Author Archives: laura

A Hedonistic Night at the Museum

Louis Buckley from Guerilla Science blogs about the August Lates, which was themed around the science of sex, drugs and music.

Being accustomed to working at music festivals, the rest of the Guerilla Science team and I are, shall we say, not unfamiliar with the hedonistic themes explored at this month’s Science Museum Lates.

For those of you who haven’t heard of us before, Guerilla Science is an organisation that specialises in taking science to summer festivals all across the UK – from Glastonbury and Green Man to the Edinburgh Fringe and the Secret Garden Party.

Visitors mingling at the August Lates. Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors mingling at the August Lates. Image credit: Science Museum

Working in unfamiliar and often unexpected settings, we set out to challenge audiences and scientists alike, getting them to consider and experience scientific ideas in new ways that are enlightening, inspiring and – we hope – entertaining too!

While not our usual habitat, bringing a sex, drugs and music themed programme of events to the raucous and exhilarating environment of the Science Museum Lates was an offer far too good for Guerilla Science to turn down.

So, what did we get up to on the night itself? Guerilla Science put on 14 workshops, demonstrations and talks across the museum, from mapping erogenous zones and anatomical life drawing in the fourth and fifth floor medical galleries to crocheting chromosomes among the strange and challenging materials gallery on the second floor.

Lates visitors crocheting chromosomes at August Lates. Image credit: Science Museum

Lates visitors crocheting chromosomes at August Lates. Image credit: Science Museum

It isn’t possible to go through them all in detail, but I’ll pick out a few of my personal highlights from the night to share with those that couldn’t make it – or can’t remember being there!

First up, Guerilla Science’s own Zoe Cormier filled the Museum’s theatre with tales from her new book Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll’, while chemist extraordinaire Andrea Sella treated audiences to a bubbling and explosive journey through the science of distillation.

On the third floor we ran a range of hands-on activities, from experimental hangover cures with food scientist Becki Clark to examining drugged-up fruitfly mutants with Dr James Hodge and sniffing a range of mystery fragrances with chemists Rose Gray and Alex Bour.

My personal favourite, though, was up among the aeroplanes of the Flight gallery, where sexologists Soazig Clifton and Clare Tanton discussed the findings of their national survey of sexual habits and attitudes and tested these against the audience’s own experiences and perceptions.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and a fantastic opportunity to create something for the Museum’s wonderful audience. Most importantly, we hope the Lates punters enjoyed Guerilla Science’s attempt to bring a little bit of festival magic into the galleries of this grand old institution, and might be tempted to check out one of our events in future.

Guerilla Science’s book ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll, the Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science’ is out now, published by Profile Books.

The next Lates is on 24 September and is all about Magic and Illusion

 

A WEEE waste recycling challenge?

Sarah Harvey, Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, talks to Dr Philip Morton, Chief Executive of REPIC about the challenges of dealing with growing volumes of electrical and electronic waste.

REPIC is the largest not-for-profit WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling scheme in the UK. Instead of letting valuable or harmful waste and scarce raw materials go to landfill, REPIC’s job is to recover and transport used electrical goods and batteries to specialist treatment plants. Upon arrival at the plant, the WEEE waste can be safely handled and recycled into new usable raw materials.

What is WEEE waste?

Every year, people in the UK buy around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment, like toasters, TVs, washing machines and computers. We throw away about one million tonnes of equipment, so WEEE waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the EU. It’s important that we take action now to stop it from piling up.

Some of the components used to make electronic goods can be hazardous and harmful to the environment, while others can be recycled and reused. Some are even precious and contain gold, silver, indium or palladium. It’s amazing to think that WEEE contains 40 times more gold than gold ore!

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

What are the biggest challenges faced by the industry in recycling and recovering these materials?

A big problem is the difficulty in separating the complex scarce trace metals using the technology currently available. Different proportions of trace materials are present in different bits of WEEE and some materials bind together, making separation a challenge.  At present, only a tiny percentage of these metals is captured in the recycling process, so it isn’t sustainable. 

What can people do to help?

Just as we separate our plastic bottles and tins from paper and compostables, we need to separate our old electrical appliances and take them to a local recycling centre.

As with electricals, it’s easy for batteries to end up in landfills if the proper recycling channels are not used. Batteries contain chemicals that can be hazardous if released into our soil, water and air.

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

But there is an alternative. You could save your batteries and take them to special battery bins at shops, schools and recycling centres. This ensures the batteries are recycled responsibly.

Our top three tips are:

  • Repair or re-use used electricals if possible
  • Recycle, but don’t make a special trip (check our website www.responsible-recycling.co.uk).
  • Choose energy and eco-efficient products where possible when buying replacements

What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years time? 

To meet the new EU directive we need to recycle 85 percent of WEEE generated in the UK by 2018. The value of WEEE will be higher as there will be less rare metals and raw materials to extract from the Earth.  Advances in technology will mean that electrical goods will be even lighter, more compact and flexible. Think projected keyboards, flatter TV screens – we’re already seeing roll up TV screens – so expect more to come.

 

 

Your future without antibiotics?

Georgie Ariaratnam, Assistant Content Developer, blogs about the rise of antibiotics, the subject of a display in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It affects all of us, so perhaps unsurprisingly, it was declared the winner of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The new antibiotics display in the Museum's Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The new antibiotics display in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

At the Science Museum, we decided to examine this topic in more depth with a new exhibit, Your future without antibiotics?, which explores the rise of antibiotic resistance and the latest research to tackle it.

The exhibit, currently on display in our Who am I? gallery, changes every few months, giving the Science Museum the opportunity to explore current and significant research stories in health, genetics and neuroscience. With over a million people visiting the Who am I? gallery each year, it’s important to design exhibits that are interesting and relevant to our visitors’ lives.

We chose to tell three main stories in the display case. The Rise of Resistance looks at how bacteria have become resistant, Radical Research focusses on the latest research to tackle resistance and Stop the Spread explores how to prevent the spread of infection.

A close up look at the new antibiotics display case in the Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

A close up look at the new antibiotics display case in the Who Am I? gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The display features unique and intriguing objects to tell these stories. You can see a Star Trek-inspired hand-held ‘tricorder’ which uses a virus to identify bacterial infection.  Alongside, you can spot a keyboard and mobile phone cover coated with the world’s first light-activated antimicrobial surface that also works in the dark. Other items include a bio-engineered medical honey which can kick start the healing process in wound treatment. There is even a giant, lime green stick insect, whose guts researchers are studying for new antibiotic compounds.

To develop the display case, we spoke to many institutions that focus on tackling antibiotic resistance including the World Health Organisation, Department of Health, Public Health England and Antibiotic Action. The exhibit also features research from scientists at University College London, University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester.

Your future without antibiotics? opened on 18 July and will be on display in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery until late November 2014.

Sending messages across the Atlantic: 156 years on from the first transatlantic cable

Chloe Vince, Science Museum Volunteer, tells the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic cable, one of the highlights of our new Information Age gallery, which opens in October.

If you needed to send a message to North America, you wouldn’t think twice about drafting an e-mail, hitting ‘send’ and your message arriving in the recipient’s inbox almost instantly.

In 1858, however, communications were much slower. In those days, a message would take up to 10 days to arrive. This was the time it took for a ship to travel across the Atlantic.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Things changed in the August of 1858, when the first message was sent via a transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran from the east coast of North America to the West Coast of Ireland. Messages could now be sent in a matter of minutes, dramatically changing the history of transatlantic communication.

A section of the original transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum.

A section of transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Experimenters had been investigating batteries and electromagnetism to develop a communication system since the early 19th century. The first practical system was executed successfully in the UK by the partnership of Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. They used an electrical current to deflect magnetic needles which could be made to point to letters on a backboard. By the time of the 1858 transatlantic cable, their system had been developed and widely adopted for railway signalling across Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Cooke and Wheatstone’s Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

American experimenter Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame), was also working on developing telegraphy. His system used a single circuit to send an electric signal along a wire to a receiver at the other end. Instead of using needles indicating letters of the alphabet, Morse’s system used a code of dots and dashes to spell out words. Morse received funding to use this technology to set up a telegraph system between Washington and Maryland in the USA. The telegraph became an instant success. People relished the ability to send and receive information much more quickly than before, and as a result the telegraph system expanded across America and Europe.

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after, in 1856, the Atlantic Telegraph Company was set-up with the objective of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America with Europe. Luckily, opinions of the technology were high, which meant shares in the company sold quickly. As soon as enough money was raised, the first transatlantic cable, consisting of seven copper wires and recorded as weighing one ton per nautical mile, was laid from America to Ireland.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson's mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson’s mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegram. She sent a message to US president James Buchanan congratulating him ‘upon the successful completion of this great international work.’  The message travelled through 2,500 miles of cable and took 16 hours, a dramatic improvement on the 10 days it would have taken beforehand. The same message was repeated back to Valencia in Ireland in only 67 minutes.

Unfortunately, the success enjoyed by this first transatlantic cable did not last. There were problems with the cable, and within a month it had failed completely. However, the desire for speedy transatlantic communication was great enough to attract more funds to try again.  A further attempt in 1866 was successful.

The consequence of this new form of communication was huge. By the end of the 19th century, new technologies began to emerge. The telegraph was replaced by telephony and these days we rely on the internet for high speed communication. However, the telegraph was the first technology that allowed us to communicate quickly and reliably over long distances, and acted as a turning point in communication history.

You can explore more about the laying of the first transatlantic cable in our Information Age gallery, which opens on 25 October.

 

#UnlockingLovelock Twitter Tour

Update: You can see the full #UnlockingLovelock tour below

Are you a fan of maverick scientist James Lovelock? To celebrate Lovelock’s 95th birthday, curator Alex Johnson conducted a live Twitter tour of our Unlocking Lovelock exhibition on Friday 25 July.

During the tour of the exhibition, Alex shared the objects, letters, notes and drawings that reveal Lovelock’s extraordinary life and scientific career through the Science Museum’s Twitter account (@sciencemuseum) using the hashtag #UnlockingLovelock.

Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick is a free exhibition open at the Science Museum until 9 April 2015. You can find out more via sciencemuseum.org.uk/lovelock.

3D printing great inventions…from page to product

Mark Champkins, Inventor in Residence, looks at how 3D printing helped him bring to life a young inventor’s bright idea

Have you spotted an unusual looking yellow and pink device sitting among the wall of 3D printed people in our current exhibition? Known as the Pediclean, the object is a prototype for a manual foot shower product, designed by Sophia Laycock, the winner of a competition we ran last year – which called on young people to come up with an invention to solve a problem they encountered with the great British summer.

The competition had an amazing response. From submersible beach shelters (to keep your spot on the beach even after the tide has come in), to suncream dispensing sunshades, we were bowled over by people’s creative ideas.

Sophia Laycock's design for the Pediclean manual footshower, which won the summer invention competition. Image credit: Sophia Laycock

Sophia Laycock’s design for the Pediclean manual foot shower, which won the summer invention competition. Image credit: Sophia Laycock

Choosing a winner was a challenge. Along with my fellow judges from the Museum, Phill Dickens from Nottingham University’s 3D Printing Research Group and Atti Emercz  from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, I spent an inspiring morning discussing the inventions and admiring their ingenuity.

In my experience, the best inventions are those designed to address a specific problem, are easy to use and look visually appealing. On this basis, it was easy to pick Sophia’s idea as the winning entry.

However, my biggest challenge was working out how to translate Sophia’s drawing of the Pediclean into a real working product. How could I harness the power of 3D printing to make this a reality?

It occurred to me that it might be nice for Sophia to be able to print her very own Pediclean products on her new Makerbot printer – the prize she won for the competition. To do this I had to ensure that the Pediclean could be assembled from components that could all be printed successfully on a Makerbot. Essentially, this involved splitting up the device into six individual parts which could each be printed on the Makerbot. Each piece took approximately two hours to print. When all the parts were printed, I then screwed them together to form the finished Pediclean.

Sophia Laycock, winner of the 3D Summer Invention Competition in the 3D: Printing The Future  exhibition with her ‘Pediclean’ - a portable foot shower to clean the sand off your feet when you have been on the beach. Sophia won a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and has had her invention created by Mark Champkins Inventor in Residence, 3D printed and featured in our 3D: Printing the Future exhibition.

Sophia Laycock, winner of the 3D Summer Invention Competition in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition with her Pediclean –  a portable foot shower to clean the sand off your feet when you have been on the beach. Sophia won a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and had her invention created by Mark Champkins, Inventor in Residence, 3D printed and displayed in the exhibition. Image credits: Science Museum.

Luckily, Sophia’s design was brilliantly well thought out, containing detailed instructions – even down to the placement of the water nozzles designed to clean the foot. I was able to copy the sketch exactly to produce a final product that worked beautifully well.

You can see the Pediclean and lots of other examples of how entrepreneurs, artists and designers are using 3D printing to realise their dreams, in our free exhibition.

Chancellor’s ‘Northern powerhouse’ vision unveiled at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has announced his ambitions to create a northern “supercity” to rival London as a global hub by building HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. He was speaking, appropriately enough, at our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, which tells the story of where science met industry to create the modern world and, as the Chancellor himself highlighted, is the site of the world’s oldest surviving passenger railway station.

The Chancellor, George Osborne at the Museum of Science and Industry, announcing plans for the new HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. Image credit: Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne at the Museum of Science and Industry, announcing plans for the new HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds. Image credit: Roger Highfield

His speech, to around 50 key individuals from the region, among the beam engines and other great machines of the museum’s Power Hall, was introduced by Science Museum Group Director, Ian Blatchford, who leads the largest group of science museums in the world which, as he pointed out, lie on “both sides of the Pennines”.

The Chancellor described how he wanted to channel long-term investment into links between the traditionally rival cities, which have a combined population of nine million, similar to that of London. “We need a Northern powerhouse,” he said. “Not one city, but a collection of cities – sufficiently close to each other, that combined, they can take on the world.” To offset the huge gravitational pull of London, the Chancellor also wants to take advantage of the world class universities and teaching hospitals in the north, and “iconic museums such as this one” to create a belt of innovation that straddles the Pennines along the M62 corridor.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, speaking to a high profile audience at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Image credit: Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne, speaking to a high profile audience at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Image credit: Roger Highfield

Among the audience listening to his vision for a “third high speed railway for Britain” along the existing rail route, was Sir David Higgins, Chairman of HS2, who has identified the need for better connections in the north. After the Chancellor’s speech on how to make these northern cities more than the sum of their parts, the Prime Minister, David Cameron visited the museum for a round table with key individuals, including Ian Blatchford, Sir David and Lord Heseltine.

The Chancellor’s ambitions to bootstrap the north’s knowledge-based economy by prioritising science investment – which included a challenge to those in the audience to come up with a “Crick of the north” (a reference to the biomedical research powerhouse under construction in London) – dovetail with those of the Science Museum Group, which wants to make the Museum of Science and Industry a regional hub for the development of world class exhibitions. The £800,000 financial support for the museum announced by the Chancellor in May has kick-started a £3 million plan for a purpose-built exhibition space that will shift the centre of gravity of the Group towards the north and enable the Museum of Science and Industry to develop its own exhibitions that can tour to the rest of the group and beyond.

Plans are already under way to develop an exhibition on graphene, Manchester’s latest global scientific export, in 2015, said Mr Blatchford. The properties of this new form of carbon, found by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, are extraordinary and graphene has potential in the aerospace, automobile, electronics, and communications industries.

The Museum of Science and Industry has appointed Sally MacDonald as its new Director who will start in September. She is currently the Director of Public and Cultural Engagement at University College London (UCL), and will succeed Jean Franczyk, who is leaving the museum after two years to become Deputy Director of the Science Museum.

The Chancellor’s full speech can be viewed on the Government’s website.

 

 

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.

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.