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Luvvies and Boffins

Luvvies & Boffins Night at the Museum

Guest post by Peter Barron, Director of External Relations, Google EMEA

This week saw the second gathering of Google’s Luvvies and Boffins — this time with added boffinry courtesy of the Science Museum in London.

The idea came from Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture, delivered in Edinburgh last summer, in which he said Britain needs to bring art and science back together if its creative industries are to have a successful future. Guests were handed lapel badges denoting “Luvvie”, “Boffin” or the Renaissance “Luvviboff”.

Besides great cocktails and conversation, the evening featured a stellar line-up of computing-themed activities. There were guided tours of the new Turing Exhibition, up-close demonstrations of the Babbage Engine in action, and hands-on soldering workshops to make Lumiphones.

As an added bonus, our evening coincided with Science Museum Lates, an adults only event at the museum on the last Wednesday of every month. Geek activities abounded — punk science comedy, a cockroach fancy dress tour, even an impressively silent disco.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening. Thanks to the Science Museum for being such great hosts.

See highlights from the night over on storify

Science Museum

Government Chief Scientist visits the Science Museum

By Roger Highfield

The most influential scientist in the country came to the Science Museum last night to give a unique overview of how he has advised the Prime Minister over the years.

Science Museum

As he approaches the end of his time as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and with his successor Sir Mark Walport now waiting in the wings Professor Sir John Beddington was in a reflective mood during his lecture, given in association with the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and our monthly Lates event.

Like his two predecessors, Sir John has had to spend an inordinate amount discussing badgers, and their role in bovine tuberculosis. The issues he has handled have stretched from shale gas and space weather to black swans. ‘It’s a mad job,” he joked.

Since he stepped into the hot seat at the start of 2008, Sir John has given key advice to Government during a number of huge stories, such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the 2010 volcanic ash incident, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Sir John described how, as chair of Sage (Science Advisory Group in Emergencies) that feeds in to Cobra (a reference to Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, used to handle a crisis), he had to reassure Prime Minister David Cameron that, despite the more hysterical press reports, the wider radiological fallout of Fukushima was much less than Britons would encounter if they evacuated Tokyo on a flight to London.

The ability of Government to make appropriate use of science has been a central issue. He has been responsible for forming a network of those with science and engineering backgrounds within government (now around 4000 strong at the last count) and encouraging all major departments of state to recruit a Chief Scientific Adviser: he illustrated this with a PowerPoint slide of mugshots of the 18 Government Chief Scientists, including a shadowy androgynous cut-out figure in MI5.

One might quibble about the details of how well this is working but, as a Lords Select Committee recently concluded, these advisors are critical, not least because they deal with issues that cut across departments and that can outlive the lifetimes of politicians, such as securing food and energy.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 Sir John raised the concept of the “Perfect Storm” of food, energy and water security in the context of climate change, a global population that will soar by a billion in the next 13 years, and the ever-increasing proportion in vulnerable urban environments, raising this as a priority for the international community.

Sir John has led the way in producing report after report working through the consequences, notably the link between food insecurity and social unrest. And, in response to a question from the audience, he welcomed the move by the United Nations to appoint its own Chief Scientist to help deal with these huge issues.

When it came to last week’s Rio+20 summit, Sir John diplomatically avoided any explicit expression of his disappointment about the outcome, stating that he felt it was better that decisions were made than not at all. However, it was perhaps significant that the most he could find to say about his trip was how bad the weather was in Rio.

At a “Resilient Cities” event the summit Sir John made an urgent appeal for scientists to use plain language if they are to play a larger role in policymaking on climate change, notably to convey an accurate measure of the risks. One example is the use of GM crops to do away with pesticides, where the existing risks of intensive farming are often neglected in the public debate.

He adopted a high profile during the recent furore about genetically altered crops, as demonstrators gathered to protest against the planting of GM wheat in open fields at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. Sir John argued that GM had to be part of a bigger plan to feed the world and predicted enormous increases in the demand for GM food, without which we could expect increased food prices that would harm the poorest of the poor, in particular.

When asked by Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment about the legacy of the ‘Climategate’ e-mails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia, Sir John pointed out that he thought some climate scientists had been harassed through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, but rightly stressed the need for openness and transparency, and to make data available so that research results can be tested through replication.

Sir John was surprisingly outspoken in his criticism of how poorly he feels the European Union is dealing with some issues of risk, highlighting, for instance, the problem of banning some substances purely because of their potential hazard, but failing to take into account whether the low levels of exposure actually constitute any significant risk to public health. On one point in particular, he could not hide his exasperation: “there is complete idiocy.”

I asked Sir John if the Chief Scientist should have more power to decide policy, rather than just advise? This would not be unprecedented: in monetary policy, a huge amount of power is devolved to Mervyn King and the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, presumably because politicians recognise that monetary policy is complex and should be left to the experts.

Surely the same be more true when it comes to aspects of science and engineering policy? No, came back the reply, because power corrupts. It is better to provide advice and insights and, as one example, he explained how a committee is now investigating the use of computer trading in financial markets, where avalanches of pre-programmed trading – up to a quarter of a million per second – can cause huge shifts in share price and market instability.

He also revealed his guiding principle when it comes to dealing with Government and NGOs alike, quoting Steven Chu, the Nobel prize winning physicist who is currently Energy Secretary in the United States: “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”

The Spirit of Alan Turing

The tragic loss of a friend during his teenage years exerted an extraordinary influence on Turing’s life, according to Roger Highfield and David Rooney

By Roger Highfield and David Rooney

Alan Turing 1951

The defining moment of the remarkable life of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most original thinkers, came much earlier than many realise. It was not while Turing cracked Nazi codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War. Nor when he lay the mathematical foundations of modern computing. Or that instant when, during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, he was fired up by the lifelike behaviour of a cybernetic tortoise.

The Museum’s Turing exhibition, which marked the centenary of his birth in 1912, showed that the signature moment of Turing’s life came on February 13, 1930, with the death of his classmate, Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis. This shattering event propelled the great Turing through a remarkable career.

Morcom was Turing’s first love, a fellow, older pupil at Sherborne School, Dorset, who shared Turing’s passion for mathematics. Though Turing’s crush was not reciprocated, he was profoundly affected by the death of his friend. In a contribution towards an anthology for Morcom’s grieving mother, which is on display in the exhibition, Turing admitted that he ‘worshipped the ground he trod on’.

Morcom’s death cast a long shadow. Turing turned away from his Christian faith towards materialism, and began a lifelong quest to understand the tragedy. As he struggled to make sense of his loss, Turing pondered the nature of the human mind and whether Christopher’s was part of his dead body or somehow lived on.

Alan Turing is often portrayed as an isolated genius, even a borderline Asperger’s loner. This traditional depiction is, perhaps, a weak reflection of homophobia of recent decades. But read about his feelings for Morcom, his letters and the correspondence of those close to him and you obtain a more complete portrait. Far from being the insular genius of popular belief, Turing could be warm and gregarious, though he did not suffer fools gladly and had an original take on the way he lived his life as much as he conducted his science.

The October after the loss of his friend, Turing went up to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. Our exhibition includes an essay, entitled “Nature of Spirit” that Turing wrote the next year, in 1932, in which he talked of his belief in the survival of the spirit after death, which appealed to the relatively recent field of quantum mechanics and reflected his yearning for his dear friend.

Around that time he encountered the Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics by the American computer pioneer, John von Neumann, and the work of Bertrand Russell on mathematical logic. These streams of thought would fuse when Turing imagined a machine that would be capable of any form of computation. Today the result – known as a universal Turing machine – still dominates our conception of computing.

Turing’s struggle to solve the codes of thought paved the way to his interest in cryptanalysis, the study of how to crack ciphers. Around the time of the Munich agreement in 1938 Turing began to help the UK government with the problem of deciphering German communication and this interest would culminate in an extraordinary effort during the Second World War when he worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

There Turing would break the codes of society too. In 1941, Turing had proposed marriage to Joan Clarke, a fellow cryptanalyst, but decided he could not go through with the marriage after admitting his homosexuality to his fiancée, who was reportedly “unfazed” by the revelation.

Turing’s greatest challenge at Bletchley was the German enciphering machine, Enigma, three of which are on show in our exhibition (including one kindly lent by Sir Mick Jagger). He took particular responsibility for reading U-boat communications and led a team that designed the great ‘bombe’, a calculating machine that successfully decoded Germany’s wartime messages. Eventually, over 200 were built, each weighing a ton, that made the noise of a ‘thousand knitting needles’ when in full flight.

The breaking of the Enigma was vital, partly because it meant that the Allies could intercept messages to the U-boats that were attacking convoys, sinking merchant ships and threatening to isolate Britain. It’s even been claimed that, without Bletchley Park’s contribution, the war might otherwise have been lost.

At that time a ‘computer’ was not a machine but a person, often female, who did calculations by hand. Machines were used too, but only for defined jobs, such as aiming bombs or solving differential equations. Combining his ideas from mathematical logic, his experience in cryptology, and the remarkable code cracking machinery of Bletchley, Turing’s ambition was to create a computer in the modern, electronic, flexible sense.

He joined the National Physical Laboratory, NPL, in Teddington in 1945 where his detailed – and world-beating – plan for an electronic computer was accepted in March 1946. But by then his remarkable wartime achievements were a state secret and he was not taken as seriously as he deserved. Frustrated, Turing resigned in 1948 though eventually, in 1950, his ideas came to life at NPL in the form of the Pilot ACE computer, which is the star of the Museum’s Turing exhibition.

Pilot Ace

The machine was the fastest in its day. This remarkable testament to Turing’s inventive capabilities was in huge demand. Within the exhibition we show two vivid examples of how this pioneering machine was used: to reveal how metal fatigue caused the loss of BOAC Flight 781, a de Havilland Comet jet airliner; and the Nobel prize winning work by Dorothy Hodgkin to use X rays to unravel the molecular structure of Vitamin B12.

On Midsummer Day 1948, the first prototype general-purpose computer, a true universal Turing machine, went into action at Manchester. And it was at Manchester University, when Turing was Deputy Director of the computing laboratory, that he wrote his highly influential 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”

Turing had pondered how intelligence could arise in a machine, from operations which were themselves routine and, in a way, mindless. Perhaps it was possible to construct an artificial consciousness from blocks of cold mathematical logic.

He had a practical suggestion: if a computer could fool people into thinking that they were interacting with another person, rather than a machine, then it could be classified as possessing artificial intelligence. This simple idea has proved hugely influential. Since 1991, an annual competition based on the ‘Turing test’ has been held by the American inventor Hugh Loebner.

Turing was still haunted by the loss of Morcom. In his 1950 paper, he referred to research, perhaps by Samuel Soal in the UK, that there was ‘overwhelming’ statistical evidence of telepathy and remarked: “Once one has accepted them it does not seem a very big step to believe in ghosts.”

The next year Turing became interested in breaking the codes of life, furnishing a chemical basis for the means by which shape, structure and function arise in living things. It is known in biology as morphogenesis and had seemed so mysterious to some that it had fostered belief in vitalism, the idea that there was an élan vital that was distinct from physical or chemical forces.

Turing posed a basic question. How does an organism marshal a chemical soup into a biological structure or turn a spherical (symmetrical) bundle of identical cells into an (asymmetrical) organism? And why are there Fibonacci numbers (where each number is the sum of the previous two) in the leaf patterns of plants such as the close-packed spirals of sunflower heads? (our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, has carried out a mass experiment to investigate). Turing’s ideas have since led to some impressive descriptions of pattern formation in Nature, from snail shells to snake skins.

With the help of Age UK, the Science Museum has consulted lesbian and gay people who were alive in the 1950s to understand the moral climate. What became clear was that Turing was remarkably open about his homosexuality, despite the repressive attitudes of the day. Perhaps his logic and his honesty made him feel that his orientation could never be seen as a crime. After the sheltered, liberal environments of Cambridge and Bletchley, he was in for a shock.

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he accepted treatment with the female sex hormone oestrogen: ‘chemical castration’ intended to neutralise his libido. In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, issued a public apology for his treatment.

In that era, homosexual people were considered a security risk, being open to blackmail. Turing’s security clearance was withdrawn, so that he could no longer work for GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park. He died soon after.

The precise circumstances leading to his demise on 7 June 1954, at home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, can never be known. But Turing had himself spoken of suicide and this was the conclusion of the coroner, following an inquest.

Next to Turing’s body was an apple, partly eaten. Years before, as some biographers have pointed out, Turing had gone to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the pioneering Disney film, in Cambridge, and was particularly taken with the scene where the Wicked Witch dangled an apple into a boiling cauldron: “Dip the apple in the brew. Let the Sleeping Death seep through”. One said that Turing had decided “to invest his departure from a world that had treated him shabbily with some of the gothic, eerie, colourful brilliance of a Disney film.”

The pathologist’s post-mortem report, reproduced in our new exhibition, suggests that the reality was more prosaic. The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough poison to fill a wine glass. Turing, thought the pathologist, had taken bites from the apple to make his last drink more palatable.

More than two decades earlier, when Turing was 17, he had had a vivid premonition of Morcom’s death, at the very instant that his first love was taken ill. Turing felt that this was an omen, one that lay beyond what science was able to explain.

Throughout his life he pursued the question of mind and body, believing that Morcom’s spirit lived on. Perhaps his suicide was one last experiment. On that cold, wet Whit Monday, did Turing take his own life in the hope that they would be together once more?

David Rooney is a Curator and Roger Highfield a Director at the Science Museum Group.
Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy, opened at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 and ran until 31 July 2013.

Mark Kendall, 2012 Laureate

The Rolex Awards

Guest post By Roger Highfield Director of External Affairs

Want to find out who is going to change our world? The answer was given last night at a dinner held in the Science Museum.

The gathering was held to celebrate the winners of the latest in a series of global biennial awards “aimed at fostering a spirit of enterprise ” funded by a philanthropic programme run by Rolex. Since the scheme was first established in 1976, there have been 120 ‘Rolex laureates‘.

The dinner was attended by luminaries from the worlds of science, medicine and the arts, such as heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, physicist and tv presenter Professor Jim Al-Khalili, neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore and Deborah Bull, creative director of the Royal Opera House.

This year there were 3,512 applications to the 2012 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a record number, including a higher percentage of young people than ever before. “We were thrilled,” said Rebecca Irvin, head of the Rolex Institute, Geneva.

Irvin said that five Laureates have been selected to receive Swiss Franc 100,000 and a Rolex chronometer, after an extensive selection process involving leading figures such as geneticist and populariser Steve Jones, ‘Her Deepness’ marine explorer Sylvia Earle and museum professional Mahrukh Tarapor

The five laureates who stood in turn to sustained applause at the dinner are:

Sergei Bereznuk, director of the Vladivostok-based Phoenix Fund, who has spent two decades trying to save the Siberian tiger, or Amur, which is the biggest of the tigers. Bereznuk believes that conservation depends on both anti-poaching measures and educating local people, the elements at the core of his Rolex Award-winning project.
Sergei Bereznuk, 2012 Laureate

Barbara Block, professor at Stanford University, who has pioneered the use of tagging to study large marine predators such as sharks and tuna which are critical for the delicate balance of our ocean ecosystems, but under threat from overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution. With her Rolex Award, Block will create a marine “predator cafés”, or ocean observatories, along the Californian coastline. Her ultimate goal is the creation of a marine UNESCO World Heritage site there.
Barbara Block, 2012 Laureate

Mark Kendall, professor at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland, Australia. With his “Nanopatch” he hopes to tackle problems linked to the traditional needle and syringe vaccination. His Rolex Award should allow Kendall to fast-track use in developing countries of the Nanopatch, which vaccinates with microscopic projections covered with dry vaccine.
Mark Kendall, 2012 Laureate

Erika Cuéllar. Known as “the biologist of the guanacos”, Erika works in the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, the largest protected tropical dry forest. Cuéllar has shifted her focus to the wider Gran Chaco region, which spans Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The award will help her train local ethnic groups such as the Guaraní, Ayoreode and Chiquitano as parabiologists to lead environmental efforts.
Erika Cuéllar, 2012 Laureate

Aggrey Otieno, Executive director of the non-profit organisation Pambazuko Mashinani, who works in Korogocho, Nairobi’s fourth-largest slum, where around 200,000 people are squeezed into only 1.5 kilometres squared. Otieno plans to build a telemedicine centre with a 24-hour, on-call doctor and van and will use his Rolex Award funds to train birth attendants and conduct health education.
Aggrey Otieno, 2012 Laureate

The setting for the celebration was appropriate. The museum, led by Ian Blatchford, is a treasure house of the ideas and the objects that have changed our world. It boasts the most extensive collection of significant objects in science and technology, not least the first practical and long lasting self-winding wristwatch, introduced by Rolex in 1931.

The event was addressed by Rebecca Irvin of the Rolex Institute, Richard de Leyser, managing director of Rolex UK, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, and geneticist Professor Steve Jones, who meditated on the nature and nurture of enterprise.

Science Museum Annual Dinner 2012

Hawking and Heuer awarded Science Museum Fellowships

By Roger Highfield

Professors Stephen Hawking and Rolf-Dieter Heuer have been made Fellows of the Science Museum, the highest accolade that the Museum can bestow upon an individual.

The awards, which are made to individuals who have had an exceptional influence on modern culture, reflect Prof Hawking’s pioneering research on quantum gravity and his remarkable success in popularising cosmology, notably with A Brief History of Time, as celebrated by an exhibition at the Museum earlier this year.

In the case of Prof Heuer, the fellowship honours his position as the Director General of CERN, in Geneva, where he leads an army of 10,000 scientists and engineers who work in the greatest intellectual adventure on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider.

The awards, which culminated in a standing ovation for Prof Hawking, were made before an audience of more than 400 at the Annual Dinner of the Science Museum by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Douglas Gurr, and handed to them by the Director of the Science Museum Group, and of the Museum itself, Ian Blatchford.

Among the black tie audience was Nobel laureate and Museum Fellow Sir Tim Hunt, Science Minister David Willetts, former Directors Sir Neil Cossons and Prof Chris Rapley, Trustee Janet Street-Porter, biographers Graham Farmelo and Tom Bower, comedian John Sessions and TV presenters Adam Rutherford, Gia Milinovich and Samira Ahmed.

The Science Museum is working with CERN to create a touring temporary exhibition that will open in London in Autumn 2013 and allow visitors to experience what it feels like to operate the biggest scientific experiment on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

‘The Science Museum is among the world’s leading centres for public engagement with science,’ said Heuer, who made a passionate speech about the role the LHC can play in helping to reengage society in this science-dominated age. ‘I’m very pleased for CERN to be working with the museum on this important new touring exhibition about the LHC.’”

In the LHC, a giant particle collider, scientists and engineers work at the extremes of temperature, vacuum and energy to recreate conditions not seen since just after the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. The museum is collaborating with theatre and digital producers to create an immersive experience and give visitors a close-up look at remarkable examples of the collider’s engineering, from the bottle of hydrogen gas that feeds the great machine to its vast and powerful magnets.

The exhibition will feature many historic objects from the Museum’s world leading collections, including JJ Thomson’s apparatus which led to the discovery of the electron, and the accelerator Cockcroft and Walton used to first split the atom. The project team for the CERN exhibit includes Harry Cliff, the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, who divides his time between the museum and the University of Cambridge team working on the LHCb experiment at CERN.

In his speech to the audience, Ian Blatchford highlighted how, as annual visitor numbers have risen to almost 3 million, the museum is extending its collaborations, not just with CERN and Cambridge but with Imperial College London and the space community too; the museum recently hosted the 50th anniversary of Ariel 1 the first international space mission, and is planning a major exhibition on Soviet-era cosmonauts.

He added that there is also a new emphasis in the museum on collaborations with the arts, from its latest exhibition on the symbolism of alchemy to a forthcoming collaboration with the Philharmonia and next year’s Media Space gallery, a partnership with the National Media Museum in Bradford which will focus on visual media.

The museum is evolving. It recently received an award of £6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a 2014 gallery which will tell the story of two centuries of innovation in communication technology. With the forthcoming Media Space Project, the new gallery represents a key step in the delivery of the museum’s Master Plan.

David Hockney draws Stephen Hawking

The new David Hockney animated Hawking portrait

By Roger Highfield and Boris Jardine

Imagine being able to see David Hockney create a new work, stroke by stroke, before your very eyes.

David Hockney Drawing Stephen Hawking

Now imagine this work is a portrait, providing an insight into the way Hockney composes his famous likenesses. Even better, the subject is none other than the distinguished Cambridge University cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.

For the next three weeks the Science Museum will display an animated version of Hockney’s portrait to provide its visitors with a rare opportunity to see how the artist’s skill has evolved since he was first introduced to the Apple gadget, the iPhone, in late 2008 and then the iPad.

The story of how Hockney came to draw new portrait of Hawking began last December, as we were putting the final touches to a museum exhibit to celebrate Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday. We were going to show a rarely seen Hockney portrait, dating from 1978, owned by Hawking’s first wife, Jane. What about an iPad portrait too?

David Hockney drawing Stephen Hawking

Hockney and Hawking were excited by our idea. Arrangements were made to bring them together before the opening of David Hockney’s triumphant A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy but they had to be put on hold as Stephen Hawking fell ill, also missing his birthday celebrations in Cambridge and the museum.

For his iPad art Hockney uses an app called ‘Brushes’, which removes the need to cart around supplies, easel and palette. This is faster than watercolour, or even than coloured pencils. He can use thumbs and fingers, or a stylus, modifying the hue and colour and layering brushstrokes of various widths and opacities.

From today the animated portrait will be on display to the public as part of the Science Museum’s Stephen Hawking: A 70th birthday celebration display.

The portrait begins at the top of Hawking’s head on a beige background. A simple sketch of Hawking’s bespectacled face peers out early on, adorned with violet eyes. Pencil-like strokes add detail, and paint-can sprays fill in his cobalt suit, a light blue cravat, computer screen and shadows. After a while, Hawking’s face gets its hue, polka-dots appear on his cravat and the broader contours of his wheelchair emerge. His hands are moved and a joystick, green background and overhead light installed before Hockney returns to work on his face. Again and again the artist plays with shading and skin tone before the final portrait of the world-famous cosmologist emerges.

Seeing the iPad portrait emerge next to the 1978 line-drawing offers an intriguing comparison — the technology is so different, but, whether paper or a digital drawing pad, it’s Hockney’s draughtsmanship and Hawking’s instantly recognizable face that are the focus.

David Hockney draws Stephen Hawking

This animated tablet art is the latest in Hockney’s long flirtation with technology which has seen him work with multi-screens, high definition video, colour photocopiers, faxes and, of course, the iPad and iPhone too. One is left in no doubt that science has a profound impact on art and culture through its application in technology.

The movie joins other artefacts in the 70th birthday display, which also includes a specially recorded message for the Science Museum and a selection of photographs from Hawking’s life and career that haven’t been seen before. The celebration ends on April 9.

Photographs Copyright Judith Croasdell

tape

Make your own tape loop

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

The Science Museum’s exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music charts the evolution of electronic music and details the fantastic lengths that its creators often went to in order to push the boundaries of sound. In the days before synthesisers, open source software and pirated soft-synths, electronic music pioneers such as Daphne Oram had very few resources with which to forge new and exciting sounds. The use and abuse of reel to reel tape players, and the splicing of magnetic tape were soon adopted by some of music’s most adventurous minds and became a vital weapon in their war against the sonically mundane. Composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Terry Riley, and also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were all keen tape splicers, stretchers and loopers.

Nowadays reel to reel tape players are hard to find and incredibly impractical to use. However, their dinky portable cousins, Walkmans, are easier to find, and cassettes are readily and cheaply available in most charity shops, as well as some cupboards, and a few trendy music stores. Cassette tapes are fairly easy to modify too, and doing so provides a fun insight into the early development of electronic music and a chance to get in touch with its roots. Making a tape loop is one of the easiest and most satisfying tape experiments that you can do, and it takes little more than a few bits of a stationery, a steady hand and half an hour of your time. The process is relatively fiddly and the results will be largely dictated by chance (exciting in itself!), but it’s all worth it for the thrill of feeling the spirit of early electronic music experimenters flowing through you. The results are somewhat unpredictable, but sometimes you stumble upon a perfect three or four second-long loop that you can listen to over and over without ever getting bored, its sound appearing change and alter over time…

Step One:

Fish out an old Walkman from you or your parent’s attic, shed or cupboard-under-the-stairs. Everyone has one lurking around somewhere.

Step One

Step Two:
Buy a cassette from your local charity shop. Do judge a book (cassette) by its cover, but make sure that you also check that it is held together with screws, as sealed plastic ones are much harder to open. I chose an Ottawan Best Of, partly because it had a great cover, and partly because there wasn’t much else to choose from. However, the cassette turned out to be sealed with plastic, so I had to resort to my back-up choice, a home-recorded copy of the soundtrack to the (terrible) 1977 film Black Joy, one of the few examples of British Blaxploitation cinema.

Step Two (a)

Step Two (b)
(Note the lack of screws on the Ottawan cassette!)

Step Three:
Have a quick browse while you’re there.

Step Three

Step Four:
Find a tidy place to work (this gets messy) and gather up all of the necessary equipment: a ruler, some sellotape, a pair of scissors and a screwdriver small enough for the cassette’s tiny screws. I have chosen the Science Museum curator’s library.

Step Four

Step Five:
Take out the cassette’s screws, putting them carefully to one side.

IMG_6164

Step Six:
Take off the top half of the cassette, being careful not to disturb any of its mechanisms (the funny metal bit at the front).

Step Six

Step Seven:
Take out the tape and detach the ends from the white spools.

Step Seven

Step Eight:
Cut a 23.5cm chunk out of the tape.

Step Eight

Step Nine:
Carefully join the two ends of this strip of tape together with selotape. It is worth taking your time over this bit as the smoother the join is the smoother the sound of the loop will be. Although conversely, sometimes a rhythmic clunk at the end of each repetition can be just what a loop needs to give it shape. I recommend using a tiny piece of selotape on the underside of the tape, and trimming off any excess.

Step Nine

Step Ten:
Carefully place the loop back inside the tape, hooking it around the four white spools: both the larger central pair and the smaller two on each side.

Step Ten

Step Eleven:
Position the tape so that it hooks round all of the spools but is also in front of the cassette’s metal mechanism. It must be held taut, or else it won’t play smoothly.

Step Eleven

Step Twelve:
Close up the tape and re-screw the screws. Make sure that the tape is held behind these plastic teeth at the front and not trapped in them.

Step Twelve

Step Thirteen:
Listen and enjoy!*

Listen and Enjoy © NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society

 

* As many great experimental musicians from Philip Glass to Mark E. Smith will tell you, repetition can be fascinating. As I have said, this process produces random results which vary in quality so you may have to fiddle around until you find something that works for you. But when you do stumble upon that perfect loop the results are extremely rewarding. And of course, this is only the beginning; there are many more modifications you can make, and who knows where you will end up once the spirits of Oram and Co. have gotten hold of you!

Here’s the loop I made in the Science Museum curator’s library, as well as a couple that I made earlier:

Have fun and let us know how you get on!

Raspberry Pi Model B

From the BBC micro to the Raspberry Pi: Campaigning for Computer Literacy

Guest blog post from Alison Hess, research assistant on our new BBC Micro Project. Learn more about the research and how you can contribute below

Raspberry Pi Model B

Raspberry Pi Model B, image courtesy of the Raspberry Pi Foundation

Last week, a new computer was launched, and within seconds, not only sold out, but also crashed the website! The Raspberry Pi is a British designed device, roughly the size of a credit card and costing a miniscule £22. It has been designed to inspire a new generation of schoolchildren to learn about programming. As their website explains, the idea for this grew out of concern about, “the year-on-year decline in the numbers and skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year.”

While this modest device could be set to revolutionise the way computing is taught in schools today, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is not the first organisation to want to improve our computer literacy. The 1980s marked a boom in personal computers, and many people became concerned that the UK would fall behind. The BBC Computer Literacy Project was launched on the 11th of January 1982, with the transmission of the television series ‘The Computer Programme’. At the same time, Acorn released a BBC licensed microcomputer, called the BBC micro.

BBC micro hardware and software from the Science Museum collection.

BBC micro hardware and software from the Science Museum collection.

By 1985 it had been adopted in 80% of UK schools, and along with a range of BBC educational software, was teaching a generation of children about the creative possibilities of computer programming. Today, this generation of programmers has grown up to populate a thriving computer industry in the UK. Places such as ‘Silicon Fen’ in Cambridge, and ‘Techcity’ in East London are known internationally as dynamic and innovative technology hubs.

In a new piece of research sponsored by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), the Science Museum is investigating the legacy of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, and the BBC micro. To do this we need your help!

Do you have experience of working in the computer and creative industries? Have you set up your own software, design or games company? We’d love to hear about your experiences: Please take our survey and contribute to our research.

The Oramics Machine during conservation

Results from the OraMIX competition

The Oramics Machine during conservation

New post from Merel, Associate Curator of Public History

On October 10th 2011 the Science Museum opened the exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music. One of the key objects in this exhibition is the Oramics Machine, a unique instrument made by composer and musician Daphne Oram. As part of this exhibition that celebrates music, inventiveness and the search for new sounds we wanted to give people the opportunity to share their own musical creativity.

We invited people from all over the world to remix samples from the Daphne Oram Archive. We challenged them to create a soundtrack for the 1967 TV Programme Our World, the first television production performed and broadcast live, from studios across the world. Musicians and producers Brian Eno and DJ Spooky as well as music magazine The Wire were kind enough to be our star judges.

We were overwhelmed by and very excited about the great amount of submissions we received. An incredible 156 tracks were posted on the competition page and our panel experts had a hard time creating a shortlist that could be sent to the star judges. In fact, they found it so difficult that they decided to double the number of tracks on the shortlist and 12 songs were chosen for the next round of judging.

And now… the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Who won the competition and who will receive that great collection of prizes?

It was a close call, but in the end there can be only one winner. And that winner is… Telescopic Moon by Chris Weeks

DJ Spooky said about this track: “Using nothing but the stems from Daphne Oram’s work, but taking them to places she would have enjoyed, this piece is a journey into some of the overtones [...] Oram used with powerful effect.”

Because it was such a close call, we would also like to applaud our number two, Atomic Shadow, with his track O3, which Brian Eno called ”A really interesting piece – deep, entrancing. I wanted more of it.”

Our number three, with only 0.3 points difference was Obe:lus. DJ Spooky said of his track Satellite Oramix: ”Great use of the stems from the original material, and it’s a beautiful track that lets you hear how poly-valent Daphne Oram’s work is. Polyrhythm plus the beautiful use of the original material made this track a standout.” Brian Eno said:”I keep humming it.”

Finally a special mention for the tracks submitted by The Audible Smile and Astrogarage. The Wire said of Sattelites Cry by The Audible Smile: ”I like the idea of satellites crying to each other across the void of space.” According to Brian Eno the song has “the sort of mysteriousness that Daphne liked.”

Astrogarage’s Orbit was described by Brian Eno as “Very engaging, intricate, and complex in mood. I wanted this to go on and on.”

We would like to thank everybody for submitting their tracks and taking part in the competition.

The OraMIX competition was made possible by Soundcloud; Goldsmiths, University of London; Sound and Music; Boomkat; and the Daphne Oram Trust and the Daphne Oram Archive.

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

Stephen Hawking Visits the Science Museum

By Alison Boyle and Roger Highfield

There was a huge buzz of excitement in the Museum on Saturday afternoon when a crowd of visitors sang ‘happy birthday’ to the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking.

There’s no better way to sum up the spirit of the Science Museum than this very public display of affection as the eminent cosmologist visited our new exhibit to celebrate his 70th birthday.

That he is now 70 is remarkable: it was in 1963, then a bright 21-year-old PhD student at Cambridge, that Hawking was told that he had a type of motor neurone disease (today we know it as an atypical form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was given about two years to live.

His visit to the museum on Saturday was in itself news: last month, illness had forced the Cambridge University physicist to miss our VIP reception in honour of the opening of the celebratory exhibit, and he had to pull out of a series of birthday celebrations in Cambridge.

We found out on Friday afternoon that he was well enough for a visit the next day, and organised lunch in the Museum’s Smith Centre.

There he was presented with a special gift from the Science Museum’s inventor in residence, Mark Champkins. Entitled “black hole light”, it consists of illuminated spirals of light to symbolise a black hole and ‘Hawking radiation’, a reference to his famous prediction that black holes will give off radiation. Prof Hawking typed ‘magic’ in response.

Here is a short video clip of Mark talking about the light

Finally, to the delight of crowds of onlookers, Prof Hawking asked to be taken on a tour of the museum, which he describes as ‘one of my favourite places’ and he remained here until 5pm.

Stepehn Hawking Visiting the Apollo 10 capsule at the Science Museum London

His tour included the Apollo 10 capsule in Making the Modern World (Professor Hawking is a keen advocate of human spaceflight) and the Cosmos & Culture gallery where he admired the works of illustrious predecessors such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein. He also checked out our latest exhibits including the Fenix rescue capsule and Oramics to Electronica, and enjoyed seeing younger visitors in our hands-on Launch Pad gallery – we would like to think that there’s a future Stephen Hawking among them.

When Prof Hawking left, he told us: “The museum is much better than when I used to come in the 40s and 50s”.

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

The exhibit in his honour represents the first ever display of items from the Hawking archive and encourages visitors to reflect on the relationship between Hawking’s scientific achievements, particularly the work that established his reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his immense success in popularising astrophysics. Hawking and his daughter Lucy have been involved in the selection of objects for display.