Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Happy 25th Birthday World Wide Web!

Tilly Blyth, Lead Curator for Information Age, reflects on how the World Wide Web came into existence.

It was 25 years ago today that the World Wide Web was born. Only a quarter of a century ago, but in that short time it has transformed our world. In a recent Great British Innovation Vote, musician Brian Eno said that ‘no technology has been so pervasive so quickly as the internet’.

On 12 March 1989, the British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his influential paper “Information Management: A Proposal” and circulated it to colleagues at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists from all over the world were brought together at CERN to conduct research, but Berners-Lee identified that there was a problem with the way information was managed and shared between them. His proposal suggested a way of linking documents through a system of hypertext.

Rather wonderfully, Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall commented that the proposal was ‘Vague but exciting…’ but he agreed to purchase a NeXT computer. The machine was to become the world’s first web server and Berners-Lee used it to build the first ever website. Today, the only evidence on the machine of its important history is a torn sticker that says: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!”

To celebrate the birthday of the Web, from today we are putting Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT cube computer on display in our Making the Modern World gallery. In Autumn 2014 it will move into our new Information Age gallery, to play a leading role in the stories of the last 200 years of information and communication technologies.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox (co-founder of Lastminute.com) visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, at an event to mark 25 years since Berners-Lee submitted the first proposal for the web on 12 March 1989 at CERN.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web. Credit Science Museum.

Yesterday, we celebrated the arrival of the NeXT computer at the Museum and the impending anniversary, with a reception attended by Martha Lane Fox and Rick Haythornthwaite, Chair of the Web Foundation.

But a birthday for the Web is not just a chance to reflect on the past, but to look towards the future. What kind of Web do we want? Currently only 3 in 5 people across the world have access to the Web. Do we want a tool that is open and accessible to anyone? And do we want to control our public and private data? How can we ensure that the Web isn’t only a device for a few companies, but gives us all rights to achieve our potential? Through the #web25 hashtag Tim Berners-Lee is inviting us all to share our thoughts.

Discover more about how the web has shaped our world in the new Information Age gallery, opening in Autumn 2014.

From Earth to space in a Skinsuit

Julia Attias, a Research Assistant working at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences (CHAPS), talks about her career in space science for our Beyond Earth festival this weekend. 

My name is Julia Attias and I’m a space physiologist. What does that mean? “Physiology” generally refers to the functions and processes of the human body. Space physiology involves the understanding of how the body functions in space, and particularly in an environment that has far less gravity than on Earth. It’s important to know how low gravity environments affect people taking part in space missions.

I became a space physiologist through completing a Masters degree in Space Physiology and Health at Kings College London in September 2012. The course is designed to help us understand the challenges that an astronaut’s body faces both in space and on return to Earth, such as muscle and bone loss, weakening of the cardiovascular system and visual disturbances.

During my masters dissertation, I started to research the “Gravity-Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit” (GLCS), funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Skinsuit was designed by a group of aerospace engineers at MIT, with the aim to recreate the same force that the body experiences through Earth’s natural gravitational pull. This way, if the Skinsuit is worn in environments of zero-gravity, the body should be protected from some of the issues mentioned above.

Testing the Skinsuit

Testing the Skinsuit

I’ve been studying the Skinsuit to see if it really does produce a gravity load similar to Earth’s, and if it could be used in the future alongside exercise activities to keep astronauts fit and keep their heart, muscles and bones strong in space.

Space travel is becoming of increasing interest in the UK, primarily owing to British astronaut Tim Peake, who will be flying to the International Space Station in 2015! During the next year, there will be many discussions about how to keep him healthy while in space.

I’ll be starting a PhD in October 2014 which will involve continuing my research with the Skinsuit to see how it might help tackle issues such as back pain and spinal elongation. This research will combine with other work conducted all over the globe to help keep astronauts like Tim Peake as free of physiological burden as possible for their return to Earth.

Unfortunately I won’t be at the Beyond Earth festival this weekend, because I’ll be testing the Skinsuit with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet!  We’ll be testing the Skinsuit in a weightless environment (not in space unfortunately!) through a parabolic flight. We will get into an aircraft which descends rapidly, creating up to 22 seconds of weightlessness at a time – it’s a bit like being on a roller coaster. The flight is to test the Skinsuit in a weightless environment – taking off and putting on the suit to ensure the simple things we take for granted on Earth are possible in zero-gravity!

Beyond Earth

Nicola Burghall is a Content Developer and part of the Contemporary Science team at the Science Museum. Here she blogs about National Astronomy Week and the free upcoming festival Beyond Earth.

In the past few days there has been some awesome space news – from the breathtaking photos of the Aurora Borealis over the UK, to the hundreds of new planets found by the Kepler telescope!

I was so excited to get my first telescope as a child. Growing up in Wales it was often too wet and cloudy to use it, but I will never forget the first time I looked at the moon – I was hooked.

I still have my (slightly battered) telescope ready for those clear winter nights. This month it’s National Astronomy Week (1-8 March) and I hope it will inspire a lot more people to look up at the sky!

The star of the show (although not literally) is Jupiter. The giant planet will be at a high point in UK skies so, if you’ve got the kit, you might be able to take some really good photos. Ever wondered what Jupiter sounds like? I hadn’t even thought about it, but apparently it goes something like this.

Jupiter's Violent Storms. Image taken by Voyager 2 in 1979.

Jupiter’s Violent Storms. Image taken by Voyager 2 in 1979. Credit: NASA

Working at the Science Museum I get to be around an amazing array of astronomical objects – from an 18th Century telescope used by the first professional female astronomer Caroline Herschel, to sensors from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn (currently sending back some spectacular images).

In the Exploring Space gallery you can also find Helen Sharman’s space suit – the first Briton to go into space in 1991. Helen was measured in 54 different places to ensure the perfect fit of her protective suit (not exactly something you can grab off the peg!).

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by 'Zvezda'.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by ‘Zvezda’. Credit: SSPL

We’ll also be tweeting about many of our space objects on Tuesday at 1pm. Follow #CosmosTour to discover more about our curator’s favourite objects.

Beyond Earth

Right now I’m busy (and excited to be) organising a FREE festival called Beyond Earth, which will take place at the Science Museum from the 7th-9th March 2014.

You’ll be able to meet scientists and engineers who develop and use the latest technology to explore the vast expanse of space. Find out how their research is helping us to understand the universe we live in, what they have discovered and how you can be a part of it. 

Come along to a talk, watch a demonstration or drop in to our Space Station activities and get crafty making a Sputnik Satellite or have a go launching your own Vostok Rocket. Check out the full festival programme here.

I hope to see you there!

Peter Higgs: The Life Scientific

Quantum physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili blogs on interviewing Peter Higgs for the new series of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4. Discover more about the LHC, particle physics and the search for the Higgs boson in our Collider exhibition

I love name dropping about some of the science superstars I’ve interviewed on The Life Scientific. ”Richard Dawkins was quite charming on the programme, you know”, or “James Lovelock is as sharp as ever”, and so on. So imagine my excitement when I heard I would be interviewing the ultimate science celebrity Peter Higgs.

When I discovered we had secured him for the first programme in the new 2014 series, I knew I had to get something more out of him than to simply regurgitate the popular account of the man as shy, modest and unassuming, and still awkward about having a fundamental particle named after him; or how the Nobel committee were unable to get hold of him on the day of the announcement because he had obliviously wandered off to have lunch with friends.

This was an opportunity for two theoretical physicists – OK, one who has a Nobel Prize to his name and one who doesn’t, but let’s not split hairs here – to chat about the thrill of discovery and to peek into the workings of nature, whilst the outside world listened in.

A couple of Bosons: Peter Higgs with Jim Al-Khalili

A couple of Bosons: Peter Higgs with Jim Al-Khalili. Credit: Charlie Chan

You can listen to the programme from 18 February, but here are a few extracts to whet your appetite.

Can you explain the Higgs mechanism in 30 seconds?

At some point in the programme, inevitably, I had to ask Peter to explain the Higgs mechanism and Higgs field (both more fundamental concepts than the Higgs boson). He gave a beautifully articulate and clear explanation, but I then thought I should ask him to give the ‘idiot’s guide to the Higgs’, just to cover all bases. Here’s how that went:

‘The Boson that Bears my Name’

Working alone in Edinburgh in the sixties, Peter Higgs was considered ‘a bit of a crank’. “No-one wanted to work with me”, he says. In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new kind of boson, but at the time there was little interest in this now much-celebrated insight. And in the years that followed, Peter Higgs himself failed to realise the full significance of his theory, which would later transform particle physics.

In July 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found and Peter Higgs shot to fame. This ephemeral speck of elusive energy is now the subject of car adverts, countless jokes, museum exhibitions and even a song by Nick Cave called the Higgs Boson Blues. But Higgs has always called it the scalar boson or, jokingly, ‘the boson that bears my name’ and remains genuinely embarrassed that it is named after him alone.

In fact, three different research groups, working independently, published very similar papers in 1964 describing what’s now known as the Higgs mechanism. And Higgs told me he’s surprised that another British physicist, Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London didn’t share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics, along with him and Belgian physicist, Francois Englert.

On fame
When the 2013 Nobel Prize winners were announced, Peter was famously elusive (much to the frustration of the world’s media). Most people romanticised that he was blissfully unaware of all the fuss or just not that interested. These days, he’s constantly being stopped in the street and asked for autographs, so I asked him whether he enjoyed being famous:

Physics post-Higgs
With the discovery of the Higgs finally ticked off our to-do list, attention is turning to the next challenge: to find a new family of particles predicted by our current front-runner theory, called supersymmetry. Higgs would ‘like this theory to be right’ because it is the only way theorists have at the moment of incorporating the force of gravity into the grand scheme of things.

But what if the Large Hadron Collider doesn’t reveal any new particles? Will we have to build an even bigger machine that smashes subatomic particles together with ever-greater energy? In fact, Peter Higgs believes that the next big breakthrough may well come from a different direction altogether, for example by studying the behaviour of neutrinos, the elusive particles believed the be the most common in the Universe, which, as Higgs admits, “is not the sort of thing the Large Hadron Collider is good for”.

When it started up in 2008, physicists would not have dreamt of asking for anything bigger than the Large Hadron Colider. But today one hears serious talk of designing a machine that might one day succeed it. One candidate is the somewhat unimaginatively named Very Large Hadron Collider. Such a machine would dwarf the Large Hadron Collider. It would collide protons at seven times higher energy than the maximum the Large Hadron Collider is able to reach. And it would require a tunnel 100 km in circumference. Of course this is not the only proposal on the table and there are plenty of other ideas floating about – none of which come cheap, naturally.

There are certainly plenty more deep mysteries to solve, from the nature of dark matter and dark energy to where all the antimatter has gone, and we will undoubtedly find the answers (oh, the delicious arrogance of science). Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait as long as Peter Higgs did.

Keen to discover more? You can listen to Peter Higgs on BBC Radio 4′s The Life Scientific (first broadcast 9am on 18 February) and visit the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum until 5 May 2014. 

Anticipating Antimatter

Collider exhibition curator Dr. Harry Cliff blogs on Dirac’s discoveries and anticipating antimatter.

It was 86 years ago on Saturday that one of the most important scientific papers of the 20th century appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Written by the young British physicist Paul Dirac, it was simply titled A Quantum Theory of the Electron, and was nothing short of a theoretical triumph.

Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac. Image: Nobel Foundation

In it, Dirac had set out to solve a problem that was occupying some of the greatest minds in physics. To date, quantum mechanics had failed to explain the fine detail of atomic spectra – the discrete wavelengths of light emitted and absorbed as electrons hop between different energy levels in atoms. In particular the electron had to be given a strange property known as “spin” to explain the number of different energy levels.

Spin itself was a rather mysterious quantity. It suggested that that the electron behaved as if it was rotating rapidly on its axis, but a quick calculation showed that this couldn’t be true – the electron would have to be spinning faster than the cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, something forbidden by Einstein’s theory. It also had to be bolted on to quantum mechanics like a clumsy afterthought, without any explanation for its origin.

Dirac, for whom mathematical beauty in the laws of physics was almost a religious cause, was deeply dissatisfied with this awkward situation. He believed that the problem lay in combining the two pillars of modern physics, quantum mechanics (the theory of the very small) and relativity (the theory of the very fast).

He was after an equation describing the behaviour of electron that was consistent with both theories, and also explained the known properties of the electron. Rather surprisingly perhaps, the approach he took was to guess.

An educated guess mind, based on some properties he knew the correct equation must possess and also on his aesthetic desire for simplicity and beauty. Working methodically, he tried equation after equation, discarding them one by one until in late November 1927 he came upon a solution.

Dirac's equation

Dirac’s equation

The equation was perfect. Not only did it accurately reproduce the known energy levels of the hydrogen atom, the property of spin naturally appeared in the equation, without the need to be stuck on by hand afterwards. Spin itself now seemed to be an inevitable consequence of combining relativity and quantum mechanics.

St. John’s College, Cambridge, where Dirac discovered his famous equation.

St. John’s College, Cambridge, where Dirac discovered his famous equation. Image: Andrew Dunn

Dirac, though famously reserved, must have been jumping for joy (though perhaps only in his head). He had pulled off a coup so impressive that his German competitors, Jordan and Heisenberg were left stunned and deflated.

As news spread of Dirac’s success, the man himself was growing increasingly nervous about an odd feature of his equation, one that he had brushed under the carpet in his Royal Society paper.

The equation itself had four solutions, and each solution represented a state that the electron could be in. Two of these corresponded to the garden-variety electron with negative electric charge, but the other two described an electron with positive electric charge and negative energy.

This made no sense whatsoever. No one had ever seen a positively charged electron, and worse still, if these negative energy states existed then ordinary electrons should be able to fall into them, causing an electron to spontaneously switch its charge from negative to positive.

For all the success of the Dirac equation, these negative energy electrons could well have spelt its doom, and no-one was more acutely aware of this than Dirac himself. In fact, this “problem” turned out to be Dirac’s greatest contribution to physics.

It would take Dirac more than three years to understand the true meaning of this extra set of solutions. He had first thought that these negative energy, positively charged electrons might in fact be protons – the positively charged particles inside the atomic nucleus – but he soon realised that this would imply that protons should have the same mass as electrons, when in fact they are roughly 2000 times heavier.

What Dirac eventually reasoned was that these odd solutions actually represented a completely new type of particle, a sort of mirror image of the electron that he dubbed the “anti-electron”. Anti-electrons would look completely identical to ordinary electrons, but positively charged. He also reasoned that other particles like protons should also have anti-versions, and that when a particle met its anti-particle they would annihilate each other.

This must have seemed far-fetched at the time; after all, no one had ever seen an anti-particle. But Dirac was convinced by the beauty of his equation, and in one of the most stunning episodes in modern physics, was proven right just a year later, as Carl Anderson spotted an anti-electron in cosmic ray experiments.

It’s hard to overstate what Dirac had achieved. Through the power of sheer thought, he had predicted the existence of a completely new type of stuff, a stuff never before imagined by scientists. This stuff, what we now call antimatter, is just as real as the stuff you and I are made from, but for some reason doesn’t exist in large quantities in our Universe. This is in fact one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in physics, and one that physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are trying to solve.

Find out more about antimatter by watching this short video or by visiting the Collider exhibition before the 5th May 2014.

10 Bonkers Things About the World

We asked author and journalist Marcus Chown, who is speaking at this month’s Lates, to share his favourite science facts.

I’ve just published a book about how the world of the 21st century works. It’s about everything from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography. As I was writing it, I began to appreciate what an amazing world we live in – more incredible than anything we could possibly have invented – which is why I called my book What A Wonderful World. What better way to illustrate this than to list my Top 10 Bonkers Things About the World.

1. The crucial advantage humans had over Neanderthals was sewing

Human needles made from bone have been unearthed but never a Neanderthal needle. This has led to the speculation that the ability to sew baby clothes may have given human babies a crucial survival advantage during the cruel Ice Age winters.

2. You could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube

Sugar Cubes

Credit: Flickr/KJGarbutt

This is because atoms are 99.9999999999999% empty space. If you could squeeze all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the 7 billion people in the world, you could indeed fit them in the volume of a sugar cube.

3. Slime moulds have 13 sexes

No one knows why. But, then, nobody is sure why there is sex. The best bet, however, is that it evolved to outsmart parasites. Parents, by shuffling together their genes, continually create novel offspring to which parasites are not adapted.

4. You age more quickly on the top floor of a building than the ground floor

This is an effect of Einstein’s theory of gravity, which predicts that time flows more slowly in strong gravity. On the ground floor of a building, you are closer to the mass of the Earth so gravity is marginally stronger and time flows marginally more slowly (If you want to live longer – move to a bungalow!)

5. J. J. Thomson got the Nobel prize for showing that an electron is a particle. His son got it for showing that it isn’t

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The ultimate building blocks of matter – atoms, electrons and so on – have a strange dual nature, behaving simultaneously like tiny, localised billiard balls and spread-out waves. The truth is they are neither particles nor waves but something for which we have no word in our vocabulary and no analogy in the familiar, everyday world.

6. You are 95% alien

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies.

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

That’s right. 95% of the cells in your body do not belong to you. They are microorganisms hitching a ride. Many are essential like the gut bacteria that help you digest your food. You get all the alien microorganism only after you are born – from your mother’s milk and the environment. You are born 100% human but die 95% alien!

7.  Brains are so energy hungry most organisms on Earth do without them

Sections through the brain

Sections through the brain. Credit: Florilegius/SSPL

The best illustration of this comes from the juvenile sea squirt. It swims through the ocean looking for a rock to cling to and make its home. When it finds one, it no longer needs its brain so it… eats it!

8.  Babies are powered by rocket fuel

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Rockets combine liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen to make water. This liberates just about the most energy, pound for pound, of any common chemical reaction. Babies – and in fact all of us – do the same. We combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen stripped from our food. The energy liberated drives all the biological processes in our bodies.

9.  There was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes for 1.4 million years

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Palaeoanthropologists call it the ‘1.4 million years of boredom’. It could be of course that our ancestors made tools from wood, which decayed, or from bone, which are impossible to distinguish from natural bones. And, just because tools did not change, does not mean nothing was happening. All kinds of things that left no record may have been going on such as the taming of fire and the invention of language.

10. 98% of the Universe is invisible

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

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

Only 4 per cent of the mass of the Universe is made of atoms – the kind of stuff, you, me, the stars and planets are made of – and we have seen only half of that with our telescopes. 23% of the Universe is invisible, or “dark”, matter, whose existence we know of because it tugs with its gravity on the visible stuff. And 73% is dark energy, which is invisible, fills all of space and has repulsive gravity which is speeding up the expansion of the Universe. If you can find out what the dark matter or dark energy is, there is a Nobel prize waiting for you!

Find out more at this month’s Lates or in Marcus Chown’s book What A Wonderful World: One man’s attempt to explain the big stuff (Faber & Faber).

Kraftwerk Uncovered

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, uncovers Kraftwerk and the connections between music and technology ahead of a live performance at the Science Museum.

Music and technology are intimate companions. Every instrument is a machine that extends the human capacity to make music. It’s why the relationship between music and technology is of interest to the Science Museum, and why we are hosting Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24th January 2014.

The evening features two performances by Icebreaker of new work exploring the origins of Kraftwerk’s sound and their preoccupations with technologies of all kinds. Before Kraftwerk became the world’s most influential technopop outfit, they emerged from the improvisatory new music scene in Cold War Germany.

In stunning new realisations, the highly respected composer, producer and soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm has reimagined Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings, from albums that have long been deleted. These origins lie in the sixties and seventies – exactly the same period as Daphne Oram, Electronic Music Studios and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were creating their visions of electronic music in the UK, revealed in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition.

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

These performances incorporate a new video work by visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that explores the urban spaces of Kraftwerk’s origins. You can see a preview here.

But that’s not all. During the evening, you will also be able to enjoy the Balanescu Quartet’s wonderful re-workings of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine era technopop. These pieces, originally released on the album Possessed, reveal the music in a new, humorous light, picking-up on the dry wit of the originals.

The evening also features two talks: David Toop will explore how Kraftwerk’s music absorbed free jazz and soul, then refracted back into African-American music; with Richard Witts speaking on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik – Kraftwerk, Germany and England’, will investigate how Kraftwerk were received on their first tour of Britain in the 1970s.

Tickets for Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24 January 2014 can be bought online here

One small step away from our own planet – Chris Hadfield visits the Science Museum

Astronaut Chris Hadfield visited the Science Museum to share stories, sign books and explore our space technologies collections with Curator Doug Millard. Press Officer Will Stanley describes the afternoon with Commander Hadfield. 

Safely back on Earth after living aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield visited the Science Museum just before Christmas to share some of the extraordinary stories from his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

First selected as an astronaut in 1992, Chris has since served as CAPCOM for 25 Shuttle launches, Director of NASA Operations in Star City, Russia and as Chief of ISS Operations. Chris first flew into space in 1995, before returning in 2001 to help install Canadarm2 on the ISS. His final mission as an astronaut began in December 2012, culminating with his role as Commander of ISS Expedition 35.

During a tour of the Exploring Space gallery with Curator Doug Millard I asked what it felt like being an astronaut on board the ISS, ‘You are a representative of so many people’s hopes and dreams,’ Chris told me. ‘To be on board the ISS for five months is a gift of time.’

Commander Hadfield tours the Space gallery with curator Doug Millard (r)

Commander Hadfield tours the Space gallery with curator Doug Millard (r)

After pausing for photographs in front of the original Apollo 10 Command Module – which carried Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan back from the Moon in 1969 – the conversation turned to the future of space exploration. ‘The International Space Station currently is an extension of our self-awareness beyond Earth. One small step away from our own planet. The next logical step is to go the Moon. I am really hoping that within my lifetime we will start living on the Moon,’ explained Hadfield.

Commander Hadfield on his visit to the Science Museum.

Commander Hadfield on his visit to the Science Museum.

Arriving at the IMAX theatre, Chris shared stories from his new book and answered questions from the 400-strong audience about life as an astronaut, ‘My son sent me an email saying Mount Etna was erupting, so just like a dad on vacation I took a picture of Mount Etna.’

Some questions needed only a short answer, ‘Did I have a party when I can back to earth? Yes, several’ joked Chris. But others, such as describing a space walk, needed more explanation.

‘There’s a textured depth of darkness like you’ve never seen.  You are assaulted by the visual onslaught of this new place. I was stunned by the unexpected power of what was pouring in through my eyeballs’ explained Chris. ‘It would have been rude not to stop and look.’

Chris went on to describe how it felt with such a huge visual impact but no sound, ‘It’s like standing next to a waterfall and it being deadly silent.’

‘A spacewalk is one of the most powerful reminders of how alone you are. You are truly alone in the universe.’

Questions turned to what you do on the ISS in your spare time, ‘I wrote a whole album while up in space,’ answered Chris. He went on to discuss the human need to understand life through art, – from cave paintings in France to his own experiences recording the now famous Space Oddity video.

Many questions focused on our fascination with space and exploration. Chris said, ‘Space travel is nothing new. It’s a pattern we have been following for the last 70,000 years. There is a human necessity to leave home. That’s how we have spread across the whole planet. Each generation wants to see what’s beyond the horizon.’

The afternoon ended with questions about life as an astronaut. ‘Most of my time as an astronaut has been living on earth,’ explained Chris. ‘What you do in space may be entertaining, but it’s really not what matters. It’s life on earth that’s important.’

Did you join us for the book signing? Tell us more in the comments below. 

People’s Postcode Lottery

A guest blog from Kate Pearson, Deputy Head of Charities and Trusts Manager at People’s Postcode Lottery

Working at People’s Postcode Lottery in the charities team is busy, challenging and of course, rewarding!  We’re a charity lottery and we are proud to say that, along with our sister lotteries in Holland and Sweden, our players have contributed over €5.9 billion to charitable organisations across the world.

Our aim is to raise funds for good causes, with 22.5% of every £2 ticket going directly to charities – over the last five years players of People’s Postcode Lottery have raised over £33.2 Million. This year we are delighted to announce that, thanks to our players, the Science Museum Group will receive an incredible £200,000.

We are delighted that projects in London and Manchester will benefit from the funding. This will ensure that many people, including players, will be able to experience the wonderful exhibits on offer at the Science Museum in London and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

As funders of good causes, our commitment is to offer flexible funding that charities can use where they really need it, and we hope to be able to support the Science Museum Group on a long-term basis.

We are so excited to support the work of the Science Museum Group because we believe it’s important that people all across Great Britain can learn about the history and contemporary practice of science, medicine, technology, industry and media. The organisation is one of the most significant groups of museums of science and innovation worldwide, and we’re so glad to be able to award them this funding.

People's Postcode Lottery

JJ Thomson’s Cathode-ray tube

Rupert Cole celebrates JJ Thomson’s birthday with a look at one of the star objects in our Collider exhibition.

Holding the delicate glass cathode-ray tube in my hands, once used by the great physicist JJ Thomson, was an incredible treat, and an experience I will never forget.

I had read lots about Thomson’s famous experiments on the electron – the first subatomic particle to be discovered – but to actually see and touch his apparatus myself, to notice the blackened glass and the tube’s minute features that are omitted in books, brought the object to life. History suddenly seemed tangible.

Using more than one cathode-ray tube in 1897 for his experiments, Thomson managed to identify a particle 1,000 times smaller than the then known smallest piece of matter: a hydrogen atom. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where Thomson spent his scientific career, also has an original tube in its collection.

Each tube was custom-made by Thomson’s talented assistant, Ebenezer Everett, a self-taught glassblower. Everett made all of Thomson’s apparatus, and was responsible for operating it – in fact, he generally forbade Thomson from touching anything delicate on the grounds that he was “exceptionally helpless with his hands”.

The quality of Everett’s glassblowing was absolutely crucial for the experiments to work.

Cathode-rays are produced when an electric current is passed through a vacuum tube. Only when almost all the air has been removed to create a high vacuum – a state that would shatter ordinary glass vessels – can the rays travel the full length of the tube without bumping into air molecules.

Thomson was able to apply electric and magnetic fields to manipulate the rays, which eventually convinced the physics world that they were composed of tiny particles, electrons, opposed to waves in the now-rejected ether.

Find out more about Thomson and the story of the first subatomic particle here, or visit the Museum to see Thomson’s cathode-ray tube in the Collider exhibition. If you’re interested in the details of how Thomson and Everett conducted their experiments visit the Cavendish Lab’s outreach page here.