Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Ask A Curator 2013

A global Q&A session, better known as Ask a Curator Day, takes place on Wednesday (18th Sept). Will Stanley, who manages the @sciencemuseum Twitter account, explains more…

What’s the story behind that object? How was it invented? Which is your favourite? Whenever I see a Science Museum curator, I find myself asking questions (and often tweeting about the result). Now it’s your turn. On Wednesday, our curators will answer your questions (between 1-6pm) for #AskACurator day.

Over 500 museums from 34 countries will be joining in via Twitter, and our curators are poised to take part too: just tweet your questions to @sciencemuseum using #AskACurator.

We have put together a great team to help answer your questions:

You can delve into the Secret Life of the Home, with Helen Peavitt, our Curator of Consumer Technology – just ask Helen how fridges changed the world – or tweet a question for Katie Maggs, our resident medical collections expert.

Our Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney (@rooneyvision), is a recent convert to Twitter, but will be on hand to answer your questions about Alan Turing, Making the Modern World and this ghostly 3D scan of the Shipping galleries. Curator Ali Boyle (@ali_boyle) will be answering your particle physics questions just two months before the new Collider exhibition opens.

If communication is more your thing, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, Tilly Blyth (@tillyblyth) has been looking at 200 years of communication technologies for new gallery, Information Age. Content developer Charlotte Connelly (@connellycharlie) even visited Cameroon in her quest for mobile phone related objects for the gallery.

Finally, our Collections Coordinator Selina Pang (@spangoline), will try to answer any other collections questions you might have.

Top tips for #AskACurator

  • Try asking “I find ____ fascinating. Can you let me more about it?” That’s sure to get our curators tweeting.
  • Sometime we won’t be able to fit lengthy answers into a tweet, but don’t worry, great questions and answers are likely to turn into future blog posts.
  • Don’t worry if you are not on Twitter either, we’ll be sharing the best questions (and answers) in upcoming blog posts (like this post for example).

#MMWTour – Tweeting a tour of Making the Modern World

We asked Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney to tweet some of the hidden gems in the Making the Modern World gallery.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

The full tour can be seen here

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about Making the Modern World here.

Wonder in science: Infinite Monkey Cage at the Science Museum

Will Stanley writes about the recent recording of BBC Radio 4′s Infinite Monkey Cage  in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre.

In their favourite episode of the current series, Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince used the awe and wonder of science as their inspiration, discussing why all children have it and the reasons many adults don’t. And the venue for this recording? Well, it had to be the home of human ingenuity, the Science Museum.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4′s The Infinite Monkey Cage

Guests on this special edition of BBC Radio 4’s witty, irreverent take on the scientific world included author and historian Richard Holmes, comedian Josie Long, American astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian explained that one reason that children love the Science Museum is because it is brimming with stories and old things; a refreshingly different thing to hear in the digital age. “We’re working on a project to show the history of communications, and when you show young people a telephone exchange or even a dial telephone, they are amazed by that.”

Comedian Josie Long “took it out on chemistry”, burning her notes after finishing exams in protest at not being able to study her favourite art subjects. After historian Richard Holmes described building a “magnesium bomb” in chemistry classes, Brian Cox exclaimed, “They are dangerous these arts people, because they were prevented from being scientists at a young age.”

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum. From left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Josie Long, Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ian Blatchford and Richard Holmes.

Venturing safely back to the eighteenth century, Richard Holmes, author of the Age of Wonder, described his re-discovery of science when researching how Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Humphry Davy, a poet and a scientist, had worked together on Nitrous oxide experiments.

Questioned about whether we are losing our childlike wonder in the twenty first century, Neil deGrasse Tyson – a modern day Carl Sagan, known for his answer to the most astounding fact about the Universe – said that “a scientist is simply a child who never grew up, because they still wonder.”

The extended version of the show, featuring the wooden balls of pioneering chemist John Dalton, a coil of wire demonstrating how Michael Faraday tamed electrons and other remarkable objects from the Science Museum collection, can be downloaded here as a podcast.

Asked about their ultimate museum objects, the panel’s choices ranged from objects that are bigger than you are, to a working time machine and the Holy Grail.

Finally, comedian and rap artist Doc Brown closed Infinite Monkey Cage with this special tribute to his – in fact almost everyone’s - childhood hero, Sir David Attenborough.

Generating Ideas: drawing inspiration from the Science Museum

Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins writes about drawing inspiration from the Science Museum. A selection of Mark’s products can be bought from the Science Museum. 

Coming up with ideas and inventions “on demand” is tricky. I work as the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence, and it is my job to generate a stream of products that are interesting to the science-savvy, whilst engaging to those new to the Museum. If possible the products should also be wildly popular and generate lots of income. No pressure then.

Fortunately, the Museum provides an incredibly fertile space for generating ideas. Though my ideas tend toward the quirky, rather than world-changing, there are so many examples of ingenuity, insight and inventiveness, it’s hard not to be inspired. But where to start?

It’s not widely known that the Science Museum is home to just 5% of the Museum’s collection. The majority is tucked away in Blythe House in London, and at Wroughton, a former RAF airbase in Wiltshire. However, as the Science Museum is a showcase for the most iconic items in the collection, for me, it is the richest source of ideas.

The Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

Our Wroughton site houses large objects in aircraft hangars. Image credit: Science Museum

I’m particularly drawn to the Making the Modern World gallery. In many ways it is the centerpiece of the Science Museum. Located on the ground floor, it exhibits objects chronologically, on a timeline starting in the 1770′s in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, and ending with the Clock of the Long Now, a clock mechanism intended to keep time for 10,000 years. Walking through the gallery, is walking through the recent history of human development.

Visitors in the Making the Modern World gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors in the Making the Modern World gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

There are a couple of items in Making the Modern World that have directly inspired new products. One of the first glass cases that you encounter in the gallery contains what looks like a whisk with an accompanying pot. In fact it is the apparatus, made by James Prescott Joule, that defines the standard unit of energy, or “Joule”. Filling the pot with water, a “Joule” of energy is defined as the energy required to whisk the water until it has raised the temperature of the water by one degree.

Beauty in the Making

Beauty in the Making: Telling the story of how materials are manufactured, including an aluminium water bottle

This device got me thinking about how SI units are defined, and of measurement in general, and led to the creation of the Word Count Pencil, a pencil that has a scale printed along it’s length, to estimate the number of words you have written as the pencil wears out. A Gramophone in one of the cases along the side of the gallery inspired the iGramo, non-electrical method to amplify iPhones. Electro-magnets in the central glass cases, inspired my Levitating Cutlery idea. A sample of the first pure aluminium inspired me to design an aluminium water bottle that is decorated with an explanation of how the material is extracted, refined, and formed into the bottle.

Often, as I sit amongst the items in the gallery, trying to think up new product ideas, is gratifying to imagine all the inventors and scientists whose work surrounds me, doing likewise. Conjuring up new inventions and ideas using the power of their imagination. It makes me want to think harder and try to achieve more, and I find that profoundly inspiring.

I would urge anyone tasked with generating ideas, or impressed by ingenuity to treat themselves to a trip to the Science Museum. You never know what you might come up with!

Standard Model Stands Firm

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a recent discovery at CERN. A new Collider exhibition opens in November 2013, taking a behind-the-scenes look at the famous particle physics laboratory. 

On Friday afternoon, at the EPS conference in Stockholm, two colleagues of mine from CERN stood up to announce that the search for one of the rarest processes in fundamental physics is over. The result is a stunning success for the Standard Model, our current best theory of particles and forces, and yet another blow for those hoping for signs of new physics from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The Compact Muon Spectrometer, an experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The Compact Muon Spectrometer, an experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The LHCb and CMS experiments at the LHC have made the first definitive observation of a particle called a Bs meson decaying into two muons, confirming a tentative sighting at LHCb (my experiment) last autumn. The discovery has far-reaching implications for the search for new particles and forces of nature.

Beyond the Standard Model

There are a lot of reasons to suspect that the current Standard Model isn’t the end of the story when it comes to the building blocks of our Universe. Despite agreeing with almost every experimental measurement to date, it has several gaping holes. It completely leaves out the force of gravity and has no explanation for the enigmatic dark matter and dark energy that are thought to make up 95% of the Universe. The theory also requires a large amount of “fine-tuning” to match experimental observations, leaving it looking suspiciously like the laws of physics have been tinkered with in a very unnatural way to produce the Universe we live in.

In the last few decades a number of theories have been put forward that attempt to solve some of the Standard Model’s problems. One particularly popular idea is supersymmetry (SUSY for short), which proposes a slew of new fundamental particles, each one a mirror image of the particles of the Standard Model.

The Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

SUSY has many attractive features: it provides a neat explanation for dark matter and unifies the strengths of the three forces of the Standard Model (this suggests that they could all be aspects of one unified force, which should definitely be referred to as The Force, if it turns out to exist someday). It would also keep my colleagues in work for decades to come, thanks to a whole new load of super-particles (or sparticles) to discover and study.

However, physicists were first attracted to it because the theory is aesthetically pleasing. Unlike the Standard Model, SUSY doesn’t require any awkward fine-tuning to produce laws of physics that match our experience. This is not a very scientific argument, more a desire amongst physicists for theories to be elegant, but historically it has often been the case that the most beautiful theory turns out to be right one.

On the hunt

The decay observed at LHCb and CMS is predicted to be extremely rare in the Standard Model, with a Bs meson only decaying into two muons about 3 times in every billion. However, if ideas like SUSY are correct than the chances of the decay can be significantly boosted.

Finding particle decays this rare makes hunting for a needle in a haystack seem like a doddle. Hundreds of millions of collisions take place every second at the LHC, each one producing hundreds of new particles that leave electrical signals in the giant detectors. Physicists from LHCb and CMS trawled through two years worth of data, searching untold trillions of collisions for signs of two muons coming from a Bs meson. The pressure to be the first to find evidence of this rare process was intense, as Dr. Marc-Olivier Bettler, a colleague of mine from Cambridge and member of the LHCb team told me.

“It is a very strange type of race. To avoid bias, we don’t allow ourselves to look at the data until the last minute. So it’s a bit like running blindfolded – you can’t see the landscape around you or your competitors, even though you know that they’re there, so you have no idea if you are doing well or not! You only find out after you cross the finish line.”

However, ultimately the race ended in a draw. Neither LHCb nor CMS alone had enough data to announce a formal discovery, each turning up just a handful of likely candidates. But when their results are formally combined next week it is expected that the number of observed decays will pass the all-important “five sigma” level, above which a discovery can be declared.

Standard Model Stands Firm

In a blow for supporters of SUSY, LHCb and CMS observed the decay occurring at exactly the rate predicted by the Standard Model – approximately 3 times in a billion. This is yet another triumph for the Standard Model and kills off a number of the most popular SUSY theories.

Professor Val Gibson, leader of the Cambridge particle physics group and member of the LHCb experiment explained that, Measurements of this very rare decay significantly squeeze the places new physics can hide. We are now looking forward to the LHC returning at even higher energy and to an upgrade of the experiment so that we can investigate why new physics is so shy.”

This result is certainly not the end of the road for ideas like supersymmetry, which has many different versions. However, combined with the recent discovery of the Higgs boson (whose mass is larger than predicted by many SUSY theories) this new result may only leave us with versions of SUSY that are somewhat inelegant, meaning that the original motivation – a natural description of nature – is lost.

This new result from CERN is yet another demonstration of the fantastic (and somewhat annoying) accuracy of the Standard Model. Incredible precision is now being achieved by experiments at the LHC, allowing physicists to uncover ever-rarer particles and phenomena. If ideas like supersymmetry are to survive the onslaught of high precision tests made by the LHC experiments, we may have to accept that we live in a spookily fine-tuned Universe.

CERN: 60 years of not destroying the world

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole celebrates six decades of research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

Just before the Large Hadron Collider first turned on in September 2008, there was (in some quarters) a panic that it would destroy the world.

Doomsday was all over the media. “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?” asked one headline. Even when CERN submitted a peer-reviewed safety report in an attempt to allay fears, it didn’t altogether quash the dark mutterings and comic hysteria: “Collider will not turn world to goo, promise scientists.” 

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreau

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreu

In case you were wondering, the LHC has subsequently proved to be completely safe, and has even found the Higgs Boson to boot.

In fact, this isn’t the first time CERN has provoked fears of world destruction. In the lead-up to the signing of CERN’s founding Convention – 60 years ago this month – the proposed organisation was greatly hindered and influenced by apocalypse anxiety.

Only, back then, it had nothing to do with micro black holes swallowing the earth or strangelet particles messing with matter. No such exotic phenomena were needed. Just the mention of the words nuclear and atomic was enough to provoke serious paranoia in the Cold-War climate.

In 1949 Denis de Rougement, a Swiss writer and influential advocate for a federal Europe, attended the European Cultural Conference — one of the early conferences in which a “European Centre for Atomic Research” was discussed. “To speak of atomic research at that time,” de Rougement reflected, “was immediately to evoke, if not the possibility of blowing up the whole world, then at least preparations for a third world war.”

The press undoubtedly subscribed to the more extreme school of thought. On the second day of the conference, all the scientists present had to be locked in a chamber for protection as they had been pestered so severely by journalists on the previous day.

In some of the initial discussions, a nuclear reactor as well as an accelerator was proposed for the European research centre. It was carefully stressed that no commercial applications would be developed and all military work scrupulously excluded.

The French, who led these early proposals, removed the director of the French Atomic Energy Commission, the communist-leaning Frederic Joliot-Curie, after J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) stated the Americans wouldn’t support a project that included a senior figure with Soviet sympathies.

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

The nuclear reactor was dropped when Hungarian-American physicist Isidor I. Rabi, the so-called “father” of CERN,  stepped on the scene. Rabi, who co-founded the American research centre Brookhaven National Laboratory, put a resolution to the annual conference of UNESCO in Florence, June 1950 for a (“western”) European physics laboratory.

The fact Rabi omitted to mention a nuclear reactor was likely a political move on the part of the US, who were not keen on Soviet bits of Europe developing nuclear weapons. After much to-ing and fro-ing in the next two years, a provisional agreement was signed on 14 February 1952 by ten European states.

The next day, the signed agreement was telegrammed to Rabi, informing him of the “birth of the project you fathered in Florence”. The convention was signed on the 1st July, 1953 and CERN became an official organisation just over a year later.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

For sixty years, CERN has been successfully exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world, while leaving the world we live in very much intact.

See a copy of the telegram and more in Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, opening this November. Click here for further reading on the history of CERN

3D Gun goes on display

For the past two months the Contemporary Science team has been working hard to obtain a 3D printed gun. This week it arrived, explains Assistant Content Developer Pippa Hough.

The 3D printed gun now on display has a short, but complex history. The design was created by Defence Distributed – a non-profit digital organisation and placed, open source, on their website so anyone could freely download and share it.

The 3D printed gun, now on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The 3D printed gun, now on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Ville Vaarnes, a journalist in Finland, did just that and had the design printed in a university lab using a high quality 3D printer. He then put it together with the help of a gun maker and fired it. The gun broke into several pieces, shattering the gun barrel.

The 3D printed gun in pieces.

The 3D printed gun in pieces. Credit: Science Museum

It is completely illegal to own even a single component of a hand gun in the UK, including a 3D printed gun unless, like the Science Museum, you have a special licence. Manufacturing our own wasn’t an option as we only have a licence to display hand guns. Having seen a video of the gun being fired, we decided this was the only feasible opportunity we would have of acquiring a 3D printed gun.

From an engineering point of view, the gun isn’t particularly special, but displaying it allows us to start a conversation around how the limitless possibilities free access to information, combined with new manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, will impact on our lives.

On the face it having a printer that could sit on your desk and print any object you have the design for seems like a wonderful prospect. The gun represents the limitless, freely available objects you could print, but also the possible desire or need for regulations to limit our access to this information or the tools to produce them.

The inside of the 3D printed gun. Image: Science Museum

The inside of the 3D printed gun. Image: Science Museum

Creating physically dangerous items like the gun isn’t the only potential threat from 3D printing in the future. You could produce counterfeit designs of a copyrighted item, damaging the business that spent time and money producing the original. What incentive does a business have to produce innovative, exciting products if their designs can be so easily pirated? The music and film industries have struggled with these problems for years. How will other industries cope?

On the other hand what about our freedom to design and print whatever we want? The internet is not restricted by borders. You can download files from all over the world. If the information can’t be controlled can the means of manufacture? Should 3D printers require a licence to own?

When the initial story broke we wrote a news story, including a poll question ‘Should we have access to 3D-print plans for guns?’ 780 people voted, 42% said ‘no’ way 43% voted ‘yes’. The rest voted maybe or I’m not sure. Our visitors are clearly split on the issue; law makers have quite a challenge on their hands trying to maintain the maximum freedom while ensuring public safety.

Mallard 75: Celebrating Britain’s steam record

Sam Potts, Communications Officer at the National Railway Museum writes about a rather special gathering in York for Mallard75.

On 3 July 1938 Mallard made history when it became the fastest steam locomotive in the world. The locomotive reached 126mph on the East Coast main line, a record which still stands today, 75 years later.

Mallard’s triumphant record breaking team. From left – fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington who had worked on Mallard since it was built and knew what it could do.

Mallard’s record breaking team. From left – fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington. Credit: NRM

Mallard is a streamlined A4 Pacific, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley to be the flagship locomotive for the London & North Eastern Railway’s Silver Jubilee services. In total 35 A4s were built at Doncaster Works, with only 6 surviving the end of steam in 1968.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the record, the National Railway Museum brought together the four UK-based A4s in York.

Four remaining UK-based A4s in York for Mallard's 70th Anniversary.

Four remaining UK-based A4s in York for Mallard’s 70th Anniversary. Credit: NRM

For the 75th anniversary of the record, we decided to do something even more special – reunite all six survivors, including the two A4s which had been given to America and Canada in the 1960s.

Dwight D Eisenhower was presented to the National Railroad Museum Wisconsin in 1964.

Dwight D Eisenhower was presented to the National Railroad Museum Wisconsin in 1964. Credit: Daily Herald Archive/ NMEM / SSPL

In summer last year work began to bring the North American locomotives from their respective homes, back to the UK. Both locomotives were moved, appropriately enough, by rail to Halifax, Nova Scotia ready to be shipped to Liverpool.

Dwight D Eisenhower during its journey from Greenbay, Wisconsin to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Dwight D Eisenhower during its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Credit: NRM

In October 2012, after a 2,527 mile journey by sea, both locomotives arrived back on English soil for the first time in over 40 years.

Dominion of Canada returns to English soil after 40 years abroad. Credit: Ant Clausen

Dominion of Canada returns to English soil after 40 years abroad. Credit: Ant Clausen

Both of the North American locomotives have been cosmetically restored to their former glory by the National Railway Museum, and have been on display in both York and Shildon.

Finishing touches are made to Dwight D Eisenhower, during its cosmetic restoration. Credit: NRM

Finishing touches are made to Dwight D Eisenhower, during its cosmetic restoration. Credit: NRM

Today is the first day of a fortnight-long celebration of Mallard’s record, and the first time that all six of the A4s will be seen together, which really is a once in a lifetime event.

Mallard is moved into place with five sister A4s to celebrate the world record. Credit: NRM

Mallard is moved into place with five sister A4s to celebrate the world record. Credit: NRM

To find out more about how you can join us to celebrate Mallard’s remarkable world record, visit nrm.org.uk/mallard75.

Listen to Your Heart

Dr. Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer in the Contemporary Science team, writes about Listen to your Heart, a Live Science experiment where visitors explore interoception.

How good are you at figuring out what people are thinking? Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Alternatively, are you cool and collected? Can you regulate your emotional responses?

Surprisingly, researchers think that all these qualities could be related to something called interoception – that is, how good you are at sensing the workings of your inner body, like your heartbeat.

We are very familiar with what scientists call exteroceptive signals – sight, sound, smell and other sensory inputs which comes from outside the body. But until I met Dr Manos Tsakiris and his team, I had no idea that we also experience internal sensory input, produced from within our bodies by our ongoing physiological processes. These interoceptive signals create a kind of constant background sensory noise, and some of us are more aware of that noise than others.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864. Credit: Florilegius / Science & Society Picture Library

Manos wants to know whether there’s a link between how good our interoceptive awareness is, and how well we engage with other people and our environment. We thought this sounded absolutely fascinating, and so we invited Manos and his research team to do some real live experiments right here in the Museum. Now we need you to come down and take part!

So what happens in the experiment? You’ll place your wrist on a sensor, which will count your heartbeats. Now, without looking at the sensor readout – that would be cheating! – you will be asked to really concentrate, and try to count your own heartbeats.

So this bit of the experiment will tell the guys how good your interoceptive awareness is. The next bit of the experiment will test how good you are at interpreting other people’s feelings, or seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Or maybe how good you are at regulating your emotions, or whether you prefer to rely on your body or your vision to navigate your way around.

The whole thing will only take ten minutes or so, and you’d be contributing to some seriously cool research. This data could, ultimately, help us to understand how interoception creates our sense of self – that sense that there is a “me” residing within our body.

Manos and the team will be our Who Am I? gallery – every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday until 13th July for Listen to your Heart.

#TuringTour: Tweeting our Turing Exhibition

To celebrate Alan Turing’s birthday this week, curator David Rooney gave the #TuringTour, a tweeted live tour of our Codebreaker exhibition.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

Next on the #TuringTour, we turned to computing before computers, when computers were actually people and mostly women

War is, as ever, a powerful stimulus for innovation. Examples include this bomb aiming computer:

But if Alan Turing is famous for one thing, it is his work at Bletchley Park on naval Enigma and German ciphers

We ended the tour with a rather poignant question…

Over 370 tweets were sent using #TuringTour from as far away as Denmark, Chile and the USA. We also had some great feedback from followers:

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about the Codebreaker exhibition here.