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Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov on the birth of the space age

As Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov celebrates his birthday this week (30 May), Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, spent a day with the pioneering cosmonaut for the launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

With the help of chalk and blackboard, Alexei Leonov recently gave a vivid personal account of the first seventy years of practical cosmonautics, from the birthplace of modern rocket science in Nazi Germany to his first ‘step into the abyss’ and the prospect of asteroid apocalypse.

At an event organised by the Starmus Festival, Leonov was introduced to a celebrity-laden audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre by Director, Ian Blatchford. Earlier that same day Blatchford and Leonov had sat in front of a reproduction of Leonov’s painting of his pioneering spacewalk to announce the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP, when many Soviet spacecraft will be gathered together for the first time.


As Mr Blatchford thanked the twice-hero of the Soviet Union, whose character is every bit as bold as his space feats, Sputnik 3, Soyuz and a Lunokhod 2 rover were being lifted through the museum into their temporary home on the first floor. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 had arrived the day before, the first wave of around 150 iconic objects that hail from the dawn of space exploration.

Leonov began by recounting Nazi Germany’s attempt ‘to destroy London’ in the Second World War, when modern rocketry was launched with the V-2, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. When the Russian Army entered Peenemünde, among them an expert group including Sergei Korolev, who would come to be known as ‘The Chief Designer’ in the Soviet Union), the Germans had left only 10 minutes earlier. ‘The coffee was still warm’, said Leonov.

The German rocketeers who had already fled included Wernher von Braun, who would become the father of the US Apollo moon programme, and had by then surrendered to the Americans in Austria. Von Braun had wanted to defect to the Americans but later told Leonov that he would have worked for the Soviets too, claiming he wanted to use rocketry for exploration, not murder. ‘He was very sincere, very frank,’ said Leonov, ‘though you may chose not to believe his words because these were weapons, after all.’

The USSR captured a number of V-2s, including one from the marshes of Peenemünde, and German staff. This paved the way for the manufacture of a Soviet duplicate, the R-1. By August 1957, a descendant, the R-7, was capable of launching a satellite into orbit.

The space age dawned with the launch of Sputnik 1, which was ‘just a sphere with a transmitter…beep beep, beep beep,’ said Leonov. ‘That was sufficient for people to get very excited, now we are in an era where there is an artificial object floating in space. This was only the beginning.’

The Soviet Union followed Sputnik by launching the first animal, man and woman into orbit in just six years, feats that will be recorded by the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibition with objects ranging from a dog ejector seat from a sub-orbital rocket to a model of Vostok 1 (Russian for ‘East’), which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

After chalking the outline of a Vostok, Leonov moved on to the Voskhod (Russian for “sunrise”), which he said was part of a lunar programme that began with a directive in 1962 and was officially sanctioned by the Politburo two years later.

Voskhod 1 launched on October 12, 1964. Even though there was not enough room to wear space suits, or time to develop a launch escape system, it successfully took the first three-man crew into orbit years before the US Apollo’s three-man crews.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Voskhod 2 featured more powerful propulsion, TV and had been adapted to allow Leonov to carry out the first ever spacewalk. The spacecraft carried a ‘genius invention’, he said, an airlock that could be inflated through which a cosmonaut could step into open space. ‘That was me,’ said Leonov.

Earlier, Korolev had told him, ‘as a sailor should know how to swim in open ocean, so a cosmonaut should be able to swim in space.’

But Leonov’s ill-fated mission almost did not take place. An earlier automated unmanned test flight - Voskhod 3KD – had been destroyed after ground controllers sent a sequence of commands that accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism designed to prevent the craft ending up in enemy hands.

At a meeting in a hotel, Korolev told Leonov he hoped to adapt his Voskhod 2 to complete the unmanned mission to test the airlock and spacesuit. ‘We were set dead against it,’ said Leonov. He protested to The Chief Designer: ‘We have personally worked through 3000 emergency scenarios’, which was greeted, understandably, with scepticism. ‘Yeah, of course you did,’ said Korolev. ‘You are sure to come across the three thousand and first. And, of course, Leonov ‘would know what to do.’

Leonov admitted to the audience that Korolev’s cynicism was well placed. To carry out his spacewalk above the Black Sea, on 18 March 1965, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev came across the ‘three thousandth and second and third and fifth and sixth…all of them were not described in any instructions before.’

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

A painting by Alexei Leonov. Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

As Leonov ‘stepped into the abyss’, he was struck by the sound of his own breathing, his heartbeat and a sense of the universe ‘being limitless in time and space’. Given that in the darkness the temperatures plunged to minus 140 deg C and in sunlight rose to 150 deg C his suit was ‘a stroke of genius’ for the way it kept him at a comfortable 20 deg C.

But eight minutes into the spacewalk, he felt that his gloves had expanded so much that he could no longer feel them with his fingers any more. His legs started to shake. Leonov’s spacesuit had by now ballooned in space to an alarming degree. ‘I started feverishly thinking of what I was going to do to re-enter the spacecraft’.

First he had to coil his tether. Every 50 cm dangled a 2.5 cm diameter ring, which he was supposed to hook.’ But he had ‘no support’ and was hanging on by one hand. ‘It was very hard.’

He disobeyed the orders of Korolev – there was no time to wait for a committee to be assembled to deliberate on his predicament – and opened a valve to bleed of some of the suit’s pressure, risking the bends by lowering the pressure beyond the safety limit.

On his back Leonov wore ‘metal tanks with ninety minutes’ worth of oxygen’  but it was clear from his talk that he remained concerned he had not left enough time for the nitrogen from the oxygen/nitrogen mix inside Voskhod to be purged from his blood. ‘There was a danger of nitrogen boiling in my blood and I was feeling this needling sensation in my fingers but I had no choice.’ Fortunately, ‘The feeling went away.’

Instead of entering legs first, as he had trained to do, Leonov went in head first, requiring ‘an awful amount of energy’ to turn around in the confines of the 1.2 m diameter airlock (he measured 1.9 m in his spacesuit). His core body temperature soared by 1.8 °C as he contorted himself. ‘That was the most stressful moment.’ Overall, the spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. By that time, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts.

The mission’s problems were far from over. The descent module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, leading to a slow leak. The craft’s automated systems flooded the craft with oxygen, raising the risk of fire of the kind seen in the Apollo 1 tragedy.

When they turned on their automatic descent systems, the spacecraft did not stop rotating. ‘It was difficult and dangerous to stop.’ Their automatic guidance system had malfunctioned. They asked Korolev for permission to conduct a manual descent, which the craft was not designed to do. ‘It was very similar to driving a car looking out the window from the side.’ From an ‘ancient Soviet radio station’ in Antarctica came permission, along with a note of caution: ‘Be careful.’

‘You know what, let us land in the Red Square, it would be so jolly funny,’ remarked Leonov, who was the mission navigator. Belyayev, commander, replied that they would ‘clip all the stars in the Kremlin so I don’t think we should do it’. Eventually, Voskhod 2 ended up far from the primary landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests – taiga – around 180 kilometres from Perm in Siberia. ‘To us, the trees of 30-40 m looked like a manicured lawn.’ Leonov transmitted a call sign with a manual telegraph system – ‘everything is in order’ – but it was greeted by silence.

A gust of cold air entered when they opened the hatch. Belyayev jumped out and ended up neck deep in snow. Leonov was sloshing around knee deep in water in his spacesuit. They stripped in the cold and Leonov wrung out his underwear. ‘Can you imagine this picture – a spacecraft, the taiga, and naked chaps standing next to each other?’

The next day, ‘comrades on skis’ arrived and, after another night and a nine kilometre ski trip, they were picked up by helicopter.

The Soviets had originally planned to orbit the moon in 1967 and had two parallel lunar programmes, one manned and one unmanned (This was a mistake, Leonov conceded). On his blackboard, Leonov drew a Soyuz (Russian for ‘Union’) 7K-L1 ‘Zond’ (‘probe’) spacecraft that was designed to circle the Moon and described how he had even studied the sky in Somalia to decide which stars to use for lunar navigation. ‘Everything was ready.’

Leonov was once the Soviet cosmonaut thought most likely to become the first human on the Moon. But the Soviet lunar programme was starved of resources compared with America’s Apollo programme, the Soviet manned moon-flyby missions lost political momentum and Korolev died in 1966 (‘those who took his place decided this was too risky’). One could sense his frustration when he declared: ‘Six spacecraft orbited the moon without a man on board.’

However, Science Museum visitors will be able to inspect the monumental five metre LK-3 lunar lander, the finest example of its kind, which was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon’s surface.

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Leonov counted himself lucky to be part of the Apollo Soyuz mission, when ‘the cold war could become a hot war at any moment.’ Conducted in July 1975, it was the first joint US–Soviet space flight, and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft. The mission was a symbol of superpower détente. ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America,’ said Leonov. He groaned with mock horror, ‘awwww’, acting out the apoplexy of small-town America at the thought of a cosmonaut orbiting overhead.

Leonov went on to talk about how singer Sarah Brightman had cancelled her trip to the International Space Station, mention the Soviet Buran shuttle, which was delayed by discussions about pilots and automated control (the latter won but ‘we lost three years, launched only one and then nobody commissioned it’) and discussions to allow China to dock with the ISS.

He also discussed the greatest threat to humanity, that of asteroid impacts (now marked by Asteroid Day), which demanded the best of human ingenuity and technology in response. In 2008 the Association of Space Explorer’s Committee on Near-Earth Objects and its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation gave recommendations to the United Nations. ‘So far we have not heard back from them. I think they are waiting for the asteroid to hit them’.

Leonov had before him in the Science Museum IMAX an audience that ranged from amateur space enthusiasts to rock legends Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had recently given a highly publicised tour of the Science Museum. Leonov described him as ‘amazingly courageous’.

Sitting in the front row of the IMAX was the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose Sokol space suit will be shown in Cosmonauts. Leonov described how he had a ‘very moving’ reunion in the museum with ‘little Helen.’ ‘The best pupil I have ever had,’ said Leonov.

Sharman had been selected to travel into space on 25 November 1989 ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She blasted off in 1991. Leonov encouraged her to stand, and the audience showed their appreciation with a round of applause. ‘She had a special energy, special intellect. You should be proud of this person.’

At the end of the event, Leonov was presented an honorary fellowship of the Science Museum by Hawking and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer. In return, Leonov, who had dined with Hawking earlier that day, presented the Cambridge cosmologist with a portrait he had sketched after lunch. ‘Stephen smiled, hooray,’ a delighted Leonov told the audience, who were also addressed by Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society, and astronomer Garik Israelian of the Starmus Festival.

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

At a celebratory dinner in the museum that night, Leonov gave a speech in Russian (he preferred his mother tongue because, as he cheerfully recounted, he once ended a speech given in English by wishing his audience ‘sex for life’ rather than ‘a successful life.’) Leonov also alluded to the prevailing American bias in museum accounts of space history. He praised the Science Museum for containing the ‘wisdom of the world’ that would be an ‘inspiration and lesson for future generations.’ Finally, he wished Ian Blatchford ‘good luck’ with Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Credit: Chalmers University of Technology

Secret of Scientific Creativity revealed by Andre Geim, ‘godfather of graphene’

At a Hay Festival event sponsored by the Royal Society, Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield interviewed Andre Geim, the Nobel prize winner best known for his work on graphene, the subject of an exhibition that will open next year at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester. 

He created graphene, the first two dimensional object on the planet. He levitated frogs. And his pet hamster too. He created tape that mimics the adhesive properties of Gecko feet. But what makes the Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim one of the most creative figures in physics?

A revealing glimpse of how his mind makes adventurous leaps in supposedly well-trodden areas of research emerged when I interviewed the Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor at Manchester University, who is best known for his research on the wonder material graphene, along with his deadpan wit and candour.

Born in Sochi and raised in Soviet-era Russia, Geim does not pinpoint his success to being inspired by a particular teacher or childhood experience but being gifted in mathematics and physics and stimulated by a peripatetic existence, aided by the end of the Cold War and a basic hunger for new experiences.

He is serious about play, enjoying stressful hikes across Borneo, and an eventful trip to the Grand Canyon, where he endured both pneumonia and a rattlesnake bite. Equally, he is playful about the serious business of work. ‘I measure life not in years but in experiences.’

Our Hay event was entitled ‘Random Walk to Graphene,’ in honour of his Nobel lecture on a ‘random walk to Stockholm’, a nod to the mathematical term used to describe a path that consists of a succession of random steps. Because his career trajectory has been a little random, he feels that he has learned something new at every step.

This is a far cry from the traditional blinkered way of doing science, which he encountered first-hand when he conducted the equivalent of a doctorate at the Institute of Solid State Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Chernogolovka.

A slide from his Nobel lecture shows his 1987 thesis citation was entitled: “Investigation of mechanisms of transport relaxation in metals by a helicon resonance method” (He told the Hay audience: ‘I really have forgotten what is was all about.’)

Geim said that many of the six or seven million people worldwide who do professional research are trapped in a style of science that he likens to ‘a railway from your scientific cradle to scientific coffin’, one which is ‘absolutely straight’ and where diversions are not allowed.

In the eighties, ‘I did two or three papers which were cited once or twice by my supervisor, no one else,’ he said. ‘That was the experience of my PhD.’ Bottom line, never torture students with what he calls ‘zombie projects.’

Wind forward to Radboud University Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands where he had ended up, attracted by the greater opportunities and freedom in the West: the Royal Society had sponsored a visit to the University of Nottingham during which he achieved more in his first six months than in the previous ‘six years of boredom.’

One Friday in Nijmegen, two decades of curiosity about the phenomenon of diamagnetism got the better of him. He poured a bottle of water into one of the lab’s powerful electromagnets, some 50 times stronger than a fridge magnet. It was in the evening, when the electricity was cheaper. Lo and behold droplets of water started floating in the powerful magnetic field. ‘It is a ridiculous experiment,’ he conceded. ‘But nobody had come with the same stupid idea.’

His colleagues suggested he now try beer. Instead, his wife and fellow physicist Irina Grigorieva, who accompanied him and their daughter to Hay, ’came up with a brilliant idea.’ He should try a frog too, just to underline to scientific sceptics as much as the layperson how everything is diamagnetic.

Levitating frog. Credit: Andre Geim

Levitating frog. Credit: Andre Geim

The Geim family pet hamster Tisha was quickly levitated. Not only did he live to squeak the tale for another three years, he even co-authored a paper with Geim in the journal Physical B to, as Geim puts it, ‘acknowledge his personal contribution.’ Geim wanted to ensure his work had real impact rather than swell the ranks of uncited papers.

Letter to Andre Geim

Letter to Andre Geim

The rest is history and he won the ‘Ig Nobel prize’ for innovations that make people ‘laugh, then think.’ But ‘behind every joke there is something very serious.’ He shared the Ig Nobel Prize with Sir Michael Berry of the University of Bristol, who had worked with Geim on the theory of levitation. Even today, scientists come up to Geim at conferences and say. ‘I have no idea about graphene’ and then talk in delight about his levitating frog.

Geim has since enshrined the idea of the Friday Night Experiment in his way of working. His playfulness and commitment to scientific adventure (‘search, not re-search’) was what attracted Kostya Novoselov to Geim’s laboratory in Holland.

And it was what would take them both on a random walk to the Nobel prize, after a wrong first step by Geim’s first PhD student when he moved to the University of Manchester. Da Jiang had arrived from China with poor English and in 2002 Geim gave him a simple project: take a piece of graphite, the stuff of pencils, albeit a chunk worth around £300, and isolate the thinnest sliver he could.

Geim wanted to study a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms that had long been posited by theorists, and was predicted to have fascinating electronic properties, but had never been seen. This Friday Night Experiment  was a step in the wrong direction: Da Jiang used a specialised machine to grind the piece of graphene down to a little piece. ‘It was not thin enough’ and Geim asked him to try again. Da Jiang requested another piece of graphite and, given he had reduced the last to dust, ‘You can imagine how excited I was’.

Artistic impression of a graphene sheet. Credit: Jannik Meyer

Artistic impression of a graphene sheet. Credit: Jannik Meyer

Then Geim’s Ukrainian postdoc Oleg Shklyarevskii took an interest and had an idea: physicists used Scotch tape to clean graphite, which is commonly studied in laboratories. ‘What those guys did not realise,’ explained Geim, ‘was that throwing away the Scotch tape they were throwing away the Nobel Prize as well.’

After rummaging in the bin, pieces of tape emerged coated with ultrathin graphite: not atomic thickness but transparent, which raised the hopes of Geim that graphene could be made. ‘I knew that if it is transparent it must be very, very thin. From the very first moment I knew that we could get with this technique something that has never been studied before.’

Here Novoselov re-enters the story and lo and behold after a year to 18 months, they isolated a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. The flat, parallel sheets of carbon atoms in the graphite of pencil lead could indeed be peeled apart to yield a single atomic layer.  (Geim hates calling this the ‘Scotch tape technique,’ which is ‘plebeian.’)

Geim’s random, playful leaps across physics are not as effortless as they sound: it takes careful background research to make sense of what many others have done before, do something different, and to describe a novel leap in familiar terms that peers can understand. This exercise in due diligence is not helped by the vast amounts of chaff in the scientific literature: he points out that of the 100,000 or so research papers each year (excluding those from China), half are never cited.

Their first paper about the isolation of graphene was rejected when it was sent to Nature. Although one referee remarked ‘this paper does not represent a scientific advance,’ Geim is sanguine about the conservatism of science. Eventually it was accepted and published in the journal Science in 2004.

It was astounding that heat energy (‘Brownian motion’) did not shake graphene’s gossamer atomic lattice apart, a hint of its extraordinary properties – miraculous strength, lightness, flexibility – and conductivity too. This material was 100 times stronger than steel and 100 times more conductive than copper, promising a wealth of applications, from supercapacitors and composites to lighting and superfast electronics.

By 2010, the first paper by Novoselov and Geim was cited more than 3,000 times. That same year, they shared the Nobel Prize, though Geim says that, in reality, ‘six or seven people’ were behind the breakthrough.

And how did he feel when the call from the Nobel committee came? ‘People were expecting me to win the prize for two or three years before,’ he said. ‘In a sense I was mentally prepared that there would be a call.’ But he messed up the actual timing and did not realise that it would be that particular Monday when the prize was announced. Still, when a female voice with a Swedish accent materialised on his phone to say she had something very important to tell him,’ he immediately replied: “Are you going to tell me that I won the Nobel prize?”

‘Nothing changed that day. I went to work. I had a few drinks. Otherwise, nothing special. ’There were plenty of calls from journalists but ‘it was not very interesting. Journalism is not my favourite profession. Sorry, Roger…they write quicker than they think.’

Today Geim maintains a small, close-knit team of two postdocs and two or three students. He believes in the power of ‘self-organisation’, quickly losing interest in students who do not pass muster. He wants to do science, not admin: ‘I am in the lab several times a day.’ He has resisted the temptation to build an empire.

Even though his work has spawned a £61 million National Graphene Institute in Manchester, ‘a good facility’ he is ambivalent about the relatively small scale of the effort compared with rival nations, the sluggishness of the UK response to the race to commercialise graphene, and how the money was spent on the building rather than research (architects, along with politicians, journalists and students attract his ire). ‘It is money put into the British building industry rather than science.’

He has met Chancellor George Osborne a couple of times but quickly lost interest. ‘I am not an industrialist or property developer…my strength is probably being a little bit unconventional…I am not interested in political games.’

Graphene is now ‘more or less done’, he said. His latest research is backed mostly by European Union funding, which he says is more focused on blue sky than immediate returns. Geim has now moved on to creating novel designer materials by assembling the emerging family of two dimensional ‘brothers and sisters of graphene’, including hexagonal boron nitride, fluorographene and so on, in a Lego-like fashion. His hope is that these metamaterials will have extraordinary new properties for instance for quantum computers and much more. The world is entering the era of what he calls ‘Graphene 3.0’.

Graphene pencil drawing credit: Chalmers University of Technology.

Three centuries of citizen science

To mark the birthday of Philosophical Transactions, Roger Highfield surveys the history of citizen science, which dates back much further than many realise.

Even though the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary last year, the practice is several centuries old, as quickly becomes evident when thumbing through back issues of the oldest journal dedicated to science.

Philosophical Transactions, which celebrates its 350th birthday on 6 March, has plenty of evidence of citizen science that dates back long before the 20th century, before the internet put terabytes of data at our fingertips, long before TV and long before even  the term ‘scientist’ was coined in 1833.

Three centuries ago, in 1715, Edmund Halley used Philosophical Transactions to ask colleagues to help him observe a total solar eclipse, prompting observers from all over the country to respond.

Halley eclipse table. Credit: Royal Society

Halley’s solar eclipse observations printed in Philosophical Transactions. Credit: Royal Society

When in 1749, crowds gathered in Green Park in London to watch the great firework display of King George II, a 20 year old Fellow of the Royal Society,  Benjamin Robins, published an appeal in the Gentleman’s Magazine to ask people to help record this spectacle of the age, which he reported in Phil Trans.

Due in great part to the complex instructions devised by Robins (citizen scientists take note), only one report was sent in, from a Welshman some 140 miles away who couldn’t see individual fireworks, but upon seeing flashes, reckoned that the pyrotechnics were a waste of money.


Creature surveys date back a long time. When Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he browsed popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents (a project to compare this approach with today’s citizen science  is now under way by Chris Lintott and Sally Shuttleworth at Oxford, with Gowan Dawson in Leicester.)

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is but one example of a long-standing tradition which has persisted to the present day. Butterfly counts are another example, with schemes starting in the UK and North America in the mid 1970s.

Various wildlife surveys were also conducted by MegaLab, a project that began with the BBC and Daily Telegraph in 1995, using mass media and phone lines to earn the ‘mega’ prefix. Some projects were citizen science in the strict sense defined by the OED (‘‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’). Others invited a broader form of citizen engagement, where a mass audience provided test subjects to further understanding of the human body and mind.

The first experiment, which was in the latter category, was conducted with Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire. We used national television, radio and press (BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World, BBC Radio One and The Daily Telegraph, where I was science editor) to test whether it is easier to detect lies in print, radio or TV.

A million call attempts were made but, due to overload, we only recorded data on 40,000. In the journal Nature, Richard Wiseman reported that the radio listeners detected the lies 73.4% of the time, the newspaper readers 64.2% and the television viewers 51.8%.

MegaLab and its successor, Live Lab, continued to do dozens of mass experiments, from counting stars to measure light pollution to studying the Mozart effect, working with popularisers, such as Simon Singh, Raj Persaud and Andrew Cohen, and doctors and scientists, from Simon Baron Cohen to David Perrett  and  Jim Levine. Other papers emerged from the experiments, for instance this survey of the extent to which Antipodean flatworms had invaded the UK, and one by Richard Wiseman on public participation

The web extends the reach of scientists engaging with citizens, and in many different ways. One was to harness idle computer processing power, as with seti@home, which helps look for extraterrestrial intelligence, or a DIY climate forecasting project that I launched in The Daily Telegraph.

The web could also help reach out to an audience. MegaLab used the web to conduct Turing tests, for example, and there are many more examples of internet based projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, which asks for help in classifying images of distant galaxies, and the fold.it site, which runs a game to fold the structure of selected proteins as well as possible.

The web also allowed an intelligence test to be undertaken worldwide in 2010 by New Scientist, which I edited at the time, with Adrian Owen, now at the University of Western Ontario, and colleagues. Some 110,000 people took part and the findings challenged the idea of IQ and led to a paper in the journal Neuron.

Another substantial citizen science project – #hookedonmusic – was created by computational musicologists at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. The project has been run by Wellcome Trust public engagement fellow Erinma Ochu and the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester to investigate the science of songs which may have implications for future research into dementia. To date there have been 175,000 players of #HookedonMusic, reviewed here, across 199 countries and research papers are expected based on its findings.


The range of citizen science is expanding. To prove that you don’t have to be an adult to do original science, children from a Primary School in Blackawton, Devon, published the results of an experiment on how bees forage for food in different coloured flowers in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

Working with Royal Society Research Fellow, Beau Lotto, they came up with a question, made simple observations about simple phenomena, and discovered  ‘bees use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which flower to forage from.’ Gratifyingly they also discovered that ‘science is cool and fun.’ Lotto also ran a laboratory at the Science Museum from late 2010 to the spring of 2012 called, appropriately enough, Lotto Lab.

The museum, through its Lates and Live Science program, has offered many other researchers a chance to experiment on the museum’s three million plus visitors each year. Subjects tackled over the past 15 years range from face scans for surgeons in Great Ormond Street Hospital to gait analysis with Oxford Brookes,  synaesthesia with Sussex, and risk-taking with UCL.

Various papers have been published as a result of experiments on visitors, for instance on self recognition and also the way groups behave and crowd behaviour, explored in our ZombieLab event. We are currently running a taste experiment (you can take part here) devised by food scientist Charles Spence from Oxford University, with the support of chef Heston Blumenthal.

Citizen scientists can now build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project. There are robotic telescopes that they can operate. Nasa gave one group permission to attempt to activate a 35 year old satellite. They can contribute to mathematics projects too.

And, no doubt, a range of new technologies, such as cheap open source computing power from the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, drones and 3D printing, will aid the long, remarkable and productive rise of the citizen scientist.

The Royal Society is  marking the anniversary of Philosophical Transactions with the launch of a series of short films, special issues of the journal, an exhibition and other activities.

Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs, Science Museum, and a member of the Royal Society’s Inspiring Stories committee.

A Remarkable Moment for Science

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

When the House of Commons voted to legalise a revolutionary new form of reproductive medicine on Tuesday, it was a remarkable moment for science.

This technique, known as mitochondrial replacement or three-person in vitro fertilization, aims to prevent women passing on harmful mutations in their mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing structures. 

The vote in the House of Commons, decided by 382 members of parliament casting in favour and 128 against, is expected to lead to the United Kingdom becoming a pioneer in mitochondrial replacement methods.

I wrote one of the first newspaper accounts of mitochondrial donation for The Daily Telegraph a decade ago, and also chaired a debate on the technique on Monday night, organised by the Progress Educational Trust in the Houses of Parliament.

The debate was hosted by Luciana Berger, Labour and Cooperative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and Shadow Minister for Public Health.  Among the audience of around 150 people were MPs, Lords, fertility experts and members of families affected by mitochondrial disease.

After being introduced by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre, who is also chair of the Progress Educational Trust, I reminded the audience that we were there as an indirect result of events that took place one or two billion years ago: that’s when bacteria invaded the cells of our ancestors to trade chemical energy for a cosy home. 

But, of course, mitochondria can suffer faults and the Commons was about to debate methods designed to prevent children being born with some 50 or so metabolic disorders that result this way. Almost 2,500 women of child-bearing age in the UK are at risk of passing on disease caused by faults in mitochondria to their children.

The speakers debating the safety and ethics on Monday night were: Frances Flinter, Professor of Clinical Genetics at King’s College London; John Harris, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester; Dr David King, Founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert and Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship, and Consultant on Family and Bioethics at Christian Action Research and Education.

Important contributions to the discussion came from members of affected families, the pioneer of the research, Prof Doug Turnbull of Newcastle University, journalist and author Matt Ridley and Prof Andy Greenfield,  who chaired the HFEA Scientific Review panel.

What was gratifying was that on Tuesday the debate was cited by several MPs – including Luciana Berger, Liz McInnes and Guy Opperman  - in their contributions to the House of Commons debate before the historic vote in favour of this form of gene therapy.

Another MP even complained that we had more time for our public debate than the MPs had for their debate in the Commons.

The science and ethics of mitochondrial donation have been the subject of an exhibit in the Science Museum and years of high-profile discussions, including public consultations by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Department of Health, and representations by scientists and key organisations such as the Wellcome Trust.

The Imitation Game at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reflects on Benedict Cumberbatch’s visit to the Science Museum to prepare for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Book tickets for a special preview screening at the Science Museum’s IMAX next week. 

If you had been at the Science Museum one evening in September last year, you would have encountered Benedict Cumberbatch, adorned in a flat cap, wandering around our critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and philosopher.

Benedict Cumberbatch starring at Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Image credit: Studio Canal 2014. All rights reserved.

The Science Museum’s Codebreaker exhibition, which was awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science, has since closed, but its influence lives on in Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in the movie The Imitation Game, which he filmed in the weeks that followed his visit to the Museum.

You can see an exclusive preview of The Imitation Game in the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema plus a pre-screening talk from director Morten Tyldum, on Wednesday November 12.

One of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, Alan Turing is credited with cracking the German Enigma code, significantly shortening the war and saving many thousands of lives.

Convicted for an outdated criminal offence, though posthumously pardoned, Turing fell victim to an unenlightened British Establishment but his work and legacy live on in the worlds of mathematics and computing.

Curator David Rooney took the star of Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock and more around the exhibition (see a Twitter tour of the exhibition here), which traced the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12, to Turing’s final research on pattern formation in biology.

You can see the Pilot ACE in our new Information Age gallery, which was opened last month by Her Majesty The Queen, which looks at how communications technology has transformed our lives over the past two centuries. There are also many related objects on our website.

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Among the exhibits in Codebreaker were a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: after his conviction Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Perhaps the most poignant item on display was a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of his death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy had revealed that his stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a cyanide salt. Turing’s death was not accidental: there was enough poison to fill a wine glass.

The Science of Interstellar

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.

Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.

What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).

Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.

This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.


Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.

This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.

Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.

Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.

To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.

Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”

This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.

‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’

At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.

Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.

As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.

Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.

Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.

It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.

In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.

Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.

In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”

At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.

So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.

See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.

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