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Her Majesty The Queen sends her first tweet to unveil the Information Age

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Her Majesty The Queen this morning opened the pioneering Information Age gallery at the Science Museum by sending her first tweet to the world, 76 years after The Queen’s first visit to the museum.

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum's Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet. Credit: Science Museum

The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh had earlier toured the landmark gallery, which explores the six networks that have transformed global communications, listening to personal recollections of people whose first experience of television was watching her Coronation in 1953.

Inviting Her Majesty to open the gallery, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford remarked on how royalty had embraced communications technology from the day Queen Victoria took an interest in the invention of the telephone, which was demonstrated to her in January 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell at Osborne House, Isle of Wight.

“Your Majesty has followed in this tradition,” said Mr Blatchford while addressing around 600 guests including communications entrepreneurs, authors and experts, from Baroness Lane Fox, Hermann Hauser and Mo Ibrahim to Prof Steve Furber, James Gleick, Tom Standage and Sir Nigel Shadbolt.

“You made the first live Christmas broadcast in 1957,” he added, “and an event relished by historians took place on 26 March 1976, when you became the first monarch to send an email, during a visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. “

Then Mr Blatchford invited Her Majesty to join him to “send your first Tweet”.

The Queen removed a glove to send her pioneering tweet from the @BritishMonarchy Twitter account.

 

The Queen's first Tweet

The Queen’s first Tweet

This marked the first time that a reigning British monarch contributed one of the half billion or so tweets that are sent every day.

The Queen has a long relationship with the Science Museum and first visited in March 1938, as a princess, a few years after it launched a pioneering Children’s Gallery.

Today she explored Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World, the first museum gallery dedicated to the history of information technologies, containing more than 800 iconic objects and six state-of-the art interactive displays in story boxes connected by an elevated walkway.

The £16 million project saw collaborations with leading artists and thinkers, including Olivier award-winning video and projection designer Finn Ross, artists Matthew Robins and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, broadcaster Bonnie Greer and developer of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

From the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America  to the birth of the modern smartphone, it looks at how today’s  world was forged with six communication networks: the telegraph; the telephone, radio and television broadcasting; satellite communications; computer networks; and mobile communications.

Lead curator Dr Tilly Blyth showed The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh around the exhibition, from the bright yellow call box from Cameroon to the BBC’s first radio transmitter from 1922 to the monumental 6-metre high aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station that lies at the heart of the gallery.

This strangely beautiful web of copper and wood was once part of the most powerful radio transmitter in the world and was donated to the Science Museum by BT.

Over 410,000 people follow the Science Museum on Twitter via @sciencemuseum.

We use twitter to share as many fascinating objects (some weird, others wonderful) and stories from our exhibitions and collections as possible.  In the past we have shared science jokes and organised a Q&A with an astronaut.

We’ve even taken our followers inside Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 Command Module.

Our curators regularly take over the @sciencemuseum account, taking hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter tours of their favourite objects. In the past, @rooneyvision has shared his story of how we made the modern world, with @ali_boyle selecting her favourite objects from our astronomy collection (you can read the #CosmosTour here).

The @ScienceMuseum account was also at the heart of the Great British Innovation vote which attracted more than 50,000 votes from the public for their favourite innovation.

We love reading tweets from the millions of you who visit each year, sharing stories of visits, getting engaged and even dancing under our rockets.

From astronauts to pop stars, we have had the pleasure of meeting and tweeting many famous faces. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, joked with us about driving a NASA moon buggy, with Chris Hadfield sharing stories of life on board the International Space Station, and will.i.am joining us for a tour of the museum.

And it was a remarkable day when both Prof Stephen Hawking and Nobel prize-winner Prof Peter Higgs met in the Science Museum for our Collider exhibition opening.

This year a record breaking 450,000 young people visited the Science Museum on educational trips, or benefitted from its outreach programme, more than any other UK museum. Our Learning team (@SM_Learn) helps schools to plan their visits as well as sharing science demos and experiments that wow visitors every day.

Information Age has been made possible through the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT (Lead Principal Sponsor), ARM (Principal Sponsor), Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google (Principal Funders).  Major Funders include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Bonita Trust and the Motorola Solutions Foundation. 

Additional support has been provided by Accenture (Connect Circle Sponsor) as well as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Cambridge Wireless (CW), the David and Claudia Harding Foundation and other individual donors.  The Science Museum would also like to thank the BBC for their assistance.

Paralyzed man walks again with the help of cells from his nose

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum.

Almost a decade ago, at a talk at the Royal College of Physicians in London, I heard Prof Geoff Raisman describe to a packed audience how he was on the verge of treating paralysed spinal cord injury patients with their own stem cells.

Today, marking the culmination of almost half a century of effort, the BBC reports how Prof Raisman’s pioneering therapy has at long last been carried out by surgeons in Poland, enabling a paralysed man to walk again.

Darek Fidyka, aged 40, was paralysed from the chest down after his spinal cord was severed in a  knife attack in 2010 and had not responded to intensive physiotherapy.

Now he is able walk using a frame after cells from his nasal cavity were transplanted into his spinal cord, according to a paper in the journal Cell Transplantation.

Mr Fidyka told the BBC how walking again  – with the support of a frame – was “an incredible feeling”, adding: “When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s like you were born again.”

Prof Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London, said that for a paralysed person this feat was “more impressive than man walking on the moon”.

When a nerve fibre is severed it attempts to regrow but is unable to do this is due to the disruption of the pathway along which the nerve fibres need to travel. Often that gap is blocked by cells that close off the spinal cord by forming a scar.

The new hope rests on the discovery that there is only one part of the nervous system in which nerve fibres are in a state of continuous growth throughout adult life. These nerves are at the top of the nose and are concerned with the sense of smell.

Prof Raisman spent years studying in animals how to bridge a severed spinal cord using these olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs). Depending on where the spine is severed in laboratory animals these cell transplants result in the ability to reach with a paw or to climb.

In the first of two operations on Darek Fidyka, when he was 38 years old, surgeons in Wroclaw removed one of his olfactory bulbs and grew the component cells in culture.

Two weeks later the team led by Dr Pawel Tabakow, consultant neurosurgeon at Wroclaw Medical University,  transplanted around half a million of these cells above and below his spinal cord along with strips of nerve tissue taken from the patient’s ankle, providing the means for the gap to be closed once again. Being the patient’s own cells, there was no danger of rejection and thus no need for immunosuppressive drugs.

After three months, Mr Fidyka noticed that his left thigh began putting on muscle. Six months later he took steps with the help of parallel bars, leg braces and the support of a physiotherapist. After two years  he can now walk using a frame. He has also recovered a degree of bladder and bowel sensation and sexual function.

Spinal cord injury is classified into five categories on the ‘ASIA Impairment Scale.’  “After OEC transplantation and the building of the nerve bridge, this patient improved from ASIA A to ASIA C,” said Dr Tabakow (“A” indicates a “complete” spinal cord injury where no motor or sensory function is preserved and “C” indicates an “incomplete” spinal cord injury).

“Prior to the transplantation we estimated that without this treatment, our patient’s recovery chances were less than one percent,” he explained. “However, we observed a gradual recovery of both sensory and motor function that began four months after the surgery.”

MRI scans suggest that the 8 mm gap in the cord has closed up following the treatment. However, Prof Raisman stresses that the success with Mr Fidyka will need to be repeated in more patients to show definitively whether it can stimulate spinal cord regeneration.

The research was supported by the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation and the UK Stem Cell Foundation.

Click here to learn more about stem cells and discover more about the latest science stories from our Contemporary Science team.

Zaha Hadid on Maths, Architecture and Women in Science

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs.

When Zaha Hadid won the commission to design a new Mathematics gallery at the Science Museum, there was one question that I simply had to ask her: given she studied mathematics at university and the pervasive evidence that science is institutionally sexist, how much of a hurdle faces women today and how much of an inspiration would her appointment prove to be?


Her acknowledgement that, even for her, the gender gap remains an issue, and particularly in Britain, surprised me: “I’ve come across it a lot in my career here and I never felt it anywhere else to be honest,” she remarks. Her comments, made during a recent visit to the Science Museum, are particularly salient on Ada Lovelace Day (14 Oct), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The Iraqi-British architect was born in 1950 and raised in one of Baghdad’s first Bauhaus-inspired houses. “In Iraq, maths was taught as a way of life,” she recalls. “We used to just do maths to resolve problems continuously, as if we were sketching.”

But when she came to boarding school in Britain in the early 1960s she found that she “was much more advanced in the sciences than many of the kids at the time, not because they were not smart. I think it was badly taught and it’s very important to teach sciences and maths in a way that makes it appealing.”

Before she went to boarding school, aged around 10, Dame Zaha vividly remembers a trip with her parents to the Science Museum. “It was for me at the time extremely fascinating to see instruments and understand about science. And, around the same time, I also went to art museums. I used to come every summer to London when I was in my teens.”

She went on to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut. The explosion of interest in construction and modernity of the 1960s encouraged her to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Today, she is one of the most sought-after architects on the planet, the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of the field.

From the Aquatics Centre she designed for the London Olympics to Rome’s curvilinear National Museum of the XXI Century Arts and China’s Guangzhou opera house, her concepts are futuristic and often voluptuous, with powerful, curving forms. Her work, she explains, has its roots in movement that is a century old, citing the work of Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich. The dire economic situation in the West in the seventies “fostered in us similar ambitions: we thought to apply radical new ideas to regenerate society.”

One would have thought that her global success as a ‘starchitect’ is a testament to how the gender gap is no longer a hurdle in Britain. However, like her late British-educated father, an economist and industrialist who helped to found the Iraqi National Democratic party, she found that she had to be dogged to succeed in her career. “I took a risk. “People were thinking I was crazy to do what I did even 30 years ago because it was very risky and that no-one’s going to give me a job. They were right.”

In the 1970s Dame Zaha met Peter Rice, an engineer, who encouraged her and she established her own London-based practice. However, she still struggled for recognition. Twenty years ago, the Millennium Commission refused to fund her winning “crystal necklace” design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Dame Zaha said at the time that she had been stigmatised on grounds of gender and race.

There is plenty of evidence that it remains a battle for women to pursue science and mathematics with the same ease enjoyed by men. According to the US National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21% of full science professors (just 5% of full engineering professors) even though they earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the US. They have to work harder to make the same impact.

One study, published last December by Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University Bloomington, and colleagues, evaluated 5,483,841 papers published between 2008–2012 and concluded that “in the most productive countries, all articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions”.

It is a similar picture for the UK and for architecture too. Last year Dame Zaha criticised the “misogyny” among UK architects, arguing that society is not equipped to help women back to work after childbirth. “You know we still suffer,” Dame Zaha tells me. “ it’s not very smooth. There’s been a problem always – the stereotype is that girls can’t do sciences.”

But, of course, they can. Over the years she has taught at many prestigious institutions, from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and The University of Applied Arts, Vienna. “Some of my best students are women,” she remarks. “I think it’s very important to encourage them.”

She acknowledges that her struggle and resulting success plays an inspirational role. “I do notice now when I go out to give a talk somewhere there are many girls who come to me. They want to be reassured that they actually can break that barrier and also do it with confidence. That’s why education is very important as it gives you confidence to conquer the next step. That confidence allows you to take risks.”

At the launch of the museum’s new Mathematics gallery in September, Dame Zaha was accompanied by museum Director Ian Blatchford, David and Claudia Harding – who made an unprecedented £5 million donation to build the gallery through their foundation – Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and her business partner, architect Patrik Schumacher, who helps Dame Zaha lead her team of 300 people.

Science Museum Curator David Rooney explained how the centrepiece of the forthcoming gallery will be the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12-metre wingspan that was designed to fly safely at slow speeds from short take-offs.

The aircraft’s aerodynamics proved influential at the very beginnings of civilian air travel. In the same way, the swirling flows of air around the aircraft in flight inspired Dame Zaha’s design and will allow mathematics to take flight in the museum.


Behind the Handley Page in her design lie three minimal surfaces (they enclose the smallest possible area that satisfy some constraints) that are based on the shapes of the vortices in the turbulence created behind the plane in flight. The equation defining these surfaces is governed by six different parameters and, by tweaking them, a menagerie of sensuous shapes emerges on screen in the offices of Zaha Hadid Architects. “Mathematics and geometry has an amazing influence particularly on our work,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”

Some of these surfaces will provide the backdrops to support display cases used throughout the galleries to provide an appropriate setting for a dazzling range of objects that will span 400 years of science and mathematics. It seems only appropriate to point out, on the day we celebrate the ‘first computer programmer‘, that the shapes were generated with Mathematica software.

The Mathematics gallery is the fourth commission this year as part of the redevelopment of the Science Museum. Wilkinson Eyre has been appointed to create £24 million Medical Galleries; London-based Coffey Architects is designing a new £1.8 million library and research centre in the museum’s Wellcome Wolfson Building; and Muf, a collective of artists, architects and urban designers, was selected to design a £4 million interactive gallery in the museum. Around one third of the building will change over the next few years, marking the biggest transformation of the museum since it was established more than a century ago.

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum and member of the Longitude Committee.

In a few days, the subject of the world’s greatest challenge prize – the £10 million Longitude Prize 2014 – will be unveiled by the BBC after an unprecedented public vote.

However, it became clear at a meeting held in the museum this week that the motivation to reincarnate the Longitude Prize on its 300th anniversary is not just a matter of money, though it is certainly newsworthy, nor is it simply the glory of being the first, or best, or most innovative.

As Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder put it, it is also because “we want a culture where kids aspire to be great scientists and get the societal recognition.”

And he hoped the prize, launched last year by the Prime Minister, would motivate those who lie outside the traditional spheres of well-funded grand institutions and specialised scholars and ‘tap into all the other crazy people out there.’

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum. Credit: Longitude Prize 2014

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum. Credit: Longitude Prize 2014

Wales was addressing the Longitude Lounge, organised at the museum by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation who are developing and running the Prize, with support from the Technology Strategy Board. The aim is to ‘push innovation on the boundaries of the possible and impossible,’ Geoff Mulgan, Nesta Chief Executive, told leading innovators who had gathered at the museum.

The new prize is open to anyone, anywhere, he said. However, in a departure from the original, it is also down to the public to decide which of six challenges to tackle around low carbon flight, food and water security, and paralysis, antibiotic resistance and dementia (you can vote here).

The prize has been promoted on the BBC. Amazon is emailing its UK customers, estimated to be many millions, to encourage them to take part. And around 300 schools have registered to take part in the Longitude Prize schools programme.

How will the public vote? Wales said that the six challenges all have ‘different levels of public appeal and prizeability’ but, on balance, he backed the paralysis challenge, not least because it could benefit from a wide range of existing computer and machine assisted technologies.

Also speaking was Naveen Jain, entrepreneur and founder of Moon Express, who said he felt the public would back the water challenge ‘but it if is audacious, it has to be dementia.’

The third speaker, designer, artist and writer Daisy Ginsberg, picked the antibiotics and food challenges, though she felt that food was perhaps the more exciting. ‘We should put our money where our mouth is.’

Lord Rees, who chairs the Longitude Committee, said that once the public had voted, an expert group would formulate the rules for the prize (‘that is going to be the difficult part’) but he added that he hoped the remaining areas would find commercial sponsors.

He said that it was inspirational to have the meeting in the Science Museum, ‘the greatest shrine to science, technology and innovation.’

Lord Rees added that he hoped that he would not be as curmudgeonly as his Longitude predecessor, Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 and sat on the first Board of Longitude.

Click here to vote for the Longitude Prize 2014. Voting closes on 25 June 2014. For more on the history of the Longitude Prize click here

World must adapt to climate change, says IPCC

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The world is ill prepared for an unknown climate future and must adapt to meet the challenges, according to a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Yokohama, Japan. You can read the press summary of the UN agency’s report here and the full report here, written by 309 authors and editors drawn from 70 countries.

Today’s report, which focuses on how there will be sweeping consequences to life and livelihood, and how to adapt to them, is the second of three in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate change.

The first instalment, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change.  The third, on how to cut emissions that drive climate change, comes out in April.

At the Science Museum, you can keep up to date with the issues surrounding climate change through a series of exhibitions, artworks and educational activities. Our interactive Atmosphere gallery, encourages visitors to learn about the work of early pioneers such as John Tyndall, uncover the secrets of ice cores and stalagmites, and wonder at the latest ideas for a low-carbon life. You can also play a climate themed computer game called Rizk.

To see how fiction has been inspired by climate change, download the Museum’s first novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White. You can also discover the beauty, value and volume of ‘rubbish’ we produce in an upcoming exhibition, The Rubbish Collection – which will trace the journey of waste generated by staff and visitors to the Museum over a 30 day period.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

Next week we will celebrate the life and 70 year career of James Lovelock – one of Britain’s most important living scientists, with an exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. The exhibition will feature highlights from a remarkable archive of images, manuscripts and audio-visual material acquired by the Museum in 2012 – providing visitors with a glimpse into life in Lovelock’s laboratory and his creative mind and charismatic personality.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will publish a report on the public understanding of climate change later this week after holding a hearing in the Museum last year.

Science Museum stars in UK-Russia Year of Culture

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reveals a remarkable new exhibition opening in 2014.

A landmark exhibition of the Russian vision and technological ingenuity that launched the space age is to be the centrepiece of the largest ever festival of Russian and British culture.

Under the working title of ‘Russia’s Space Quest’, the Science Museum exhibition will bring unknown stories of space endeavour to life through a unique collection of space artefacts, many of which have never before been seen either outside Russia or in public.

The exhibition will be the headline attraction of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, a year-long programme of events that will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of both countries, according to the British Council and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Olga Golodets, the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the year of culture ‘will lay a solid foundation for long-term cooperation in the future in various areas.” Rt Hon. the Baroness D’Souza, Lord Speaker, said it was a delight to launch the initiative.

At a launch event in the museum, Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, stressed the importance of the year for UK-Russia relations and  said it would be a “flow of ideas”. This point was echoed by Mikhail Shvydkoy, President Putin’s special envoy for international cultural cooperation, who hoped the project would create “new trust” between the two countries.

Paul de Quincey, director of the British Council in Russia, also announced BP as the first UK Founder Sponsor of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, represented by Peter Charow, VP of BP Russia.

Among the star objects on display in Russia’s Space Quest will be cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, pioneering rocket engines, space suits and other life support systems. There will also be examples of the personal and poignant – memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by 'Zvezda'.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by ‘Zvezda’. Credit: SSPL

The director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, said such an exhibition, the equivalent in impact of the British Museum’s landmark Tutankhamen exhibition, had been a dream of Deputy Keeper, Doug Millard, for more than two decades.

‘Russia’s Space Quest’, which is being led by curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina, represents a major collaboration between the Moscow State Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and draws on the support of many institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia.

Mr Blatchford said that it was important to have this exhibition to capture the excitement of the early years, while scientists, engineers and technicians from the Russian quest were still alive: “It is imperative that we do this exhibition now, before their stories are lost – as that would be a terrible blow.”

‘Russia’s Space Quest’ will also explore the science and technology of Russian space travel in its cultural and spiritual context, revealing a deep rooted national yearning for space that was shaped by the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century.

The dream of the Cosmists became a reality between October and November 1957, when Sputnik and then Laika the space dog were launched, and 1961 when the rest of the world watched in astonishment as  a Russian man became the first human to look down on our fragile blue world.

This week Intandem Films and Russia’s Kremlin Films joined the Russian Embassy to host a special screening in the Museum’s IMAX of the $10 million budgeted biopic Gagarin: First in Space.

The movie, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, is produced by Oleg Kapanets and Igor Tolstunov and stars Yaroslav Zhalnin, Mikhail Pilippov and Viktor Proskurin.

The film dramatizes the story of how Yuri Gagarin was selected from over 3,000 fighter pilots across the USSR to take part in his country’s space program, that culminated in him blasting off in a Vostok rocket on April 12, 1961, after several failed unmanned launches.

The screening at the museum was hosted by the Russian Ambassador Alexander V Yakovenko, who praised Russia’s Space Quest as one of the  most important cultural events staged and supported by the U.K. and his country, and attended by Culture Minister Maria Miller.

The biopic was introduced by Yuri Gagarin’s daughter, Elena Gagarin, who said the world changed forever after her father made the first manned flight into space.

Obituary: Fred Sanger (1918 – 2013)

Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, remembers Nobel laureate Fred Sanger.

The biochemist and Nobel laureate Fred Sanger would joke that ‘I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.’ Despite his huge influence, Sanger also once said that: ‘I am not academically brilliant.’

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

I met him for the first time among the audience of a Wellcome press conference in London and, not once in our chat about human genomics, did he let slip who he was and the landmark contribution that he had made to the field.

In fact this modest man was one of the greatest innovators of all time with his emphasis on developing new techniques, notably DNA sequencing, the ability to read the genome, or genetic recipe, of an organism while working at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, commented on hearing news of his death that  Sanger was a ‘giant in genetics, who had an astonishing capacity to crack some of the most challenging problems in biology. His passing marks the end of an era in modern genetics.’

The American genome pioneer and synthetic biologist, Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville and La Jolla, said on hearing the sad news: ‘Fred Sanger was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He twice changed the direction of the scientific world, first with the sequencing of insulin, proving that proteins were linear strings of amino acids and second with his then new method of sequencing DNA, which led to the field of genomics. His contributions will always be remembered.’

Most sequencing performed for the past decades is a direct extension of the methods that were pioneered by Fred Sanger. He unveiled his first partial DNA sequence in May 1975 and went on to deliver the first complete determination of the sequence of a DNA molecule: the 5375 ‘letters’ in the genome of a bacterial virus called phi-X174.

This machine, developed in 1987, uses the Sanger method for DNA sequencing. Credit: Science Museum

This machine, developed in 1987, uses the Sanger method for DNA sequencing. Credit: Science Museum

The DNA reading method that Sanger developed in Cambridge with Alan Coulson required the manufacture of lots of copies of the DNA molecule using an enzyme called DNA polymerase. For the polymerase to replicate DNA it needs DNA building blocks – molecules called nucleotides – which correspond to the four ‘letters’ of the genetic alphabet.

The enzyme reads from each end of the original molecule to make new copies. For sequencing, Sanger added another ingredient: molecules called ‘terminator nucleotides’, each radioactively-labelled, which are so named because they stop the polymerase when they are incorporated in the growing copy. As a consequence, the enzyme incorporates a terminator in the growing DNA chain, halting the process and marking the end of the growing chain with a radioactive molecule as a full stop.

Because this interruption occurs at any stage of the process of copying vast numbers of DNA molecules in the test tube, a mixture is produced of DNA fragments of varying lengths, each finishing with a radioactively-marked C, G, A or T, depending on which base had been labelled.

An electric field was used to drive these fragments through a gel to separate the DNA molecules according to their size and reveal the sequence: the largest pieces of DNA take more time to migrate through the gel. Because the radioactive label on all four terminators produces the same black mark on an X ray film, Sanger had to carry out four individual experiments, one for each different letter of the code, on four adjacent tracks on the same gel. When the genetic fragments separate, one track shows the DNA fragments that end with a C, one those that end with a G and so on.

Then Sanger and his colleagues studied the film, starting with the first band from the four letter tracks, moving to where the next closest band appeared. In this way, they could read the digital recipe of life. If the first, smallest, piece of DNA was in the C track, for example, then C was the first letter. If the next black mark was in the A track, then an A followed.

Sanger sequenced the 17,000 or so letters of DNA in the human mitochondrion, the energy factory found in our cells. This feat can be regarded the first human genome project. He won the Nobel prize for this work in 1980 but it was far from his first major award.

Frederick Sanger used this equipment to study the structure of insulin by electrophoresis in the 1950s. Credit: Science Museum

Fred Sanger used this equipment to study the structure of insulin by electrophoresis in the 1950s. Credit: Science Museum

He had been given his first Nobel prize in 1958, for his research on the structure of proteins, when he worked out the order of the 50 or so amino acids that make up the insulin molecule. This work revealed how DNA specified linear strings of amino acids in proteins, and that proteins were not agglomerations of closely-related substances, as many had thought in the first half of the 20th century, but were indeed a single chemical.

The world has lost a gene genius.

Discover more about genetics in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery.

Impossible trees grow in the Science Museum

My evening with the entrepreneurial Lily Cole, by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A little copse of ‘giving trees’ will once again sprout in the entrance to the museum’s Wellcome wing as part of our highly-successful Lates events.

The olive trees first appeared at our last adults-only evening to celebrate the work of the actor, activist and entrepreneur Lily Cole. That night Lily and I met in the museum to discuss her ‘gift culture’ social network Impossible.com, which is now being developed into an App.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

The last time we encountered each other, we discussed her work with the World Land Trust to help elephant migration routes. This time around, and before a packed IMAX, Lily and I compared notes on the ideas behind her grander vision of cooperation, as seen in her website impossible.com, which is currently in beta. 

She conceived the idea for her new sharing economy during the depths of the financial crisis and has followed through with admirable determination on her plans to create a moneyless system for exchanging goods and services. Or, as Lily put it:  ‘What if technology could communicate people’s needs?’

Lily has consulted many people for her project, including Muhammad Yunus, who won the noble peace prize for micro finance. Indeed, one of her investors was so inspired by his first meeting with her that he started work on her app without any prompting.

At the core of Lily’s thesis lies her belief in the universal kindness between strangers, one that impossible.com taps into, which challenges our bartering economy through a currency of “thank-yous” instead of money.

While she approaches the question of cooperation from the perspective of her Cambridge University background in arts, anthropology and economics, I adopted that of my co-author Martin Nowak of Harvard University, who has done experiments to study the origins of cooperation, whether by studying idealised mathematical agents or people.

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

What Nowak has shown, with the help of a famous game theory experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, is that evolution undermines cooperation without the help of mechanisms.

We know such mechanisms must exist because cooperation is so ubiquitous. Some of my examples from nature were familiar to the audience, such as leaf ants, bees who tirelessly harvest pollen for the good of the hive, and naked mole rats.

Because of the many parallels between these societies and multicellular creatures, where the job of reproduction is specialised, mole rate colonies, ant nests and beehives are known as superorganisms.

Some of my examples were downright odd, such as the ‘unicorn of the sea’, or pyrosome. These are composed of thousands of individuals, called zooids,  which form hollow bioluminescent cylinders up to 20 m long and large enough for a scuba diver to swim inside.

Cooperation is ancient, dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, more than three billion years ago. Among filaments of cyanobacteria, for example, one dies every 10 or 20 to feed its neighbours with nitrogen. Other bacteria forage in groups, much as a pride of lions hunt together.

Slides from the Science of Cooperation discussion

Martin Nowak has identified five basic mechanisms of cooperation: direct reciprocity (I scratch your back, you scratch mine); indirect reciprocity (I scratch your back and someone else scratches mine); spatial selection (exploiting population structure, whether due to geography, friendship or common interests); multilevel selection (I will sacrifice myself for the greater good) ; and, finally, kin selection (we help our relatives – nepotism). People use all five – that’s why Martin and I call them supercooperators. Of that list of mechanisms, Lily’s impossible.com makes the most use of ‘indirect reciprocity,’ which is linked to the evolution of social intelligence and language.

Our views of cooperation overlap on one key point: that to prevent environmental catastrophe, we need to improve the way that we work together not just for our own good but also for the benefit of future generations: we need to do more to cooperate with the unborn, if you like.

After the event, Lily and I returned to the little copse where museum visitors had been encouraged to write their wishes on wooden boards, following the Shinto tradition, in the hope that at least one of the 4000 people who visited that night could make it come true.

Jimmy Wales, American Internet entrepreneur and a co-founder of Wikipedia had joined the milling crowd earlier that evening as they penned their wishes in Sharpie onto small wooden boards and hung them on the trees. Later we met Science Minister, David Willetts, who was there to meet the winners of the Medical Research Council’s Max Perutz prize, and Dr Penny Fidler and her colleagues from the Association of Science and Discovery Centres, who were attending their annual conference.

Lily has also been 3D scanned for a new museum exhibition 3D: Printing the Future (try to find the resulting mini Lily on the exhibition wall) and contributed to a mass experiment on music, #Hooked, organised by our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Our experience with Lily was, in its own way, a wonderful testament to the power of cooperation.

The next Science Museum Lates is space-themed and runs from 6:45-10pm on Wednesday 30th October.

Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell inspires the next generation in the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs on meeting Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Captain Jim Lovell, the astronaut who led the crew of Apollo 13 to safety after their spacecraft was crippled by an explosion, held an impromptu question and answer session for school children today in the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum.

His astonishing adventure, popularised by the film of the same name starring Tom Hanks, began when the Apollo 13 spacecraft lifted off on April 11th 1970 to land Captain Lovell and Fred Haise on the Moon, with Jack Swigert to pilot the command module.

Jack Swigert, responding to a daily request from Earth, switched on the cryogenic fan to stir up the contents of the oxygen tanks. A spark flew from a naked wire, causing an explosion that ruptured the oxygen tank. The lunar mission was doomed 200,000 miles out in space

Swigert saw a warning light that accompanied the bang, and said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Quick action by the crew, who used the lunar module as a “life boat”, and dazzling improvisation by technicians on the ground salvaged the crippled spacecraft and brought it back to Earth within four days.

Lovell was visiting the museum today to accept the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators’ premier award, its Guild Award of Honour for Aviation Heroism and Professionalism, from “the Flying Judge”, Tudor Owen QC, Master of the Guild.

But, while posing for photographs in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module which is on display in the Science Museum, he decided to take questions from a crowd of schoolchildren who were visiting.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

‘Were you scared when you came back,’ asked one girl. ‘I was scared before I came back,’ came the reply. ‘After I landed I was very happy that I was back on the water and our spacecraft didn’t sink.’

What was the explosion like? ‘It was quite violent, although we did not know exactly what it was at first. We thought maybe a battery had blown up and then we saw oxygen escaping. When that occurred, we knew we had lost an oxygen tank. We actually lost both oxygen tanks.’

How does it feel in space? ‘It is actually very comfortable when you get used to it.’

Lovell flew in space four times; as pilot on Gemini 7 in 1965 and as Command Pilot on Gemini 12, before his two Apollo missions.

He is the only man to have flown to the Moon twice, but not landed on it. He went in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8. Earthrise, one of the most iconic images ever, was taken from the spacecraft.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968. Credit: NASA

Captain Lovell also met Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper, Technologies & Engineering, who is working on a landmark museum exhibition about Russia’s space pioneers, scheduled for next year. Lovell later remarked that, during the crisis, the Russians had offered help with recovering the command module, after re-entry.

A few weeks ago, fellow Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan also visited Apollo 10. Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon.

With Jeffrey Kluger, Jim Lovell wrote a book about the Apollo 13 mission, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13  Here are some extracts from the book, which was the basis for the later Ron Howard movie Apollo 13:

“A short, muffled blast echoed through the spacecraft. It rocked for a few brief seconds, then settled down and quiet again prevailed. I could tell by Fred Haise’s expression that he didn’t know what had happened. A quick glance over to Jack Swigert told me the same. Jack’s eyes were as wide as saucers.”

“Powering down meant everything. The only items left operating were the radio to talk to Earth and a fan to circulate the atmosphere in the spacecraft. We were flying on the seat of our pants. But again we ran into problems. The altitude control rockets were never designed to control the altitude of the lunar module with a dead 60,000 lb command and service module attached to it, so, without the autopilot, I had to fly it manually. Pushing forward on the controller did not result in a pitch-down motion but some wild gyration in another direction. I had to learn to ‘fly’ all over again.”

“If we came in at too shallow an angle, we would skip off the atmosphere like a stone off water. If we came up too steeply, we would burn up in seconds like a meteor.”

“The procedures called for manually rotating the spacecraft, using our newly acquired ‘flying skills’, to put Earth in the lunar module window. In that window I had mounted a crosshair ‘gunsight’. If I could line up the terminator on Earth, the line between daylight and darkness, with the horizontal line of my gunsight, then the lunar module’s descent engine would be properly positioned to correct our angle of entry into the atmosphere.

We had only one chance to make the manoeuvre: at the point in our flight home when we had just left the sphere of influence of the Moon and had the least forward velocity. Aquarius’s clock had failed, so I told Jack to time the burn with his Omega wristwatch. I had two three-axis attitude controllers in Aquarius, the primary and a back-up. I told Fred to use the back-up controller to maintain yaw control. I would control pitch and roll with the primary controller. Two emergency electrical buttons were located on the left side of the console. One was labelled ‘Start’ and the other ‘Stop’.”

“At the proper time, I pushed ‘Start.’ The engine came on full blast. Fred and I jockeyed Earth in the window. Fourteen seconds later, Jack yelled ‘Stop!’ and I pushed the button. Mission control monitored the burn via telemetry: ‘Ignition!… Thrust looks good… It shut down…Nice work.’ ‘Let’s hope it was’, we replied. Space networks radars soon confirmed that Apollo 13 was comfortably back within the entry corridor.”

“I was in Aquarius, straining to get a glimpse and photograph the service module as it drifted by: ‘OK, I’ve got her… There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing: right by the high gain antenna, the whole panel is blown out, almost to the base of the engine – it’s a mess.”

“At 142 hours 40 minutes elapsed time, Odyssey slammed into the thin upper air at about 400,000 ft. A pink glow came through our windows, when the atmosphere started to decelerate the spacecraft, and the temperature on the heat shield rose to 5000F. When we reached 40,00ft, the drogue chutes popped out, followed by three beautiful main parachutes. Odyssey splashed into the Pacific Ocean just a mile or so from the USS Iwo Jima on Friday, April 17, after a flight lasting 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.”

Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, celebrates the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics ahead of the opening of our Collider exhibition next month.      

Congratulations to Briton Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

A few minutes ago, after an unusual delay, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the physics prize in Stockholm, ending this chapter of the quest for new elementary particles, the greatest intellectual adventure to date.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, comments: “That it has taken decades to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson illustrates the remarkable vision of the theoretical work that Higgs, Francois Englert and others did with pen and paper half a century ago, one that launched an effort by  thousands of scientists and inspired a staggering feat of engineering in the guise of the Large Hadron Collider.

What is the Higgs? Here’s all you need to know, in just 90 seconds, from Harry Cliff, a Cambridge University physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Although the identity of the winners has been a closely-guarded secret, many have speculated that those who played a central role in discovery of the long-sought Higgs, notably the emeritus Edinburgh professor himself, were leading contenders for a place in history.

The Science Museum has been so confident that the Large Hadron Collider would change our view of nature that we have invested more than £1 million, and worked closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, to celebrate this epic undertaking with its new exhibition, Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, which opens to the public on 13 November. 

Here Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to what is now Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN’s £5 billion Large Hadron Collider reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson, technically a ripple in an invisible energy field that gives most particles their mass.

This discovery represented the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who will attend the launch of Collider, bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC.

Another speaker at the Collider launch, the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery (though he is adamant that Higgs deserves the Nobel Prize).

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When Higgs was in the CERN auditorium last year to hear scientists tell the world about the discovery, he was caught reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing his eyes.  On the flight home, he celebrated this extraordinary achievement with a can of London Pride beer.

The Science Museum hoped to have the can, now deemed a piece of history Alas, Higgs had dumped it in the rubbish before we could collect it. However, the museum does possess the champagne bottle that Higgs emptied with his friends the night before the big announcement.

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The modest 84-year-old  is now synonymous with the quest: the proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.

But there have been demands that the particle be renamed to acknowledge the work of others. Deciding who should share this Nobel has been further complicated because a maximum of three people only can be honoured (prompting many to question the criteria used by the Nobel committee).

The LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is the cumulative endeavour of around ten thousand men and women from across the globe. In recognition of this the Collider exhibition will tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Higgs discovery from the viewpoint of a young PhD student given the awesome task of announcing the discovery to her colleagues (though fictional, the character is based on Mingming Yang of MIT who is attending the launch).

However, although one suggestion is to allow the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson to share the accolade, the Nobel committee traditionally awards science prizes to individuals and not organizations (unlike the Nobel Peace Prize).

Instead, the Nobel committee honoured the theoreticians who first anticipated the existence of the Higgs.

Six scientists published the relevant papers in 1964 though, as Belgium’s Robert Brout died in 2011, there were five contenders (the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously).

In August 1964, François Englert from the Free University of Brussels with Brout, published their theory of particle masses. A month later, while working at Edinburgh University, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was – crucially – the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.

Last week, Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who works at CERN, said it would be ‘odd and perverse’ not to give the Nobel to Peter Higgs, and also singled out Lyn ‘the atom’ Evans, the Welshman in charge of building the collider, as a candidate.

And the two likeliest winners were named as Peter Higgs – after whom the particle was named – and François Englert, according to a citation analysis by Thomson Reuters.

Today’s announcement marks the formal recognition of a profound advance in human understanding, the discovery of one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening 13th November 2013.