Author Archives: micol

Wonderful Things: Brainbow mouse

This post is written by Alex, a 16-year old student who spent a week on work placement with the Learning team.

The brain is one of the most complex biological organs in the world, and even today our understanding of it is very primitive, but recent advances in the field of neuroscience could help us unpick some of its mysteries…

In Who am I? there is a little mouse with a big secret: its brain glows in a rainbow of colours. The Brainbow method maps out the large labyrinth of neurons in the brain using fluorescent proteins which flag up each individual neuron with its own colour. Through genetic engineering the brain cells in this mouse glow in a spectrum of different colours when under the right light. Brainbow has significantly helped scientists in attempting to map out the very complex, microscopic neural pathways and systems in the brain, using these strikingly coloured (and quite stunning) images.

This image from the Brainbow mouse reveals thousands of complex neural connections

The Brainbow technique is so interesting because researchers could potentially use the neural maps of the brain that it creates, when studying mental activities and behaviours to see what circuits are implicated. Another possible use is comparing these neural maps to see differences in the cellular structure of those with neurological disorders, to those without, in order to help identify and possibly even help develop treatments..

However, one limitation is that scientists so far have only used Brainbow to explore the brains of small animals such as mice and drosophila (the fruitfly), and the human brain is vast and much more diverse in neurons in comparison to these two organisms. There is also the ethical issue of genetic modification when it comes to working on the human brain – as Brainbow does rely on brain cells expressing proteins that have been genetically preprogrammed.

Would you accept genetic engineering in humans in order to get a better understanding of the human brain? 

The Brainbow genetically engineered mouse, and the beautiful image of its brain are on display in the Who am I? gallery, Wellcome Wing 1st floor.

Wonderful Things: The Drug Castle

Kate Davis, a Learning Resources Project Developer, discovers the story behind one of our more unusual objects.

The fifth floor of the Science Museum is a fascinating area, full of gory and often unusual paraphernalia related to the history of medicine. One of the more unusual objects lurking in this gallery is the Drug Castle.

How long did this take to build?

A castle constructed from pills, capsules and medicine containers.

Our knowledge of medicine and how civilisations have treated illness and disease stretches all the way back to the earliest writings on the subject from Ancient Egypt. However, the ways in which people have treated illness has not changed very much over the centuries. It is only during the last 200 years that scientific developments have gathered pace and enabled doctors to make huge breakthroughs in treatments. It is often easy for us, living in the 21st Century, to forget that as little as 100 years ago there was no penicillin, nobody knew the cause of rickets and there was no vaccine for tuberculosis. 

Now, we can mass produce a whole range of pills and potions for a variety of different ailments that had previously been untreatable. All of the syringes, pill bottles and tablets used to create the Drug Castle are real and it is a brilliant visualisation of how central the use of drugs has become to the treatment of illness in the developed world. However, this shift in how we treat disease does not come without its controversy.

The Drug Castle itself is a reminder of this as it was created to feature in a poster campaign by the East London Health Project in 1978. This campaign aimed to raise questions about whether pharmaceutical companies were more interested in making money or making their medicines available to all. Health care is extremely costly and is frequently an issue that is considered and debated by governments worldwide as they try to provide the best health care they can for their citizens with the funds that they have available to them.

There are also significant issues with the effectiveness of the drugs that are prescribed by doctors.  One of the primary examples of this is with antibiotics, that when first manufactured, were very effective at treating infections, but now are less so because the bacteria has mutated so that antibiotics, such as penicillin, are not as useful. Therefore, in order to keep treating infection scientists will need to develop new drugs that can combat these more virulent illnesses.

Should we keep creating new drugs for antibiotic resistant bugs – or do we need to change the way we take medicines?

Introducing Enterprising Science

Micol Molinari, Project coordinator for the Talk Science project writes about the launch of Enterprising Science, the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

Today is a big day for us. It is the official launch of Enterprising Science, a five year partnership between the Science Museum, King’s College London and BP, bringing together expertise and research in informal science learning.

This new project builds on our Talk Science programme. Since 2007 we have worked with over 2,600 secondary school teachers across the UK to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) teaching and learning. The main aim of Talk Science was to give young people the confidence to find their own voice and have a say in the way science impacts on and shapes their lives. The core our work was with science teachers, because of their important role and ability to make a difference in young people’s lives.

So what did we do for Talk Science? We delivered a 1 day teacher CPD course, in over 30 cities across the UK. We developed physical & digital resources to support teachers in the classroom; ran student and teacher events, delivered communication skills training for scientists working with young audiences and held seminars for other museum educators on informal science learning.

This year we began working with King’s College London to develop, test and share new tools and techniques to engage more secondary schools students with science. The tools and techniques are all grounded in research from Kings College London’s five year ASPIRES study of children’s science and career aspirations, combined with our experience from five years of the Talk Science project. Our partnership with Kings is really exciting: it makes Enterprising Science the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

As part of Enterprising Science, we will be working closely with small groups of partner teachers, to collaboratively develop and trial new tools and techniques for engaging students with science both inside and outside the classroom. These new resources will be shared through our work with schools across the UK and online.

But it is not just about science in the classroom. In fact, research shows that one of the strongest indicators of whether a young person will choose a career in science is the type of support they get outside of school from their families. We will be working with teachers, young people and their families to help create a supportive learning environment for students. By raising the value that young people place on science, we hope to help students develop a genuine interest in science and understand how it is relevant to their lives.

We are excited to see where this project will take all of us. Here’s to the next 5 years!
Micol & the Enterprising Science team.

Wonderful Things: Human Genome books

From Keith Richards to Jordan, books about people’s lives fly off the shelves. But what if they looked like this….?

Dense bedtime reading in the Human Genome books

Created from the Human Genome Project, these replica books (a printed version can be seen at the Wellcome Collection) show the sequence of 3 billion bases of DNA contained within a human cell.

Who did this?

 Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome project, coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the national institutes of health, intended to identify human genes, develop understanding of genetic diseases and highlight key developmental processes of the human body.  Whilst initial analysis was released in 2001, the final sequence was completed in 2003.

 What exactly were they looking at?

They were looking at the biological data which makes us unique; the things which make us, us.

 Sounds simple. What about the Science?

Ok. To start with, a genome is all in the DNA in an organism, including its genes which carry information for making proteins.

DNA is composed of four letters carrying instructions for making an organism – A, C G AND T.  Three of these letters together create an Amino Acid. These combinations make up 20 different amino acids and come in a vast number of different orders to create proteins from keratin to haemoglobin.

 Got it.

The human genome is made up of 3 billion bases of DNA, split into 24 chromosomes. Each chromosomes contains a selection of genes – the human genome contains about 20,000 – 25,000 genes.

 Ah, so that’s all the letters?

Exactly. This information can be used to develop new ways to diagnose, treat and someday prevent diseases. Scientists also studied the genetic makeup of non-human organisms including e.coli, the fruit fly and a laboratory mouse.

 Sounds useful, if not a bit sci-fi.

 Yes and, as with much boundary-pushing scientific research, this can lead to opposition and criticism. This was the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues around data.  You might want to think about:

  1. Who should have access to this information?
  2. How much should people intervene with genetics material?
  3. How could this information be used?
  4. Could it be used for financial benefits?

 After all that, fancy some beach reading? 

 The Human Genome book is in the Who Am I? Gallery:  first floor, Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: Babbage’s brain

Would you expect to find human body parts in the Maths and Computing gallery?

Bizarrely, you can find one half of Charles Babbage’s brain which was donated to the Hunterian Museum by his son Henry (the other half is still with the Hunterian). Many brains of ‘great men’ were kept in the 19th Century to try and discover the nature of the link between the brain and consciousness.

Babbage was a computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, scientist, philosopher and political economist!

Babbage, who was seen as a brilliant thinker is regarded as the first computer pioneer. He used his genius-like brains well, excelling in many scientific subjects and after graduating from Cambridge University, he returned in 1828 as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. What a boffin!

During the 1820’s, brain box Babbage devised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured £1500 from the government and hired the engineer Joseph Clement. However, the project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over £17,000 to build the machine – equivalent to the price of two warships!

It’s widely accepted that the reason for the collapse was because Victorian mechanical engineering was not developed enough to produce such accurate parts. However, some have suggested that it was more to do with issues of economics, politics and Babbage’s temperament and style of directing the enterprise. Not such a genius then….

The Science Museum has a special relationship with Babbage and in 1985 the Museum used its own brain power and launched a project to build Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. It was completed and working in November 1991, one month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. This proves that had it been built during his life, it would’ve worked.

The figure wheels of Babbage's Difference Engine No 2. Not exactly a Casio calculator is it?

What computer gadget can you not live without?

Can you tell anything of a person’s abilities from bits of their brain?

How do you feel about museums displaying human remains?

Babbage also worked in the field of codebreaking.

With this in mind, why not create a trail for your students to visit our Alan Turing: Codebreaker exhibition, the Maths and Computing galleries to see Babbage’s brain and Making the Modern World to see the trial portion of his Difference Engine and the first Apple I Mac computer!

Babbage’s brain is in the Maths and Computing gallery on the 2nd floor of the Museum.

-Denise Cook

Science of the sprint

Whether you loved or hated it, sport has been on everyone’s minds over the past few weeks.

How did the athletes do it- what’s the science at work behind their incredible feats? Genetics certainly comes into play, but many other factors influence an athlete’s performance, from footwear, to diet and sleep.

So let’s give a little love to the worlds fastest man, Usain Bolt!

There are plenty of videos online about the secret of his sprint- here’s a good one. In brief, it comes down to his stride (longer than the other athletes’ – genetically gifted I guess) and his strength (near-superhuman, probably- but he had to train for that one).

Where does footwear come in? Well, we recently had a team of scientists down from Loughborough University running (no pun intended) a live event in the Antenna gallery- they work on biomechanics and high performance footwear- and it is really quite incredible how much engineering actually goes into a pair of running shoes!

So that’s it guys- get yourself some amazing high-performance trainers, and see you on the starting block in 2016! ;)

 

Wonderful Things: Argo float

The Argo program was set up by a collaborative of research groups at the turn of the century in response to growing concerns about global climate change.

Named after Jason’s “Argo”, a ship in Greek Mythology that undertook the treacherous voyage to capture the Golden Fleece, this ambitious program involves the deployment of data-collecting floats in oceans across the world. They sink to depths of 1500m and only rise to transmit information in real time via a satellite which allows sea temperatures, salt levels (salinity) and ocean velocity to be monitored. There are currently over 3000 floats in circulation.

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

One of the most significant features about Argo data is that it is freely available to anyone (www.argo.net). The speed with which the information is recorded and published allows oceanographers to quickly draw seemingly conclusive analytical reports about trends and changes in our oceans.

However, the accessibility of the survey network can lead to problems. Information published has not always been accurate and science writers are quick to use Argo data to shape and support their theories, rather than allowing the data to collate over time to form more conclusive readings.

It is expected that in the not too distant future, the Argo global dataset will provide crucial indications that global warming is happening. Some feel that there is already enough evidence to support this theory and that we should take immediate action to combat its effects.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the people of the world have put their absolute faith in your hands. How would you use Argo data findings? Consider:

Can we really suggest global warming is occurring based on monitoring the oceans alone?

To get a truly conclusive indication that climate change is happening might take many more years of Argo data observation. Would you wait or take action now, potentially making decisions that will affect the lives of millions?

Would it be better if the data collected was less readily available, or do you feel that everyone has the right to such information?

The Argo float is in the Atmosphere Gallery, great for all age groups to explore the many issues concerning climate change in a balanced and engaging way.

-John Inch

Wonderful Things: Trephination set

When suffering from a headache or migraine most of us reach for paracetamol, or aspirin. But, would you consider removing a piece of your skull to reduce the pain?

Trephination – or trepanning- involves making a small incision, by drilling or scraping, in the skull to expose the dura mater (the outermost, and toughest, of the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord), to treat problems related to intracranial diseases.  Whilst it sounds unusual – and very uncomfortable – this is believed to be one of the oldest medical procedures, with skulls as far back as the Neolithic period showing signs of trephination.

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

In Ancient Egypt, skull scrapings were used to create potions. Both Hippocrates and Galen mentioned the procedure, and it would continue throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with many people surviving, as seen in archaeological excavations where trepanned skulls show signs of healing around the edge of the hole.

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

There are several possible explanations for this procedure:

  • The collection of rondelles, or skull discs (small discs used as charms or amulets to expel demons).  
  • By cutting the bone away, practitioners believed it would cure convulsions, headaches, infections and even fractures by ridding pressure, or removing spirits

Although disregarded by many, the practice still exists in contemporary medicine, but is used mostly for the treatment of epidural and subdural haematoma (a ruptured blood vessel between the skull and the brain.)

Some people today still have the procedure carried out, with many purporting its benefits in increased levels of consciousness or intellectual capacity. 

  • Would you give trephination a go if it made you extra clever?
  • How do cultural or religious issues affect the treatment of pain and illness?

  • In the future, what contemporary medical procedures will seem unusual?

An example of a trephination set can be seen in The Science and Art of Medicine, 5th floor, Wellcome Wing.

 -Christopher Whitby

 

Hello bug-burger!

How will we feed ourselves in the future?

With more and more people on the planet demanding meat, whilst climate change threatens our environment and the price of food goes up, shouldn’t we be worried about where we will get our next meals?

Yes. And lucky for us, there are teams across the world working on how we are going to sustain our exploding population in the decades ahead. 

In the West, many of us are used to eating meat every day. But what if it became a luxury food again, and we had to resort to other sources of protein instead of our beloved burgers?

Insects – or mini livestock- are one interesting idea; many people in the world already eat them, spicy fried locusts, crunchy dried larvae… they are a good source of protein and easy to farm. They’d just need a bit of an image revamp to suit our squeamish sensibilities!

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do...

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do…

A worm kebab not doing it for you? What about algae bread? A lab-grown steak? Or making that Kit Kat taste sweeter by listening to bells as you devour it.  All these ideas are being researched now, some will catch on, and some definitely won’t.

One thing is for sure though- food and eating are the very basis of human survival and culture, so anything that impacts that will also affect us very deeply. I wonder what will our meals be like in 20 years time? (Here’s hoping I can still whip up a mean spaghetti al pomodoro without resorting to a can of spider eyeballs!)