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Obituary: Fred Sanger (1918 – 2013)

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

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

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world has lost a gene genius.

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

Impossible trees grow in the Science Museum

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

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

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

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slides from the Science of Cooperation discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultured Beef

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger. Would you eat the burger? Vote here 

The world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger was cooked and eaten today at a press conference in London for a demonstration project to show the future of food, funded by Google’s Sergey Brin.

The cultured cell burger, estimated to be worth around  £220,000, was created by Prof Mark Post of Maastrict University in a project that took him two years.

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

The burger was cooked in butter by chef Richard McGowan before an audience of journalists, then subject to a taste test by US-based food author Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler.

The verdict? Close to meat, though more like ‘animal protein cake’, said Schonwald. All commented that it lacked fat, salt and pepper.

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

You can follow the press conference on Storify, watch a video here and read reports by the BBC, Daily Telegraph, New York Times and Popular Science.

The event heralded  a ‘Brave Moo World’  according to Channel 4.

To create the hamburger, muscle cells taken from the shoulder muscle of a cow and multiplied to form muscle tissue, the main component of beef.

The cells arranged themselves into tiny ‘myotubes’ which are grown around gel hubs, attached to Velcro ‘anchor points’ in a culture dish.  Electrical stimulation was then used to make the muscle strips contract and ‘bulk up’.

With this technique, a single strand can produce over a trillion new strands. And when all these tiny pieces are added together, tissue is the result; it took 20,000 of these small strands of meat to create one normal sized hamburger.

Other ingredients include salt, egg powder, and breadcrumbs. Beetroot juice and saffron were added to provide authentic beef colouring.

One reason Brin is backing this project is that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next four decades and current production methods are not sustainable.

Livestock also contributes to global warming through releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, via belching and farting.

According to Prof Post, research carried out at the University of Oxford suggests that producing cultured, or in vitro, beef could use as much as 99% less space than current livestock farming methods and will have smaller emissions.

Westminster comes to the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about bringing Westminster to the Science Museum.

The Science Museum witnessed democracy in action this morning when it hosted a meeting of one of the committees used by the House of Commons to provide a means of impartial, systematic scrutiny of government.

Science and Technology Select Committee taking evidence at the Science Museum

Science and Technology Select Committee taking evidence at the Science Museum

The chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Andrew Miller MP, has held evidence sessions outside Westminster, notably in Sheffield for its “bridging the valley of death” inquiry into the commercialisation of research and one in Falmouth to take evidence for its inquiry into marine science, so more people can attend without the need to travel to London.

The Committee now wants to uncover what the public understand about climate, where they look for their information and how their understanding may impact policy.

Today Mr Miller and fellow MPs convened in the Atmosphere gallery of the museum – which has explained climate science to more than 1.7 million visitors since it opened in 2010 – to take evidence as part of its inquiry into Climate: Public understanding and policy implications.

‘This is a first,’ said Miller, referring to how the museum is an appropriate location for the inquiry, given its efforts to communicate climate science to a broad audience. The Science Museum has more than three million visitors each year, 37% which are children aged 15 or under.

Among the witnesses was former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley, now of University College London, and Dr Alex Burch, the museum’s Director of Learning.

‘For our visitors, this subject is complex, with an emotional element, and can be overwhelming,’ said Dr Burch.

Former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley, and Dr Alex Burch, Director of Learning giving evidence to the Select Committee

Former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley (r), and Dr Alex Burch, Director of Learning (centre), giving evidence to the Select Committee

Dr Burch explained that ’Various lines of research, for instance at the museum, suggest that for many people climate change was something that happened elsewhere, to other people and in the future.’ 

The Atmosphere gallery, which has a carefully designed narrative, has been visited by leading figures, including Al Gore, the Chinese Ambassador, and a delegation of MPs from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Prof Rapley called the gallery ‘atmospheric’ and ‘unique’ and said it is aimed at everyone, not just the converted, so they can make up their own minds. ‘It is not the job of the museum to tell people what to think.’

In evaluation surveys, visitors described the gallery as ‘interesting’ (88% of surveyed visitors), ‘enjoyable’ (79%) and ‘educational’ (76%).

To accompany Atmosphere, the museum launched a three-year programme of schools outreach around climate science in 2010 with the National Railway Museum in York, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, At-Bristol science centre and the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Runcorn, which has engaged 3,193 secondary-school students with issues of climate science and its communication, notably through a magazine called Atmos.

The museum has also undertaken more unusual initiatives: an online education game about risk management, RIZK, which has been played 3.3m times since launch; A Cockroach Tour of the Science Museum, a participative art piece by Danish collective Superflex, where visitors explore the Museum and human history and society from the perspective of cockroaches; and Tony White’s e-novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. White was present at today’s hearing in the gallery, which features his book.

The museum’s qualitative research with adult visitors suggests that understanding of climate science is patchy and disconnected, findings backed by other research, such as a nationwide survey conducted a decade ago by the Economic and Social Research Council which showed, for example, that 44 per cent of the public believe (wrongly) that nuclear power directly contributes to climate change.

Research suggests that while the public generally trust scientists as a source of information about climate change, there is evidence that negative stereotypes of scientists (such as poor communication skills and remoteness) hamper direct public engagement with researchers.

Research indicates an important role for trusted institutions such as the Science Museum that occupy the interface between the scientific community and the public. ‘We are trusted by the public, and by scientists,’ said Dr Burch.

In recognition of hypocrisy as another potential barrier to trust among the public, the Museum undertook various measures during the development of Atmosphere, which include employing a Sustainability Consultant, and setting up a Working Group that reduced the organisation’s carbon footprint by 17% between 2009 and 2010.

The Science Museum Group’s new Hemcrete storage facility at its Wroughton site recently won a Museum and Heritage’s Sustainability award and the Best Workplace New Build category at the Greenbuild Awards.

The Group also aims to generate energy both for our own use, and to send it to the grid. An example of this is the proposed 40MW solar array at the Wroughton site which will provide electricity for around 12,000 homes.

Science Museum launches Britain’s first official astronaut

By Roger Highfield and Doug Millard. Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group. Doug Millard is Deputy Keeper Technologies & Engineering and is currently leading on content for a major new exhibition of Russian space exploration opening in 2014.

The Science Museum has welcomed many astronauts and cosmonauts over the years and each time our visitors have been spellbound. Today, we witnessed the announcement of Briton Tim Peake’s mission to visit the International Space Station, ISS.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station. Image: BIS

Peake (who tweets as @astro_timpeake), will join Expedition 46 to the ISS, and will be carried aloft by a Soyuz mission in November 2015.

His selection by the European Space Agency was announced to the world’s media in the Science Museum’s IMAX at an event introduced by Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Peake, who is based in the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, said  that he is ”absolutely delighted” and saw the mission as the culmination of everything he had worked for during his  career, though he admitted that he had misgivings about the disruption caused by moving his family – he has two young sons – to Houston.

However, he was not concerned about the risks of the mission, since his future career was ‘probably safer’ than past career as helicopter test pilot.

His tasks once in orbit will include helping to maintain the space station, operating its robotic arm and carrying out science experiments in Esa’s Columbus laboratory module, which is attached to the front of the 400-ton ISS complex.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Credit: NASA/SSPL

Peake said that he hoped there would be space biomedicine experiments and that the UK scientific community would rise to the opportunities presented by microgravity experiments.

“Major Tim” told the press conference that in preparation for this challenge he had lived in a Sardinian cave for a week, flew on what is popularly known as a ‘vomit comet’, has spent 12 days in Nasa’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, an underwater base, and he has undergone training with Russian and American spacesuits so he will also be able to perform a spacewalk.

The recently returned ISS commander, Canadian Chris Hadfield, attracted a big following for his tweets, videos and songs from the platform which Peake said built a worldwide audience. However, Peake dashed any hopes of a pop video by admitting: ‘I do play the guitar but very badly.’

Peake hails from Chichester, and is the “first official British astronaut” for the European Space Agency, selected from 8000 candidates. Previous UK-born individuals who have gone into orbit have done so either through the US space agency (Nasa) as American citizens or on independent ventures organised with the assistance of the Russian space agency.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Thomas Reiter, a former astronaut and Director of ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, congratulated Peake ‘It is a remarkable moment for your country. You all can be proud of Timothy.’ And Dr David Parker of the UK Space Agency said nothing inspires like human explorers at the final frontier.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said that this mission is part of effort to rebalance the economy – the UK space industry is worth £9.1 billion to the economy – and pointed out that the space sector is growing by 8 per cent each year.

He added that the mission underlined the inspirational values of space – the ‘Apollo effect’ – and will encourage more young people to take up STEM (science, technology and maths) subjects at schools and universities. ‘I have high hopes it will interest a generation of students in science and technology.’

The minister said that the objects in the Science Museum are a reminder of the UK’s distinguished history in space exploration and that he is now looking into a competition for schools based on the mission to the ISS.

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Prime Minister, David Cameron, commented:  “This is a momentous day, not just for Tim Peake but for Great Britain. Tim was picked for this historic role from over 8,000 applicants from around the world. I am sure he will do us proud.”

Helen Sharman was the first Briton to go into space in 1991 in a joint venture between a number of UK companies and the Soviet government and spent a week at the Mir space station.

Sharman spoke at a recent event at the museum to celebrate International Women’s Day. The museum has her space suit on display and, only a few weeks ago, she stood before her suit as she told leading figures in drama and theatre about her experiences in orbit.

The most experienced UK-born astronaut is Nasa’s Michael Foale, who completed long-duration missions to both the ISS and Mir.

2013 Annual Director’s Dinner

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner held in the Museum. 

The Science Museum unveiled the next major stage in its development last night at the Director’s Annual Dinner, with the help of Cédric Villani, winner of the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal.

The Museum already plans to launch a £4 million platform for photography, art and science, called Media Space this autumn; a £1 million immersive show about particle physics, Collider, in November; and a £16 million Information Age gallery in 2014, as the world’s foremost celebration of information and communication technologies.

Director's Annual Dinner at the Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Annual Dinner hear the Museum’s plans for development. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Director, announced at the annual dinner that the next major project would be to deliver a maths gallery on the second floor of the museum in 2016, quoting Churchill, who famously described how his Harrow master ‘convinced me that mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics.’

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner. Image: Science Museum

The project will draw on the expertise of Jim Bennett, previously director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and the advice of some of the country’s best popularisers of mathematics, Prof Marcus du Sautoy and Alex Bellos.

Guests at the Director's Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Appropriately, the guest of honour and keynote speaker at the dinner was Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré (UPMC/CNRS) who was awarded the 2010 Fields Medal and is as well known for his ‘19th century poet’ look – white cravat and long hair– as his playful, inspirational approach to mathematics.

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner. Image: Science Museum

His lecture deftly intertwined physics, economics and geometry and he referred to the curse of mathematicians who, like in the legend of the Lady of Shallot is condemned ‘ to look at this world only through its reflection.”

Villani’s research (described in his TEDx talk above) is based on kinetic theory, which scientists use to describe a system of interacting particles such as a gas or liquid in which billions of molecules are moving in all directions.

He has extended this theory to include the long-range interactions between molecules, the second law of thermodynamics and the Boltzmann equation, which describes the behaviour of particles in a low density gas. He illustrated his talk with a picture of himself taken in the central cemetery, in Vienna, next to Ludwig Boltzmann’s grave. Because the second law of thermodynamics predicts that entropy – a measure of disorder within a system – always increases, Villani has in effect figured out was just how fast our world is falling apart.

Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Later in the evening, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was made a Science Museum Fellow in recognition of his contribution to the world of science.

The black tie event, which was addressed by the Chairman of Trustees, Dr Doug Gurr and sponsored by Champagne Bollinger, was attended by leading figures including Jim al-Khalili, broadcaster and physicist; Evan Davis, Presenter of Dragons’ Den and the Today programme; entrepreneur and model Lily Cole; Science Minister David Willetts MP; Imran Khan, CEO of the British Science Association; Anthony Geffen, CEO & Executive Producer of Atlantic Productions; Daisy Goodwin, television producer, poetry anthologist and novelist; Deborah Bull, Executive Director, King’s Cultural Institute; Simon Singh, author; Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre; Sarah Sands, Editor of the Evening Standard; and Professor of Genetics, Steve Jones.

The 2013 Director's Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum

The 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum

Media Space unveiled to film, theatre and TV celebrities

Blog post by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The museum’s plans to create a £4 million Media Space - a showcase for photography, visual media, technology and science - were outlined a few days ago to leading figures in drama, film and the arts, from Jenny Agutter and Imogen Stubbs to Terry Gilliam and Ben Okri.

Call the midwife actress with Ian Blatchford and Roger Highfield.

Call the midwife actress, Jenny Agutter OBE, with Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford (left) and Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield.

Kathy Lette, Eammon Holmes and Michael G Wilson

Australian author Kathy Lette, Presenter Eamonn Holmes and Film Producer and Chairman of the Science Museum Foundation, Michael G WIlson.

Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, give an overview of how the new venture will open on the second floor of the museum this September to display some of the finest collections on the planet while speaking at a lunch organised by Chris Hastings of the Mail on Sunday, also attended by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.

Ian Blatchford's speech.

Director of Science Museum Ian Blatchford welcoming guests to the lunch.

Media Space will draw on the National Photography Collection held by the National Media Museum, Bradford. The first exhibition will be Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr,  and the inaugural installation in the Virgin Media Studio will be by digital artist studio collaborators Universal Everything, supported by Hyundai Motor UK.

Michael G Wilson

Chairman of the Science Museum Foundation and executive producer of the James Bond movies, Michael G WIlson, addresses Dame Diana Rigg and guests at the Sixth Arts Media Lunch.

Also addressing the lunch was Michael Wilson, executive producer of the James Bond films, who has been one of the most passionate supporters of Media Space over the years through his interest in photography, which dates back to the 1970s.

Between 2004 and 2012, Wilson was a trustee of the Science Museum and it was during this time he conceived a plan to develop a 1800 m² space in the Museum to display photographs, a venture which has now grown to include new media.

Today, Michael Wilson is a member of the museum’s Foundation , which “ensures philanthropic leadership”, encouraging donors to give their support to  the museum’s development.

Other guests included Lord Bragg, Haydn Gwynne, Lesley Manville, Eamonn Holmes,  Prof Steve Jones, Duncan Kenworthy;  Kathy Lette, Arlene Phillips and Brigitte Hjort Sorensen.

Also present was Ali Boyle, Project Leader on Collider, a new exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Opening in November 2013, Collider is being created with the help of Nissen Richards Studio, playwright Michael Wynne and video artist Finn Ross.

After lunch, many of the guests went on a tour of the museum’s award-winning Turing exhibition, given by curator David Rooney.

To view more photos from the sixth Arts Media Lunch at the Science Museum visit the Science Museum’s flickr gallery.

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Science Museum visitors to step into the greatest experiment on Earth

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

Plans are unveiled today for the biggest-ever exhibition in the UK to focus on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s greatest scientific experiment, where a 10,000 strong international army of scientists and engineers is exploring the fundamental building blocks of the universe, from the discovery of the Higgs particle to the nature of antimatter.

The King’s College theoretician John Ellis has suggested that the LHC, the most compelling scientific endeavour so far of the 21st century, could inspire a generation in the same way that the Apollo adventure did in the 1960s. That is precisely why the Science Museum is bringing the LHC to the public in its new Collider exhibition, opening in November 2013. Visitors will be transported right into the heart of the 27 km circumference machine – that straddles the border between Switzerland and France – with the help of an award-winning creative team including Nissen Richards Studio, playwright Michael Wynne and video artist Finn Ross.

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

The immersive exhibition, the result of a unique collaboration with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, will blend theatre, video and sound art, taking visitors to the site of the LHC where they can explore the Control Room and a huge underground detector cavern, meet ‘virtual’ scientists and engineers and examine objects up-close. “I particularly like the fresh, theatrical approach the Museum is taking to bringing the drama and excitement of cutting-edge science to the public,” said CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer.

View of the LHC tunnel. Image credit: CERN

View of the LHC tunnel. Image credit: CERN

For the first time, visitors can get up close with exclusive access to part of the large 15-metre magnets that steer the particle beam, and elements from each of the LHC’s ‘eyes’, four giant detectors housed in caverns around the machine, notably CMS and ATLAS, where collisions take place. They will also be able to follow the story of sub-atomic exploration through the Museum’s collections – on display will be J.J. Thomson’s apparatus which led him to the discovery of the electron in 1897, and the accelerator used by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton to split the atom in 1932.

JJ Thomson (1856-1940) at work. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

JJ Thomson (1856-1940) at work. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

When in operation, trillions of protons race around the LHC accelerator ring 11,245 times a second, travelling at 99.9999991% the speed of light. Evidence for a Higgs-like particle was found in the aftermath of the resulting collisions between protons.

Named after the British physicist Peter Higgs who postulated its existence more than half a century ago, and who will help launch the new exhibition with other leading figures, the particle is the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

The highlight of the exhibition, according to Alison Boyle, the Science Museum’s curator of modern physics, will be a 360-degree projection taking in both extremes of the scale of the LHC. ‘We are going to take our visitors from an enormous experiment cavern to the very heart of a proton collision.

Artist's impression of the immersive detector experience. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Artist’s impression of the immersive detector experience. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Key figures from CERN, such as Professor Heuer, attended a gala ceremony held last month by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation at the Geneva International Conference Centre, hosted by Hollywood actor and science enthusiast Morgan Freeman with performances by singer Sarah Brightman and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. Freeman mused that it was “a bit like the Oscars” and made the best joke of the night when referring to complaints about physicists ‘playing god’: “I have done it twice and I don’t see the problem.’

Yuri Milner, the Russian theoretical physicist turned internet entrepreneur who backs the prizes through his Milner Foundation, said it “celebrates what is possible in humanity’s quest to understand the deepest questions of the universe.”

The evening celebrated two Special Fundamental Physics Prizes of $3,000,000, one for Prof Stephen Hawking, who himself has been the subject of a special exhibition here at the Science Museum, for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum features of the early universe, based on his efforts to combine theories of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quantum theory). In his acceptance speech, Hawking thanked Milner for recognising key work in theory with what is now the most lucrative academic prize on the planet.

The second special prize was shared by the leaders of the LHC project, CMS and ATLAS experiments from the time the LHC was approved by the CERN Council in 1994: Peter Jenni, Fabiola Gianotti (ATLAS), Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela (CMS) and Lyn Evans (LHC), for their role in the epic endeavour that led to the discovery of the new Higgs-like particle.

After they all took the stage Mr Matsuev performed Edvard Grieg’s “The Hall of the Mountain King”, presumably a reference to the great caverns in which the Higgs-like particle was first spotted. The award-winning biographer Graham Farmelo, who has advised on the development and launch of Collider, said it was ‘the most impressive gathering of great physicists for almost ninety years – since Einstein and most of the other discoveries of relativity and quantum theory met at the famous Solvay Conference in 1926’.

The Museum’s £1m Collider exhibition is part-funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Winton Capital Management, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom, and is supported by a number of individuals.

Collider will open in November 2013 and run for six months. Visits to Collider will be timed and, to avoid disappointment, please visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/collider to book tickets.