Author Archives: laura

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.

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