Monthly Archives: March 2014

World must adapt to climate change, says IPCC

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The world is ill prepared for an unknown climate future and must adapt to meet the challenges, according to a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Yokohama, Japan. You can read the press summary of the UN agency’s report here and the full report here, written by 309 authors and editors drawn from 70 countries.

Today’s report, which focuses on how there will be sweeping consequences to life and livelihood, and how to adapt to them, is the second of three in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate change.

The first instalment, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change.  The third, on how to cut emissions that drive climate change, comes out in April.

At the Science Museum, you can keep up to date with the issues surrounding climate change through a series of exhibitions, artworks and educational activities. Our interactive Atmosphere gallery, encourages visitors to learn about the work of early pioneers such as John Tyndall, uncover the secrets of ice cores and stalagmites, and wonder at the latest ideas for a low-carbon life. You can also play a climate themed computer game called Rizk.

To see how fiction has been inspired by climate change, download the Museum’s first novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White. You can also discover the beauty, value and volume of ‘rubbish’ we produce in an upcoming exhibition, The Rubbish Collection – which will trace the journey of waste generated by staff and visitors to the Museum over a 30 day period.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

Next week we will celebrate the life and 70 year career of James Lovelock – one of Britain’s most important living scientists, with an exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. The exhibition will feature highlights from a remarkable archive of images, manuscripts and audio-visual material acquired by the Museum in 2012 – providing visitors with a glimpse into life in Lovelock’s laboratory and his creative mind and charismatic personality.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will publish a report on the public understanding of climate change later this week after holding a hearing in the Museum last year.

The Echo of Creation – Astronomers Hear the B of the Big Bang

Dr. Harry Cliff, Curator of our Collider exhibition and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science explores one of the most important discoveries of a generation.

In what has been hailed as one of the most important discoveries of a generation, astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole have announced that they have detected gravitational tremors from the birth of our Universe imprinted across the sky. The result is the first direct evidence for inflation, the theory that the Universe expanded unimaginably fast, an infinitesimal instant after time zero.

The BICEP2 telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

The BICEP2 telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Credit: BICEP2

The theory of inflation states that the Universe grew in volume by about a factor of at least 1078, a number so vast that it’s impossible to comprehend (its roughly equal to the number of atoms in the universe). This phenomenal expansion took place in an incredibly short time, in about ten billionths of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, at a time when the Universe was cold, dark and empty. To put this in context, if the full stop at the end of this sentence were to grow by the same factor, it would end up about a hundred times larger than our galaxy.

Inflation is a crucial part of modern cosmological theories and solves many serious problems with the traditional Big Bang model, but so far there has been no direct evidence that it actually happened. However, inflationary theories predict that this violent expansion would have created ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves. These ripples would then have echoed through the cosmos, leaving a mark on the oldest light in the Universe, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Discovered fifty years ago by the American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (who at first mistook it for pigeon poo in their receiver), the CMB is the remnant of the light emitted 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the Universe cooled enough for atoms to form and for light to travel freely across space. The discovery of the CMB was one of the most important events in the history of science, providing convincing evidence that the Universe began in a violent hot expansion known as the Big Bang. This ancient light has been stretched from a searing hot 3000 Kelvin to a freezing 2.7 Kelvin by the expansion of space, leaving it as a faint microwave signal coming from the entire sky.

The BICEP2 telescope is based at the Amundsen-Scott station at the geographic South Pole, where temperatures plummet to below minus 70 degrees Celsius in the Antarctic winter and the base is buffeted by blizzards and gale force winds. Despite these incredibly hostile conditions, the BICEP2 telescope is in the perfect location to study the CMB.

The South Pole is around 3000 metres above sea level, and the driest place on Earth, meaning that there is relatively little atmospheric water vapour that would otherwise screen out the CMB signal. This comes with the added advantage that BICEP2 is able to scan the same small piece of sky all year round, by effectively looking straight down from the bottom of the planet to the point known as the celestial south pole.

BICEP2 astronomers spent almost three years scanning the CMB in incredible detail, but yesterday the freezing conditions and hard work paid off spectacularly as they revealed subtle twists in the CMB, a smoking gun for gravitational waves from inflation. In fact, the BICEP2 astronomers were surprised by just how strong the signal was. “This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said co-leader Clem Pryke.

Twists in the cosmic microwave background that provide evidence for inflation

Twists in the cosmic microwave background that provide evidence for inflation. Credit BICEP2

Although the result hasn’t been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal yet, most astronomers agree that the findings look solid. The fifty-strong BICEP2 team have been sitting on their historic result since the end of 2012, and have spent more than a year checking and rechecking to ensure they have taken account of every possible effect, from gravitational lensing to space dust, which might have given a false result.

So what does this mean for our understanding of our Universe? The BICEP2 result is really three Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries in one. They have found the first convincing evidence that inflation really happened, giving science its first glimpse of the moment in which the universe came into being. Second, they have found the strongest evidence yet for gravitational waves, the last prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity to be verified, and something that astronomers have been searching for for decades. Third, and by no means least, this discovery demonstrates a deep connection between quantum mechanics and gravity, giving hope that we may one day find evidence of a theory of everything, a theory that would unite our theory of particles and forces with our theory of cosmology and gravity. This would undoubtedly be the greatest prize in science.

If confirmed by other observatories, this incredible result will go down in history as one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century, eclipsing even CERN’s discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Nobel Prizes will almost certainly follow. More importantly, this result opens up a new window through which astronomers and cosmologists may, for the first time, glimpse the very moment of creation.

Explore more about astronomy in our Cosmos and Culture gallery and discover the mysteries of deep space in our Hidden Universe 3D IMAX film.

Designing Collider

We sat down with Pippa Nissen from Nissen Richards Studio to talk about her team’s work on our Collider exhibition.

Left to right: Pippa Nissen, Simon Rochowski and Ashley Fridd from Nissen Richards Studio

Left to right: Pippa Nissen, Simon Rochowski and Ashley Fridd from Nissen Richards Studio

Can you tell our readers a little about NISSEN RICHARDS studio and the kinds of projects you work on?

We are a bit unusual as a design practice as we work in different sectors; architecture, theatre and exhibition. We love the way that they have slightly different rhythms and processes that all feed on each other. Exhibition design sits nicely between architecture and theatre; it’s about the space and form of different spaces (architecture), but ultimately is about a visitor experience in a timeline across these (theatre).

You went out to CERN several times for the Collider exhibition, what was your impression of the place?

We were completely bowled over by CERN – it was extraordinary as well as full of the ordinary. The sheer size and aesthetic was beautiful – both above ground and below. In the corridors and the warehouses that you arrive in – it felt as if everything was frozen in time from somewhere around 1970 with an austere and functional Swiss graphic language thrown in.

Below ground was like a science fiction film, or being in a giant Ferrari engine – stunningly beautiful and utterly functional.

We also loved the fact that people led normal lives that went on while they were working on such mind-blowing things; and how these clashed unexpectedly. One scientist for example had his kitchen organised so that he could still see the operational screens of CERN – so he could be eating breakfast, helping his children with their homework and watching a collision happening.

The humanness of the spaces also shone through – funny posters about the CERN lifestyle (dancing and singing clubs etc) or jokes pinned up next to an equation and technical drawing of the tunnel – how CERN was filled by thousands of people doing their job – all contributing to something cutting edge and important.

We were particularly taken for example by a scribbled note on a wipe board in the control room saying ‘Don’t forget to reset the undulators!’ next to a comic-book style joke cut out from a magazine about scientists.

What approach did you take in the exhibition design?

We had this amazing experience at CERN, being shown around by extraordinary scientists that were passionate about their work but incredibly friendly and clear in their explanations.

We had a real sense of this being a place where everyone was involved for the good of it all – at the forefront of science – like travelling in space, not knowing exactly what they were about to discover, which was incredibly exciting.

It was full of different people, of different nationalities, with conversations moving freely from English to French to Italian etc. It felt like a truly collaborative and non-hierarchical place.

That is what we wanted to capture – and we decided to base the experience for the visitor to the museum on the same idea – as if you were gaining access to these wonderful people and spaces that few get to see.

Early drawings of the Collider exhibition

Early drawings of the Collider exhibition

As a piece of design, I really enjoy the spatial rhythm of the exhibition; it takes you around the exhibition and helps you in what to look at, giving you clues and gestures, how spaces vary and change as you go through.

Exploring the corridors of CERN, Collider exhibition.

Exploring the corridors of CERN, Collider exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

I also love the graphic language developed by both Finn Ross the video designer (see more of Finn’s photos from his visit to CERN here), and Northover & Brown the 2D designers, which supplements our designs – adding a level of detail in a bold and photographic but abstract way: how the beam of the Collider becomes a character in your journey as a visitor.

There was a very diverse team working on Collider, including people from the worlds of theatre, design, museums and science. What was the development process like?

The “diverse-ness” of the team was hugely enjoyable but also a great challenge. If everyone in the team had been in one room, it could have been quite overwhelming.

There were video designers, lighting designer, sound designer, playwright, costume designers, and actors and there were also other consultants such as graphic designers, conservators, security experts, quantity surveyors, project managers, and of course the scientists and people from CERN.

To find a clear voice we decided to work through workshops; something that we have done before especially in the theatre where we work with many different artists.

This was a very enjoyable process – we would all be together in a room, brainstorm and slowly plot out the visitors’ journey as if we were making a film. We used flipcharts, models, photos, text, films etc that we pinned all round the rooms of various parts of the Science Museum.

Are there any particular highlights during the design process that stand out?

There are so many wonderful moments. But to pick a few; setting up a green screen in the Science Museum while Brian Cox made his cameo; going to the stunning underground spaces of the detectors and filming; and workshop-ing with our playwright and actors in a small rehearsal space in Whitechapel. We all realised that we were creating something quite special.

What has the reaction to the exhibition been?

The day after the exhibition opened we were on tenterhooks and rather perfectly, the Independent Newspaper ran a front-page story with a large picture of Peter Higgs with the headline “Intelligent design: ‘God Particle’ theorist opens sublime exhibition”.

Peter Higgs at the launch of the Collider exhibition.

Peter Higgs at the launch of the Collider exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

I went straight from the newsagent to the framers and now it has pride of place in our studio. The reaction from the press has been very positive with 5* reviews.

But our greatest praise is from visitors who say that they feel as if they have taken a trip to CERN, and understand both what the people are like, and a bit more about the science behind it.

Are there any other exhibitions/projects that inspired your work on Collider?

It is interesting that the work we talked about the most when making Collider – were theatre projects that we had worked on or we had visited. Ones where the audience moves around between events and their journey is tailored and twisted by using actors, musicians, video, props, and installations.

We have worked on a couple of these kinds of projects for Aldeburgh Festival. On “The Way to the Sea” we took over a village in Suffolk for a week, and staged two musical performances in different locations, while a 500 strong audience walked between locations coming across signs, poetry, actors, props, speakers, and installations.

My most memorable type of exhibition event that sticks in my mind and inspired me to study theatre design in the first place is over 20 years ago in the Clink (before it was developed). The artist Robert Wilson worked with a sound designer to create a series of stories that you wandered through as a visitor, each like exquisite tableau.

There were a series of these kind of events in the late 80’s early 90’s and I spent my student years assisting Hildegard Bechtler on a few of her pioneering projects, where she took over buildings to subvert the theatre and create more of a total experience for the audience from the moment they entered the theatre building. It is tremendously exciting to use this in exhibition design years later.

Do you think that the mixture of theatre and exhibition works?

I think that it really works, and for me it is about helping the visitor engage with the content of exhibitions. In a theatrical setting people can have an emotional sensorial connection – through sound, smell, touch – and once engaged they can spend time to understand and interpret the meaning of the objects or artefacts.

I feel that there is a lot of scope in this – and exhibitions are becoming different to what they used to be. It is now not enough to put some objects in a showcase and write a label – I learn from my own children that they often feel like they need a way in when visiting museums.

Ultimately it is all about the objects as they are the authentic elements. However we can help with giving them meaning through designing people’s experience.

We will continue to use elements of theatre in our work, and enjoy the relationship between what is real with its own set of history, and what we are adding to allow you in.

The Collider exhibition runs at the Science Museum until 5 May 2014 (tickets can be booked here). The exhibition will then open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from May 23 – September 28 2014 (tickets available soon here).

Happy 25th Birthday World Wide Web!

Tilly Blyth, Lead Curator for Information Age, reflects on how the World Wide Web came into existence.

It was 25 years ago today that the World Wide Web was born. Only a quarter of a century ago, but in that short time it has transformed our world. In a recent Great British Innovation Vote, musician Brian Eno said that ‘no technology has been so pervasive so quickly as the internet’.

On 12 March 1989, the British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his influential paper “Information Management: A Proposal” and circulated it to colleagues at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists from all over the world were brought together at CERN to conduct research, but Berners-Lee identified that there was a problem with the way information was managed and shared between them. His proposal suggested a way of linking documents through a system of hypertext.

Rather wonderfully, Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall commented that the proposal was ‘Vague but exciting…’ but he agreed to purchase a NeXT computer. The machine was to become the world’s first web server and Berners-Lee used it to build the first ever website. Today, the only evidence on the machine of its important history is a torn sticker that says: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!”

To celebrate the birthday of the Web, from today we are putting Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT cube computer on display in our Making the Modern World gallery. In Autumn 2014 it will move into our new Information Age gallery, to play a leading role in the stories of the last 200 years of information and communication technologies.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox (co-founder of Lastminute.com) visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, at an event to mark 25 years since Berners-Lee submitted the first proposal for the web on 12 March 1989 at CERN.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web. Credit Science Museum.

Yesterday, we celebrated the arrival of the NeXT computer at the Museum and the impending anniversary, with a reception attended by Martha Lane Fox and Rick Haythornthwaite, Chair of the Web Foundation.

But a birthday for the Web is not just a chance to reflect on the past, but to look towards the future. What kind of Web do we want? Currently only 3 in 5 people across the world have access to the Web. Do we want a tool that is open and accessible to anyone? And do we want to control our public and private data? How can we ensure that the Web isn’t only a device for a few companies, but gives us all rights to achieve our potential? Through the #web25 hashtag Tim Berners-Lee is inviting us all to share our thoughts.

Discover more about how the web has shaped our world in the new Information Age gallery, opening in Autumn 2014.

From Earth to space in a Skinsuit

Julia Attias, a Research Assistant working at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences (CHAPS), talks about her career in space science for our Beyond Earth festival this weekend. 

My name is Julia Attias and I’m a space physiologist. What does that mean? “Physiology” generally refers to the functions and processes of the human body. Space physiology involves the understanding of how the body functions in space, and particularly in an environment that has far less gravity than on Earth. It’s important to know how low gravity environments affect people taking part in space missions.

I became a space physiologist through completing a Masters degree in Space Physiology and Health at Kings College London in September 2012. The course is designed to help us understand the challenges that an astronaut’s body faces both in space and on return to Earth, such as muscle and bone loss, weakening of the cardiovascular system and visual disturbances.

During my masters dissertation, I started to research the “Gravity-Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit” (GLCS), funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Skinsuit was designed by a group of aerospace engineers at MIT, with the aim to recreate the same force that the body experiences through Earth’s natural gravitational pull. This way, if the Skinsuit is worn in environments of zero-gravity, the body should be protected from some of the issues mentioned above.

Testing the Skinsuit

Testing the Skinsuit

I’ve been studying the Skinsuit to see if it really does produce a gravity load similar to Earth’s, and if it could be used in the future alongside exercise activities to keep astronauts fit and keep their heart, muscles and bones strong in space.

Space travel is becoming of increasing interest in the UK, primarily owing to British astronaut Tim Peake, who will be flying to the International Space Station in 2015! During the next year, there will be many discussions about how to keep him healthy while in space.

I’ll be starting a PhD in October 2014 which will involve continuing my research with the Skinsuit to see how it might help tackle issues such as back pain and spinal elongation. This research will combine with other work conducted all over the globe to help keep astronauts like Tim Peake as free of physiological burden as possible for their return to Earth.

Unfortunately I won’t be at the Beyond Earth festival this weekend, because I’ll be testing the Skinsuit with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet!  We’ll be testing the Skinsuit in a weightless environment (not in space unfortunately!) through a parabolic flight. We will get into an aircraft which descends rapidly, creating up to 22 seconds of weightlessness at a time – it’s a bit like being on a roller coaster. The flight is to test the Skinsuit in a weightless environment – taking off and putting on the suit to ensure the simple things we take for granted on Earth are possible in zero-gravity!

Thinking big

Curator Ali Boyle blogs on Big Science, a recent discussion about science and society since WWII that was part of our Collider events series.   

If you want to get an understanding of giant scientific projects like CERN, go into your kitchen and take your microwave apart. Actually don’t – we recommend that you leave potentially-destructive household experiments to the guidance of Punk Science. But as Jon Agar points out, a household device that we now take for granted contains a component that is a signature of the sciences since WW2. The magnetron – which generates the short-wavelength radio waves (or ‘microwaves’) to heat up your dinner – was crucial in the development of airborne radar for WW2.

While the names usually associated with the invention are those of University of Birmingham scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, they were not stereotypical lone geniuses in a laboratory: Randall was employed by General Electric, and the research was sponsored by the Admiralty with the aim of detecting submarines. This interplay between academic, industrial and military interests is often characteristic of Big Science – a broad term which historians use to describe the large-scale projects of the sciences of the late 20th century.

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World (Image: Science Museum)

Last week’s conversation between Jon and Lisa Jardine, held in our Collider exhibition, discussed several examples of Big Science, and ways of making sense of it. One handy mnemonic is the Five M’s: money; manpower; big machines; military interests and media attention – although CERN, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, is a notable exception to the ‘military’ rule. It was founded with the aim of using peaceful scientific research to knit Europe together again after the war. Find out more here.

This pan-European institution preceded later economic and political unions, although over the past 60 years particle physics has also witnessed Britain’s ambiguity about being part of Europe. Immediately after WW2 Britain was one of the few European nations that didn’t need a joint accelerator, as it already had its own large facilities, and there was much discussion before signing the CERN convention. Although UK universities and industrial partners were major players in building the Large Hadron Collider, they might not have been involved at all. Jon showed us a 1984 letter, preserved in the National Archives, in which Margaret Thatcher – who trained as a scientist – expresses doubt about ‘extravagant’ collaborative projects. Mrs T was eventually convinced of the worth of keeping the UK in CERN, and was even partly responsible for one of the most common analogies used to explain the Higgs boson. (Mind you, Peter Higgs himself admits that it’s pretty impossible to explain the mechanism simply, in this interview with Jim Al-Khalili).

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider - see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider – see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

And sometimes exploring Big Science involves looking at the little things: Lisa says that one of the best ways to understand how our lives are intertwined with science is to explore how science is intertwined with life. Big Science provides plenty of opportunities to explore social interaction amongst large groups, whether it’s the staggering 75,000 people working at the Manhattan Project’s Oak Ridge site as development of the atomic bomb neared completion (see an exhibition of the official photographer’s work here) or the 3,000 people onsite at CERN at any given time. We’ve tried to recreate some of CERN’s everyday scenes in Collider, which runs at the Science Museum until 5 May and then at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from 23 May – 28 September.

The audio recording of Lisa and Jon’s wide-ranging conversation can be listened to here, and you’ll find further coverage in Jon’s book on 20th century science. You can also hear more from them both, and many other historians, on science of all shapes and sizes in Lisa’s radio series.

Off the Beaten Track at the Science Museum

Laura from the Learning team shares some alternative things to see on a trip to the Museum.

Half term at the Science Museum can be busy, with families flocking to the exciting interactive galleries (like Launchpad) and energetic science shows. However, there are times when a quiet mosey around a museum is just what you need, away from the bustle of London. 

Here are 9 of my favourites from all the weird and wonderful objects that you might not expect to find in the Science Museum. They’re off the beaten track but are sure to go down well with children and adults alike. See if you can spot them next time you visit with your family…

1. Egyptian Mummy

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Yes, there is a mummy at the Science Museum! And not just one either, you’ll find mummified cats and birds displayed next to our ancient Egyptian friend in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

2. Poo Lunch Box

Found in the Energy gallery

Human poo could be the energy source of the future. Afterall, it was used in ancient China to fertilise crops. But would you be happy to take this lunch box to work or school? Have closer look at this lunchbox in our Energy gallery and find out some more interesting ways of using your poo to save the planet!

3. Models of Human Eyes

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Slightly spooky, ivory peepers – these Victorian models could be taken apart to show how the human eye works. See them in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

4. Shoes made of carpet

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Carpet slippers? How about carpet platforms with these shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood and used in an advertising campaign for Axminster carpets. See them in our Challenge of Materials gallery.

5. Your worst fears, bottled

Found in the Who Am I? gallery

Some fears and phobias that you can probably relate to, and some others that maybe you can’t. Scientists still don’t know why and how we develop some of our more bizarre phobias. See more phobias in our Who Am I? gallery.

6. Toilets, as you’ve never seen them before

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

These two can be found with several other loos on display – how do they compare with yours at home? The one on the left didn’t have a flush mechanism, you would have had to pour a jug of water down the bowl to wash away your business!

7. Play the video game that launched video games

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

You could say that Angry Birds wouldn’t be here without it, it’s Pong, the first ever home video game. Have a go in the Secret Life of the Home gallery and see how you score.

8. Underwater Rolex

Found in the Measuring Time gallery

This Rolex watch looks like a bubble for a reason, it can still function underwater at a depth of 7 miles. See this watch and over 500 timepieces in our Measuring Time gallery.

9. Middle-Eastern Super Sword

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Legend has it this 18th century sword is so strong it could slice right through a European broad sword. Scientists still don’t know how it was made to be so strong, but if you look closely you can see a beautiful ripple pattern on the blade, which may give a clue to it’s unique properties. See it in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

If you’re thinking about a trip to the Science Museum, why not try out the visit us pages to help you pick and choose what you’d like to see.