buildings and the two viaducts are listed in recognition of their historic and architectural importance. When British Rail closed the station in 1975, the two oldest buildings were in a very poor state of repair. Since then the whole site has been carefully restored.

The aptly named ‘1830 Warehouse’ was built in 1830 and it was the world’s first railway warehouse. Earlier railways, which mainly carried coal, did not need warehousing but the success of the Railway’s goods services created an immediate need for more storage.

1830 Warehouse

On 3 April 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company placed a notice in the Manchester Guardian inviting tenders for the construction of five brick warehouses. This description is misleading as the resulting building was actually one warehouse divided into five bays. Five firms submitted tenders ranging in cost from £12,000 to £14,000 (approx. £1.16 million to £1.35 million today). 

The second lowest bidder, David Bellhouse Jnr, gained the contract. He had taken over his father’s building and contracting business in about 1820. His father, David Bellhouse Snr., was also a leading local timber merchant. These family business connections were valuable because the appointed contractor was responsible for procuring the necessary building materials, other than bricks, which were supplied by the L&MR Company. The stated completion date was 15 August 1830, giving less than four months for construction. The schedule was tough, but Bellhouse managed it. The demanding schedule was doubtless one of the reasons why the 1830 Warehouse has a timber frame rather than a fireproof frame of brick and iron. A timber frame was faster to fabricate and assemble.

The 1830 Warehouse was used for the storage of a variety of goods. Cotton, one of the L&MR’s most important cargoes, was only stored there until two Cotton Stores were completed in 1831.

Two stock books found in the warehouse in 1991 reveal the type of goods stored there in 1885 and 1905. They list a wide range of goods including various meats, bananas, chemicals such as caustic soda and bleach, clog blocks and bottles. Oyster shells and cockleshells were found in the building, suggesting that it was also used for storing shellfish.

As the Manchester Science Festival takes over MOSI and other venues for 10 days, the 1830 Warehouse will be the home of Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould and the creative team for X&Y. 

Find out more about the 1830 Warehouse at MOSI here.

Find out more about X&Y at the Manchester Science Festival from 30 October – 3 November here.

Take a look at some of the production shots from London

Extracts from this blog from The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell inspires the next generation in the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs on meeting Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Captain Jim Lovell, the astronaut who led the crew of Apollo 13 to safety after their spacecraft was crippled by an explosion, held an impromptu question and answer session for school children today in the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum.

His astonishing adventure, popularised by the film of the same name starring Tom Hanks, began when the Apollo 13 spacecraft lifted off on April 11th 1970 to land Captain Lovell and Fred Haise on the Moon, with Jack Swigert to pilot the command module.

Jack Swigert, responding to a daily request from Earth, switched on the cryogenic fan to stir up the contents of the oxygen tanks. A spark flew from a naked wire, causing an explosion that ruptured the oxygen tank. The lunar mission was doomed 200,000 miles out in space

Swigert saw a warning light that accompanied the bang, and said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Quick action by the crew, who used the lunar module as a “life boat”, and dazzling improvisation by technicians on the ground salvaged the crippled spacecraft and brought it back to Earth within four days.

Lovell was visiting the museum today to accept the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators’ premier award, its Guild Award of Honour for Aviation Heroism and Professionalism, from “the Flying Judge”, Tudor Owen QC, Master of the Guild.

But, while posing for photographs in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module which is on display in the Science Museum, he decided to take questions from a crowd of schoolchildren who were visiting.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

‘Were you scared when you came back,’ asked one girl. ‘I was scared before I came back,’ came the reply. ‘After I landed I was very happy that I was back on the water and our spacecraft didn’t sink.’

What was the explosion like? ‘It was quite violent, although we did not know exactly what it was at first. We thought maybe a battery had blown up and then we saw oxygen escaping. When that occurred, we knew we had lost an oxygen tank. We actually lost both oxygen tanks.’

How does it feel in space? ‘It is actually very comfortable when you get used to it.’

Lovell flew in space four times; as pilot on Gemini 7 in 1965 and as Command Pilot on Gemini 12, before his two Apollo missions.

He is the only man to have flown to the Moon twice, but not landed on it. He went in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8. Earthrise, one of the most iconic images ever, was taken from the spacecraft.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968. Credit: NASA

Captain Lovell also met Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper, Technologies & Engineering, who is working on a landmark museum exhibition about Russia’s space pioneers, scheduled for next year. Lovell later remarked that, during the crisis, the Russians had offered help with recovering the command module, after re-entry.

A few weeks ago, fellow Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan also visited Apollo 10. Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon.

With Jeffrey Kluger, Jim Lovell wrote a book about the Apollo 13 mission, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13  Here are some extracts from the book, which was the basis for the later Ron Howard movie Apollo 13:

“A short, muffled blast echoed through the spacecraft. It rocked for a few brief seconds, then settled down and quiet again prevailed. I could tell by Fred Haise’s expression that he didn’t know what had happened. A quick glance over to Jack Swigert told me the same. Jack’s eyes were as wide as saucers.”

“Powering down meant everything. The only items left operating were the radio to talk to Earth and a fan to circulate the atmosphere in the spacecraft. We were flying on the seat of our pants. But again we ran into problems. The altitude control rockets were never designed to control the altitude of the lunar module with a dead 60,000 lb command and service module attached to it, so, without the autopilot, I had to fly it manually. Pushing forward on the controller did not result in a pitch-down motion but some wild gyration in another direction. I had to learn to ‘fly’ all over again.”

“If we came in at too shallow an angle, we would skip off the atmosphere like a stone off water. If we came up too steeply, we would burn up in seconds like a meteor.”

“The procedures called for manually rotating the spacecraft, using our newly acquired ‘flying skills’, to put Earth in the lunar module window. In that window I had mounted a crosshair ‘gunsight’. If I could line up the terminator on Earth, the line between daylight and darkness, with the horizontal line of my gunsight, then the lunar module’s descent engine would be properly positioned to correct our angle of entry into the atmosphere.

We had only one chance to make the manoeuvre: at the point in our flight home when we had just left the sphere of influence of the Moon and had the least forward velocity. Aquarius’s clock had failed, so I told Jack to time the burn with his Omega wristwatch. I had two three-axis attitude controllers in Aquarius, the primary and a back-up. I told Fred to use the back-up controller to maintain yaw control. I would control pitch and roll with the primary controller. Two emergency electrical buttons were located on the left side of the console. One was labelled ‘Start’ and the other ‘Stop’.”

“At the proper time, I pushed ‘Start.’ The engine came on full blast. Fred and I jockeyed Earth in the window. Fourteen seconds later, Jack yelled ‘Stop!’ and I pushed the button. Mission control monitored the burn via telemetry: ‘Ignition!… Thrust looks good… It shut down…Nice work.’ ‘Let’s hope it was’, we replied. Space networks radars soon confirmed that Apollo 13 was comfortably back within the entry corridor.”

“I was in Aquarius, straining to get a glimpse and photograph the service module as it drifted by: ‘OK, I’ve got her… There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing: right by the high gain antenna, the whole panel is blown out, almost to the base of the engine – it’s a mess.”

“At 142 hours 40 minutes elapsed time, Odyssey slammed into the thin upper air at about 400,000 ft. A pink glow came through our windows, when the atmosphere started to decelerate the spacecraft, and the temperature on the heat shield rose to 5000F. When we reached 40,00ft, the drogue chutes popped out, followed by three beautiful main parachutes. Odyssey splashed into the Pacific Ocean just a mile or so from the USS Iwo Jima on Friday, April 17, after a flight lasting 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.”

Your guide to becoming a Bubble-ologist

The Science Museum’s outreach team share some of their tips on creating the best bubbles.

Here in the outreach team it’s our job to travel the country (and sometimes the world) bringing exciting science shows and workshops into classrooms, school halls, fields and town centres.

We are often asked about what our favourite shows are, and everyone in the team has their own particular choice. But, our most popular show by far is most certainly The Bubble Show, last year we performed 149 of them!ronan bubble

So with that in mind we thought we’d share a few of our bubble secrets. Why not try them out this half term?

To make your bubble mix you will need:

D090445

Mostly warm water with a splash of washing-up liquid and some glycerol

We add glycerol (sometimes sold as glycerine) to our mix because it slows down the evaporation of the water. This means the bubbles can last longer and the bubble mix is great for making really big bubbles too. Remember, most of the mix is water, with only a small amount of washing-up liquid and glycerol – experiment with different proportions and see how your bubbles change.

You can buy glycerol from a high- street chemist but if you can’t get hold of any, sugar does the job as well. Just dissolve it in some warm water and add a little to your bubble mix. Sugar will make your bubbles sticky though!

Once you have your lovely bucket of bubble mix you can start to make bubbles using all sorts of things, here are a few ideas..

Why not make your own bubble trumpet?

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Or how about a giant bubble wand using a coat hanger? D090473 D090482

Have a look around the house and see what else you could use to make bubbles. Old tennis racquets are great for making lots of little bubbles all at once, even straws or plastic cups with the bottom cut off are great for blowing bubbles.

Check out this printable guide for making even more bubble-blowing devices, or come and catch a free Bubble Show at the Science Museum!

Did you know…

Bubbles are very colourful, but just before they pop they can appear to turn black. Bubbles will always try to form a sphere shape, this shape requires the least amount of energy as it reduces the surface area.

The world record for the largest free floating bubble was set by Jarom Watts in 2009, his bubble was 13.67m3.

LHC: Lifting Heavy Contraptions

Curator Ali Boyle on how the Collider team are installing some of the larger objects in our new exhibition. 

It’s just three weeks to go until Collider opens with a flurry of exciting events. Which means that we’re getting to the best part of exhibition work – after all the planning, the objects are finally starting to make their way onto gallery.

That’s sometimes easier said than done when your objects come from CERN. A few are so large that we’ve had to install them on gallery early and build the rest of the exhibition around them. First up was the object we call The Beast, a 2-tonne section of one of the giant dipole magnets that keep the LHC’s particle beams on course.

Thankfully it was only a section – a whole LHC magnet weighs in at 35 tonnes and is 15 metres long. And our basement gallery is a lot easier to get to than a tunnel 175 metres below ground, the challenge faced by CERN as they upgrade the LHC’s magnet system.

dipole_lifting

Conservator Richard (in white) supervises The Beast being lowered onto its trolley. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

Another 2-tonne behemoth, delivered from CERN that morning, followed – an accelerating cavity from LEP, the Large Electron Positron collider, which previously occupied the tunnel that now houses the LHC. The copper cavity, used in the first phase of LEP operations, looks like something Jules Verne might have imagined.

The LEP cavity's storage sphere is carefully lowered into place. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

The LEP cavity’s storage sphere is carefully lowered into place. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

Of course, being the Science Museum, we’re used to big bits of kit. The LHC objects, although hefty, were a piece of cake compared with getting the planes in. Or handling the 4-tonne Rosse Mirror, which we moved into its current position in Cosmos & Culture in 2009.

Made of speculum, a mixture of copper and tin, the Rosse Mirror is six feet in diameter. It is one of the few surviving original pieces of the largest scientific instrument of its day, the enormous telescope built by the Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle in the Irish midlands and known as the  ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’. The mirror was donated to us in 1914 – here it is being delivered.

Easy does it … moving the Rosse Mirror into the Western Galleries, 1914. (Credit: Science Museum)

There’s a clear distinction between ‘doers’ and ‘watchers’ in this photograph. On Collider this week I was definitely the latter. As those keen observers of the museum world, the Ministry of Curiosity, point out, curators rarely do the actual muscle work.

So, rather than take my word for it, why not ask someone who really knows about moving big bits of particle accelerator around? Lyn Evans (or ‘Evans the Atom’ as he’s dubbed in the press) was Project Leader for the LHC build. Next Wednesday 30 October, thanks to our friends at the London Science Festival, you can hear him talk about the LHC’s engineering challenges at Science Museum Lates. He’ll be joined by Collider‘s very own Harry Cliff, who’ll give a sneak preview of how we’re bringing CERN to South Kensington. Not all of it obviously, as that would be a bit too heavy…

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening on 13th November 2013.

3D printing – an explosion of creativity!

Suzy Antoniw, Content Developer in the Contemporary Science Team, looks at the creation of a new exhibition on 3D printing.

What can make impossible shapes solidly real and create unique, one-off medical treatments that could change your life? A 3D printer of course!

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

Around nine months ago we were given the exciting challenge of creating 3D: Printing the Future, a new Contemporary Science exhibition to show off the real-life capabilities of these hugely hyped machines and highlight the latest 3D printing research.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer. Image credit: Science Museum

But hang on, what exactly is a 3D printer? Even if you’ve read stories about them in the news you probably don’t have one sitting on your desk just yet. So here’s our definition: A 3D printer is a manufacturing machine that turns 3D computer data into a physical object, usually by building it in layers. They come in a variety of types that range from simple consumer models to sophisticated industrial printers.

A prosthetic arm concept  made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

A prosthetic arm concept made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

As well as covering the basics, we decided that our exhibition should focus on the incredible things that 3D printers can create – such as replacement body organs and teeth, that could make a difference to the lives of our visitors.

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printers have been around for decades, so what’s changed? In recent years the patents on simple 3D printing technologies have run out. 3D printers have become available to more people in the form of affordable consumer models, or even as open source plans freely available on the internet.

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

This new freedom to invent has generated an explosion of creativity. And it’s not just hackers, tinkerers and makers who’ve felt the benefits of this new breath of life for engineering and design, but established industry and academia too. So how do you represent a diverse and dynamic explosion of creativity?

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

In July we began collecting 3D printed stuff for what has been known as ‘an explosion’, our ‘mass display’, ‘the wave’, ‘the wall’ and (my favourite) a ‘tsunami of objects’. The display contains over 663 objects – the largest number we’ve ever acquired for a Contemporary Science exhibition, thanks to generous loans, donations and the enthusiasm of the maker community.

Among the amazing ‘wave’ of objects you can see a display of 150 miniature 3D printed people – visitors who volunteered to have themselves scanned in 3D at the Museum over the summer holidays. Look closely at the wall and you may spot actress Jenny Agutter reading her script, model Lily Cole and BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis - with his arm in a sling!

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

The free exhibition is open to the public from 9 October and will run for nine months.

The last particle?

Could the Higgs be the end of particle physics? We’re still a long way from answering one of the biggest questions of all, says Dr Harry Cliff, Head of Content on our Collider exhibition.

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for their work that explains why subatomic particles have mass. They predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle, which was confirmed last year by experiments conducted at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But today’s celebrations mask a growing anxiety among physicists. The discovery of the Higgs boson is an undoubted triumph, but many note that it hasn’t brought us any closer to answering some of the most troubling problems in fundamental science.

A senior physicist went so far as to tell me that he was “totally unexcited by the discovery of the Higgs boson”. Though not the typical reaction, this discovery threatens to close a chapter of 20th century physics without a hint of how to start writing the next page.

Until July last year, when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced its discovery, the Higgs boson remained the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory that describes all the particles that make up the world we live in with stunning accuracy. The Standard Model has passed every experimental test thrown at it with flying colours, and yet has some rather embarrassing holes.

According to astronomical measurements, the matter described by the Standard Model that makes up the stars, planets and ultimately us, only accounts for a tiny fraction of the universe. We appear to be a thin layer of froth, floating on top of an invisible ocean of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.

Worse still, according to the Standard Model, we shouldn’t exist at all. The theory predicts that, after the Big Bang, equal quantities of matter and antimatter should have obliterated each other, leaving an empty universe.

Both of these are good scientific reasons to doubt that the Standard Model is the end of the story when it comes to the laws of physics. But there is another, aesthetic principle that has led many physicists to doubt its completeness – the principle of “naturalness”.

The Standard Model is regarded as a highly “unnatural” theory. Aside from having a large number of different particles and forces, many of which seem surplus to requirement, it is also very precariously balanced. If you change any of the 20+ numbers that have to be put into the theory even a little, you rapidly find yourself living in a universe without atoms. This spooky fine-tuning worries many physicists, leaving the universe looking as though it has been set up in just the right way for life to exist.

The Higgs’s boson provides us with one of the worst cases of unnatural fine-tuning. A surprising discovery of the 20th century was the realisation that empty space is far from empty. The vacuum is, in fact, a broiling soup of invisible “virtual” particles, constantly popping in and out of existence.

The conventional wisdom states that as the Higgs boson passes through the vacuum it interacts with this soup of virtual particles and this interaction drives its mass to an absolutely enormous value – potentially up to a hundred million billion times larger than the one measured at the LHC.

Theorists have attempted to tame the unruly Higgs mass by proposing extensions of the Standard Model. The most popular of which is “supersymmetry”, which introduces a heavier super-particle or “sparticle” for every particle in the Standard Model. These sparticles cancel out the effect of the virtual particles in the vacuum, reducing the Higgs mass to a reasonable value and eliminating the need for any unpleasant fine-tuning.

Supersymmetry has other features that have made it popular with physicists. Perhaps its best selling point is that one of these sparticles provides a neat explanation for the mysterious dark matter that makes up about a quarter of the universe.

Although discovering the Higgs boson may have been put forward as the main reason for building the 27km Large Hadron Collider (LHC), what most physicists have really been waiting for is a sign of something new. As Higgs himself said shortly after the discovery last year, “[The Higgs boson] is not the most interesting thing that the LHC is looking for”.

So far however, the LHC has turned up nothing.

If supersymmetry is really responsible for keeping the Higgs boson’s mass low, then sparticles should show up at energies not much higher than where the LHC found the Higgs. The fact that nothing has been found has already ruled out many popular forms of supersymmetry.

This has led some theorists to abandon naturalness altogether. One relatively new idea known as “split-supersymmetry” accepts fine-tuning in the Higgs mass, but keeps the other nice features of supersymmetry, like a dark matter particle.

This may sound like a technical difference, but the implications for the nature of our universe are profound. The argument is that we live in a fine-tuned universe because it happens to be one among an effectively infinite number of different universes, each with different laws of physics. The constants of nature are what they are because if they were different atoms could not form, and hence we wouldn’t be around to wonder about them.

This anthropic argument is in part motivated by developments in string theory, a potential “theory of everything”, for which there are a vast number (roughly 10500) different possible universes with different laws of physics. (This huge number of universes is often used as a criticism of string theory, sometimes derided as a “theory of everything else” as no one has so far found a solution that corresponds to the universe we live in.) However, if split-supersymmetry is right, the lack of new physics at the LHC could be indirect evidence for the existence of the very multiverse anticipated by string theory.

All of this could be rather bad news for the LHC. If the battle for naturalness is lost, then there is no reason why new particles must appear in the next few years. Some physicists are campaigning for an even larger collider, four times longer and seven times more powerful than the LHC.

This monster collider could be used to settle the question once and for all, but it’s hard to imagine that such a machine will get the go ahead, especially if the LHC fails to find anything beyond the Higgs.

We are at a critical juncture in particle physics. Perhaps after it restarts the LHC in 2015, it will uncover new particles, naturalness will survive and particle physicists will stay in business. There are reasons to be optimistic. After all, we know that there must be something new that explains dark matter, and there remains a good chance that the LHC will find it.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the LHC will find nothing. The Higgs boson could be particle physics’ swansong, the last particle of the accelerator age. Though a worrying possibility for experimentalists, such a result could lead to a profound shift in our understanding of the universe, and our place in it.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening on 13th November 2013.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, celebrates the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics ahead of the opening of our Collider exhibition next month.      

Congratulations to Briton Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

A few minutes ago, after an unusual delay, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the physics prize in Stockholm, ending this chapter of the quest for new elementary particles, the greatest intellectual adventure to date.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, comments: “That it has taken decades to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson illustrates the remarkable vision of the theoretical work that Higgs, Francois Englert and others did with pen and paper half a century ago, one that launched an effort by  thousands of scientists and inspired a staggering feat of engineering in the guise of the Large Hadron Collider.

What is the Higgs? Here’s all you need to know, in just 90 seconds, from Harry Cliff, a Cambridge University physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Although the identity of the winners has been a closely-guarded secret, many have speculated that those who played a central role in discovery of the long-sought Higgs, notably the emeritus Edinburgh professor himself, were leading contenders for a place in history.

The Science Museum has been so confident that the Large Hadron Collider would change our view of nature that we have invested more than £1 million, and worked closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, to celebrate this epic undertaking with its new exhibition, Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, which opens to the public on 13 November. 

Here Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to what is now Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN’s £5 billion Large Hadron Collider reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson, technically a ripple in an invisible energy field that gives most particles their mass.

This discovery represented the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who will attend the launch of Collider, bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC.

Another speaker at the Collider launch, the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery (though he is adamant that Higgs deserves the Nobel Prize).

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When Higgs was in the CERN auditorium last year to hear scientists tell the world about the discovery, he was caught reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing his eyes.  On the flight home, he celebrated this extraordinary achievement with a can of London Pride beer.

The Science Museum hoped to have the can, now deemed a piece of history Alas, Higgs had dumped it in the rubbish before we could collect it. However, the museum does possess the champagne bottle that Higgs emptied with his friends the night before the big announcement.

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The modest 84-year-old  is now synonymous with the quest: the proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.

But there have been demands that the particle be renamed to acknowledge the work of others. Deciding who should share this Nobel has been further complicated because a maximum of three people only can be honoured (prompting many to question the criteria used by the Nobel committee).

The LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is the cumulative endeavour of around ten thousand men and women from across the globe. In recognition of this the Collider exhibition will tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Higgs discovery from the viewpoint of a young PhD student given the awesome task of announcing the discovery to her colleagues (though fictional, the character is based on Mingming Yang of MIT who is attending the launch).

However, although one suggestion is to allow the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson to share the accolade, the Nobel committee traditionally awards science prizes to individuals and not organizations (unlike the Nobel Peace Prize).

Instead, the Nobel committee honoured the theoreticians who first anticipated the existence of the Higgs.

Six scientists published the relevant papers in 1964 though, as Belgium’s Robert Brout died in 2011, there were five contenders (the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously).

In August 1964, François Englert from the Free University of Brussels with Brout, published their theory of particle masses. A month later, while working at Edinburgh University, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was – crucially – the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.

Last week, Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who works at CERN, said it would be ‘odd and perverse’ not to give the Nobel to Peter Higgs, and also singled out Lyn ‘the atom’ Evans, the Welshman in charge of building the collider, as a candidate.

And the two likeliest winners were named as Peter Higgs – after whom the particle was named – and François Englert, according to a citation analysis by Thomson Reuters.

Today’s announcement marks the formal recognition of a profound advance in human understanding, the discovery of one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening 13th November 2013.

X&Y’s Dermot Keaney – from Director to hammerhead shark-man

X&Y, a new play that asks big questions about the universe, opens next week at the Science Museum before transferring to the Manchester Science Festival later this month. We spoke to Dermot Keaney, X&Y’s Co-Creator and Director.

I am a co-creator and the director of X&Y. My role is to help Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould, the actors in the show, tell their amazing story and create a play that will be enjoyed by audience of all ages and backgrounds. You don’t have to be a ‘maths geek’ to enjoy this, you just have to be a ‘story geek’ and I believe that we are all one of those.

Dermot Keaney

I’ve been acting professionally for 20 years but I’m doing more and more directing these days. I love to tell stories and hope that X&Y will be the first of many collaborations with the Science Museum. It’s great to get to work with incredibly bright people every day and be part of a team that is creating something, truly unique and magical.

Working at the Science Museum is incredibly inspiring because everywhere you look you see the evidence of genius, creativity and discovery. One feels the presence of giants all around.

My favourite object at the Museum has to be Stephenson’s Rocket. I remember seeing it for the first time as a 9-year-old and understanding how important this object was in the history of invention. I say hello to it every time I walk past. The Apollo 10 Command Module runs a close second.

Stephenson's Rocket locomotive, 1829.

Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, 1829

The most memorable show I have worked on would have to be as an actor when I played Maccus, the hammerhead shark-man in Pirates of the Caribbean. The sheer scale of the production was breath-taking and to be part of animation history is very satisfying. I also had my character made into an action figure, which was cool!

Maccus

Dermot Keaney as Maccus in Pirates of the Caribbean. Credit: Disney.

Follow Dermot on Twitter @dermot110

X&Y starring Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould runs at the Science Museum from 10 – 16 October and Manchester Science Festival, MOSI, from 30 October – 3 November 2013. 

Win tickets to X&Y

Next week the Science Museum welcomes mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy and actress-mathematician Victoria Gould for X&Y – playful new theatre that explores some of the biggest questions about our universe using maths.

To celebrate, we’ve teamed up with HegartyMaths.com to run a competition to win a pair of tickets to the show. It runs from 10 – 16 October at the Science Museum.

To enter, simply retweet this. Good luck!

Marcus du Sautoy

A word from HegartyMaths

HegartyMaths is set up and created by Colin Hegarty and Brian Arnold, two full time London Maths teachers.  We love maths and the creativity and joy that comes from solving maths problems.  At the same time we understand that skill in Maths is also, in effect, a life differentiator and we want to help students raise their standards in the discipline in order to open up their life chances.  Our mission is to provide free, high quality maths tuition via the website to students who need a bit of extra suport in Maths.  All our work is free so that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can, in effect, benefit from what is like free personal maths tuition.  We have made over 700 videos covering Key Stage 3 Maths, GCSE Maths and A-Level Maths.