Category Archives: Exhibitions

If Particle Physics Did Parties…

With the Collider exhibition now open, Content Developer Rupert Cole explores some famous physics parties of the past. 

As it happens, Carlsberg did do particle physics. The Danish beer giant was an unlikely benefactor of the Niels Bohr Institute – one of the great centres of theoretical physics research.  

And Bohr himself even lived at the brewery’s “Honorary Residence” after winning the Nobel Prize, complete with a direct pipeline supplying free Carlsberg on tap! Just imagine what untold influence lager had on those groundbreaking discussions of quantum theory during Bohr’s thirty-year stay…

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

After my last blog about bubble chambers and beer, I thought, since it’s the festival season, why not go the whole hog and explore a few partying highlights from the history of physics.

The first Cavendish Laboratory Dinner, 1897

During the Christmas Holidays of 1897, the staff and students of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory had a memorable dinner party at the Prince of Wales’ Hotel.

It was a “rollicking affair”. JJ Thomson, Professor of the Laboratory, was remembered by a student to be “as happy as a sand-boy”. Thomson, of course, had been very busy that year discovering the subatomic world. Another physicist, Paul Langevin, sang La Marseillaise with such fervour that a French waiter embraced him.

That night was the beginning of a Cavendish tradition: singing physics through the medium of light opera. Lyrics about atoms and ions were put to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, long before Tom Lehrer. The next day, Thomson remarked that “he had no idea that the Laboratory held such a nest of singing birds”.

It must have been quite a noise, as the Proctors of the University came to enquire at the hotel what the “proceedings” were about. Fortunately, they did not enter the room – “being,” Thomson supposed, “impressed, and I have no doubt mystified, by the assurance of the landlord that it was a scientific gathering of research students”.

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The first dinner was such a hoot that it became an annual occasion. The merry songs that emerged at these events were soon immortalised in regular published editions of The Post-Prandial Proceedings of the Cavendish Society.

Feynman’s entire anecdotal oeuvre

“There’s so much fun to be had”

Not many Nobel prize-winning physicists can say they’ve played the frying pan in a samba band at Rio’s Carnival; made complex calculations on napkins in strip bars; or spent a sabbatical on the Copacabana drinking themselves teetotal and seducing air-hostesses. A raconteur of almost mythic proportions, Richard Feynman had a natural aptitude for partying.

Costume parties really brought out the showman in Feynman. He was very versatile, boasting a clothing repertoire that ranged from a Ladakhi monk to God. But it was on one April Fools’ Day that Feynman surpassed himself. Sat primly on a chair, looking regally and nodding graciously to other guests, Feynman was the very image of Queen Elizabeth II – wig, white hat, green dress, purse and gloves. At the end of the evening, he performed his royal finale: a striptease!

We must unfortunately cut short of the entire Feynman backlog of anecdotes, so instead click here for a video of Feynman playing “orange juice” on the bongos.

Higgs’ champagne moment, 2012

On a Saturday night in Sicily, Peter Higgs was dining with friends when the phone rang. Fellow physicist John Ellis had called to tell Higgs to come to CERN. Swiftly, travel arrangements were made and another bottle of white ordered. History was being written.

A few evenings later, Higgs was in Ellis’ Geneva home sharing a bottle of champagne with family and friends – that day he had read a note that confirmed the particle he had predicted to exist 48 years ago had finally been found.

The following day, on 4th July 2012, CERN held a conference announcing to the world the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Emotions running high in the packed lecture hall, Higgs likened the experience to “being at a football match when the home team has won”. Fittingly then, on the Easyjet flight home to Edinburgh, he turned down more champagne in favour of a can of London Pride.

See JJ Thomson’s 1897 cathode-ray tube, Peter Higgs’ champagne bottle, and experience more great moments of discovery at Collider, a new exhibition at the Science Museum.

The Art of Boiling Beer: 60 years of the Bubble Chamber

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole explains how beer was used for cutting-edge particle physics research. 

Late one night in 1953, Donald Glaser smuggled a case of beer into his University lab. He wanted to test out the limitations of his revolutionary invention: the bubble chamber.

Previously, Glaser had only tried exotic chemical liquids in his device. But now his sense of experimental adventure had been galvanised by a recent victory over the great and famously infallible physicist Enrico Fermi.

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Fermi, who had invited Glaser to Chicago to find out more about his invention, had already seemingly proved that a bubble chamber could not work. But when Glaser found a mistake in Fermi’s authoritative textbook, he dedicated himself to redoing the calculations.

Glaser found that, if he was correct, that the bubble chamber should work with water. To make absolutely certain he “wasn’t being stupid”, Glaser conducted this curious nocturnal experiment at his Michigan laboratory. He also discovered that the bubble chamber worked just as well when using lager as it had with other chemicals.

There was one practical issue however, the beer caused the whole physics department to smell like a brewery. “And this was a problem for two reasons,” Glaser recalled. “One is that it was illegal to have any alcoholic beverage within 500 yards of the university. The other problem was that the chairman was a very devout teetotaler, and he was furious. He almost fired me on the spot”.

On 1st August 1953, 60 years ago this Thursday, Glaser published his famous paper on the bubble chamber – strangely failing to mention the beer experiment.

Glaser’s device provided a very effective way to detect and visualise particles. It consisted of a tank of pressurised liquid, which was then superheated by reducing the pressure. Charged particles passing through the tank stripped electrons from atoms in the liquid and caused the liquid to boil. Bubbles created from the boiling liquid revealed the particle’s path through the liquid.

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

One of Glaser’s motivations for his invention was to avoid having to work with large groups of scientists at big particle accelerators. Instead, he hoped his device would enable him to study cosmic rays using cloud chambers in the traditional fashion; up a mountain, ski in the day, “and work in sort of splendid, beautiful surroundings. A very pleasant way of life – intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic”

Ironically, as the bubble chamber only worked with controlled sources of particles, it was inherently suited to accelerator research, not cosmic rays. Soon the large accelerator facilities built their own, massive bubble chambers.

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Between 1965-1970 CERN built Gargamelle – a bubble chamber of such proportions that it was named after a giantess from the novels of Francois Rabelais (not the Smurfs’ villain). Gargamelle proved a huge success, enabling the discovery of neutral currents – a crucial step in understanding how some of the basic forces of nature were once unified.

This November you’ll have the chance to see up close the original design drawings for Gargamelle, and much more in the Collider exhibition.

CERN: 60 years of not destroying the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We want your telegrams!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in September 2014. 

How do you send a message? Text? Email? What was used before computers? During the reign of Queen Victoria, it was the telegram. Do you have one tucked away somewhere at home that you could bring in and talk about? The Science Museum is inviting you to bring your telegrams into one of our collecting days at the Dana Centre (behind the Science Museum on 165 Queen’s Gate) from 11.00-16.00 on 28 June and 29 June.

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s

Motorcycle telegram messenger, c 1930s. Image: Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

We are looking for telegrams dated from Victorian times to the 1980s. There is no limitation on the length or content of each message and you will not be expected to donate your telegram. Instead, our team want the chance to chat to you about its background and history and take a digital scan of the card. 

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935.

Telegram operators transpose messages on to typewriters, 1 June 1935. Image:
Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Considered to be the quickest and most efficient way to send short messages, topics could range from local gossip to family announcements to business orders. Although small, these printed cards are now recognised as an important part of the history of communication, which is why the Science Museum has launched a search for telegrams and the stories behind them. Find out more about the search here:

#TuringTour: Tweeting our Turing Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

We ended the tour with a rather poignant question…

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

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

Calling former telephone operators!

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager, writes about the search for stories for our new Information Age gallery opening in September 2014. 

Calling former telephone operators!

We want to speak to the ladies who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly around Enfield, London. We would like our visitors to be able to listen their memories alongside a display of the last manual telephone exchange in our Information Age gallery.

Before automated systems were introduced in the 1960s, phone calls were manually connected by young female telephone exchange operators. Their concentration, patience and friendly manner ensured calls were placed across the country and each telephone exchange developed into a small social community.

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield, October 1960. Image: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The last manual telephone exchange was in Enfield, north London, and marks the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange forms a part of the Science Museum’s collection and will be put on display in the Information Age gallery. We would like to bring this amazing piece of history to life through the memories of the women who worked with the machine.

Do you know of anyone who worked as a telephone exchange operator? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please visit to get in touch.

Lyons Tea Shop Managers needed!

We are also looking to speak to Lyons tea shop managers that worked with Lyons Electronic Office (LEO I), the world’s first business computer, in the 1950s. Brought to life on 17 November 1951, LEO I played a crucial role in the development of a new computer age and we would love to hear from its female workforce. If you are a former manager (or relative), please get in touch and share your stories.

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897

Lyons Tea Shop Manager Alice Eleanor Bacon, 1897. Image: Peter Bird

Happy birthday, Z boson

Alice Lighton, content developer for our Collider exhibition, writes about the history of quantum physics. Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment opens in November 2013 with a behind-the-scenes look at the famous CERN particle physics laboratory. 

The air brimmed with excitement on this momentous day. The discovery of the particle confirmed a theory that had taken years to devise, and justified the toil of hundreds of scientists.

You might think I’m referring to the Higgs boson – the particle that explains mass, discovered at the LHC last year. But thirty years ago this month, another event shaped modern physics – the discovery of the Z boson.

In the 1960s, physicists predicted the Z and W bosons, as a way to link the electromagnetic and weak forces. There was plenty of evidence the theory was correct, but the lynchpin would be the discovery of the Z boson.

A section of the 4.3 mile-round Super Proton Synchrotron, at CERN near Geneva. Image: CERN

To make a Z boson, two particles are smashed together. The energy of the crash creates new, heavy particles. If a Z boson is produced, it sticks around for only a fraction of a second before it decays into other particles. To claim the prize of discovering the Z boson, physicists would need to be able to forensically reconstruct what happens in a collision, never seeing the Z directly.

Europe and America built machines to discover the Z, including the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) at CERN. “The idea of creating this massive object (the Z) and letting it decay…was a riveting idea (well at least for me in the late 1970s),” said Crispin Williams, a physicist who now works on the ALICE experiment at the LHC.

Two CERN physicists, effusive Italian Carlo Rubbia and Dutchman Simon Van der Meer, realised that to beat the firepower of the newly-opened Tevatron in Chicago, the SPS had to take risks. The pair devised an audacious plan; rather than fire beams onto a fixed object, they would collide two opposing beams, each only a hair’s width across and both travelling at almost the speed of light.

What’s more, one of the beams would be made of antimatter, which destroys ordinary matter. Creating and manipulating a beam of antimatter was a revolutionary concept.

Williams remembers when Rubbia and Van der Meer announced their plan to collide two beams. “This was to a packed auditorium at CERN and I suspect that most people thought he was out of his mind,” said Williams.

Rubbia and Van der Meer celebrate receiving a Nobel prize for their efforts. Image: CERN

Despite the technical challenge, the new collider worked. One visitor to CERN in 1982 described the intense excitement the new development created. “I went to the CERN cafeteria for a coffee and there I saw something that I had not noticed before. There was a monitor on the wall and people were watching the screen with great interest. The monitor was showing the rate of proton–antiproton collisions in CERN’s latest challenge – a bold venture designed to produce the intermediate bosons, W and Z.”

In January 1983, the risk-takers received their reward, when the W boson was discovered.  On 1st June 1983, scientists at CERN announced they had seen five Z bosons in their detectors.

The tracks left by the decay of the Z boson in a detector. Image: UA1/CERN

The route to the discovery had revolutionised particle physics, with more intricate detectors and the ability to manipulate antimatter. For Williams, the discovery of the Higgs boson was much less elegant. “In comparison the Higgs at the LHC is just brute force,” he said.  “Maybe I am just getting old and cynical: and I look back at the Z discovery through rose tinted glasses.”

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.