Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato – getting hands-on at the Science Museum

In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at our Antenna Gallery gets a volunteer’s view on the exhibition.

‘Do people just get naked in the Science Museum?’ Katyanna Quach asks me, with a suspicious look in her eyes. Before I have time to give that mental image the thorough probing that it deserves, I’m given a bit of context. “We’ve found a bra, some shoes…”

‘And an entire suit. And money. And a television,’ adds her colleague Hannah Burke. We’re standing in the basement of the Museum, surrounded by the bagged detritus of the previous day – waste from galleries, cafés, offices and kitchens. But they’re here for a good reason: this, friends, is art. Katyanna and Hannah are two of the many volunteers helping artist Joshua Sofaer in his quest to document an entire month’s Museum waste.

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Joshua’s Rubbish Collection is an unusual art installation – over the next few weeks, every single item that goes into a Museum bin will be taken out again and publicly documented. Joshua is building a photographic archive of 21st century Museum waste – every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato (and, it would appear, every bra and every television). For the last few months I’ve been watching my colleagues work with Joshua to draw this idea, this ‘contemporary archaeology’ project, out of Joshua’s head and onto the Museum floor. Today, I’ve come to see the result – and to meet the Museum volunteers at the centre of this unique archive.

Joshua hopes that the Rubbish Collection will make us “… consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.” It’s certainly making the volunteers think.

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

‘I’ve seen whole uneaten lunches from Waitrose. Not touched at all. You just think, “Why didn’t you take it home?”’ says Hannah Tran. ‘Even Museum cafés create food waste – obviously they can’t keep sandwiches forever, but on the night shift we get a lot of completely unopened paninis.’

Katyanna shares Hannah Tran’s unease at the sheer volume of waste we produce. ‘You see how much of it there is and think, “I shouldn’t waste so much. I should recycle more.” Some stuff that could be recycled is just put in with general waste, and then it’s contaminated so you can’t recycle it.’ Katyanna, like many of the volunteers here, was driven to get involved with The Rubbish Collection because she feels that we need to make ourselves think about waste. ‘So much media attention is devoted to wildlife at risk, to species going extinct … but still, some people don’t really care. So this project is an interesting way to talk to the public and get them to think about rubbish, and recycling, differently.’

So what do visitors make of the whole experience?

‘Well, it looks really factory-like in here. Because we’re dressed in boiler suits, I think people come over and think, “Oh, these guys are working!”’ says Katyanna. ‘So I go, “Hi! Do you want to sort rubbish?”, and explain what we’re doing. Some people do really enjoy it and try their hardest to make something pretty out of it. Some people are disgusted by it, but do it anyway.’

Katyanna  Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Katyanna Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Visitors don’t have to get too close for comfort , of course. They’re just as welcome to come and observe the documentation process, and to talk to Joshua and his friendly team of assistants and volunteers. It’s certainly not the sort of gallery you see often. Or, indeed, ever.

‘I don’t think visitors to the Science Museum expect to find an art installation here. Especially this one, because it’s not “done” yet. It’s quite conceptual,’ says Hannah Tran. ‘It’s very different from the other stuff in the Museum. But people are really curious – kids are more interested in the rubbish itself, and older people often want to talk about the kind of stuff we find, but also about just how much waste there is.’

Tempted to take part? Let Hannah Burke convince you. ‘Although it may sound crazy, many of the rubbish bags have their own interesting stories to tell, and that can really make the job of sorting through rubbish worthwhile. It is always exciting to see enthusiastic members of the public become immersed at the task in hand. I can’t wait to see what interesting items the next three weeks have to offer!’

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

The art of rubbish

Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, considers how art can inspire us to question our everyday relationships with ‘rubbish’.

The newly opened Rubbish Collection exhibition is the latest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the Science Museum’s art commissions. Artist Joshua Sofaer’s exploration of what we throw away, both as an institution and as individuals.

The Rubbish Collection continues our series of thought provoking exhibitions, installations and events relating to the Atmosphere gallery and Climate Changing… programme. Art has had a strong presence throughout this programme, for instance within the Climate Changing Stories (2011-May 2014), David Shrigley’s House of cards (2010) and Tony White’s downloadable novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013).

So, why has art played such an important role in the Science Museum’s exploration of climate science and sustainability? The ability of artists to offer a unique and creative perspective on this challenging subject and to make visible the forgotten or intangible aspects of the world around us is the key.

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection is an excellent example of this. Sofaer’s concept is deceptively simple: get people to look at what they throw away and consider what happens to it next. It’s certainly not the way a curator would have tackled this topic; it has taken an artist to think the unthinkable and invite Science Museum visitors to help sort piles of rubbish.

Sofaer is cleverly utilising and playing with the recognisable role of the Museum, in collecting, sorting and displaying precious objects, and using them to tell stories. Rather than looking outward, to examine the material production of the world around us, we will be looking at what the Science Museum itself produces in the form of waste and exposing the value of these overlooked materials, both in aesthetic and monetary terms.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

The concept is surprising – and in some ways utterly absurd – yet the outcome has the potential to shock as Sofaer brings us face to face with the reality of our daily consumption and waste of resources.

The Climate Changing… programme’s aim was to be thought provoking and The Rubbish Collection certainly fulfils this brief. In the run up to the exhibition it has already stimulated conversations within the Science Museum and it is exciting to know this self-reflection will have an impact on the future decisions the institution makes in relation to sustainability and climate change.  As Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, the project has certainly made me think about rubbish in a very different light. I hope it will inspire all those who take part too.

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July until 14 September 2014.

Copenhagen: at the nexus of drama, science and history

“History is what you remember as having happened, not what actually happened.” It was this thought, shared by Michael Frayn in a recent discussion with the Director of the Science Museum, that that lies at the heart of Copenhagen, the most famous work of the playwright and novelist.

Michael Frayn has a long-held interest in philosophy and the sciences, notably in his book The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe. However, he is best known for his Tony-award winning play, which was staged at the National Theatre in London and later on Broadway in New York.

Copenhagen is an enduring example of how the history of science can inform dramatic work, and vividly demonstrates the power of drama to explore history, bringing scholarly discussions to the attention of a wide audience.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, in conversation with Michael Frayn

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum (right), in conversation with playwright Michael Frayn

The play examines the uncertainties surrounding the 1941 meeting between two Nobel prize winning physicists in German-occupied Copenhagen at the height of World War II.

Physicist Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear energy project, and his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr, who later worked on the Manhattan Project, discussed the possibility of building an atomic bomb.

There was no accurate record of what was said at the meeting, and there are conflicting recollections made years later in unsent letters and transcripts from Heisenberg’s internment shortly after the war at Farm Hall, a bugged house near Cambridge. As a consequence, Frayn’s dramatisation of the meeting has itself become part of the historical record.

Those listening to Michael Frayn in the audience, included his wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin, Tony award-winning director of Copenhagen, Michael Blakemore, and Niels Bohr’s great grand-daughter, Esme Dixon. Prof Jon Butterworth of University College London, science biographer Graham Farmelo, Science Museum Trustee Howard Covington, Jean M Franczyk, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Andrew Nahum, Principal Curator of Technology and Engineering, were also present for the fascinating discussion.

You can watch the full conversation between Michael Frayn and the Science Museum Group’s Director, Ian Blatchford, here.

The First Woman in Space

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the first woman to travel into space.  

On this day (16 June) in 1963, the spacecraft Vostok-6 thundered off into space, joining Vostok-5 in orbit. Shortly afterwards, the commander of Vostok-6 could be heard excitedly calling out over the radio:

“Ya Chaika, Ya Chaika [I am Seagull]! I see the horizon [...] This is the Earth; how beautiful it is. Everything goes well.”

26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union had just made history by becoming the first woman in space.

Tereshkova became an instant celebrity as images of her on board Vostok-6 were transmitted to Earth. In fact, due to the mission being shrouded in secrecy, Tereshkova’s own mother only found out about her daughter going to space when seeing the television broadcast.

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6, credit: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. Her spacecraft, kept for posterity, will be displayed in the exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014.

The mission was not a flawless success but this was hushed up by Soviet leaders who recognised her propaganda value. Joining a small group of flown cosmonauts, Tereshkova soon travelled the world as a cultural ambassador and political spokeswoman.

Within the Soviet Union the cosmonauts were idealised as heroes of a new era that the population should seek to emulate, while abroad they became the public face of the regime. Consequently their schedules were gruelling, and their image and behaviour carefully controlled; private lives ceased to be private.

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Like the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova wanted to fly again but was considered too important as a propaganda tool. Gagarin and Tereshkova’s value partly lay in qualities identified already at their initial selection; both came from modest backgrounds, were diligent students, model workers, politically loyal and personable. They were now celebrated as the communist dream come true.

Tereshkova’s public image differed from Gagarin’s however and was strictly gendered. While Gagarin was portrayed as a military hero in uniform, Tereshkova was shown with immaculate hair and make-up, wearing feminine dresses and high heels. In this way she came to embody the civilian, peaceful aspect of space travel.

In the early 1960s Soviet women were also encouraged to combine good work ethics and political commitment with femininity and a sense of style. Official accounts of Tereshkova consequently tried to reconcile her aptitude for science and technology with being feminine and chic.  To quote R.P. Sylvester, “[...] drab was out and Dior was most definitely in”.

Tereshkova and Gagarin

Tereshkova and Gagarin, credit: RIA Novosti

While Tereshkova’s accomplishment was held by many as living proof of gender equality under Communism, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real commitment to continued female participation on the Soviet space program. Not until 1982 would another woman make it into orbit.

Over 50 years after her own space flight, Valentina Tereshkova describes it as the most bright and wonderful experience of her life, and maintains that given the opportunity she would fly into space again.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening in November 2014.

Introducing The Rubbish Collection

This summer the Science Museum is doing something crazy. It is allowing members of the public to rummage through its bins, writes artist Joshua Sofaer.

The Rubbish Collection is a two-part art installation, which will see every single thing thrown out by the Science Museum staff and visitors for 30 days, photographed in a purpose-built temporary archive in the basement of the Wellcome wing. Members of the public will be invited to open the bags of rubbish and layout the contents on an archive table, photograph their arrangement, before repacking the contents in the bag and sending it on its route towards recycling or incineration.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

We will then follow the journey that the rubbish takes and will recall it to the Science Museum at various stages in its transformation, for the second part of the project: an exhibition of waste materials. Visitors will be able to see the elements and quantity of stuff thrown out by one institution.

Humans are avid collectors. We are also nosy. We enjoy investigating the things around us and seeing material culture collated, labelled and exhibited. It was this impulse that was the incentive for the first museums. The Rubbish Collection, which will soon fill the exhibition space below, inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.

By handling the waste themselves, I hope the public will notice how recycling bins are often contaminated and also how perfectly good resources are sent off needlessly for incineration when they could be reused or recycled.

Mirroring the conventional museum displays that are adjacent, The Rubbish Collection exhibition will confront visitors with a literal representation of one institution’s waste, while focusing attention on the urgent need for waste reduction.

It’s a step into uncharted territory and a courageous thing for the Science Museum to do; allowing the public to rummage through its bins. It shows that their commitment to tackling issues connected to climate change, sustainability and carbon efficiency, starts with themselves.

Rubbish bags are also repositories for stories of our lives. Opening one and laying out the contents is a kind of contemporary archaeology that stimulates the imagination, as we deduce or invent the histories of the materials before us.

Seeing the towers of paper, above, or mountains of glass sand, is similarly not only about recognising the need for more sustainable living, it is also about acknowledging the aesthetic properties and the wonder of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.

The Rubbish Collection runs from 16 June to 14 September 2014. For more information, click here.

The first spacewalk

Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition, celebrates Alexei Leonov’s 80th birthday.

In the ghostly black and white footage of the first ever spacewalk, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov floats in and out of frame. It is a haunting sight, especially when you learn Leonov did not think he would be able to climb back inside the spaceship.

Leonov, who celebrates his 80th birthday today (May 30), is a former fighter pilot, artist and one of the first Soviet cosmonauts (along with Yuri Gagarin). Leonov flew on two historic missions in the Russian space programme: the first spacewalk in 1965 and the first joint flight between the USSR and US in 1975.

It was a momentous day on 18 March 1965 when Leonov performed the world’s first spacewalk. However, Leonov struggled to fit back through the airlock as his spacesuit ballooned due to excess pressure during the walk. In the end, he opened a valve in the suit to let some of the high-pressure oxygen out, the suit deflated and Leonov squeezed through the airlock head first.

In that instance, Leonov’s brave decisions helped him escape unharmed, but the crew also had trouble with the spacecraft’s brakes upon descent. Leonov and the pilot of the craft, Nikolai Belyaev, made their final landing off course, in the depth of the Taiga forest.

Minutes earlier, the cosmonauts had orbited the Earth, becoming part of the new space age. Back on Earth they had to fight to survive in a different kind of wilderness. After two nights in sub-zero conditions, the two cosmonauts made it out of the woods on skis, chaperoned by a rescue crew.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, In Free Flow (1965). Oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

The stories of these first men and women to venture into the wilderness of outer space will be told in a new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014. Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, recently met Alexei Leonov to hear his story.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Natalia Sidlina, curator of Russian Space at the Science Museum, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Leonov’s achievement was momentous – one of many historic milestones for the Russian space programme –  beating the US Project Gemini spacewalk by three months. But it was not the heated competition between the USSR and US space programmes that launched the next phase of space travel. Rather, it was their collaboration.

Beginning in the 1970s, an unprecedented partnership began between these two space superpowers. It was this spirit of cooperation that launched the first joint USSR and US flight: the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo mission, with Alexei Leonov as the commander of the Russian crew.

The mission began with Russia’s Soyuz launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 15, 1975, followed by Apollo launch seven hours later from the Kennedy Space Centre. Differences in language, technology, and politics were set aside. The mission brought together the engineers from both nations, who collaboratively designed a petal-shaped universal docking system – the first of its kind.

The rendezvous of the two spacecrafts, the Soyuz under command of Leonov and Apollo under command of Thomas Stafford went smoothly. The two crews – two cosmonauts and three astronauts – exchanged flags and gifts, participated in collaborative scientific research, and shared dinner together. They also explored each other’s crafts, describing the technologies to the eager audiences back home.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Alexei Leonov, Soyuz-Apollo (1976) oil on canvas. Painted by Alexei Leonov and reproduced by permission of the artist.

Leonov is not just a cosmonaut; he is also a talented artist who has reflected on his own exploration of space through numerous paintings and drawings, images of which will feature in the upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition. He has taken his coloured pencils on missions and drew portraits of his international crewmates as well as ‘landscapes’ of the Earth from above.

Also sharing a birthday with Leonov is another space pioneer. Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space and first woman to travel to the Mir space station was born on 30 May 1963. Helen’s spacesuit from voyage to the Mir space station aboard the Soyuz spacecraft will also be on display in the Cosmonauts exhibition.

From the early days of the space programme, when every mission seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction, through Cold War rivalry to the era of the International Space Station, these stories are proof that once hostile nations are capable of cooperation towards a shared goal.

Discover more of Leonov’s story and the beginnings of the space age in the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition opening November 2014.

Longitude Prize 2014

Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and Chair of the Longitude Prize 2014 Committee, blogs on the launch of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The prowess of the nation’s historic achievements in science and technology is displayed for all to see in the Science Museum – a cathedral to the history of science where visitors can share in the celebration. The Museum is unique in its ability to allow us to reflect on our past achievements, while also inspiring future generations to keep pushing forward the frontiers of science and technology.

I’m pleased to be involved in a new project that I also hope will inspire the next generation of British scientists. Developed and run by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as a funding partner and launched this week on Horizon (Thursday 9pm, BBC2), the Longitude Prize 2014 will give innovators an incentive to grapple with a global problem and to produce a solution that will benefit humankind. Anyone who can find the solution will be rewarded with a multi-million pound prize.

The Longitude Prize 2014 is being launched on the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act where the British government offered £20,000 to find a way for sailors to determine their Longitude at sea.

At that time seafaring vessels were vital to the booming economy of Britain, and to prevent massive loss of life from shipwrecks was a government priority. Many intriguing innovations were developed to ‘discover’ longitude. Eventually, the fund was awarded to John Harrison, for his Marine Chronometer.

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Today, we live in a period of accelerated change as modern technology revolutionises every aspect of our daily lives:  communications, travel and health. There are many challenges that we face both nationally and globally.

The new Longitude Prize gives the chance for everyone to express a view on which area deserves top priority and offers the greatest scope. We’ve identified six challenges for public consideration. Through a text and online vote, anyone can influence which of these six challenges will become the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The Longitude Prize 2014 Challenges:

Water
Water is a finite resource and we must seek to find ways of producing more fresh water. Some 98% of the Earth’s water is too salty for drinking or agriculture and as water requirements grow and as our reserves shrink, many are turning to desalination. However the current desalination technology isn’t optimal for small-scale use.

Antibiotics
Antibiotics have changed the face of healthcare for the better; they on average add 20 years to over lives. 80 years on from the discovery of penicillin, we are still unable to distinguish bacterial from viral infections, or the type of bacteria in the clinic, which has caused the overuse of antibiotics and the evolution of multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Dementia
An ageing population means more people are developing dementia and unfortunately there is currently no existing cure. This means there is a need to find ways to support a person’s dignity, physical and emotional wellbeing and extend their ability to live independently.

Paralysis
Paralysis can emerge from a number of different injuries, conditions and disorders and the effects can be devastating. Every day can be a challenge when mobility, bowel control, sexual function and respiration are lost or impaired. We need to find a way to vastly increase the freedom of movement for people with paralysis.

Food
The world’s population is growing, getting richer and moving to cities. Current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be about 9 billion people on the planet; moreover our tastes will have turned to more resource-hungry foods such as meat and milk. In the face of limited resources and climate change, we must learn how to feed the world with less.

Flight
The rapid growth of carbon emissions caused by air travel needs to be addressed to help tackle climate change. The potential of zero-carbon flight has been demonstrated but it has had little impact on the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, which still relies exclusively on fossil fuels. We need to bring novel technologies into the mainstream to stimulate a significant change.

The Science Museum opens the world of science and technology to everyone. I hope that the Longitude Prize 2014 will stimulate wide interest, as well as encouraging inventors and innovators.

Please watch Horizon and then cast your vote to decide which of these challenges you would like to win the Longitude Prize 2014.

Visitors to the Science Museum Lates on 28 May can discover more about the Longitude Prize 2014, with further information available at longitudeprize.org

Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

Chancellor launches gender agenda at Science Museum

By Will Stanley and Roger Highfield

A major government campaign was launched today at the Science Museum to boost the numbers of young people —especially women — studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Announced by George Osborne MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Your Life campaign has the ambitious aim of increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects by 50% over the next three years.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life. Credit: Science Museum

There is plenty of evidence that women and minorities face an uphill struggle in UK science. As one sign of the prevailing concern, 600 people joined us this morning for the launch of Your Life, which includes a three year exhibition at the Science Museum.

Fewer than 20% of 16-19 year olds take A-Level Maths and half of mixed state schools have no girls study A-Level Physics in 2011. ‘Only two per cent of girls are doing physics A level. That is not good enough. That is something we have got to change,’ said the Chancellor.

Surrounded by some of the most important objects in the history of science, in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, the Chancellor spoke about the need to inspire the next generation.

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

He told the audience that ‘all my life’ he had been visiting the Science Museum. ‘I bring my children to this museum and when you see all the incredible exhibits here, the steam engines, aircraft, early electricity generation and spacecraft, it is easy to think this happened in Britain’s past….that is not true.

One of the key things we are trying to challenge in this campaign is the idea that science engineering and design are all part of Britain’s great industrial past, not our future’

As one example of how Britain is contributing to the future, he singled out the museum’s Collider exhibition, which celebrates the achievements of a vast army of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in finding the Higgs particle, due to open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester later this month.

To help meet this challenge of attracting more students to careers in STEM, the Science Museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, announced a major three-year exhibition, backed by leading companies and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Watch this space for more news over the coming months.

Mr Blatchford pointed out how of the 3.4 million visitors to the Science Museum, half are women, and that the museum plays a key role in inspiring people to study STEM, for instance with its festivals celebrating the role of women in fields such as Formula 1, energy, space and aeronautics.

Education Minister Liz Truss MP praised the ‘fantastic turnout’ at the museum echoed the Chancellor’s words, citing the common Chinese saying “science and maths can get us everywhere.”

Too many teenagers, especially girls, don’t realise this, she added, saying she wants to ‘eradicate science deserts….if we get this right, the opportunities will be huge.’

The Museum  is one of over 170 businesses, universities, schools and organisations supporting the Your Life campaign.

Organisations such as Google, Arup, BP, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Airbus, BSkyB and the Royal Academy of Engineering have also pledged to highlight the opportunities open to those studying STEM subjects, with the commitment to create over 2,000 new STEM jobs.

Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby, Eben Upton, founder of Raspberry Pi and Roma Agrawal, a structural Engineer who worked on the Shard, are all advocates for the Your Life campaign, which was trending on Twitter this morning.

Dunn, who co-created the Tesco Clubcard, and her independent board of eight entrepreneurs and advocates hope to transform the way young people think about maths and physics and the careers to which they lead.

The Chancellor was also joined by David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Matthew Hancock MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan MP.  Support was voiced by the Prime Minister and Energy and Climate Change Minister Baroness Verma who said: “My personal commitment is to ensure that 30% of energy company executive board members are female by 2030.

Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.