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Convicted for an outdated criminal offence, though posthumously pardoned, Turing fell victim to an unenlightened British Establishment but his work and legacy live on in the worlds of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

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.