Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Costume design for The Energy Show

This summer, our IMAX theatre will be transformed into a steampunk world for ‘The Energy Show’. This theatre show for families explores the different forms of energy through some explosive experiments live on stage. It stars futuristic science students Annabella and Phil plus their lab assistant Bernard.

Science student Annabella. Credit: Janet Bird

Science student Annabella. Credit: Janet Bird

These initial sketches from designer Janet Bird demonstrate the distinctly steampunk feel to The Energy Show.


Science student Phil

Science student Phil. Credit: Janet Bird

Science Museum Live presents ‘The Energy Show’ at the Science Museum from 22 July – 31 August. You can find more information and tickets here

LHC. Camera. Action! (Part 2)

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about his recent filming trip to CERN for Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013. The first part can be read here

Day 2, Thursday

On the first day of the Collider exhibition team’s visit to CERN we had explored the architecture and interiors of the town-sized laboratory. Now it was time to enter its beating heart: the gigantic experiments probing the fundamental laws of the universe, and the people who make them a reality.

Our team now divided. Pippa, Finn and crew set off to the far side of the 27km LHC ring to Point 5, home of the enormous Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment. 100 metres underground, 25 metres long, 15 metres high, weighing in at 12,500 tonnes and containing enough iron to build two Eiffel Towers, CMS is one of the four huge detectors that record the particle collisions produced by the Large Hadron Collider. It is also a remarkable sight, beautiful even, its concentric layers giving it the appearance of a gigantic cybernetic eye. One member of the team said it was the most incredible thing he had ever seen, with only the Pantheon in Rome coming close to matching it.

The enormous Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment. Credit: CERN.

The enormous Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment. Credit: CERN.

CMS was photographed from every angle so that it can be recreated in a 360 immersive projection for the Collider exhibition. The CMS team were incredibly accommodating in allowing us to get our cameras as close to CMS as possible, all while they carried out vital work on the detector. We owe particular thanks to the boundlessly energetic Michael Hoch who looked after us for the day and made it all possible.

Meanwhile, 13km around the ring, in a less spectacular CERN office, our radio producer and I carried out audio interviews of LHC physicists and engineers. Each of them sharing what makes them tick as scientists and inventors. One even surprised us by dismissing the discovery of the Higgs boson as “boring”; what drives him as a scientist is seeking answers to new questions. For him the Higgs threatens to be a dead-end on the journey of discovery, rather than opening up new avenues of inquiry. Over the course of the day we interviewed five members of CERN’s international community, drawn from across Europe, representing a diverse cross section of CERN’s most important asset, its people.

Day 3, Friday

The last day might have been the most challenging. The team assembled at CERN’s custom-built TV studio to film interviews with LHC engineers against a green screen. These are the people who build and operate CERN’s experiments and they will appear as full-body projections in the exhibition, as if museum visitors have wandered into the LHC tunnel to be met by a friendly member of staff. Over dinner the night before we had shared anxieties as to how it might go. Video, unlike audio, can’t be edited to remove fumbled words or long pauses – our interviewees would have to deliver near-perfect speeches, and none of them had ever done anything like this before. In fact, neither had any of us.

Our concerns were unfounded. The engineers were naturals and by the end of the day we had recorded some brilliant interviews that should really help bring CERN to life for the visitors to the exhibition.

We returned to London that evening, exhausted but carrying a huge amount of material, covering almost every aspect of the Large Hadron Collider. For the first time I really have a sense of what this Collider exhibition will become; it’s going to be quite something to see it take shape over the next five months. If you can’t make it to Geneva to see the LHC in person, you’ll find a healthy slice of the world’s greatest experiment at South Kensington this November. 

From Patches to Peake – celebrating 44 years since the Apollo 10 mission

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering, writes about Apollo 10 and four decades of space exploration.

Forty four years ago today, on 26th May 1969, NASA’s Apollo 10 command module and crew of three splashed into the Pacific Ocean after eight days in space. The mission, a dry run for Apollo 11, returned valuable information about our nearest cosmic neighbour ahead of the Moon landing later that year.

The team of three astronauts - Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan - returned with the most impressive images of the Moon surface ever seen. Thomas Stafford described the surface as “very smooth, like wet clay”. Two months later the Apollo 10 mission proved its worth as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan

Apollo 10 command module. Image Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Apart from the giant Apollo 10 command module on display in our Making the Modern World gallery (the only one outside of the United States), we have smaller, yet just as significant, objects from the Apollo 10 mission in our collection, including mission patches.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts.

Apollo 10 mission patch, worn on the garments of astronauts. Image credit: Science Museum

Mission patches have been an important part of the military long before humans were sent in space. Many of the first astronauts started their lives as pilots of planes not spacecraft. With this background the tradition to wear specially designed patches became, though not smoothly, a custom of NASA missions. Interestingly the astronauts are heavily involved in the design of their mission patches and the Apollo 10 mission was no different. Gene Cernan explained that his team, with the help of artist Allen Stevens, wanted a badge which showed the mechanics and goals of their mission. They decided on a patch in the shape of a shield with the mission number written in Roman numerals stretching from the Moon to their space capsule orbiting above.  The name of the mission and the astronauts are clearly visible around the edge of the shield.

Each culture has used space mission patches in its own way.  In 1963 the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova blasted into space in the spacecraft Vostok 6.  Not only did she became the first woman in space but she is also considered the first cosmonaut to wear a mission patch, two years before the US officially introduced them into their space programme. Tereshkova’s insignia was a white dove with the letters CCCD stitched below. We now have another patch to look forward to seeing, that of Tim Peake, who was announced as the UK’s first official astronaut last week at the Science Museum.

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

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

Peake will be launching into space in November 2015 to spend six months on the International Space Station (ISS). Although his mission may be different to that of Valentina Tereshkova and the crew of the Apollo 10, Peake is not unlike space explorers of yesteryear as he will be continuing to push the boundaries of human endurance and explore the unknowns of space.

LHC. Camera. Action! (part 1)

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about his work on Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013.

In the past year, I’ve become a regular passenger on the evening flight from Gatwick to Geneva, home of CERN and the mighty Large Hadron Collider.  I think I could recite Easyjet’s pre-recorded safety announcement pretty much word-for-word if pushed. But this was a rather special trip, as I was visiting CERN perhaps for the last time on museum business.

I was accompanied by a team with a dazzling array of skills. Creative mastermind Pippa Nissen had marshalled exhibition designersgraphic designers, a sound artist, an animator, a camera technician and a radio producer. Not to mention our video designer, Finn Ross, fresh from his win at the Olivier Awards, and the inevitable after-party hangover. And me, a quantum superposition of particle physicist, curator and travel rep.

Our mission was to capture the essence of CERN so that it can be (almost literally) recreated in the Science Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Collider. All this material was to be gathered in just three days, using only cameras, microphones and the minds of our design team.

Day 1, Wednesday

One does not simply walk into CERN. Its gates are guarded by unfailingly helpful, though rather formidable, security personnel and to gain access you must produce a CERN ID card or a visitor pass.

CERN security gate.

CERN security gate. Image credit: Science Museum

We had rather brilliantly chosen the 1st of May as our day to arrive, a national holiday in Switzerland, meaning the reception where we would normally collect our passes was closed. I had arranged for them to be left with the security guard at the main gate, but conveying this to him proved a challenge in my halting GCSE French. Finally, with a bit of gesticulating and some help from our more linguistically capable graphic designer, we located the passes and stepped across the threshold into the world’s largest physics laboratory.

CERN is the size of a medium-sized town, spread across several sites, the largest of which straddles the border between the Swiss suburb of Meyrin and the French village of St-Genis-Pouilly. The lab grew up organically from its beginnings in the 1950s and is a peculiar hodgepodge of office buildings, warehouses and laboratories. CERN’s rather shabby above ground stands in stark contrast to the shining machines that inhabit its subterranean spaces. As far as is possible, the money goes underground, spent on CERN’s reason for being: exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world.

Our job on day one, however, was to explore CERN’s above ground world. The first few hours were spent photographing the exteriors of buildings to act as backdrops in the exhibition. There was a particular warehouse door, in varying shades of rust and faded blue, that really caught the team’s attention. It will take me a while to forget the image of the design team gathered around it while Finn took high-res shots with his £20k camera. That’s designers for you I suppose.

The long beige corridors of CERN's Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

The long beige corridors of CERN’s Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

Then we ventured into the star of the show, the enigmatic Building 2, a 1970s block that houses a large number of institute offices. Along its long beige corridors you find offices of universities from all over the world, including the room where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and my own home-away-from-home, the Cambridge LHCb office. We spent a happy afternoon photographing the office doors, each with their own personal details that do more than any museum text panel could in getting across just how international a place CERN is. We owe a particular debt of thanks to a PhD student from Bristol, in on a holiday to work on her thesis, who obligingly allowed us barge into her office to take photographs.

Meanwhile our sound designer was busily recording the soundscape of CERN from the clanging of doors and the echo of footsteps on lino to the hum of electrical equipment. Once we had recorded enough material to rebuild Building 2 in its entirety should any calamity befall it, we made a brisk trip around nearby parts of the lab, taking in the main auditorium where the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced to the world, and a series of labs and warehouses including the LEIR accelerator ring, the machine responsible producing beams of lead ions for our muse, the Large Hadron Collider.

But after all that, we had only scratched the surface of the sprawling laboratory. The next day it would be time to go underground…

The Dambusters, Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb

Seventy years ago, in the early hours of the 17th May 1943, 8 Lancaster bombers flew back to RAF Scampton and into the history books as part of the daring Dambusters raid. The 617 squadron, formed only two months earlier, had successfully destroyed two dams (Mohne and Eder), and damaged a third (Sorpe) using the ingenius invention of Barnes Wallis – a four tonne bouncing bomb.

Shortly before he died, Wallis donated the bulk of his papers to the Science Museum, including design notes, photographs, correspondence and reports relating to his work. We’ve picked out a few images below to tell the story of the bouncing bomb.

Taken from Wallis' report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Taken from Wallis’ report on the proposed method of attaching dams. The diagram shows the path of the Spherical Surface Torpedo (bouncing bomb) . Image credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even before the war begin, the UK Government had identified the three German dams as potential targets, but had no suitable weapons to launch an attack. Wallis’ idea is simple to explain, but was far more complex to put into action: bounce a 4 tonne rotating bomb across 400m of water until it hits the dam, sinks and explodes.

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Equipment used to hold and spin the bouncing bombs. Image: BAE Systems/SSPL

Bouncing bombs allowed Wallis to completely avoid the torpedo nets protecting the dam. However, to get the bounce just right, the Lancaster bombers needed to approach the dams flying just 20m above the water while traveling at 230mph (more on how this was done can be read here).

At exactly 389 metres from the dam wall – calculated by triangulating with the dam’s towers – the bombs were released. Wallis calculated that backspin would stabilise the bombs in ‘flight’, help create the bounce and forced the bomb to cling to the face of the dam once it sank.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis.

Bouncing bomb trials. Film stills signed by Barnes Wallis. Credit: BAE Systems/SSPL

Even with practice runs, it took many attempts to bounce the bombs correctly, and trials with live ammunition were only conducted three days before the raids. To this day, the skill and bravery of the 617 squadron (113 men in total), who flew low over enemy territory under the cover of darkness, remains breathtaking.  

After the war, Wallis continued his work on aircraft design (before WWII he was a pioneer of geodetic design, used to build the largest airship of its time, the R100), designing “swing wing” aircraft suited to hypersonic flight. 

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model

Barnes Wallis with his hypersonic aircraft model. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Our Senior Keeper, Andrew Nahum, was recently interviewed about Barnes Wallis, his bouncing bomb and other work. The full interview can be read here.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Guest post by author Tony White, who writes about his new novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, the Science Museum’s 2013 Atmosphere commission. Download the novel here.

I’m really excited that the moment you turn the corner from the lifts on the 2nd floor of the Science Museum you get a clear view right across the Atmosphere Gallery to a large logo on the opposite wall, twenty-feet high, which seems to be melting or dripping down the wall but which still recognisably spells out the words ‘Shackleton’s Man Goes South’. This is the title of my novel which has just been published by the Science Museum, the first novel that the Museum have ever published!

Beneath this large wall graphic you will find a touch screen where you can email yourself a free ebook of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, and there is a special display showing some of the scientific and literary inspirations behind the novel. (Listen to an audio extract. Download the novel here until 24 July.)

Shackleton's Man Goes South

Shackleton’s Man Goes South display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image: Science Museum

The novel was inspired by two things: a science fiction short story warning of climate change that was written on Antarctica in 1911 by a polar explorer and atmospheric scientist called George Clarke Simpson, and secondly by silent black and white film of Antarctica, shot during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic expedition of 1914-16; the first moving images of Antarctica that most people at the time had ever seen.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson. Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

My novel fuses these ideas to tell a new story about Emily and her daughter Jenny, climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it as Shackleton had done, in a hot world rather than a cold one, but a world in which the Shackleton story has become a founding myth of the new continent, much as the story of Christopher Columbus gave symbolic value to historical migration to the United States of America.

I wanted to try and communicate some of these ideas in the Shackleton’s Man Goes South logo, so I approached leading British designer Jake Tilson, who is well known for his work with the likes of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and many others.

Shackleton's Man book cover

Shackleton’s Man book cover

In our early conversations Jake and I both wanted to relate the logo to polar-themed books and films of the Shackleton era, so he created an Art Nouveau-style typeface and used this to spell out the title of the novel, before using computer software to ‘morph’ the lettering, as if it were melting and dripping down the page: ‘going south’ as the title suggests. Normally one associates the name of Shackleton with snow and ice, with cold colours such as pale blues or white, but we wanted to  reflect the kind of colouring that is used on maps to communicate global temperature increases. Our logo is spelt out in bold yellow, and as it melts the logo changes subtly to a warmer orange.

Jake Tilson’s logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South is a crucial part of the designs for both the novel and the Atmosphere Gallery display. It has been a huge privilege to work with a great British designer like Jake Tilson. I hope that his melting logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South will intrigue Science Museum visitors, as well as giving some clues about my book and the story it contains.

A Great Exhibition

Harriet Lamb, Senior Individual Giving Executive in our Development team, writes about the history of the 1851 Great Exhibition. 

Early May marks the anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and therefore the origins of both the Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum). 100,000 objects from art to machinery, from all over the world were on display in an enormous purpose built glass structure –  so big that it arched over two of the trees in Hyde Park. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

In five and a half months, over six million people visited the exhibition from across the nation to satisfy their interest in the latest innovations and technological and manufacturing marvels of the 1850s.

There was initial concern about the cost of the Great Exhibition and building its giant glass structure, but to everyone’s surprise the exhibition made a profit of £168,000. That’s over £16m in today’s money! This money was put to good use, and following on from the phenomenal success of the Great Exhibition part of the profit was used to set up the South Kensington Museum (pictured below).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum). Image: Science Museum / SSPL

This museum housed art and science objects in new buildings on a road named after the success of 1851 – Exhibition Road. The collections grew so large that by 1893 both the science and arts collections had their own directors, with the Science Museum officially opening in 1909.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

It’s amazing to think that an exhibition visited by millions of people more than a century and a half ago is part of the reason the museum is here today. Last year, our 3 million visitors generously donated almost £1m to help us continue bringing the history and future of science to life. If you’d like to support us, find out more here or speak to a member of staff next time you visit.

Strange objects give a feel for the origins of X-ray crystallography

A guest post by Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College.

The things and objects of history are important because they provide a tangible connection to the past. Seeing, or better yet holding and touching, the stuff that generations now dead made and worked with enlivens history, shucking us from the present and its endless clamour for our attention.

The Hidden Structures exhibition at the Science Museum trips us into the history of X-ray crystallography with a small but intriguing display of objects from the 1940s through to the 1970s. The exhibition commemorates the centenary of the development of the technique, by the father and son team of William and Lawrence Bragg who figured out how the scattering of X-rays by crystals could be analysed to reveal the atomic and molecular arrangements within, providing a vista of the structure of matter that had never been seen before.

The Braggs first applied the technique in 1913 to show how the patterns of X-rays diffracted onto photographic plates by table salt — sodium chloride — could be interpreted to reveal the organisation of the two atoms within its crystals. It was apparent from the beginning that the method was applicable to anything that could be induced to crystallise, even the most complex molecules of chemistry and biology. Soon structures composed of tens or hundreds or even thousands of atoms were emerging from UK labs, which established itself at the forefront of the technique thanks in no small part to the inspirational leadership of the younger Bragg.

Hidden Structures 1The first protein structures; left to right — myoglobin, perspex stack of electron density, haemoglobin

The artefacts in the Hidden Structures display come mainly from the first bloom of chemical and biological crystallography; there is Dorothy Hodgkin’s ball-and-stick model of penicillin, John Kendrew’s wormy brown representation of the oxygen-storage protein, myoglobin, Max Perutz’s black and white slabbed structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen-transporter from human blood, and in pride of place, Hodgkin’s huge model of the atomic structure of insulin.

These scientists had to be very hands-on at all stages of their work — growing crystals, carefully measuring X-ray diffraction patterns recorded on photographs, and printing out the electron density maps produced by their analysis. These three-dimensional maps (there is one for haemoglobin in the display, printed in sections on stacked sheets of perspex) show where the electrons are concentrated, so defining the positions of the atoms. The early models simply depict the contours of these maps and give the overall form of the protein molecule. Coming some years after X-rays had unveiled the elegant double-helix of DNA, their crude irregularity was at first a disappointment: “hideous and visceral” wrote Perutz.

But the resolving power of X-rays soon improved and those early crystallographers had to swap plastic and plasticene for intricate assemblies of rods, each representing a bond between two atoms, that were put together with loving attention to detail. Hodgkin’s insulin model from the early 1960s may not be beautiful, but it is mesmerising — and hugely informative.

Hidden Structures 2Hodgkin’s atomic structures: left, insulin; right, penicillin.

X-ray crystallography continues apace. Thousands of protein structures have been solved, providing a detailed understanding of the workings of biology at the molecular level. We see clearly now not just how hormones like insulin work, or how haemoglobin picks up and drops off its cargo of oxygen, but also how DNA is synthesised and decoded, how ion channels enable the transmission of nerve signals, how the immune system fights off infection. No pharmaceutical company works blind in the 21st Century; all use X-ray crystallography to reveal the molecular targets of therapy, whether from a virus or bacteria or a cancerous cell, as part of the quest for new drugs and vaccines.

But all the work of recording and analysing data and building models has now migrated to computers. For sure this has greatly accelerated the pace of research and discovery, but there are no more photographs or stacks of electron density or models made of stuff for future generations to pick up and wonder at. All the more reason therefore to cherish the crystallographic arcana on show at the Science Museum.

Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College. He writes regularly about science at the Reciprocal Space and Occam’s Corner blogs.

Recruiting for Research

We are designing a new App for visitors to the Museum and we need your help.

The Museum is looking for participants to help us create content and design a new way for visitors to engage with the objects on display in the museum. You would need to be able to travel to the Science Museum in London for two or three activities in May, where you would get to see behind the scenes at the museum and explore an early prototype of the app, directly contributing to its development.

You don’t need to know anything about app development to take part, as we are just looking for people that are interested in visiting Museums and using mobile technology.

We welcome interest from all sections of the community, and will endeavour to meet any accessibility needs that you may have. The activities will be arranged at a time to suit your schedule, which could even be evenings or weekend, and you will receive a thank you for your time.

If you think you might be interested in getting involved, or have any questions, please get in touch with Jane Rayner ( for more information by May 6th.

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Fuelling Prosperity

A guest blog post by Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Director Programmes and Fellowship, Royal Academy of Engineering on science and its impact on the UK economy.

The UK has a proud track record of research excellence. We are responsible for 14 of the top 100 medicines in use today (second only to the USA) and have developed technology found in 95% of the world’s mobile phones. Thanks to previous sustained investment we have the most productive research base of the world’s leading economies and our researchers have claimed over 90 Nobel Prizes.

The recent Great British Innovation Vote showed the impact and diversity of our achievements over the last century – and many exciting new developments just opening up, from ionic liquids and graphene to hypersonic planes and quantum dots.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency. Image credit: Nanoco Industries Ltd.

Many of the great challenges that we face – like food security, climate change, energy security and the impacts of ageing – require expertise and collaboration right across the humanities, social, engineering, physical, medical, chemical, biological and mathematical sciences. Responding to climate change, for example, requires an understanding of both the scientific evidence and the engineering approaches to tackle it plus the socioeconomic effects and how they interact.

So efficient is our research system that it achieves world-leading results despite the government spending less on research than our competitors do. The UK government spent just 0.57% of GDP on research and development in 2011, in comparison to 0.85% in Germany and 0.92% in the USA.

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard conducting research and testing on the first British-designed Jet engine

This week the UK’s four national academies – the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society – are together asking the government not to take this success for granted. Fuelling Prosperity explains why continued investment in R&D is essential to rebalancing the UK economy. Listen here to an interview with Sir Paul Nurse on this report. 

The Academies wish to see a stable 10 year investment framework for research, innovation and skills, which should sit at the heart of its emerging industrial strategy and plans for growth.

The science budget is essential to the future economic development of the country and it should continue to be ringfenced to ensure that our highly efficient research system is well resourced. Science, research and engineering should continue to inform policy making across Whitehall.

The Academies want the UK to provide a world class research and innovation environment that is attractive to talent and investment from industry and from overseas and that inspires and supports the next generation of researchers.