Monthly Archives: May 2014

The First Spacewalk

Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition, celebrates Alexei Leonov’s 80th birthday.

In the ghostly black and white footage of the first ever spacewalk, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov floats in and out of frame. It is a haunting sight, especially when you learn Leonov did not think he would be able to climb back inside the spaceship.

Leonov, who celebrates his 80th birthday today (May 30), is a former fighter pilot, artist and one of the first Soviet cosmonauts (along with Yuri Gagarin). Leonov flew on two historic missions in the Russian space programme: the first spacewalk in 1965 and the first joint flight between the USSR and US in 1975.

It was a momentous day on 18 March 1965 when Leonov performed the world’s first spacewalk. However, Leonov struggled to fit back through the airlock as his spacesuit ballooned due to excess pressure during the walk. In the end, he opened a valve in the suit to let some of the high-pressure oxygen out, the suit deflated and Leonov squeezed through the airlock head first.

In that instance, Leonov’s brave decisions helped him escape unharmed, but the crew also had trouble with the spacecraft’s brakes upon descent. Leonov and the pilot of the craft, Nikolai Belyaev, made their final landing off course, in the depth of the Taiga forest.

Minutes earlier, the cosmonauts had orbited the Earth, becoming part of the new space age. Back on Earth they had to fight to survive in a different kind of wilderness. After two nights in sub-zero conditions, the two cosmonauts made it out of the woods on skis, chaperoned by a rescue crew.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

The stories of these first men and women to venture into the wilderness of outer space will be told in a new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014. Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, recently met Alexei Leonov to hear his story.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Leonov’s achievement was momentous – one of many historic milestones for the Russian space programme –  beating the US Project Gemini spacewalk by three months. But it was not the heated competition between the USSR and US space programmes that launched the next phase of space travel. Rather, it was their collaboration.

Beginning in the 1970s, an unprecedented partnership began between these two space superpowers. It was this spirit of cooperation that launched the first joint USSR and US flight: the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo mission, with Alexei Leonov as the commander of the Russian crew.

The mission began with Russia’s Soyuz launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 15, 1975, followed by Apollo launch seven hours later from the Kennedy Space Centre. Differences in language, technology, and politics were set aside. The mission brought together the engineers from both nations, who collaboratively designed a petal-shaped universal docking system – the first of its kind.

The rendezvous of the two spacecrafts, the Soyuz under command of Leonov and Apollo under command of Thomas Stafford went smoothly. The two crews – two cosmonauts and three astronauts – exchanged flags and gifts, participated in collaborative scientific research, and shared dinner together. They also explored each other’s crafts, describing the technologies to the eager audiences back home.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Leonov is not just a cosmonaut; he is also a talented artist who has reflected on his own exploration of space through numerous paintings and drawings, images of which will feature in the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition. He has taken his coloured pencils on missions and drew portraits of his international crewmates as well as ‘landscapes’ of the Earth from above.

Also sharing a birthday with Leonov is another space pioneer. Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space and first woman to travel to the Mir space station was born on 30 May 1963. Helen’s spacesuit from voyage to the Mir space station aboard the Soyuz spacecraft will also be on display in the Cosmonauts exhibition.

From the early days of the space programme, when every mission seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction, through Cold War rivalry to the era of the International Space Station, these stories are proof that once hostile nations are capable of cooperation towards a shared goal.

Discover more of Leonov’s story and the beginnings of the space age in the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition opening soon.

Longitude Prize 2014

Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and Chair of the Longitude Prize 2014 Committee, blogs on the launch of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The prowess of the nation’s historic achievements in science and technology is displayed for all to see in the Science Museum – a cathedral to the history of science where visitors can share in the celebration. The Museum is unique in its ability to allow us to reflect on our past achievements, while also inspiring future generations to keep pushing forward the frontiers of science and technology.

I’m pleased to be involved in a new project that I also hope will inspire the next generation of British scientists. Developed and run by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as a funding partner and launched this week on Horizon (Thursday 9pm, BBC2), the Longitude Prize 2014 will give innovators an incentive to grapple with a global problem and to produce a solution that will benefit humankind. Anyone who can find the solution will be rewarded with a multi-million pound prize.

The Longitude Prize 2014 is being launched on the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act where the British government offered £20,000 to find a way for sailors to determine their Longitude at sea.

At that time seafaring vessels were vital to the booming economy of Britain, and to prevent massive loss of life from shipwrecks was a government priority. Many intriguing innovations were developed to ‘discover’ longitude. Eventually, the fund was awarded to John Harrison, for his Marine Chronometer.

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Today, we live in a period of accelerated change as modern technology revolutionises every aspect of our daily lives:  communications, travel and health. There are many challenges that we face both nationally and globally.

The new Longitude Prize gives the chance for everyone to express a view on which area deserves top priority and offers the greatest scope. We’ve identified six challenges for public consideration. Through a text and online vote, anyone can influence which of these six challenges will become the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The Longitude Prize 2014 Challenges:

Water
Water is a finite resource and we must seek to find ways of producing more fresh water. Some 98% of the Earth’s water is too salty for drinking or agriculture and as water requirements grow and as our reserves shrink, many are turning to desalination. However the current desalination technology isn’t optimal for small-scale use.

Antibiotics
Antibiotics have changed the face of healthcare for the better; they on average add 20 years to over lives. 80 years on from the discovery of penicillin, we are still unable to distinguish bacterial from viral infections, or the type of bacteria in the clinic, which has caused the overuse of antibiotics and the evolution of multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Dementia
An ageing population means more people are developing dementia and unfortunately there is currently no existing cure. This means there is a need to find ways to support a person’s dignity, physical and emotional wellbeing and extend their ability to live independently.

Paralysis
Paralysis can emerge from a number of different injuries, conditions and disorders and the effects can be devastating. Every day can be a challenge when mobility, bowel control, sexual function and respiration are lost or impaired. We need to find a way to vastly increase the freedom of movement for people with paralysis.

Food
The world’s population is growing, getting richer and moving to cities. Current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be about 9 billion people on the planet; moreover our tastes will have turned to more resource-hungry foods such as meat and milk. In the face of limited resources and climate change, we must learn how to feed the world with less.

Flight
The rapid growth of carbon emissions caused by air travel needs to be addressed to help tackle climate change. The potential of zero-carbon flight has been demonstrated but it has had little impact on the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, which still relies exclusively on fossil fuels. We need to bring novel technologies into the mainstream to stimulate a significant change.

The Science Museum opens the world of science and technology to everyone. I hope that the Longitude Prize 2014 will stimulate wide interest, as well as encouraging inventors and innovators.

Please watch Horizon and then cast your vote to decide which of these challenges you would like to win the Longitude Prize 2014.

Visitors to the Science Museum Lates on 28 May can discover more about the Longitude Prize 2014, with further information available at longitudeprize.org

Google Doodle celebrates pioneering chemist Dorothy Hodgkin’s 104th birthday

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Google today celebrates the life of the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) with a Doodle on its homepage.

Here you can see the inspiration for the Doodle on what would have been her 104th birthday, her historic image of the three dimensional atomic structure of penicillin, which she deduced with a method called X ray crystallography.

Because it was not possible to focus X rays scattered by the penicillin, Hodgkin used large punch-card operated tabulators, predecessor to the computer, to help analyse the way the molecule diffracted X-rays. You can see the original in the Hidden Structures display case in the Science Museum.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Hodgkin, who at Oxford University taught the future prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts) in the 1940s, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.

Another notable molecular structure Hodgkin tackled was that of vitamin B12, which she cracked with the help of Alan Turing’s Pilot Ace computer, which can also be seen in the Museum.

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

She was one of the first people in April 1953 to travel from Oxford to Cambridge to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA, constructed by Briton Francis Crick and American James Watson, based on data acquired by Rosalind Franklin, which can also be seen in the Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

The pioneering protein crystallographer, the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was awarded the Order of Merit, only the second woman to do so, after Florence Nightingale, and was the first to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley medal, its oldest and most prestigious award.

She died in July 1994, aged 84. In her honour, the Royal Society has established the prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship for early career stage researchers.

The origins of the technique she used date back to when X-rays, one of the most remarkable discoveries of the late 19th century, had been shown to react strangely when exposed to crystals, producing patterns of spots on a photographic plate.

In 1912 physicists William Bragg (1862-1942) and his son Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) worked out a formula that linked the X-ray diffraction pattern with a crystal’s atomic structure, paving the way for X-ray crystallography as a technique to determine the structure of materials at the atomic level. For this, Bragg and his son won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915.

 

Glittering Director’s Dinner celebrates an exceptional year for the Science Museum

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

More than 350 of the Science Museum’s most ardent supporters last night celebrated what Director Ian Blatchford described as an “exceptional year” for the museum, and the contribution of Chairman of the Board of Trustees Douglas Gurr.

Ian Blatchford welcomes guests to the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner

Ian Blatchford welcomes guests to the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

The event was also distinguished by a speech given by the Director of the world’s most prestigious institute of theoretical research.

Usually the man to hand out the honours at the Annual Director’s Dinner, Dr Gurr was last night on the receiving end as he was named a Science Museum Fellow in recognition of the great impact he’s had in a decade as a trustee and four years as Chairman. Trustee Howard Covington praised Dr Gurr’s “enthusiasm energy and sheer hard work” as he announced the accolade to guests that included the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid MP, Betty Jackson, Deborah Bull and Charles Simonyi.

The Right Hon Sajid Javid MP and Dr Douglas Gurr attend the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

The Right Hon Sajid Javid MP and Dr Douglas Gurr attend the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

In his speech, Director Ian Blatchford remarked on how the huge success of our Collider exhibition shows what can be achieved by “dumbing up”. He also gave a glimpse of forthcoming highlights, notably the Information Age gallery and Cosmonauts exhibition and drew attention to the museum’s leading role in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, most recently as part of the launch of the Your Life campaign.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili attends the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

Professor Jim Al-Khalili attends the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

A wide range of scientists and academic luminaries were present, including Sir Ralph Kohn, Lord Rees, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Helen Czerski and Professor Marcus du Sautoy and leading journalists including John Mulholland of the Observer, Sumit Paul-Choudhury of New Scientist, Pallab Ghosh of the BBC, Louise Jury of the Evening Standard and Geoffrey Carr of the Economist. There were also politicians, such as Shadow Science spokesman Liam Byrne and the Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Andrew Miller.

Michael Wilson OBE, The Right Hon Lord Rees of Ludlow, Lady Elise Becket Smith, Sir Martin Smith KBE, Veronika Covington and Howard Covington attend the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

Michael Wilson OBE, The Right Hon Lord Rees of Ludlow, Lady Elise Becket Smith, Sir Martin Smith KBE, Veronika Covington and Howard Covington attend the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

The guests were treated to a speech, including a non-popping balloon experiment, by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who characterised the key to science – and life – as “guessing what is at the other side of the hill”. As an example of both the challenges and wonder of this game he pointed to the time between the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, celebrated in our Collider exhibition, and the papers by Peter Higgs and others that had first postulated its existence. Or as Professor Dijkraaf put it, “the five decades before this idea, crazy enough to be true, became reality”.

Professor Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf delivers a speech at the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

Professor Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf delivers a speech at the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

Professor Dijkgraaf spoke of scientists’ duty engage the public by sharing their “stories and fascination, latest insights and discoveries” adding that he couldn’t think of a more appropriate location to do so than the museum, since “the universe cannot wish for a more perceptive eye than the Science Museum”. A talented artist, his own perceptive eye picked out Crick and Watson’s molecular model of the Double Helix as a particular favourite among the objects in the Making the Modern World gallery that provided a regal setting for a grand evening.

The Making the Modern World gallery hosts the 2014 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

The Making the Modern World gallery hosts the 2014 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Tim Anderson

The night was brought to a fitting close by Dr Gurr reflecting one some of the highlights of the past four years at the Science Museum Group, from the Codebreaker exhibition and launch of  Media Space to the Museum of Science and Industry joining the Group, the reunion of Mallard with its surviving sister locomotives and the record numbers of visitors who came to the Science Museum in the past 12 months, exceeding 3.3 million.

Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

Chancellor launches gender agenda at Science Museum

By Will Stanley and Roger Highfield

A major government campaign was launched today at the Science Museum to boost the numbers of young people —especially women — studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Announced by George Osborne MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Your Life campaign has the ambitious aim of increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects by 50% over the next three years.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life. Credit: Science Museum

There is plenty of evidence that women and minorities face an uphill struggle in UK science. As one sign of the prevailing concern, 600 people joined us this morning for the launch of Your Life, which includes a three year exhibition at the Science Museum.

Fewer than 20% of 16-19 year olds take A-Level Maths and half of mixed state schools have no girls study A-Level Physics in 2011. ‘Only two per cent of girls are doing physics A level. That is not good enough. That is something we have got to change,’ said the Chancellor.

Surrounded by some of the most important objects in the history of science, in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, the Chancellor spoke about the need to inspire the next generation.

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

He told the audience that ‘all my life’ he had been visiting the Science Museum. ‘I bring my children to this museum and when you see all the incredible exhibits here, the steam engines, aircraft, early electricity generation and spacecraft, it is easy to think this happened in Britain’s past….that is not true.

One of the key things we are trying to challenge in this campaign is the idea that science engineering and design are all part of Britain’s great industrial past, not our future’

As one example of how Britain is contributing to the future, he singled out the museum’s Collider exhibition, which celebrates the achievements of a vast army of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in finding the Higgs particle, due to open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester later this month.

To help meet this challenge of attracting more students to careers in STEM, the Science Museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, announced a major three-year exhibition, backed by leading companies and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Watch this space for more news over the coming months.

Mr Blatchford pointed out how of the 3.4 million visitors to the Science Museum, half are women, and that the museum plays a key role in inspiring people to study STEM, for instance with its festivals celebrating the role of women in fields such as Formula 1, energy, space and aeronautics.

Education Minister Liz Truss MP praised the ‘fantastic turnout’ at the museum echoed the Chancellor’s words, citing the common Chinese saying “science and maths can get us everywhere.”

Too many teenagers, especially girls, don’t realise this, she added, saying she wants to ‘eradicate science deserts….if we get this right, the opportunities will be huge.’

The Museum  is one of over 170 businesses, universities, schools and organisations supporting the Your Life campaign.

Organisations such as Google, Arup, BP, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Airbus, BSkyB and the Royal Academy of Engineering have also pledged to highlight the opportunities open to those studying STEM subjects, with the commitment to create over 2,000 new STEM jobs.

Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby, Eben Upton, founder of Raspberry Pi and Roma Agrawal, a structural Engineer who worked on the Shard, are all advocates for the Your Life campaign, which was trending on Twitter this morning.

Dunn, who co-created the Tesco Clubcard, and her independent board of eight entrepreneurs and advocates hope to transform the way young people think about maths and physics and the careers to which they lead.

The Chancellor was also joined by David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Matthew Hancock MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan MP.  Support was voiced by the Prime Minister and Energy and Climate Change Minister Baroness Verma who said: “My personal commitment is to ensure that 30% of energy company executive board members are female by 2030.

Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.