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In Conversation with James Lovelock

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

To celebrate the opening of Unlocking Lovelock, our new exhibition on James Lovelock, 94, we were treated to a special audience with the great man himself (listen below to the full conversation), as he joined Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, to discuss his career and  his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane).

Lovelock began by talking about his early visits to the Science Museum at the age of 6 and how his passion for science was inspired by his childhood love of steam engines, notably the one developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and the Flying Scotsman. He said that learning about science at the Science Museum was far more useful than learning in the classroom.

The conversation moved onto his early career at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill as he talked about his work on developing cures for burns during World War II, and how he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits.

He talked about how this work brought him into contact with Stephen Hawking’s father Frank, and the moment he held the infant Hawking in his arms.

Lovelock discussed his next career move to work in Houston for NASA, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating instruments,‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets. After three years, this paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK.

When asked whether he sees any scope for anyone succeeding as a lone scientist, he explained how much easier it was to work as an independent scientist years ago when there was less competition due to an overall lack of scientists in the UK at the time. He remains suspicious of committee and consensus led science.

Describing himself as ‘half a scientist, half an inventor’ he explained to the audience that invention is driven by necessity.

This process is ‘largely intuitive’, he said, and ‘the main advances in the world have not been driven by science, but by invention.’

The conversation moved from his work ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave to the importance of his electron capture detector, ECD, a remarkably sensitive instrument to detect trace amounts of chemicals, and gas chromatography equipment (featured in the exhibition). He talked about his home laboratory at Clovers Cottage where a lot of his experiments took place. The laboratory had a “Danger Radioactivity!” sign used to deter burglars.

The ECD helped hone his thinking about Gaia, a holistic view of the world, where all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment to form a complex system that can be thought of as a single super-organism.

Roger Highfield and Jim Lovelock then looked at the origins of his Gaia hypothesis, how his friend, novelist William Golding came up with the catchy title, his work on the theory with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the opposition Gaia faced in the early days, notably from Richard Dawkins, and his Daisyworld computer model.

Later, when asked by an audience member to defend the theory against the opposing view by someone like David Attenborough, Lovelock replied that ‘To fight for Gaia is worth it’.

You can discover more about the Unlocking Lovelock exhibition in Nature, the Guardian or by watching our exhibition trailer.

Waiting for the end of the world with my father, James Lovelock

As a new exhibition on James Lovelock opens, his daughter Christine recalls her science-filled childhood and the night they sat up waiting for a comet to destroy the Earth.

Photo of James Lovelock in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. Image credit: Science Museum

Photo of James Lovelock in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. Image credit: Science Museum

When I was a child my father took us to the Science Museum in London. His favourite exhibit was the Newcomen steam engine, built in the early 18th century to pump water from mines. He told us how much the museum had inspired him when he was a child. Science had become the abiding passion of his life, and as we grew up it was the background to ours as well.

We lived for a while at the Common Cold Research Unit, where my father worked, at Harvard Hospital near Salisbury in Wiltshire, and even became part of the research. Whenever we caught a cold the scientists put on parties for us where we would pass on our germs, as well as parcels, to the volunteers who lived in the isolation huts.

My strongest memories of my father during this period are the conversations we had about scientific ideas, whether on country walks or at the dining table. We often had fun working out plots for stories, including one he helped me to write about some fossil hunters on a Dorset beach who stumbled on a fossilised radio set – with shocking implications for the established science of geology.

When we moved back to Wiltshire, he turned Clovers Cottage into the world’s only thatched space laboratory. It was full of interesting equipment, much of it home-made, including an electric Bunsen burner. The cottage used to have a skull and crossbones in the window, with the warning “Danger Radioactivity!” My father always said this was a good way to deter burglars.

Clovers Cottage in Wiltshire, 'the world's only thatched space laboratory', where Lovelock worked for Nasa in the 1960s investigating the possibility of life on Mars. Image credits: Christine Lovelock

Clovers Cottage in Wiltshire, ‘the world’s only thatched space laboratory’, where Lovelock worked for Nasa in the 1960s investigating the possibility of life on Mars. Image credits: Christine Lovelock

One evening in the 1960s, my father arrived home from a trip to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with some frightening news. A comet had been spotted that was expected to hit Earth that night. The Nasa astronomers back then didn’t have today’s computer technology and said there had been no time to go public with the news.

My father wasn’t worried about the potential disaster. His reaction was a mixture of apprehension, curiosity and excitement. As he said, “If it hits us and it’s the end of the world, we won’t know anything about it, but if there is a near miss, then we might see some amazing fireworks.” While the rest of Britain slept a peaceful sleep, we packed up the car and drove to the highest hill nearby.

I’ll always remember that night, when we snuggled under blankets in the darkness, waiting and watching for what might have been the end of the world. It didn’t happen, of course. The astronomers got it wrong, as my father expected they would, but in an odd – and unscientific – way we felt we had done our bit to keep the Earth safe.

James Lovelock and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970. Image credits: Irish Examiner

James Lovelock and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970. Image credits: Irish Examiner

As I grew older I began to help my father more with his work. One day I will never forget is when we went up Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula in Ireland in 1969. Our mission was to collect samples of the cleanest air in Europe, blowing straight off the Atlantic. My father then drove straight on to Shannon Airport, and flew with the samples to the United States.

On arrival, a customs officer thought my father was being facetious when he said the flasks contained “fresh Irish air”. An argument ensued in which the official demanded that the flasks be opened, which would have made the whole journey pointless. Fortunately, sense prevailed and the samples reached their destination safely.

Christine Lovelock is an artist who campaigns to preserve the countryside.

You can watch our Youtube video of James Lovelock talking about the inspiration behind his inventions and what the Science Museum means to him.

3D printing gadgets on wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing granted Royal pardon

A posthumous pardon has been granted to the great mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, reports Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaker who laid the mathematical foundations of the modern computer, has been granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen for his criminal conviction for homosexuality.

A Royal pardon is usually only granted where a person has been found innocent of an offence and a request has been made by a family member. This unusual move brings to a close a tragic chapter that began in February 1952 when Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”.

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

To avoid prison, Turing accepted treatment with the female sex hormone oestrogen: ‘chemical castration’ that was intended to neutralise his libido.

Details of the circumstances leading to his death 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.

In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, issued a public apology for his treatment. A letter published a year ago in the Daily Telegraph, written by Lord Grade of Yarmouth and signed by two other Science Museum Trustees, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Dr Douglas Gurr, called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Turing has now been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a campaign supported by tens of thousands of people. An e-petition calling for a pardon received more than 37,000 signatures.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, said: “A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

The pardon states: “Now know ye that we, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to grant our grace and mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and grant him our free pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

But the reaction to the news has been mixed. Turing biographer Dr Andrew Hodges, of Wadham College, Oxford, told the Guardian newspaper : “Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.

“It’s far more important that in the 30 years since I brought the story to public attention, LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.

“A more substantial action would be the release of files on Turing’s secret work for GCHQ in the cold war. Loss of security clearance, state distrust and surveillance may have been crucial factors in the two years leading up to his death in 1954.”

The Science Museum’s award-winning Turing exhibition,which closed a few months ago, showed that a signature moment of Turing’s life came on February 13, 1930, with the death of his classmate and first love, Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis.

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer - at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer – at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

As he struggled to make sense of his loss, Turing began a lifelong quest to understand the nature of the human mind and whether Christopher’s was part of his dead body or somehow lived on.

Earlier this year Turing’s Universal Machine, the theoretical basis for all modern computing, won a public vote, organised by the Science Museum, GREAT campaign and other leading bodies in science and engineering to nominate the greatest British innovation of the last century.

Science Museum makes Lily’s wish come true

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, examines Lily Cole’s gift culture project impossible.com which launched its ‘giving trees’ at the Science Museum in September

Visitors to the Science Museum’s adults only Lates event left a total of 1500 wishes in a little copse of ‘giving trees’ established in the museum’s Wellcome wing by the model, actor, activist and entrepreneur Lily Cole.

The wishes were left during the September, October and November Lates, which were visited by as many as 15,000 visitors. Each person who took part was invited to upload their wishes to Lily Cole’s ‘gift culture’ social network, impossible.com.

The impossible.com website, which is currently still in beta, is a tool to facilitate a gift culture in which people can exchange their skills, knowledge or possessions for free.

Through the website people have been giving screen printing lessons, knitting lessons, business advice and even an astronaut who asked for help to send a little girl with an illness to Japan.

Lily Cole delivering Science Museum presents to Manchester Children's Hospital for her impossible project. Image credit: Lily Cole

Lily Cole delivering Science Museum presents to Manchester Children’s Hospital for her impossible project. Image credit: Lily Cole

The site, impossible.com, available online and as an app available from the Apple App Store was conceived by the 25 year old Lily with a friend during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008. The impossible tree initiative was launched to an audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre at the September Lates evening.

In the Science Museum, Lily expressed her belief in the universal kindness between strangers that can be harnessed by impossible.com to challenge our bartering economy through a currency of “thank-yous” instead of money.

Lily said: “Hosting our wishing trees at the Science Museum for the last three months – alongside a talk on the science of cooperation – was such a (scientifically) magical beginning for impossible. A huge thank you to everyone at the Science Museum who helped organise it, and to everyone who came and left a wish.”

The museum answered one of Lily’s wishes too, and provided gifts – micro-copters – for her to deliver to children in the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

“Thanks also for the toys and helicopters which we delivered to Manchester Children’s Hospital in answer to someone’s wish. It gave me great joy to deliver them” she added.

impossible.com was developed with advice from Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Nobel Peace Prize recipient and economics professor Muhammad Yunus. On the advice of Yunus, impossible.com will run as a for-profit social business, with profits being re-invested into the company or in other social enterprises.

The impossible.com app is available on https://itunes.apple.com/app/*impossible*/id638819253?ls=1&mt=8

‘Tis the season to 3D print your Christmas

Press Officer Laura Singleton explores some festive 3D printing.

Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year – with presents to wrap, trees to be put up and cards to be written. Finding the perfect gift or decoration can be expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. Could the rise of 3D printing provide the answer to our seasonal woes and even tap into our hidden creativity?

Earlier this month we were pleased to unveil a dramatic 3D printed titanium star, which sits on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. The star, which measures 44cm wide, is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved on a 3D printer. The star’s design is based on fractals, the self-repeating patterns found within a Mandelbrot set.

Close up of Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Close up of Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

The star was the result of a challenge set by the Science Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford at last year’s Christmas party. Attendees to the event were challenged to come up with an innovative design for a star – to be created and displayed on our Christmas tree.

Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Conceived and designed by London based designer Jessica Noble, with help from Nottingham University, the star features a central nylon core and 97 3D printed individual titanium stars printed by Renishaw that were then connected to the core using carbon fibre rods. The individual parts make the star easy to assemble, dissemble and rearrange – a clear advantage over other types of decoration. The Mandelbrot reference gives a nod to the Science Museum’s mathematical collections.

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director's Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

However, you don’t need to be an artist or designer to take advantage of the benefits of 3D printing. Many printers are now available on the high street and can produce smaller scale designs of your choice. Our Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins, has taken advantage of the technology by creating a range of decorations and gift tags for the Science Museum’s shop that can be 3D printed in under 15 minutes.

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum's store. Image credits: Science Museum

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum’s store. Image credits: Science Museum

As the museum’s store now sells 3D printers, we’ve set one up to demonstrate how the technology works. Should you wish to buy a decoration such as a snowflake or star, you can choose a design and watch it being printed – ready for you to take home. Why not pay a visit to the museum and try it out?

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

The link between science and design was the topic of a recent debate held jointly at the Science Museum and Design Museum and attended by Universities and Science Minister, David Willets MP. Organised with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the debate focused on breaking down language barriers and encouraging interaction between scientists, engineers and designers explained David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the TSB.

3D printing is rapidly changing society – whether at home, work or our leisure activities. You can find more examples of how the technology is growing in our free exhibition, 3D: Printing The Future, which showcases over 600 3D printed objects including prototypes for replacement body organs, bike gadgets and aeroplane parts.

From Frog Pistols to Freud – the Making of the Mind Maps Exhibition

Journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed goes behind the scenes of our new exhibition, Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology, which opens to the public this week.

It looks like a kind of over-engineered Victorian executive toy: A semicircle of metal with carefully marked grooves and two long wooden arms with padded covers like two giant matchsticks. Curator Phil Loring and I are having a go at the Fechner sound pendulum that tried to measure the speed of thought, through timing the “just noticeable difference” heard in each arm hitting the base.

Samira Ahmed and Curator Phil Loring examine the Fechner sound pendulum for the video of the making of the exhibition.

Samira Ahmed and Curator Phil Loring examine the Fechner sound pendulum for the video of the making of the exhibition.

It’s incredibly complex to use and hard to see what useful data they would have obtained. But it is a fascinating example, like all of the exhibits in this new show, of the unique challenge of psychology through the ages and the huge efforts that have gone in over the centuries to quantify scientifically, physically, the hidden processes of our minds.

There’s a historical journey through human attempts to explain the mind’s makeup, searching for physical not just mystical explanations. Medieval Europeans looked to the fluids of the body; the physical power of the four humours to explain character. You can imagine Chaucerian Englanders saying “He’s always really moody. That’s typical black bile, that is.” And it’s comparable to the strangely enduring hold in many cultures today of astrology.

The most dramatic displays are of the physical beauty of a 17th century Italian nerve table. Here we see human nerve strands dissected, stretched out and varnished like an intricate bare-leafed tree, as if in detangling the physical form, one might detangle the intricacy of psychology.

Going through the Science Museum’s storage vaults while making the introductory film (above) for this exhibition, I was struck by how rich the history of mind study is with physical objects. Particularly frogs. On show you’ll see anthropological curiosities like the amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon (to cure fits).

Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon.

Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon.

And German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond’s “frog pistol” in the 1860s. Frogs are certainly featured in the work of the 18th century Italian pioneer whose work forms the highlight of Mind Maps: equipment and sketches belonging to Luigi Galvani of Bologna – who gave his name to galvanism and has inspired everything Gothic and re-animated from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Douglas Trumbull’s film Brainstorm.

Pistolet, or `Frog Pistol', devised by du Bois-Reymond, for demonstrating the stimulation of nerves in a frog's leg, by Charles Verdin, Paris, c1904. Credit: Science Museum

Pistolet, or `Frog Pistol’, devised by du Bois-Reymond, for demonstrating the stimulation of nerves in a frog’s leg, by Charles Verdin, Paris, c1904. Credit: Science Museum

Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia, a trained anatomist, got through a lot of dead frogs as they explored the relationship between nerve activity and electricity. In an interesting link back to the medieval humours, Galvani saw electricity as a fluid. And as with the Fechner thought-measuring pendulum, you can feel the frustration embodied in Galvani’s sandglass that could measure fractions of an hour, but not the fractions of a second needed for the speed of nerve movements in his experiments.

Sandglass, in metal frame, Galvani collection. Credit: Science Museum

Sandglass, in metal frame, Galvani collection. Credit: Science Museum

Freud, shellshock and modern psychiatric medicine are placed for the first time for me, in a scientific continuum: I see in this exhibition a tale within a tale – the story of human thinking stretching ambitiously beyond the technology of its time. The exhibition is the story of nothing less than the human quest to find the elusive quintessence of human existence: the soul and its torments.

Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology, a free exhibition exploring our understanding of the mind, opens on Dec 10 and runs until August 2014. The exhibition is supported by the British Psychological Society (BPS).

 For more of Samira’s writing follow her via @samiraahmeduk or on samiraahmed.co.uk

3D printing – an explosion of creativity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click and zoink – it’s your birthday!

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole takes a look at the story behind the Geiger counter

“The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink on the scale!”

Thus spoke Boris Johnson in his London Olympics opening speech a little over a year ago. The author of several popular histories including Johnson’s Life of London, is it conceivable Mayor Boris knew the Olympic summer coincided with the 104th birthday of the Geiger counter…?

On this day, 105 years ago, Hans Geiger and Ernest Rutherford published their paper on a revolutionary new method of detecting particles.

Geiger and Rutherford at Manchester, 1912. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Geiger and Rutherford at Manchester, 1912. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The first generation of Geiger counters did not produce the characteristic click we know and love today. Instead, an electrometer needle would suddenly jump, indicating an alpha particle had been detected.

They worked by picking up electric signals given off by electrons, which had been stripped from gas molecules by passing alpha particles. The beauty of them was that they provided another way to measure radiation, verifying the laborious and blinding method of counting light scintillations.

Once the technology improved, Geiger-Muller counters (as the later ones were called) became extremely nifty particle detectors, essential hardware for any cosmic-ray physicist. They are now used for many different purposes, from airport security to checking the levels of radioactivity in certain museum objects.

One of Geiger’s own counters made in 1932. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

One of Geiger’s own counters made in 1932. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

For a long time the device was just a tool used by researchers of radioactivity, an innovation that made Geiger’s task of counting by eye emissions of alpha particles from radium a little easier.

This is not to deny Geiger’s eyes were very effective counters of tiny flecks of light – produced by individual alpha particles as they hit a fluorescent screen. As Rutherford said at the time:

“Geiger is a demon at the work of counting scintillations and could count for a whole night without disturbing his equanimity. I damned vigorously and retired after two minutes”.

Arriving in Manchester in 1907, the German-born Geiger clearly was responsible for the nitty gritty side of the research. Ernest Marsden, a twenty-year old undergraduate, joined the pair the following year. The young student may not at first have realised that he was contributing to one of the most remarkable discoveries of the century.

In a darkened lab, Geiger and Marsden would take turns to count the sparkles of alpha particles as they hit a screen, having been fired straight through a sheet of gold leaf.

As the particles were much smaller than the gold atoms, it must have seemed slightly barmy when Rutherford suggested to move the counting screen behind the radium source and look for scintillations there.

The near-blind researchers hit gold, so to speak, and found the odd alpha particle had bounced back. Rutherford declared it the most incredible event of his life, “as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

The team discovered the atoms had a nucleus – a miniscule core that caused the occasional alpha particle to rebound. Rutherford would soon come up with an entirely new picture of atoms, which depicted electrons orbiting around this central nucleus.

Model of hydrogen atom, according to the theory of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. Credit: Science Museum.

Model of hydrogen atom, according to the theory of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. Credit: Science Museum.

Geiger recalled the glory moment: “One day (in 1911) Rutherford, obviously in the best of spirits, came into my room and told me that he now knew what the atom looked like”.

You will have the chance to see up close Rutherford and Bohr’s atomic model, and discover the objects that helped shape modern physics in Collider, a new exhibition opening this November.

Summer Invention Challenge

By Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor in Residence is challenging young visitors to design an invention to help solve a common summer problem. The winner will receive a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition

When we’re basking in a heat wave, spending a summer holiday in Britain can be the perfect way to unwind. But as we all know, a British summer can present it’s own problems – from annoying wasps, to superheated car journeys, and from rain-soaked barbecues to sand in your sandwiches.

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

This summer we are challenging young visitors to get their thinking caps on and come up with an invention to help solve a common problem that most of us experience at this time of year. The winner will receive a prize of a Makerbot 3D printer worth over £2,000 and get their idea 3D printed and displayed in a new exhibition opening this Autumn.

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer

Could it be an anti-wasp drink shield, or a sunshade for your ice-cream? Or perhaps a fan that can be clipped to your sunglasses, or a sunhat with a deployable umbrella?

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

Picture credit: iStock / Science Museum

To get everyone started we are asking people to think of the places they normally visit when they’re holidaying in Britain and the problems people might face in situations such as the seaside, in the countryside, on a long car journey or at home in the garden. Then think about the pet hates that you normally experience and devise a clever (or funny) solution that could help overcome the problem.

To join the summer invention challenge click here.