Category Archives: Events

Galvanising speech amid glamour of Director’s Dinner

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Strong calls for evidence-based policy-making and gender equality were made last night by guest speaker, Professor Anne Glover, at the Science Museum’s Director’s Annual Dinner.

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Speaking on the day the European Commission (EC) revealed that her previous role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the EC President will now be performed by a committee of high level scientists, the biologist warned of the perils of preventing scientists who advise Government from speaking openly about their work.

Professor Glover, Vice Principal for External Affairs and Dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, urged the scientists among the high-profile audience to be bold in speaking up about evidence and challenged everyone in the room to do more to nominate talented women (as well as men) for positions of influence in our society.

Earlier Science Museum Group Director (SMG), Ian Blatchford, had welcomed the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, noting the Group’s delight on discovering that the evening was his first official engagement. Later that night the minister tweeted: 

The Director took the high profile audience on a whistle-stop tour of the year’s highlights including the Queen’s first tweet at the opening of the Information Age gallery; a celebration of two hundred years of London science with the Royal Society; our plans for the Clockmakers’ museum; and the announcement that Zaha Hadid will be the designer for our new Mathematics gallery.

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

That last project was made possible by the largest private donation in the Science Museum’s history from David and Claudia Harding. So it was no surprise that David Harding, a noted philanthropist and dedicated supporter of maths and science, was one of the two distinguished guests bidden to the stage by SMG Chairman, Dame Mary Archer, to accept Science Museum Fellowships. He and Nobel laureate Professor John O’Keefe were described by Dame Mary as “rare individuals who’ve given exceptional service to science and to SMG” as they were invited to receive their scrolls.

Professor John O'Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer in the presence of Ian Blatchford and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP © Science Museum

Professor John O’Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer (centre) in the presence of Ian Blatchford (far left) and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP (far right) © Science Museum

Dame Mary also told the audience how the Group is “equally ambitious for our very own Northern Powerhouse — our museums in York, Manchester and Bradford.” She highlighted their plans, including a stunning new exhibition gallery planned in Manchester for 2018, generously funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Treasury, and an exhibition on graphene, first synthesised in 2004 at the University of Manchester.

To underline the significance of the two million children who visit SMG museums each year, Dame Mary emphasised how the country’s economy depends on the understanding and application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics yet, she added, “Britain is desperately short of engineers, only 20% of young people in the UK do any maths beyond GCSE, and more than 80% of postgraduate STEM students in our universities come from — and mostly go back to — countries outside the European Union.”

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

The MC of the event was the SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield and other guests included the new Director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan; film producer Michael Wilson; Trustees David Willetts, Lords Grade and Faulkner; Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport; Director of the Science Media Centre Fiona Fox; Pestival Director Bridget Nicholls, photographers Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low; Emmy and Bafta award winning director and producer Anthony Geffen; Naomi Weir of the Campaign for Science and Engineering; Wellcome Director of Strategy Clare Matterson and double Oscar-winner Paul Franklin.

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Fireworks And Fun For British Science Week

To mark British Science Week, the Science Museum hosted a special event with the British Science Association for over 400 children from the Kids Company London Centres. Kids Company Team Leader Lycia reflects on a day of science based fun

Bang! Whizz! Pop! What a fabulous time we spent at the Science Museum earlier this week as we joined forces with the British Science Association to give a group of young people a wonderful day out to celebrate British Science Week.

Matthew Tosh entertains an audience of children from the Kids Company's London Centres in the Science Museum's IMAX theatre

Matthew Tosh entertains an audience of children from the Kids Company’s London Centres in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre. Image credit: Megan Taylor

On arrival we were welcomed into the Museum’s famous Launchpad gallery, which we had entirely to ourselves and where the children were allowed to roam around playing on the various exhibits before being taken to the IMAX theatre for a special science show. The children adored exploring the Launchpad exhibits and the room buzzed with excitement with comments such as, “This is awesome!”, “I wish we could spend a week here!” and “I’m going to get my mum to take me back!”.

It was particularly wonderful to see the reactions of children who normally report to not liking science, enthralled by the mass of exciting experiments to explore.

We were then lead into the impressive IMAX theatre where we were greeted with soothing music and comfortable seats as one of the Science Museum’s Explainers gave a warm welcome to Matthew Tosh, our entertainer for the morning. For the next hour Matthew captured our attention from start to finish with an array of bangs, flashes and pops, all interspersed with digestible nuggets of fascinating science. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious and it was great to see the children listening attentively as he spoke about the importance of following career paths which excite them.

Matthew Tosh explains the science behind fireworks in his show in the Science Museum's IMAX. Image credit: Megan Taylor.

Matthew Tosh explains the science behind fireworks in his show in the Science Museum’s IMAX. Image credit: Megan Taylor.

After being dazzled by an incredible show, we left the IMAX feeling uplifted and inspired. On leaving the theatre, it was great to hear some of the comments from the children – “That was so good!”, and “I really want to be a scientist in the future!”

We wish to say a big thank you to the Science Museum and the BSA for such a memorable day.

British Science Week is a ten day programme of science, technology, engineering and maths events and activities across the UK for people of all ages and runs until Sunday 22 March. 

How Eddie Redmayne Mastered Stephen Hawking’s Voice

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about upcoming Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.

Only one person is known to have used the voice synthesiser that now sits in the Cosmos and Culture gallery in the Science Museum: cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who describes the museum as ‘one of my favourite places’.

Voice synthesiser

Voice synthesiser, on display in Cosmos and Culture

Now a second person has mastered Hawking’s voice, that paradoxical blend of machine and personality: the actor Eddie Redmayne, who undergoes an extraordinary feat of transformation during The Theory of Everything (released on 1 January).

He depicts how Hawking changed from a lazy student into the world’s best known scientist who, as a result of motor neurone disease, has only the use of a few muscles.

Hawking caught pneumonia in 1985 and underwent a tracheotomy but regained the ability to ‘speak’ using a computer operated by a hand switch to painstakingly build up words, sentences and phrases so they could be read out by the voice synthesiser that is now in the museum.

Redmayne’s remarkable dedication to his craft can be seen in this biopic, which is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife Jane.

Redmayne describes it as “an incredibly delicate and intricate and quite complicated love story.” One of the most extraordinary dimensions of that story is Jane’s determination to stick with Hawking despite his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, an apparent death sentence, at the age of 21.

Stephen Hawking

Still from The Theory of Everything with Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)

The film’s production design department took great pains to accurately recreate the progression of wheelchairs that Hawking used throughout his life, from regular to electric and then one adapted to include a computer and his voice synthesiser.

Redmayne had spent months studying archival material, from books to video; worked with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and a neurology clinic in University College London, meeting some 30 patients; rehearsed the change in his movements as the disease took hold with a dance teacher; and wore prosthetics to show how Hawking had aged and deformed with the disease, such as oversized ears that could, with oversized clothes, make his face look gaunt.

One of the pivotal scenes with Hawking’s first wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones) took 15 minutes during an intense day of filming using a hand switch to operate a replica of Hawking’s synthesiser system, he explained. Though only an edited version of his laborious original effort remains in the film, it speaks volumes about Redmayne’s attention to detail that he was prepared to go so far.

Hawking was so impressed with the film, said Redmayne, that he responded with a generous gift — allowing the filmmakers to swap the synthetic voice they had to create and replace it with his own, trademarked computerized version.

Trying to balance his science with his personal story presented some of the same challenges for the James Marsh, director of The Theory of Everything, as it did for curators three years ago, when the Science Museum put on an exhibition to celebrate Hawking’s 70th birthday.

While Stephen Hawking might be a celebrity, he is first and foremost a scientist and not only that but a theoretical physicist, one who deals with ideas rather than something tangible like technology. Redmayne admits that it was daunting getting the right balance between science and entertainment.

Still, the film shows how Hawking first captured the attention of his peers in the late 1960s, working with Roger Penrose (played by Christian McKay) on how the laws of physics – notably Einstein’s law of gravity – sometimes break down, resulting in something called a spacetime singularity. If general relativity was correct, they showed, then such singularities must occur inside black holes – and, most probably, at the start of the universe

This idea implies that singularities mark the beginning and end of space and time, which was created during the Big Bang and breaks down within black holes, where it is necessary to incorporate quantum theory – the theory of the very small – in order to understand what is really going on.

The film makes much of how Hawking was determined to find “a simple eloquent explanation” for the universe. One of Hawking’s long-standing goals has been to blend the theory of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quantum theory) to produce an overarching theory known as quantum gravity.

As the film points out – with the help of its consultant, Jerome Gauntlett, former PhD student in Stephen’s group, who is now Head of the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London –  Hawking moved on to a more radical formulation which incorporates some aspects of quantum theory, the no boundary idea, which says that the entire history of the universe, all of space and time, forms a kind of four-dimensional sphere. Thus speculation about the beginning or end of the universe is as meaningless as talking about the beginning or end of a sphere.

One strange consequence of quantum theory is that empty space isn’t empty at all: pairs of particles are constantly popping into and out of existence. If they appear on the event horizon – the point of no return from the gravity well of a black hole – they may find themselves on different sides, with one sucked in, and the other zooming free as “Hawking radiation.”

There’s a scene in the film showing when Hawking gets a sweater trapped halfway over his head and has an insight that leads to this discovery. “Hawking radiation is widely considered to be the single most important insight into quantum gravity that has been discovered so far,” says Gauntlett, who also helped to bring Redmayne up to speed with Hawking’s science.

The director James Marsh told me that he sees the movie as a human story first and foremost but he does hope, as does Gauntlett, that it will encourage those who are intrigued by the science to find out more. “To be honest, dramatic film is not the best place to explore theoretical physics” Marsh explained. “The idea was to make the science universally available and that meant simple. Better that than address a snobbish or elitist audience. Better that a 14 year old boy or girl watches the film and is intrigued to find out more.”

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

One way he used to lay out scientific thinking in lay terms was to allow the character of Jane to do some explaining, rather that Stephen himself. But, of course, Hawking himself has provided the most stellar example of how to bridge the gulf between the public and cosmologists with A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. To celebrate this remarkable achievement, a copy can be found in the Cosmos and Culture gallery.

The Theory of Everything will be showing at the Science Museum IMAX from 1 January 2015. Book tickets here.

‘Objects at an Exhibition’: experience the Science Museum as never before

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, blogs about an exciting new project at the Science Museum for 2015.

The Science Museum will be the venue for an exciting musical event in autumn 2015. Six contemporary composers are writing new pieces of music inspired by key objects and spaces in the Museum. On the night of the concert, audiences will travel through the Museum to hear the pieces performed live next to the objects of inspiration. This unmissable event is a collaboration between the Museum, NMC Recordings and the Aurora Orchestra, which are both renowned for their support for innovative music and engaging musical events.

Music is a natural subject for the Science Museum: intellectually it provides a powerful example of the interaction of technology and culture; practically it has the power to deeply enhance the variety of what we can offer our visitors; and emotionally it has the potential to move and deepen engagement with our collections and spaces.

Together, we have commissioned Gerald Barry, Barry Guy, Christopher Mayo, Claudia Molitor, Thea Musgrave and David Sawer who – with their diverse approaches, techniques and styles – will offer Museum visitors, Aurora audiences and NMC listeners new and interactive listening experiences in a setting overflowing with landmark achievements and innovations in science and technology.

Barry is working on an extraordinary graphic score based on Charles Babbage’s difference engine workings.

Difference engine No.2

Difference engine – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Claudia is exploring ‘non-music’ inspired by the BBC 2LO transmitter and the idea that music was originally prohibited on BBC radio.

2LO

BBC 2LO transmitter – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Gerald’s piece is about ‘the mysterious and unnameable aspects of outer space’Chris’s work will be presented in the Flight Gallery where he hopes the audience will make some of the same connections he’s making ‘on the journey from idea to inspiration’; reflecting on a world where there’s an increasing emphasis on speed David has chosen the mail coach in the Making the Modern World gallery to seek clarity in time standing still; and Thea says: ‘I do like the idea of composing something for the Energy Hall… I plan to place two or perhaps three performers on the upper level with the rest on the lower level facing people as they enter the Museum. I am thinking generally of the wonders of discovery, with soloists ‘taking off’ with flights of fancy against the more earthbound group below.’

To find out more about the project and how to support it, please visit our Oramics Machine Facebook page.

Objects at an Exhibition Big Give

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.

Best Festival Ever

David Finnigan from Australian science-theatre company Boho, explains what goes into making the Best Festival Ever

My name is David and soon I’ll find out whether audiences at the Science Museum can catch a stage-diving Dolly Parton. Since September, we’ve been in residence at the Science Museum preparing for the premiere of our interactive theatre work Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster.

In 2011, the University College London Environment Institute gave us the challenge of creating a theatre show looking at concepts from climate and systems science. Over the last three years we’ve created a work in which a playing audience seated around a table take control of managing their own complex system: a music festival.

A music festival is an excellent example of a complex system. In a lot of ways, a festival is like a temporary city, with tens of thousands of people coming together for a few days on a patch of land. Over the course of the show we examine some of the interesting ways in which systems behave and ask ourselves: how can we recognise and better think about the systems we’re part of?

I don’t want to give away too much about the show, but I thought I might share some of what audiences have to do to put on the best festival ever.

1. Programming the lineup

Obviously you want the best possible artists to play your festival: Do you take the 9-piece reggae collective over the teenage Youtube sensation? The folk ensemble or the glitchy electronica artist? But you’ll need to find sponsors to pay for them. As always in complex systems, there are trade-offs. Some sponsors may offer more, but may also be ethically… interesting. Whatever you decide, you’ll have to live with.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

2. Building a festival site

Putting on a festival sometimes means constructing, inhabiting and packing down an entire temporary city. You’ll be in charge of organising the layout of your festival – placing gates, stages, food stalls and face-painting stalls – and then making everything both quickly and beautifully. Of course, when everything is connected, decisions made in one place will have consequences throughout the festival, often in unexpected ways.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

3. Electricity

Festivals usually don’t run off the main grid. You’ll have to take control of the generators, ensuring that power goes to where it’s most needed. Managing this common-pool resource will involve prioritising: amazing laser light show on stage two vs turning on the water filters to stop sewage leaking into the river that flows into the nearby village.

4. Concerts

The most crucial part of any music festival, and also the hardest to manage. Can your security guards prevent fights from breaking out in the moshpit? Can you get the band onstage and hitting all the right solos? And are you ready if Justin Timberlake decides to jump right into the moshpit?

We’ll be presenting these shows at the Science Museum on 17-19 November, along with climate and systems scientists talking about the ways in which this show intersects with their own work. Book your tickets here

Stuff Matters Wins Science Book Prize

Materials scientist, author and TV presenter Professor Mark Miodownik has won the most prestigious science book prize in the world, with his personal journey through our material world.

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, was yesterday (10 November) named the winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

The £25,000 prize was awarded to the University College London professor by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning President of the Royal Society, with anatomist, author and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts hosting the event.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Miodownik told the BBC, “This stuff around us is speaking through me. Materials are not inert things, I hope I have given them a voice in this book. I think it’s an important story.”

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

The Science Museum’s Challenge of Materials gallery explores the changing use of materials, from Egyptian glass to a steel wedding dress. Perhaps the most striking features are a magnificent glass bridge spanning the main hall and Materials House, the first publicly commissioned work from designer Thomas Heatherwick. This enormous sculpture, made from 213 different materials, invites visitors to reflect on how materials are used in everyday life.

The six shortlisted books include The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson, The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira, Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, Serving the Reich by Philip Ball, Seven Elements That Have Changed The World by John Browne and Gulp by Mary Roach. Each of the shortlisted authors received £2,500 and interviews with the authors can be seen here. Last year’s winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books was best-selling author James Gleick, who recently helped celebrate the opening of the Information Age gallery.

The Prize is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, who’s founder David Harding has a long record of working with the Science Museum, having supported the Information Age gallery, the award-wining Collider exhibition and a new Mathematics gallery that opens in 2016.

The Imitation Game at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reflects on Benedict Cumberbatch’s visit to the Science Museum to prepare for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Book tickets for a special preview screening at the Science Museum’s IMAX next week. 

If you had been at the Science Museum one evening in September last year, you would have encountered Benedict Cumberbatch, adorned in a flat cap, wandering around our critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and philosopher.

Benedict Cumberbatch starring at Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Image credit: Studio Canal 2014. All rights reserved.

The Science Museum’s Codebreaker exhibition, which was awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science, has since closed, but its influence lives on in Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in the movie The Imitation Game, which he filmed in the weeks that followed his visit to the Museum.

You can see an exclusive preview of The Imitation Game in the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema plus a pre-screening talk from director Morten Tyldum, on Wednesday November 12.

One of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, Alan Turing is credited with cracking the German Enigma code, significantly shortening the war and saving many thousands of lives.

Convicted for an outdated criminal offence, though posthumously pardoned, Turing fell victim to an unenlightened British Establishment but his work and legacy live on in the worlds of mathematics and computing.

Curator David Rooney took the star of Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock and more around the exhibition (see a Twitter tour of the exhibition here), which traced the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12, to Turing’s final research on pattern formation in biology.

You can see the Pilot ACE in our new Information Age gallery, which was opened last month by Her Majesty The Queen, which looks at how communications technology has transformed our lives over the past two centuries. There are also many related objects on our website.

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The Pilot ACE computer, 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Among the exhibits in Codebreaker were a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: after his conviction Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Perhaps the most poignant item on display was a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of his death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy had revealed that his stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a cyanide salt. Turing’s death was not accidental: there was enough poison to fill a wine glass.

The Science of Interstellar

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.

Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.

What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).

Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.

This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.


Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.

This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.

Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.

Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.

To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.

Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”

This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.

‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’

At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.

Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.

As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.

Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.

Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.

It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.

In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.

Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.

In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”

At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.

So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.

See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.

Information Age: evolution or revolution?

On Friday 24 October 2014, the Science Museum celebrated the launch of a new permanent gallery; Information Age. The gallery explores over 200 years of information and communication technologies and was officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen who marked the occasion by sending the first tweet by a reigning monarch. In the afternoon, the Museum’s IMAX auditorium continued the celebrations, bringing together a panel of some of the world’s leading thinkers and entrepreneurs to share their insights and predictions about the big events that have shaped the communication technology we are familiar with today, and look ahead to what the future may hold.

Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield introduces the panel at Information Age: evolution or revolution?

We’re repeatedly told that we are experiencing more rapid technological advances than ever before. But over the past two centuries, our predecessors witnessed transformational developments in communication technology that were arguably far more revolutionary, from the laying of the first telegraph cable that connected the UK and USA to the birth of radio and TV broadcasting.

What can we learn from their experiences? Is what we are going through truly an unparalleled revolution, or does our focus on the now distort our perspective on an ongoing evolution in our relationship to information?

Click here to listen to the whole discussion and decide for yourself…

Chaired by Tom Standage, Digital Editor of The Economist and author of The Victorian Internet and Writing on the Wall, the expert panel brought together to discuss this question featured:

  • Hermann Hauser, computing engineer and co-founder of venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners
  • Baroness Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, Chancellor of the Open University, chair of Go ON and board member of Marks and Spencer
  • Mo Ibrahim, mobile communications entrepreneur and founder of Celtel, one of Africa’s leading telecommunications operators, and
  • Jim Gleick, best-selling author of Chaos and The Information

The opening of Information Age marks the start of the biggest period of development of the Museum since it was opened over a century ago. Over the next five years, about a third of the Museum will be transformed by exciting new galleries, including a brand new mathematics gallery designed by Stirling Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

Information Age is now open, located on floor 2 of the Museum. A new book entitled Information Age, to which the event’s panel have all contributed, is also now on sale in the Museum shop and online.