Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. © Science Museum / SSPL

Photographing Pluto

Curator Ali Boyle and Press Officer Will Stanley reflect on our most distant (dwarf) planet, Pluto. 

The successful flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015 by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft means that humans have now explored (with robotic assistance) every planet in our solar system. New Horizons flew within 7,750m of Pluto, travelling at 31,000mph as it sped past the (dwarf) planet that lies 3 billion miles from our home.

This historic flyby completes a quest that began in the 1960s with NASA’s Mariner and the Soviet Venera missions to Venus. You can see an engineering test model of Venera 7 in our Cosmonauts exhibition from September 2015.

New Horizons is capturing high resolution images and scientific data, but can only send images back to Earth at 1 kilobit per second, fifty times slower than a 56k modem from the 1990s. Even travelling at the speed of light, it takes almost four and a half hours for the data to reach Earth.

As we wait for detailed close up photos of Pluto from New Horizons (others have already been sent back to Earth), we took a look at some Pluto-related objects in our collections.

A CCD (Charge Coupled Device) on display in the Exploring Space gallery. © Science Museum

A CCD (Charge Coupled Device) on display in the Exploring Space gallery. © Science Museum

A device similar to this CCD (Charge Coupled Device), on display in our Exploring Space gallery, will capture the first close up images of Pluto ever taken. Made by British company e2v, the CCD will be used in the PERSI (Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation) Ralph telescope, with a similar device in the spacecraft’s LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) instrument.

The first discovery photographs of Pluto where taken in February 1930, by a young American astronomer. At the time Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows.  © Science Museum / SSPL

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. © Science Museum / SSPL

Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 February 1930, he noticed that on photographs taken a few nights apart that January, one ‘star’ had moved, indicating that it was actually a nearby object moving against the fixed background of distant stars. You can see a glass positive of the photograph in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition.

Further observations confirmed the discovery, which was announced to the world in March 1930. Despite the fanfare, Pluto turned out not to be Planet X – Tombaugh had just been looking in the right place at the right time. Subsequent observations revealed that Pluto was too small to match the predictions. Eventually, revised calculations of Neptune and Uranus’s orbits removed the need for Planet X altogether.

Thanks to New Horizons, Tombaugh has come closer to Pluto than anyone else as some of his ashes are on board the spacecraft.

By the 2000s, astronomers had discovered a slew of similarly-sized bodies beyond Neptune. Either our Solar System had a lot more planets than anyone had realised, or it was time to rethink what counts as a planet.

On 24 August 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted on a new definition, demoting Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’. ‘Save Pluto’ campaigns were quick to follow, and these bumper stickers (also on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition) were some of the first products to go on sale.

Pluto bumper stickers, currently on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition.  © Science Museum

Pluto bumper stickers, currently on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition. © Science Museum

The IAU’s definition of ‘planet’ remains controversial, so there may be hope for Pluto yet. Until July 2015 we knew very little about Pluto as it was so faint and far away, but with new images and scientific data we can finally discover the secrets of this (dwarf) planet, three billion miles away.

UK backs human space exploration

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A few months ahead of the launch of the museum’s pioneering Cosmonauts space exhibition, the UK Space Agency has published its first National Strategy for Space Environments and Human Spaceflight.

 

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years.  The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years. The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

The report’s promise of greater involvement in crewed missions shows that Conservative Government thinking has shifted light years since 1987, when Roy Gibson quit as UK space chief after his spending proposals were vetoed, and the then Trade Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, declared the Government did not want to contribute to a mission to put a Frenchman into space.

Until now, the UK has preferred to focus on the commercial and scientific aspects of spaceflight through its satellite-building industry and its membership of the European Space Agency (ESA).

However, at the 2012 ESA Ministerial the UK Space Agency, established in 2010, made the UK’s first contribution to the International Space Station and ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences Programme.

Last year the Agency pledged £49.2 million, which gives UK researchers access to the $100 billion International Space Station programme.

The new Strategy hints at even greater ambitions for UK manned missions: “The Agency will also consider its role in human exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.”

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s maiden voyage, which was announced at the Science Museum, is expected in December of this year and this six month mission will mark the first time that a British astronaut has visited the ISS in what will be a highly-visible demonstration of UK ambition for human spaceflight.

However, Peake will not be the first Briton in space: that honour goes to Helen Sharman, who was launched in 1991to spend a week in the Mir space station.

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the Imax. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the IMAX. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Sharman was present a few weeks ago for the launch of Cosmonauts by the first spacewalker, twice hero of the Soviet Union, Alexei Leonov.

Cosmonauts opens at the Science Museum on September 18 with the most significant collection of Soviet era spacecraft and ephemera ever assembled in one place, including the single cosmonaut moon lander, which was used for training and was kept secret for many years; the first spacecraft to carry more than one human into space; and the descent module of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

Helen Sharman will join me and television presenter Dallas Campbell in the Royal Institution on July 30 to discuss the story of the spacesuit.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Her Zvezda spacesuit will be among the 150 exhibits on display in Cosmonauts, which celebrates a wide range of space firsts.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age opens at the Science Museum on 18 September 2015.

Revealing the invisible

Adam Stoneman, Explainer at the Science Museum looks at the impact of the early photographic experiments in Media Space exhibition Revelations, and wonders whether today’s innovations will have the same lasting influence.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experimentations in Photography traces the impact of early scientific experiments on the history of photography and showcases the innovative scientists and artists who strived to see the world anew.

Early pioneers like Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton and Eadweard Muybridge were driven by a desire to reveal the invisible processes and structures of our physical world. This desire is still with us and today there are countless magazines, websites and blogs dedicated to sharing photographic experiments – both dark room and digital – but has the popularisation of these once revolutionary photographic techniques – x-rays, high-speed photography photomicrography etc. – diminished the ‘revelatory’ impact they once had? After all, a revelation only happens once.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 - Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 – Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

The development of technology over the last 100 years has made photography popular and accessible. Almost all of us carry a relatively high quality camera with us on our phones these days, and digital reproduction has expanded the audience for photographic experiments. Bernice Abbott’s now iconic MIT photographs became widely known as illustrations in physics textbooks but today blogging and photo-sharing websites like Flickr and Instagram foster a much wider, international audience for photographic experimentation. Harold Edgerton’s early experiments helped to popularise the stroboscope; a once obscure laboratory device for photographing objects at high speed; and now slow motion photography is part of our everyday visual language. Ubiquitous on advertising billboards and in music videos, slow motion imaging is also an internet phenomenon; the Slow Mo Guys, a Youtube channel dedicated to capturing high-speed processes like exploding watermelons and bursting balloons, have 5.5 million subscribers and over 500 million views.

Thanks to pioneers such as Edgerton and Étienne Jules Marey, many of the photographic techniques featured in Revelations have become a familiar part of our visual culture, but we shouldn’t forget how astounding these techniques once were.

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

The story goes that when French film pioneers the Lumière brothers first screened their film Train Pulling Into a Station in 1895, audiences jumped out of their seats for fear of their lives. Early films like this one had a frightening effect on people because of their novelty – it was unlike anything they had experienced before. 120 years of cinema history later and we have become very used the medium of film, so that a sequence of a train pulling into a station is unlikely to carry the same impact (although more recent advances in 3D technology and motion simulation as featured in the Science Museum’s IMAX and Discovery Motion Theatre might come closer to simulating the original shock of the Lumière brothers’ film!).

The innovative photographic techniques displayed in Revelations may have lost their novelty but viewing these photographs today it is hard to deny how striking and effective they still are as images.

Why is this? Certainly it helps that the exhibition frames them in terms of their historical significance, which makes their innovative aspect clear. The remarkable aesthetic quality of these early photographs is also important to consider, and this is especially evident when you see them alongside art photography (the great originality of this exhibition). The photographs taken by Edgerton during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrate a visual sensibility in their complementary pastel backgrounds and Alfred Ehrhardt and Carl Strüwe’s photomicrographs show an interest in the ‘abstract beauty’ of microstructures.

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany  VG Bild-Kunst

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany VG Bild-Kunst

No doubt the experiments in photography being carried out today and shared online to vast audiences will soon lose their initial ‘novelty’ impact. Whether their value as striking and ‘revelatory’ images will last, however, is a question for future generations.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography is at Media Space until 13 September 2015. Click here to book tickets. An accompanying book edited by co-curator Ben Burbridge, entitled Revelations and co-published with MACK, is available to buy online from the Science Museum Shop. The exhibition transfers to the National Media Museum, Bradford where it will run from 19 November 2015 to 7 February 2016.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Celebrating the best of British engineering talent

The finalists have been announced for engineering’s answer to the Oscars: the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Here, the Chair of Judges and leading nuclear engineer, Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, describes the three finalists for 2015 and the importance of engineering innovation in society.

Three British companies are in the running for the UK’s most prestigious and longest-running engineering prize, the MacRobert Award:

  • Artemis Intelligent Power, based in Edinburgh, has developed a digital hydraulic power system that could improve efficiency and unlock the potential of offshore wind turbines as a cost-effective, sustainable future energy source.
  • Cambridge-based Endomag has pioneered a new diagnostic tool that could end the postcode lottery for breast cancer staging.
  • The third finalist Victrex, based in Blackpool, has developed the world’s highest-performing ultra-thin plastics, used in the speakers found in over a billion mobile devices.

The MacRobert Award recognises technologies that show how outstanding engineering achievement provides value to the economy and society. Many previous winning technologies are now ubiquitous in modern medicine, transport and technology. The very first award in 1969 went to the Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine, used in the iconic Harrier jets, and in 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Despite operating in very different sectors, all of this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate the application of engineering innovation to tackle social and technological challenges.

The finalists are great examples of home-grown innovations that have achieved commercial success in the UK and abroad. It is hardly surprising that recent statistics show that the UK is first in the world for engineering productivity, and that engineering-related products make up almost half of our total exports.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Yet the continued success of the UK’s engineering industry could be under threat in the future if we cannot overcome the huge challenge of securing future talent. Engineering still suffers from old, stereotyped perceptions, which can be off-putting to many young people when considering their career choice. This means that we’re facing a shortfall of people with the skills to use technology to overcome some of the world’s biggest challenges.

We must also attract more women into engineering – only 7% of UK professional engineers are female. I have been lucky enough to have a really rewarding and enjoyable career in engineering and I am delighted that government is taking this issue seriously. The Your Life campaign, launched at the Science Museum a year ago, aims to increase the number of students – especially women –  studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 50% within three years.

As this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate, engineering is a humanitarian as well as a technical endeavour, with the potential to transform every aspect of life. Anyone who is passionate about changing the world for the better should look seriously at a career in engineering.

If you’d like to know more about what you can do with engineering, visit the Engineer Your Future exhibition at the Science Museum.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov heralds Cosmonauts Exhibition

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Half a century after he risked his life to become the first person to go on a spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov today joined Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford to announce the museum’s most ambitious temporary exhibition to date, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Tickets are now on sale for the exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015 and will feature the greatest collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever assembled in once place, including eight that had to be declassified for this project, to provide a vivid insight into how the Soviet Union kick-started the space age.

Speaking at a news conference this morning at the Science Museum, Leonov told journalists he was convinced the Soviets could also have beaten the U.S. to the first manned orbit of the moon but for the conservatism of those running their highly secretive moon programme following the death in 1966 of Sergei Korolev, the lead rocket engineer and spacecraft designer on the Russian Space Programme.


Leonov told the audience that he and Yuri Gagarin argued for pressing ahead with the manned orbit but were overruled: “Both Yuri and myself went to the Politburo and asked that we go ahead. But our bureaucrats said it was too risky so let us try a sixth (unmanned) probe. And of course it landed a few hundred metres from where it was supposed to….so unfortunately it didn’t work out for me.”

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

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

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will include the monumental five metre tall LK-3 lunar lander that Leonov trained on in Star City. Designed to take a single cosmonaut to the moon, three Soviet lunar landers were tested successfully in space although none ever touched down on the surface of the moon.

Ian Blatchford spoke of the honour of having Alexei Leonov alongside him (see Leonov’s dramatic account of his battle to reenter the spacecraft here) as he announced the “most audacious and complex exhibition in the history of the Science Museum and indeed one of the most ambitious projects ever presented by any great museum”.

He then invited journalists to see the first of 150 objects to arrive from Russia -  including Vostok-6, the capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space, and safely returned her to Earth in 1963.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

The Science Museum Director described how the exhibition will explore a critical moment in the history of humankind, when people first set forth beyond the confines of their home world: “the Russian space programme is one of the great cultural, scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century.”

Cosmonauts, which has drawn on the help and support of the first generation of Soviet space pioneers, will 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 20th century. The exhibition will feature rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s extraordinary 1933 drawings of space flight, depicting spacewalks, weightlessness and life in orbit almost thirty years before it became a reality.

Ian Blatchford also thanked all the cosmonauts, partners and funders who have made this exhibition possible. Cosmonauts represents a major collaboration between the Science Museum, the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. The support of many other institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia has also been crucial in the development of the exhibition.

The exhibition opens on 18 September 2015 and will run until 13 March 2016 at the Science Museum in London. The Museum will be open until 10pm every Friday evening during this period to allow visitors more opportunities to see the exhibition.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age has had additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

Planning Human Voyages to the Moon

On this day (18 May) in 1969 Apollo 10 launched, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan to the Moon. This was a dry run for the mission (Apollo 11) that would put the first men on the Moon.

You can see the Apollo 10 Command Module on display in the Museum (and inside it in our Journeys of Invention app). It is an incredible sight and remains the fastest ever manned vehicle, exceeding 24,790 mph (39,887 km/h) on its return to Earth.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

But away from public view, NASA produced millions of documents to prepare for each mission. The immense level of detail required in planning human voyages to the Moon is captured in this Apollo 10 Lunar Module Descent Monitoring Chart, which we recently acquired for the museum.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

These photographic charts were widely used by NASA to show the surface features that the spacecraft would fly above as it orbited the Moon. Generated from unmanned Lunar Orbiter missions of 1966-67, the charts provided an accurate prediction of where each Apollo spacecraft would be and what features would be visible to the crew and mission controllers at any specific time.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

This particular chart was produced for the Apollo 10 mission (using a 24 May 1969 launch date rather than 18 May, the date finally chosen), which tested the lunar module (lander) down to 11 km altitude above the lunar surface. Combining the technical with the aesthetic, the chart shows target landing site number 5, one of several earmarked for future landing missions.

You can discover more about space in our Exploring Space gallery and see the Apollo 10 Command Module in our Making the Modern World gallery. 

Single onion orientation research. © Andy Woods

Rotating plates: How orientation can make your food taste better

Charles Michel, chef and researcher on food aesthetics at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, explores the initial results from an experiment in the Science Museum’s Cravings exhibition.

Have you ever found yourself rotating your plate once the waiter has placed it down before you at the restaurant? It is something I usually do rather unconsciously, as an automatic response to seeing food – as if the waiter had not placed it exactly as the chef wanted it to be.

This everyday action that some of us do might hint at the fact that we all enjoy our food more when it is ‘oriented’ in the best way possible. Indeed, by arranging the food to ‘look better’, we might be unconsciously enhancing its perceived value, and hence our enjoyment of it. But what exactly makes a given arrangement of the food on the plate feel more pleasing to look at, photograph, and possibly even eat?

Red Onions, Tapioca, Sugar Cane Vinegar, Peanut and Fermented Cream. © Rafael Facundo & Pedro Santos

Red Onions, Tapioca, Sugar Cane Vinegar, Peanut and Fermented Cream. © Rafael Facundo & Pedro Santos

A year ago, we stumbled upon this picture of one of the signature dishes of Alberto Landgraf, a Brasilian chef recently awarded one Michelin-star at his restaurant Epice, in Sao Paulo. It caught our eye because its main ‘visual feel’ seemed to point away from the diner. Note how the individual v-shaped elements of the dish (pickled onions) had all been arranged so as to point upward, but also that the Gestalt (‘whole’) forms a triangle whose orientation points upwards.

With Andy Woods and Professor Spence, we created a new online test to assess the impact of different visual orientations of this image of food on people’s expectations. Two hundred people took part in the first experiment, and the results suggested that if the food has an explicit point or angle, then people prefer the dish if the individual elements are oriented pointing ‘up’, or ‘away’. The data also shows that people attribute a higher value, and are willing to pay significantly more, for the optimally oriented dish (the data was analysed using circular statistics, with the kind help of Professor Makus Neuhäuser).

Single onion orientation research.

Single onion orientation research.

We then replicated this experiment in collaboration with the Science Museumas part of a live science experiment in the Cravings exhibition (you can take part here). The image below shows the visual representation of the data gathered from the experiment between 20 February and April 2015. The ideal angle to orient this particular plate of food is indicated by the arrow (3.20° clockwise), with the dots representing the orientation chosen by each of the 1667 participants.

Results from the Cravings experiment.

Results from the Cravings experiment.

We are already very excited about the insights we’re gaining from the experiment, in what is probably one of the largest experiments regarding the psychology of food ever conducted. As I write, 12,171 participants have taken part so far and that number is growing everyday.

In the first published article using data from the Science Museum experiment, our research suggests that visual shapes presented during a dining experience, and their orientation, could have an important role in modelling certain implicit psychological associations about the food, how we feel, perhaps even modelling the social interactions around the table. In the end, every single food component on the plate, but also the non-edible elements on the table, could be affecting the pleasure elicited by food.

Certainly, anyone wanting to optimise the pleasure of food that they serve and eat might want to look further than just the design of the food, and think about how it is consumed and visually presented. I believe much can be gained from developing a better understanding of the pleasure of food and exploring how aesthetically pleasing food compositions on a plate can really enhance our everyday food experiences.

This research was published in May 2015 in one of the premier food science journals, Food Quality and Preference, and can be read for free here. Discover more about the science behind your desires for food in the free Cravings exhibition at the Science Museum.

Cravings: Can Your Food Control You? is generously supported by GSK (Major Sponsor) and Danone (Associate Sponsor), with additional support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council. 

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

What makes you laugh and cry?

Professor Sophie Scott explains her latest experiment at the museum, exploring the science behind laughter. 

Last year, we had a mouse somewhere in our flat, and we were all stressing out about it a bit. I was at home on my own when I thought I felt something running over my foot. It was a hair pin falling out of my hair, but before I had realized this, I screamed out loud. I screamed loud enough and long enough for me to have time to think things like “Why am I screaming?”, “I am not afraid of mice” and “Pretty sure that was a hairpin”.

The really interesting part of the mouse incident was that my scream was involuntary – I really did not mean to do this (there’s a great example here). Involuntary vocalizations are produced via a neural system we share with other mammals, but a separate network in the brain controls speech. This speech network, which evolved much later, allows us to produce the complex movements which underlie speech and song and to do so voluntarily – we choose when to speak.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency.  This shows the acoustic complexity of speech.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency. This shows the acoustic complexity of speech. Credit: Sophie Scott

The older, involuntary system is associated with emotional vocalizations in humans – like my screaming or a cry of surprise. These emotional sounds (such as crying, screaming, laughing) are more like animal calls than they are like speech.

This shows laughter. Note how much less complex the sound is. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows laughter. The sound is much less complex than speech. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see  spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

Our more recent voluntary system is associated with speech and song (and other vocal skills such as beatboxing). If this system is damaged, for example, due to a stroke, people can be left with aphasia – a persistent problem with talking. They very often can still make emotional noises, such as laughing, suggesting that the stroke has not damaged this older pathway.

For my research, we are studying what it means to make voluntary and involuntary vocalizations – for example, laughter is used a great deal during conversational speech. Even babies use emotional expressions like crying and laughter in extremely sophisticated ways.

This all suggests that there may be both voluntary and involuntary kinds of emotional sounds. Are laughs and sobs produced in a voluntary or an involuntary fashion really different? How do they sound to us? How does this change as we age?

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

To help discover the answers to these questions, we are running an experiment at the Science Museum. We ask people to listen to ‘real’ and ‘posed’ laughter and sobbing sounds to find out how they sound to people. So if you are interested in knowing anything more about voices and emotion do please come along and take part in our research – we promise not to make you scream.

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

The Micrographia Microscope

Jane Desborough, Associate Curator of Science explores our collection of Robert Hooke microscopes as we celebrate 350 years since the publication of a truly remarkable book. 

2015 is the 350th anniversary of the publication of Micrographia by Robert Hooke.  A contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Hooke was Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society and Professor of Geometry at Gresham College. In January 1665, Samuel Pepys described Micrographia as “…the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life….”

Illustration of a flea in Micrographia by Robert Hooke. © Science Museum / SSPL

Illustration of a flea in Micrographia by Robert Hooke. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pepys’ enthusiasm was genuine. For many readers in the mid-seventeenth century this was the first time they had seen large-scale illustrations of tiny creatures from everyday life. These were beings such as fleas, mites and ants that appeared as specks to the naked eye, but were revealed by the microscope to be as intricate as larger animals.

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

One way of celebrating this anniversary is by presenting two modern copies of the microscope illustrated by Hooke in Micrographia. For me their existence represents our enduring fascination with both Hooke and the history of microscopy. The Science Museum’s Journeys of Invention app showcases a microscope believed to have belonged to Hooke in 1675, but this was not the one illustrated in Micrographia in 1665.

Microscope 1927-437 is part of the Science Museum’s permanent collection.  It was purchased in 1927 from Thomas Henry Court, who had a great interest in early scientific instruments and presented a large collection to the Museum in the 1930s.

Full-size reconstruction of Robert Hooke's compound microscope. © Science Museum/SSPL

Microscope 1927-437. A full-size reconstruction of Robert Hooke’s compound microscope. © Science Museum/SSPL

A memo written in May 1927 by a Curator at the Museum records a meeting with Court. In this document the microscope is described as a “…full-size copy of Robert Hooke’s original compound microscope as described in his ‘Micrographia’, 1665.”  According to Court, it was previously owned by Mayall.

We know that John Mayall made copies of seventeenth-century microscopes in the 1880s, which suggests that he may have made this one.  Mayall shared his deep interest in the history of the microscope in his Cantor Lectures (published in 1889).  Although a replica, this object is useful to us because, unlike the illustration, its three-dimensional form enables the viewer to rotate it and look at it from different angles.

Taken alongside Hooke’s words: “I make choice of some room that has only one window, on a table I place my microscope…”, we can imagine Hooke using it while making notes and illustrations of what he could see.

Microscope A601160 is part of the Wellcome collection and was made by W.G. Turner between 1901 and 1917, of whom no further information was found.  We do know that Turner, like Mayall, made a number of replicas of early microscopes.

Microscope A601160. © Science Museum

Microscope A601160. © Science Museum

Within the Wellcome collection are replicas of Campani’s microscope and two of Cherubin d’Orleans’ microscopes.  Although, not as ornate as microscope 1927-437, it is important as it represents a desire to understand Hooke’s work within the context of other seventeenth-century individuals such as Campani and Cherubin d’Orleans. It also suggests an attempt to compare the microscopes of England with those of Italy and France in the period.

For the authors of London’s Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke, Bennett, Cooper, Hunter and Jardine, Hooke was immensely optimistic about the future and human capability. This was an important characteristic of the beginnings of modern science. I think it was this great enthusiasm and optimism, which later historians strove to get a glimpse of when they made and studied copies of Hooke’s microscopes. In this particular case replicas were not intended to deceive; they were made as an aid to thinking about early science.  

Inspiring the Next Generation

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group), Ian Blatchford (Director, Science Museum Group), Terry Morgan (Chairman, Crossrail) and Paul Kirkman (Director, National Railway Museum) © Science Museum

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group), Ian Blatchford (Director, Science Museum Group), Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) and Paul Kirkman (Director, National Railway Museum) © Science Museum

“This agenda around skills is vital. We have to create a generation with the right skills to satisfy the economic need for great engineers and the Science Museum Group is playing a really important role in getting young people excited about science and engineering.”

That’s Terry Morgan CBE, Chairman of Crossrail, speaking at the Science Museum Group Annual General Meeting in York last week.

Held in the conference centre at the National Railway Museum, the meeting gave Science Museum Group staff an opportunity to share the ambitious strategic plans being shaped at the Group’s sites around the country and, in Terry Morgan’s presentation, to hear how Europe’s largest construction project is being kept on time and on budget.

Alongside Mr Morgan, the other highlight of the day was the formal introduction to the Group of our new Chairman, Dame Mary Archer.

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group) © Science Museum

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group) © Science Museum

In conversation with Roger Highfield, the Group’s Director of External Affairs, Dame Mary gave a fascinating account of her route into science and governance within large and ambitious organisations.

This ranged from her long experience as a chemist in academia, notably in Oxbridge and the Royal Institution, London, to being on the Board of Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust for two decades, and Chairman for the last 10 years.

The Group’s Director, Ian Blatchford, also held a question and answer session in which he addressed the opportunities and challenges facing our museums, which have seen a cut in Government support of more than 30 per cent in real terms since 2010.

He left the audience of more than 140 people from across the Group in no doubt that our approach to the challenging financial climate would continue to be characterised by audacity and not retrenchment.

Fitting then that the meeting’s final keynote speaker, Terry Morgan, is guiding a project that currently employs over 10,000 people and aims to transform rail transport in London.

Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) © Science Museum

Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) © Science Museum

Mr Morgan offered an inspiring insight into the logistical challenges of keeping a £14.8bn project on track, the engineering challenges of the project’s eight huge boring machines, while outlining some of the more extraordinary opportunities for archaeology and the creation of Europe’s largest artificial coastal reserve.

He also stressed the challenges of finding sufficient skilled engineers to deliver the project and underlined his personal commitment to both sustainability and the workforce legacy that will be delivered by Crossrail’s apprentice scheme.

Ian Blatchford commented: “There’s much that we, as the world’s leading group of science museums, can learn from Crossrail’s approach as we continue to transform our sites through ambitious permanent galleries, inspiring temporary exhibitions and impactful live programming. We’re also playing a critical role in inspiring the next generation of engineers who will work on the major projects that follow Crossrail.”

Around 600,000 young people in educational groups visit our museums in London, Manchester, York, Bradford and Shildon each year.