Monthly Archives: January 2014

Wonderful Things: Peruvian Rubber Ball

Shaun Aitcheson from our Learning Support Team writes about one of his favourite Science Museum objects.

What do you think this is?

What is this?

Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst this may look like a rock or a big ball of old chewing gum, it’s actually a rubber ball. It was found in the grave of a Peruvian child, and is thought to date from 1590-1610. Rubber balls were invented by the Ancient Mesoamericans who used them in what was probably the first ever ball sport, a game similar to racquetball called the Mesoamerican Ballgame. This game was invented around 1600 BC, but could be even older. In some places, instead of a rubber ball, they would use a human head!

Image Credit: Marjorie Barrick Museum http://barrickmuseum.unlv.edu/families/img/Maya14-small.jpg

Today we think of rubber balls as toys, but this one was most likely used as a funeral offering as a symbolic gesture towards the afterlife or perhaps even evidence of a human sacrifice to the gods.

Although this ball is only around 400 years old, it highlights just how long rubber has been used by humans. Incredibly, humans have been creating rubber for over 3500 years.

The first use of rubber was by the Olmec people (Rubber People) of South America. They would boil natural latex, a milky sap-like substance, which they ‘tapped’ from the rubber tree Hevea Brasiliensis, and mixed with the juice of a ‘morning glory’ vine. This created a very stretchy and extremely waterproof material. The Olmec’s used it to create items such as rubber balls, galoshes and waterproof cloaks.

Rubber wasn’t used greatly in the West until 1770 when an Englishman called Joseph Priestly, noticed that the material was very good at rubbing away pencil marks, hence the name ‘rubber’. Charles Mackintosh began using rubber to create his famous waterproof jackets in 1824. However, they were far from perfect as they melted in hot weather and smelled very bad!

Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock are responsible for producing the rubber we know today. In the 1840s they heated it in combination with sulphur to produce vulcanised rubber, strengthening it greatly. Thanks to the invention of the bicycle and motor car, rubber consumption soared as it was the perfect material for tyres, with its very durable and shock absorbent qualities.

The rubber ball can be found in Challenge of Materials, on the first floor of the Science Museum.

3D printing gadgets on wheels

Martyn Harris, cyclist and entrepreneur, looks at how 3D printing inspired him to launch a new business. See more examples of 3D Printing in our 3D: Printing the future exhibition.

My two lifelong passions are cycling and engineering. As a child I could regularly be found either riding my bike or constructing some new contraption out of lego. I started racing mountain bikes at the age of 13 and after leaving school, embarked on a four year apprenticeship to become a precision machinist.

In 2000 I joined 3TRPD, a newly formed company specializing in 3D printing. I was instantly hooked by this state-of-the-art process and have been seeking ways to introduce the technology into the bike industry ever since.

3 colour Garmin cycle mounts produced by RaceWare Direct. Image credit: RaceWare Direct

3 colour Garmin cycle mounts produced by RaceWare Direct. Image credit: RaceWare Direct

When I found myself struggling to find a sleek way of mounting my power meter to my Time Trial bike, it was the catalyst that I needed to start designing my own components using 3D printing. I opened my own company, RaceWare Direct at the beginning of 2012.

Neon Garmin mount by RaceWare Direct. Image credit: RaceWare Direct

Neon Garmin mount by RaceWare Direct. Image credit: RaceWare Direct

Having posted on cycle forums that I was making 3D printed computer mounts, the level of enthusiasm was overwhelming. Within a matter of weeks, I had dozens of potential orders and several designers who wanted to help me with new products. By the end of the year, we had a full range of products and had secured UK distribution with Saddleback, a well respected distributor of high end cycle products.

My future vision for RaceWare is for it to grow into the world leader in 3D printed cycle components.

You can see a selection of gadgets produced by RaceWare on display in the Science Museum’s 3D printing exhibition.

10 Bonkers Things About the World

We asked author and journalist Marcus Chown, who is speaking at this month’s Lates, to share his favourite science facts.

I’ve just published a book about how the world of the 21st century works. It’s about everything from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography. As I was writing it, I began to appreciate what an amazing world we live in – more incredible than anything we could possibly have invented – which is why I called my book What A Wonderful World. What better way to illustrate this than to list my Top 10 Bonkers Things About the World.

1. The crucial advantage humans had over Neanderthals was sewing

Human needles made from bone have been unearthed but never a Neanderthal needle. This has led to the speculation that the ability to sew baby clothes may have given human babies a crucial survival advantage during the cruel Ice Age winters.

2. You could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube

Sugar Cubes

Credit: Flickr/KJGarbutt

This is because atoms are 99.9999999999999% empty space. If you could squeeze all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the 7 billion people in the world, you could indeed fit them in the volume of a sugar cube.

3. Slime moulds have 13 sexes

No one knows why. But, then, nobody is sure why there is sex. The best bet, however, is that it evolved to outsmart parasites. Parents, by shuffling together their genes, continually create novel offspring to which parasites are not adapted.

4. You age more quickly on the top floor of a building than the ground floor

This is an effect of Einstein’s theory of gravity, which predicts that time flows more slowly in strong gravity. On the ground floor of a building, you are closer to the mass of the Earth so gravity is marginally stronger and time flows marginally more slowly (If you want to live longer – move to a bungalow!)

5. J. J. Thomson got the Nobel prize for showing that an electron is a particle. His son got it for showing that it isn’t

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The ultimate building blocks of matter – atoms, electrons and so on – have a strange dual nature, behaving simultaneously like tiny, localised billiard balls and spread-out waves. The truth is they are neither particles nor waves but something for which we have no word in our vocabulary and no analogy in the familiar, everyday world.

6. You are 95% alien

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies.

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

That’s right. 95% of the cells in your body do not belong to you. They are microorganisms hitching a ride. Many are essential like the gut bacteria that help you digest your food. You get all the alien microorganism only after you are born – from your mother’s milk and the environment. You are born 100% human but die 95% alien!

7.  Brains are so energy hungry most organisms on Earth do without them

Sections through the brain

Sections through the brain. Credit: Florilegius/SSPL

The best illustration of this comes from the juvenile sea squirt. It swims through the ocean looking for a rock to cling to and make its home. When it finds one, it no longer needs its brain so it… eats it!

8.  Babies are powered by rocket fuel

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Rockets combine liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen to make water. This liberates just about the most energy, pound for pound, of any common chemical reaction. Babies – and in fact all of us – do the same. We combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen stripped from our food. The energy liberated drives all the biological processes in our bodies.

9.  There was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes for 1.4 million years

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Palaeoanthropologists call it the ‘1.4 million years of boredom’. It could be of course that our ancestors made tools from wood, which decayed, or from bone, which are impossible to distinguish from natural bones. And, just because tools did not change, does not mean nothing was happening. All kinds of things that left no record may have been going on such as the taming of fire and the invention of language.

10. 98% of the Universe is invisible

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

Only 4 per cent of the mass of the Universe is made of atoms – the kind of stuff, you, me, the stars and planets are made of – and we have seen only half of that with our telescopes. 23% of the Universe is invisible, or “dark”, matter, whose existence we know of because it tugs with its gravity on the visible stuff. And 73% is dark energy, which is invisible, fills all of space and has repulsive gravity which is speeding up the expansion of the Universe. If you can find out what the dark matter or dark energy is, there is a Nobel prize waiting for you!

Find out more at this month’s Lates or in Marcus Chown’s book What A Wonderful World: One man’s attempt to explain the big stuff (Faber & Faber).

Max and Tangle’s guide to particle physics

To celebrate our Collider exhibition, we worked with the BAFTA award-winning Brothers McLeod to bring particle physics to life in this short animation. Myles and Greg McLeod had a pretty tough brief to squeeze all of particle physics (the entire Standard Model) into a two minute animation, but we think they pulled it off.

Collider content developer Rupert Cole interviewed scriptwriter Myles McLeod to find out how they did it.

Is this your first animation to do with physics?

I think it is! Though we’ve done maths before. We won a BAFTA for our psychedelic preschool maths show ‘Quiff and Boot’. Yes, that’s right, psychedelic maths. We also once explained Calculus using zombies. We’ve also done a bit of biology – dinosaurs to be precise – which was fun. We had to summarise 165 million years in 3 minutes. That’s efficiency for you.

Was it a challenge to cram so much particle physics into a two-minute animation?

Well, the challenge is where the fun lies. We were lucky that Harry Cliff at the Science Museum provided us with a wonderful visual explanation. Since we understood it, and we’re definitely not physicists, we knew that others would too. It was a great starting place from where we could then construct the backbone of the narrative. The next thing was what kind of a story did we want to tell, and what kind of characters would be in it.

How did you find physics compared with other topics you have worked with?

I think physics is one of those subjects that does both frighten and fascinate people. Everyone seems to have a drop off point, a point where you go ‘yes I understand that, yes I understand that’ and then ‘no I have no idea what you just said’. It’s such a fundamental science and some of it seems so deep and complex that on the face of it almost seems like magic, especially when you start talking about time moving at different rates and space being curved. On the other hand, it’s all about stars and forces and time and looking to beyond and imagining what’s out there and how it all works, so it’s a beautiful science too.

Where did the names Max and Tangle come from?

Well we wanted to take some characters from the world of physics so the cat is supposed to be Schrödinger’s Cat. Schrödinger coined the term entanglement, and Tangle sounded like a good name for a cat. We just needed a second character and Maxwell’s Demon was mentioned to us, and hey presto we had Max.

How did you decide on what the personalities of Max and Tangle would be like?

A lot of it came out of the question, ‘why would someone explain in a conversation all this information about particle physics?’ It seemed logical that one was clued up and clever and the other not as smart. Then it seemed like this could be a game of one-upmanship. So the less smart one needed their own advantage to balance things out, for Max that had to be his slyness and gung-ho approach to experiments. Once you start writing the script and getting them talking to each other they really start to show their personalities to you. When the voices come and later the animation, then they become even more distinct.

Do you have a favourite between Max and Tangle?

Max is great because he’s up to no good and it’s fun to have a character like that. They create chaos. But if you were asking me who I’d rather have over to lunch, I think I’d go with Tangle to avoid Max’s life-threatening experiments.

Discover more about protons, quarks and particle physics in our Collider exhibition.

Mischievous Mirrors – From the 18th century to the modern day

Explainer Affelia in our Learning team looks at some mischievous mirrors in the Science Museum. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? We all know this famous saying from Snow White, but mirrors are incredibly useful in our day to day lives. We use them in the morning to check our hair, in cars to avoid crashes and some buildings have them in corridors for safety. But there are some other, more mischievous, ways to use them. For example, our Grab the Bling exhibit in Launchpad uses a huge spherical concave mirror (one that bulges inwards) to trick people into thinking they can touch a desirable watch.

DSC01782

This watch is impossible to grab

In fact, the concave mirror produces something called an inverted real image of the watch. This means that the image of the watch is upside down compared to the real watch and is made by beams of light meeting at a single point in front of the mirror. People would then think that the image is the actual watch and try to snatch it, when in fact our watch is perfectly safe underneath.

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How Grab the Bling works: the spherical concave mirror reflects the light so that the actual watch (in black) looks like it’s easy to steal but in fact the viewer only sees its image (in grey)!

Mirrors are also used in our Seeing Through Walls exhibit which I like to use to pretend that I’m Superman.

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Seeing through walls exhibit inside Launchpad

Looking at the shape of the tubes, it’s clear that light can’t go up or through the wall and so it must go down. The two tubes are connected by a pipe in the raised area of the floor

Four mirrors are carefully placed where the tubes change direction so that the light can be directed around the tube and you and your buddy can see each other!

seeing through walls

How Seeing Through Walls Work. Why do they look farther away than they expected…? (Clue: Think about how long the tube would be if it went through the wall…)

The Science in the 18th Century gallery next door to Launchpad has many interesting devices that use mirrors to work. This gallery is pretty awesome because it’s filled with equipment used by King George III and his science tutor, Stephen Demainbray, to learn about science. Basically, it’s a 250 year old version of Launchpad! One of the equipments in this gallery that uses mirrors to trick people is a polemoscope, or “jealousy glass”.

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Jealous of my polemoscope? Displayed in the Science in the 18th Century gallery

They were used by opera goers to look at other people in the audience in private. They look very similar to opera glasses which were used to see the actors on stage more clearly, but instead a mirror inside is slanted at 45° so that the user can see what’s going on to one side of them. This makes the polemoscope ideal to secretly spy on people!

polemoscope

How a polemoscope works

So there you have it, it seems that mirrors aren’t only used to see who’s fairest of them all, but also who’s the cheekiest!

Kraftwerk Uncovered

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, uncovers Kraftwerk and the connections between music and technology ahead of a live performance at the Science Museum.

Music and technology are intimate companions. Every instrument is a machine that extends the human capacity to make music. It’s why the relationship between music and technology is of interest to the Science Museum, and why we are hosting Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24th January 2014.

The evening features two performances by Icebreaker of new work exploring the origins of Kraftwerk’s sound and their preoccupations with technologies of all kinds. Before Kraftwerk became the world’s most influential technopop outfit, they emerged from the improvisatory new music scene in Cold War Germany.

In stunning new realisations, the highly respected composer, producer and soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm has reimagined Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings, from albums that have long been deleted. These origins lie in the sixties and seventies – exactly the same period as Daphne Oram, Electronic Music Studios and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were creating their visions of electronic music in the UK, revealed in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition.

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

These performances incorporate a new video work by visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that explores the urban spaces of Kraftwerk’s origins. You can see a preview here.

But that’s not all. During the evening, you will also be able to enjoy the Balanescu Quartet’s wonderful re-workings of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine era technopop. These pieces, originally released on the album Possessed, reveal the music in a new, humorous light, picking-up on the dry wit of the originals.

The evening also features two talks: David Toop will explore how Kraftwerk’s music absorbed free jazz and soul, then refracted back into African-American music; with Richard Witts speaking on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik – Kraftwerk, Germany and England’, will investigate how Kraftwerk were received on their first tour of Britain in the 1970s.

Tickets for Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24 January 2014 can be bought online here

One small step away from our own planet – Chris Hadfield visits the Science Museum

Astronaut Chris Hadfield visited the Science Museum to share stories, sign books and explore our space technologies collections with Curator Doug Millard. Press Officer Will Stanley describes the afternoon with Commander Hadfield. 

Safely back on Earth after living aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield visited the Science Museum just before Christmas to share some of the extraordinary stories from his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

First selected as an astronaut in 1992, Chris has since served as CAPCOM for 25 Shuttle launches, Director of NASA Operations in Star City, Russia and as Chief of ISS Operations. Chris first flew into space in 1995, before returning in 2001 to help install Canadarm2 on the ISS. His final mission as an astronaut began in December 2012, culminating with his role as Commander of ISS Expedition 35.

During a tour of the Exploring Space gallery with Curator Doug Millard I asked what it felt like being an astronaut on board the ISS, ‘You are a representative of so many people’s hopes and dreams,’ Chris told me. ‘To be on board the ISS for five months is a gift of time.’

Commander Hadfield tours the Space gallery with curator Doug Millard (r)

Commander Hadfield tours the Space gallery with curator Doug Millard (r)

After pausing for photographs in front of the original Apollo 10 Command Module – which carried Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan back from the Moon in 1969 – the conversation turned to the future of space exploration. ‘The International Space Station currently is an extension of our self-awareness beyond Earth. One small step away from our own planet. The next logical step is to go the Moon. I am really hoping that within my lifetime we will start living on the Moon,’ explained Hadfield.

Commander Hadfield on his visit to the Science Museum.

Commander Hadfield on his visit to the Science Museum.

Arriving at the IMAX theatre, Chris shared stories from his new book and answered questions from the 400-strong audience about life as an astronaut, ‘My son sent me an email saying Mount Etna was erupting, so just like a dad on vacation I took a picture of Mount Etna.’

Some questions needed only a short answer, ‘Did I have a party when I can back to earth? Yes, several’ joked Chris. But others, such as describing a space walk, needed more explanation.

‘There’s a textured depth of darkness like you’ve never seen.  You are assaulted by the visual onslaught of this new place. I was stunned by the unexpected power of what was pouring in through my eyeballs’ explained Chris. ‘It would have been rude not to stop and look.’

Chris went on to describe how it felt with such a huge visual impact but no sound, ‘It’s like standing next to a waterfall and it being deadly silent.’

‘A spacewalk is one of the most powerful reminders of how alone you are. You are truly alone in the universe.’

Questions turned to what you do on the ISS in your spare time, ‘I wrote a whole album while up in space,’ answered Chris. He went on to discuss the human need to understand life through art, – from cave paintings in France to his own experiences recording the now famous Space Oddity video.

Many questions focused on our fascination with space and exploration. Chris said, ‘Space travel is nothing new. It’s a pattern we have been following for the last 70,000 years. There is a human necessity to leave home. That’s how we have spread across the whole planet. Each generation wants to see what’s beyond the horizon.’

The afternoon ended with questions about life as an astronaut. ‘Most of my time as an astronaut has been living on earth,’ explained Chris. ‘What you do in space may be entertaining, but it’s really not what matters. It’s life on earth that’s important.’

Did you join us for the book signing? Tell us more in the comments below.