Category Archives: Climate Changing

In Conversation with James Lovelock

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

To celebrate the opening of Unlocking Lovelock, our new exhibition on James Lovelock, 94, we were treated to a special audience with the great man himself (listen below to the full conversation), as he joined Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, to discuss his career and  his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane).

Lovelock began by talking about his early visits to the Science Museum at the age of 6 and how his passion for science was inspired by his childhood love of steam engines, notably the one developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and the Flying Scotsman. He said that learning about science at the Science Museum was far more useful than learning in the classroom.

The conversation moved onto his early career at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill as he talked about his work on developing cures for burns during World War II, and how he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits.

He talked about how this work brought him into contact with Stephen Hawking’s father Frank, and the moment he held the infant Hawking in his arms.

Lovelock discussed his next career move to work in Houston for NASA, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating instruments,‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets. After three years, this paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK.

When asked whether he sees any scope for anyone succeeding as a lone scientist, he explained how much easier it was to work as an independent scientist years ago when there was less competition due to an overall lack of scientists in the UK at the time. He remains suspicious of committee and consensus led science.

Describing himself as ‘half a scientist, half an inventor’ he explained to the audience that invention is driven by necessity.

This process is ‘largely intuitive’, he said, and ‘the main advances in the world have not been driven by science, but by invention.’

The conversation moved from his work ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave to the importance of his electron capture detector, ECD, a remarkably sensitive instrument to detect trace amounts of chemicals, and gas chromatography equipment (featured in the exhibition). He talked about his home laboratory at Clovers Cottage where a lot of his experiments took place. The laboratory had a “Danger Radioactivity!” sign used to deter burglars.

The ECD helped hone his thinking about Gaia, a holistic view of the world, where all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment to form a complex system that can be thought of as a single super-organism.

Roger Highfield and Jim Lovelock then looked at the origins of his Gaia hypothesis, how his friend, novelist William Golding came up with the catchy title, his work on the theory with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the opposition Gaia faced in the early days, notably from Richard Dawkins, and his Daisyworld computer model.

Later, when asked by an audience member to defend the theory against the opposing view by someone like David Attenborough, Lovelock replied that ‘To fight for Gaia is worth it’.

You can discover more about the Unlocking Lovelock exhibition in Nature, the Guardian or by watching our exhibition trailer.

Where’s that huge iceberg headed?

Corrinne Burns blogs on ADIOS, a GPS enabled javelin which helps tracks icebergs. You can see ADIOS on display in the Museum’s contemporary science gallery.    

Why would you put a GPS tracker onto a glacier? These positioning devices are more commonly associated with cars. It’s not like glaciers are in any danger of getting lost – or of ending up in a field of bemused cows, for that matter.

Actually, there’s good reason why scientists track the movement of ice. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the biggest unknown when it comes to predicting sea level change.

An iceberg breaking away. Credit: NASA

An iceberg breaking away. Credit: NASA

Glaciers move – we all know that. It’s natural. But as the ocean temperature rises, glaciers move at an increased rate. That’s because melting, triggered by the warming sea, causes the ice streams within the glacier to flow faster and faster.

And of course, as glaciers melt, the global sea level rises.

So this “flow velocity”, as glaciologists call is, can be used as a way to track rising sea levels. That’s why it’s so important to track the movement of glacial ice streams.

Hilmar Gudmundsson works at the British Antarctic Survey, keeping an eye on ice dynamics. He’s been putting GPS trackers onto glaciers for a while now. Traditionally, a helicopter lands a crew onto the glacial surface, and then they walk across the frostbitten landscape, implanting trackers as they go.

But Hilmar knows how dangerous walking on ice can be – deep crevasses await the unwary. So he helped to invent a rather unusual way to deploy such trackers, so that no human need even set foot on the ice.

The solution was ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. ADIOS is, essentially, a GPS tracker embedded within a 2.5-metre long javelin, designed to be dropped from an aircraft flying a few hundred metres above the ice. One such ADIOS device is currently on display in the Museum’s Antenna gallery.

ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

ADIOS takes inspiration from technology originating from World War Two – the sonobuoy. These were floating sonar transducers, deployed by aircraft into the ocean to listen out for warships. Hilmar and colleagues adapted this wartime concept for the 21st century Antarctic – but glaciers do present some challenges that water does not.

For one, the electronics needed to survive the impact on hard ice – a polyethylene cushion and a spring help to protect them from impact forces of up to 1200G, and a parachute slows and stabilises ADIOS’ descent. You also need to consider the effects of snowfall – anything placed on the surface is likely to be covered in snowdrifts pretty quickly.

Those considerations led to the long, aerodynamic javelin-like design.

The GPS tracker itself is positioned towards the sharp nosecone-end of ADIOS, and, after landing, sits below the surface of the ice. It transmits through an antenna situated at the opposite end of the javelin – which, thanks to four “snow brakes”, remains above the snow surface. It is so long that it can remain uncovered even following thick snowfall, transmitting for up to two years.

Hilmar’s interested in part of Antarctica called the Pine Island Glacier, or PIG. His team deployed 37 ADIOS sensors onto the glacier in January of last year. PIG is significant because of all the icy regions on Earth, this glacier is showing the biggest changes in ice movement and thickness, so we need to keep an eye on it. “We can already see that the rate of ice flow is increasing, since we deployed those units,” says Hilmar.

Even more dramatically, a few months ago a 700 square km bit of PIG broke off, forming a massive rogue iceberg that is now further fragmenting and drifting towards shipping lanes. Two ADIOS’ sit on that rogue berg – not by coincidence. “We knew that this ice was breaking away from PIG – that’s why we put two ADIOS units on it,” says Hilmar. As the rogue iceberg has broken apart further, those units now sit on two different fragments – and are still sending back live data about position.

So, as well as telling us about glacial melt, ADIOS units can be used to track the movements of icebergs heading for shipping lanes. Will we see more air-deployed GPS trackers on icebergs around the world, then? “This is now tried-and-tested technology. There’s a lot of interested from other researchers, and we’ll let them use the design,” says Hilmar. “And for me – I’m relieved that it works!”

You can find out more about ADIOS, in the Science Museum’s contemporary science gallery from now until April 10, 2014. 

World must adapt to climate change, says IPCC

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The world is ill prepared for an unknown climate future and must adapt to meet the challenges, according to a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Yokohama, Japan. You can read the press summary of the UN agency’s report here and the full report here, written by 309 authors and editors drawn from 70 countries.

Today’s report, which focuses on how there will be sweeping consequences to life and livelihood, and how to adapt to them, is the second of three in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate change.

The first instalment, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change.  The third, on how to cut emissions that drive climate change, comes out in April.

At the Science Museum, you can keep up to date with the issues surrounding climate change through a series of exhibitions, artworks and educational activities. Our interactive Atmosphere gallery, encourages visitors to learn about the work of early pioneers such as John Tyndall, uncover the secrets of ice cores and stalagmites, and wonder at the latest ideas for a low-carbon life. You can also play a climate themed computer game called Rizk.

To see how fiction has been inspired by climate change, download the Museum’s first novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White. You can also discover the beauty, value and volume of ‘rubbish’ we produce in an upcoming exhibition, The Rubbish Collection – which will trace the journey of waste generated by staff and visitors to the Museum over a 30 day period.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

Next week we will celebrate the life and 70 year career of James Lovelock – one of Britain’s most important living scientists, with an exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. The exhibition will feature highlights from a remarkable archive of images, manuscripts and audio-visual material acquired by the Museum in 2012 – providing visitors with a glimpse into life in Lovelock’s laboratory and his creative mind and charismatic personality.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will publish a report on the public understanding of climate change later this week after holding a hearing in the Museum last year.

Reflections on the latest climate change report

Howard Covington and Prof. Chris Rapley reflect on the latest climate change report.

In 2010, the Science Museum opened atmosphere, a gallery exploring climate science. Three years on and the Museum is a partner in a commercial venture to build the UK’s largest solar farm on a disused airfield it owns near Swindon. The project will eventually generate 40mw of electricity, enough for 12,000 homes.

Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

Here in microcosm is what is taking place in countries around the world as our understanding of the threat of climate change deepens and slowly prompts action to transform the energy infrastructure on which we rely. Are the many piecemeal actions of this kind enough to leave us feeling confident?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently confirmed the likely consequences of continuing to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As a global community, we are about as well informed on climate science as we might hope to be. But the uncertainties that surround climate change still leave us guessing where things are likely to come out.

There are three big uncertainties. The first is how fast humanity will cut carbon emissions. For the moment, we are on track to double atmospheric carbon dioxide by some point in the second half of the century. The second is how the climate will respond. A widely used indicator is the change in global average surface temperature when carbon dioxide concentration doubles. The best estimate is in the range 1.5 to 4.5 degrees centigrade. The third uncertainty is the impact of such a change on future human wellbeing and the material damages it might cause.

In the absence of stronger action than is currently evident there is a finite risk that we could hit 4 degrees of warming in the second half of the century, with the possibility of amplifying feedbacks locking in further temperature increasing processes over which we would have no control. The resulting climate changes would play out over centuries and millennia, producing permanent climate instabilities and shifts not experienced over human history.

Risk could be reduced by policy changes among the principal emitters. By far the simplest action would be an agreed price for carbon emissions to accelerate the piecemeal transformation of energy infrastructure already underway. We might also get lucky if it turns out that the response of the climate to emissions lies at the lower end of the range. We should know where we stand in the next few decades. Meanwhile we might reasonably spend a moment on the implications of a 4 degree world.

Here we are again beset with uncertainty. We don’t know with precision how fast polar ice sheets will disintegrate and sea level will rise. Nor do we know how climatic zones may shift or how higher average temperatures and rainfall will combine with more frequent weather extremes and changing weather patterns to disrupt water supplies and agriculture.

The pattern of cereal production could be significantly affected. Cereal demand may double by 2050 in response to population increases and changes in food preferences. This demand might be met by improved technology and waste elimination. Weather extremes and instability at 4 degrees may cut crop yields significantly, creating a further gap to be filled, perhaps by genetically improved robustness and the cultivation of newly productive northern lands.

Geo-engineering might provide a temporary window of opportunity for a crash programme to decarbonise economies and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, although with a substantial risk of unintended and unwelcome consequences. On the other hand we might have to cope with disruption triggered by populations seeking to move from areas rendered inhospitable by inundations, floods, drought, extreme temperatures, fires and local shortages of food and water.

How all of this will play out is clearly impossible to say. Optimists believe that with luck, free markets and technological ingenuity we could rise to a 4 degree challenge if we can’t avoid it altogether. Pessimists argue that 4 degrees is beyond adaptation and may lead to a period of dislocation. Either way our lives are likely to be transformed in the next few decades as we thoughtfully re-engineer food and energy production and relocate climate migrants or rather more chaotically seek to respond to the multiple pressures of population growth, energy needs and climate disruption.

The UK is relatively small, open and unprotected and may not do well in the face of climate disruption. On the other hand it is highly creative and nurtures much scientific and technological talent. Its leading universities are rich in individuals and teams who understand the technologies of a low carbon future. It has an opportunity to lead an industrial revolution that is poised to happen. The case for maximising long-term value and reducing risk by seizing this opportunity is powerful.

Preventing dangerous climate change is principally a matter for the world’s largest emitters. The UK, however, has set an example by adopting tough emissions targets and by using its international influence and scientific strength for the good. It should continue to advance policies that spur a new industrial revolution from which it could benefit greatly, while heading off a climate transition that it may struggle to cope with.

The Science Museum is one of the world’s finest institutions in which to explore the history of science and technology. It is greatly to its credit that it is not only informing its visitors about the climate challenges ahead but also playing its part in dealing with them.

Howard Covington is a trustee of the Science Museum. Chris Rapley is Professor of Climate Science at University College London and a former director of the Science Museum.

From flash mobs to ‘eco’ picnics: celebrating Climate Science Outreach

Dani Williams, Project Co-ordinator for the Climate Science Outreach Project, reflects on the success of the three year project as it draws to a close.

How do you engage teenagers in climate change? This was our challenge when we launched the Climate Science Outreach Project – a three year project run by the museum in partnership with the National Railway Museum in York, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, At-Bristol science centre and the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

Students from Beech House School, Rochdale with their artwork - The Whole World in Their Hands. Image credits: Science Museum

Students from Beech House School, Rochdale with their artwork – The Whole World in Their Hands. Image credits: Science Museum

The nationwide project was designed to inspire 13-14 year olds on the subject of climate change by equipping them with the skills to become climate ambassadors in their schools and communities. During each year of the project, schools were set a different challenge – allowing students to explore aspects of climate change on which they felt enthusiastic.

An artwork by Marple Hall School, Cheshire entitled The Last Tree. Image credits: Science Museum

An artwork by Marple Hall School, Cheshire entitled The Last Tree. Image credits: Science Museum

At the end of each year, the Science Museum turned the students’ finished work into a public exhibition or product, giving students an enormous sense of pride in their own achievements.

In year one, students were asked to create their own pieces of Sci-art on a climate change theme. Among the incredible artworks were a giant hand showing the five countries contributing the most towards carbon emissions and a homeless polar pear begging on the streets. The project was turned into a photographic exhibition which toured at each of the partner museums.

Homeless - an artwork of a polar bear created by Sale Grammar School, Manchester. Image credits: Science Museum

Homeless – an artwork of a polar bear created by Sale Grammar School, Manchester. Image credits: Science Museum

In year two, students from 50 schools across the country became science journalists, investigating and reporting on climate change stories affecting their communities. The result was a fascinating range of stories covering everything from community recycling initiatives to the use of sheep poo as a future energy source. The students’ stories were published in ATMOS – a special magazine for the project.

Students at the National Railway Museum see their articles in the ATMOS magazine. Image credits: Science Museum

Students at the National Railway Museum see their articles in the ATMOS magazine. Image credits: Science Museum

In the third and final year of the programme, students from 60 schools were set the challenge of organising and running a mass-participation event in their school or community to raise awareness of climate change.

Students from Shenley Brook End School with the results of their paintball workshop. Image credits: Science Museum

Students from Shenley Brook End School with the results of their paintball workshop. Image credits: Science Museum

Students were asked to submit proposals and bid for funding from the Science Museum. They were encouraged to think creatively and run unusual and exciting events that people might not ordinarily associate with science. The events included an endangered animal football match, recycled fashion shows, flash mobs and a cycle-powered cinema. Photographs from the events were displayed at a celebration party to mark the end of the project.

Students from Penryn School in polar bear masks for a performance in At-Bristol. Image credit: Science Museum

Students from Penryn School in polar bear masks for a performance in At-Bristol. Image credit: Science Museum

We are delighted with the results of the project. In addition to raising awareness of climate change, teachers have reported many additional benefits including increased confidence among the students, a greater interest in science and improved literacy.

Westminster comes to the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about bringing Westminster to the Science Museum.

The Science Museum witnessed democracy in action this morning when it hosted a meeting of one of the committees used by the House of Commons to provide a means of impartial, systematic scrutiny of government.

Science and Technology Select Committee taking evidence at the Science Museum

Science and Technology Select Committee taking evidence at the Science Museum

The chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Andrew Miller MP, has held evidence sessions outside Westminster, notably in Sheffield for its “bridging the valley of death” inquiry into the commercialisation of research and one in Falmouth to take evidence for its inquiry into marine science, so more people can attend without the need to travel to London.

The Committee now wants to uncover what the public understand about climate, where they look for their information and how their understanding may impact policy.

Today Mr Miller and fellow MPs convened in the Atmosphere gallery of the museum – which has explained climate science to more than 1.7 million visitors since it opened in 2010 – to take evidence as part of its inquiry into Climate: Public understanding and policy implications.

‘This is a first,’ said Miller, referring to how the museum is an appropriate location for the inquiry, given its efforts to communicate climate science to a broad audience. The Science Museum has more than three million visitors each year, 37% which are children aged 15 or under.

Among the witnesses was former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley, now of University College London, and Dr Alex Burch, the museum’s Director of Learning.

‘For our visitors, this subject is complex, with an emotional element, and can be overwhelming,’ said Dr Burch.

Former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley, and Dr Alex Burch, Director of Learning giving evidence to the Select Committee

Former Science Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley (r), and Dr Alex Burch, Director of Learning (centre), giving evidence to the Select Committee

Dr Burch explained that ’Various lines of research, for instance at the museum, suggest that for many people climate change was something that happened elsewhere, to other people and in the future.’ 

The Atmosphere gallery, which has a carefully designed narrative, has been visited by leading figures, including Al Gore, the Chinese Ambassador, and a delegation of MPs from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Prof Rapley called the gallery ‘atmospheric’ and ‘unique’ and said it is aimed at everyone, not just the converted, so they can make up their own minds. ‘It is not the job of the museum to tell people what to think.’

In evaluation surveys, visitors described the gallery as ‘interesting’ (88% of surveyed visitors), ‘enjoyable’ (79%) and ‘educational’ (76%).

To accompany Atmosphere, the museum launched a three-year programme of schools outreach around climate science in 2010 with the National Railway Museum in York, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, At-Bristol science centre and the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Runcorn, which has engaged 3,193 secondary-school students with issues of climate science and its communication, notably through a magazine called Atmos.

The museum has also undertaken more unusual initiatives: an online education game about risk management, RIZK, which has been played 3.3m times since launch; A Cockroach Tour of the Science Museum, a participative art piece by Danish collective Superflex, where visitors explore the Museum and human history and society from the perspective of cockroaches; and Tony White’s e-novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. White was present at today’s hearing in the gallery, which features his book.

The museum’s qualitative research with adult visitors suggests that understanding of climate science is patchy and disconnected, findings backed by other research, such as a nationwide survey conducted a decade ago by the Economic and Social Research Council which showed, for example, that 44 per cent of the public believe (wrongly) that nuclear power directly contributes to climate change.

Research suggests that while the public generally trust scientists as a source of information about climate change, there is evidence that negative stereotypes of scientists (such as poor communication skills and remoteness) hamper direct public engagement with researchers.

Research indicates an important role for trusted institutions such as the Science Museum that occupy the interface between the scientific community and the public. ‘We are trusted by the public, and by scientists,’ said Dr Burch.

In recognition of hypocrisy as another potential barrier to trust among the public, the Museum undertook various measures during the development of Atmosphere, which include employing a Sustainability Consultant, and setting up a Working Group that reduced the organisation’s carbon footprint by 17% between 2009 and 2010.

The Science Museum Group’s new Hemcrete storage facility at its Wroughton site recently won a Museum and Heritage’s Sustainability award and the Best Workplace New Build category at the Greenbuild Awards.

The Group also aims to generate energy both for our own use, and to send it to the grid. An example of this is the proposed 40MW solar array at the Wroughton site which will provide electricity for around 12,000 homes.

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.

The Pavegen dance floor, used to generate electricity from movement

Climate Change Lates

The unpredictable British weather has had a big impact on our lives already this year. So, as we emerge from the April showers, what better theme for a Lates evening is there than the science of climate change?

Join us for a fun and thought-provoking evening where we take a closer look at the new technologies being pioneered to help solve some of the most pressing climate related issues that affect our daily lives.

How do we meet the demand of a growing population and the expansion of our cities? Ian Bowman, Head of Sustainability UK and NW Europe, Siemens looks at how new technology is the key to meeting these challenges and offers up solutions which have minimum ecological impact such as the use of wind power technology, electric vehicles and hybrid transport and more eco-friendly healthcare systems. For more examples of eco-engineering you can check out the hydrogen fuel cell car which is on display in our Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Great London Flood. Some experts think that the increased risk of flooding from climate change may render the Thames Barrier redundant by the middle of the century. So how will London be protected? Meet Tim Reeder, Regional Climate Change Programme Manager at the Environment Agency who will talk about the challenge of planning for sea level rise in London and how the Thames Estuary 2100 plan is going to tackle it.

Imagine if your night in a club or walk to work could power the lights for your journey home. Test out your moves in the Energy Dance-off, which features an incredible energy harvesting dance floor from Pavegen that converts the kinetic energy of your dance steps into electricity, powering a reactive light installation.

The Pavegen dance floor.

The Pavegen dance floor. Image credit: Pavegen

Already used by runners at this year’s Paris Marathon, every impact on a Pavegen tile generates between 4 and 8 joules of electrical energy, power that would otherwise have gone to waste. You can also follow the dance floor on twitter to see just how much energy Lates visitors generate.

Throughout the evening you can have fun with the Climate Playground and try your hand at some old-school kids’ games and indulge in all the usual Lates activities such as the Silent Disco, Pub Quiz and Launchpad gallery.

Entry to Lates is FREE and open to anyone over the age of 18. Can’t get to London on Wednesday? You can also follow Lates via @sciencemuseum & #smLates

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: The Lovelock Archive

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum

It’s an amazing image to conjure with: the 23-year old James Lovelock, our most famous independent scientist, cradling a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best known scientist, Stephen Hawking.

Lovelock told me about this touching encounter during one of his recent visits to the Science Museum, a vivid reminder of why the museum has spent £300,000 on his archive, an extraordinary collection of notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence that reveals the remarkable extent of his research over a lifetime, from cryobiology and colds to Gaia and geoengineering.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: Notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence from the Lovelock archive

Lovelock, who was born on 26 July 1919, must have encountered the great cosmologist in the year of Hawking’s birth, 1942, when he was working at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, after graduating in chemistry from Manchester University the year before.

Hawking’s father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who spent much of his working life at the NIMR studying parasitology. Lovelock was doing research at the time of the encounter on sneezing and disinfection, publishing his first scientific paper, in the British Medical Journal, that same year.

As for his impact, there’s no better way to emphasise Lovelock’s stature than to read the foreword of one of his recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who describes him as among the most important independent scientists of the last century: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”

Lovelock has made headlines for his views on the environment, and his support for nuclear power (he once told me he would happily store nuclear waste in his garden), but he is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld, helped Gaia mature from a hypothesis into a theory by putting it on a mathematical foundation. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within an idealised world, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth. Among the items acquired by the museum is a Hewlett Packard computer that Lovelock used for Daisyworld.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence, the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated worldwide in a form that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that are able to cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space. Today, Gaia’s influence stretches beyond Earth to music, fiction and even computer games.

The Science Museum’s collection includes Lovelock’s Electron Capture Detector which he invented in 1956 to detect a range of substances, he explained, ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’ In the summer of 1967 Lovelock used it measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion. ‘It’s sad that it would now be almost impossible for a lone scientist like me to make or use an ECD without breaking the health and safety laws,’ he told me.

Electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph

James Lovelock developed this highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution in 1960.

I have met this green guru on and off since 1991 and, the last time we talked, he was as provocative as ever. The attempts to model the Earth’s climate system do not yet fully include the response of the ecosystem of the land or oceans, and Lovelock warned about feedback effects, some that can damp down climate change and others that accelerate it, and he predicts a threshold above which there could be a five degree increase in temperature.

He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science. That is no surprise. From 1964 Lovelock has worked as an independent scientist and he is writing a book about being a lone scientist in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the scientific process can only happen through collaboration. Lovelock believes that lone scientists can work more like artists in that they can be reflective and do not necessarily need other people to collaborate with.

And when it comes to the fate of our home world, all is not lost. Lovelock, like many others, is receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering, or “planetary medicine”, which could mean cooling the Earth by the use of space mirrors or clouds of particulates.

Lovelock, who has been visiting the Science Museum since the age of seven, teamed with a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, to devise another way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

Green Wednesdays: Revenge of the Electric Car

By Pippa Hough, Assistant Content Developer

The Science Museum’s Dana Centre was very pleased to host Nice and Serious last Wednesday night to screen the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car. For those who didn’t make it, you missed a fascinating insight into the burgeoning electric car market. We followed Nissan, GM, Tesla and Greg ‘Gadget’ Abbott, as they try to corner the market in electric vehicles (EVs), while staving off bankruptcy and, in the case of Greg, fire and a factory full of poisonous dust.

After the film we had an absorbing discussion with the Director, Chris Paine (from his garage in California!), and Clemens Lorf, a researcher from Imperial College on electric car batteries.

The big questions the audience wanted Chris and Clemens to answer? When and how will EVs become the norm on our roads?

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

The Bersey taxi, London's oldest electric taxi, which appeared on the city’s streets in 1897

Clemens, Chris and nearly everyone interviewed in the film agreed; EVs and renewable technologies, will only become a normal part of our lives when they make economic sense. There will never be enough eco-minded people with disposable income willing to buy an electric car instead of a cheaper petrol model to keep the industry afloat.

With rising oil prices and advances in technology bringing down manufacturing costs, the scales are beginning to tip in favour of EVs. As our societies become increasingly urbanised, owning an EV for driving around a city can be a very practical option. Most of your journeys are well within the battery’s capacity, and in a city you’re never too far from a charging station.

Our traditional notions of car ownership are evolving as companies like ZipCar allow members to rent vehicles with no notice, for a few hours at a time – ‘usership’ over ownership. These companies are increasing our access to electric vehicles by making them an affordable alternative.

The tipping point for a future full of electric cars is getting closer as the big car companies continue to take EVs seriously – but we’re not quite there yet…

This Green Wednesdays event is part of our Climate Changing programme, which is supported by Shell, Siemens, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and The Garfield Weston Foundation.