Category Archives: Families

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

What makes you laugh and cry?

Professor Sophie Scott explains her latest experiment at the museum, exploring the science behind laughter. 

Last year, we had a mouse somewhere in our flat, and we were all stressing out about it a bit. I was at home on my own when I thought I felt something running over my foot. It was a hair pin falling out of my hair, but before I had realized this, I screamed out loud. I screamed loud enough and long enough for me to have time to think things like “Why am I screaming?”, “I am not afraid of mice” and “Pretty sure that was a hairpin”.

The really interesting part of the mouse incident was that my scream was involuntary – I really did not mean to do this (there’s a great example here). Involuntary vocalizations are produced via a neural system we share with other mammals, but a separate network in the brain controls speech. This speech network, which evolved much later, allows us to produce the complex movements which underlie speech and song and to do so voluntarily – we choose when to speak.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency.  This shows the acoustic complexity of speech.

A spectrogram of the sentence “the house had nine rooms”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency. This shows the acoustic complexity of speech. Credit: Sophie Scott

The older, involuntary system is associated with emotional vocalizations in humans – like my screaming or a cry of surprise. These emotional sounds (such as crying, screaming, laughing) are more like animal calls than they are like speech.

This shows laughter. Note how much less complex the sound is. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows laughter. The sound is much less complex than speech. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see  spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

This shows a spectrogram of a cat meowing. As with the laughter, we can see spectral structure but this does not vary much over time. Credit: Sophie Scott.

Our more recent voluntary system is associated with speech and song (and other vocal skills such as beatboxing). If this system is damaged, for example, due to a stroke, people can be left with aphasia – a persistent problem with talking. They very often can still make emotional noises, such as laughing, suggesting that the stroke has not damaged this older pathway.

For my research, we are studying what it means to make voluntary and involuntary vocalizations – for example, laughter is used a great deal during conversational speech. Even babies use emotional expressions like crying and laughter in extremely sophisticated ways.

This all suggests that there may be both voluntary and involuntary kinds of emotional sounds. Are laughs and sobs produced in a voluntary or an involuntary fashion really different? How do they sound to us? How does this change as we age?

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

Laughter experiment at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

To help discover the answers to these questions, we are running an experiment at the Science Museum. We ask people to listen to ‘real’ and ‘posed’ laughter and sobbing sounds to find out how they sound to people. So if you are interested in knowing anything more about voices and emotion do please come along and take part in our research – we promise not to make you scream.

Access All Areas: Family Events for Visually Impaired Visitors

Lucy Minshall- Pearson and Adam Boal from our Special Events Team write about developing a new series of events for families with children who are visually impaired.

In the Special Events Team we write, develop and present a large programme of events for families during school holidays and weekends. Our aim is to make the museum as accessible as possible. Part of this is running events like SIGNtific, where stories and workshops are presented in British Sign Language, and Early Birds, mornings where the museum opens early for families with children on the Autistic spectrum.

To build on the successes of our SIGNtific and Early Birds events, we wanted to improve visits for families with children who are visually impaired (VI). Having identified our target audience, we did as much research as we could about how to best tailor our events. We set out to talk to as many people as possible, sharing ideas, experiences, and best practice. We looked into how science is taught at schools for partially sighted and blind children, how organisations that work with partially sighted and blind children run workshops and activities, and we sought out the best events at other amazing museums and galleries. Suddenly every visit to an exhibition involved asking around ‘what activities do you do for families with visually impaired children?’, every visit to a website involved scouring their accessible events pages, every meeting with a fellow museum professional involved asking them about what they were doing for this audience.

Visitors enjoying our newly developed workshops

Visitors enjoying our newly developed workshops. Credit: Science Museum

Most of the programmes for blind and partially sighted people we found were aimed at adults not families. This made us redouble our efforts, and that’s when we met Barry Ginley, the Disability Access Manager from the V&A, and his lovely Guide Dog, Skye. He gave us training on working with people with visual impairments and information on the issues children with VI can face. He had us walk around the Museum blindfolded, an experience which helped us realise how much more aware we became of our surroundings; objects, people and the giant Rugby Tuning Coil all became potential hazards.

With the research done, the activities developed, and miniature tactile versions of Mars built we were finally ready and the date, 15 March was set, Mother’s day, a perfect day for family activities. The day included four events: a touch tour and audio described ‘Rocket Show’, a hands-on workshop called ‘Backpacking to Mars’, a touch table of Information Age gallery objects, and a tour of the Information Age gallery.

Visitors enjoying our newly developed workshops

Visitors enjoying our newly developed workshops
Credit: Science Museum

Did the families enjoy it? Would further events like this be welcome at the Science Museum? It is a resounding yes for both. The feedback we received was extremely positive which made all of the hard work worth it. If you are interested in attending one of our future events for families with blind and visually impaired children, please drop us an email at familyprogrammes@sciencemuseum.ac.uk saying you’d like to be added to our ‘VI mailing list’.

The Special Events Team will be running a programme of events for families over the Easter holiday.  We’re also staying open until 19.00 (last entry 18.15) every day during the Easter holiday, from 28 March 2015 – 12 April 2015, although our interactive galleries will be closing at 18.00. 

Think, Build, Create! New Code Builder Workshops

Audience Engagement Manager Jen Kavanagh explains how the new Code Builder workshop aims to inspire the next generation of programmers

The Science Museum’s new Information Age  gallery explores communication and information technologies and processes, including the development and use of computer networks. Computing is currently a hot topic for schools, with the launch of the new computer science curriculum coinciding with the opening of this new gallery. As a result, the team here wanted to explore how we could effectively respond to this through the gallery’s learning programme.

Early computing objects on display in Information Age tell stories of user innovation, from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT Cube computer to the Pilot ACE used by Alan Turing.

Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery.

Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery. Image credit Science Museum / SSPL

These amazing stories show the huge potential of computers, and our new tinkering workshop, Code Builder, aims to build on these further.

After an introduction, the group is set a task to use basic coding language to devise and input procedures into an online programme, test, rework them and see live results. These results come in the form of a small robot, Robotiky, which is programmed using bespoke online software.

A Robotiky robot created at a Science Museum Code Builder workshop

A Robotiky robot used in Science Museum Code Builder workshops

Coded instructions are written and simulated on screen, and then sent to the robot via a USB connection, allowing the students to see their code in action. The session encourages the development of logic and computational thinking skills, through trial and error, as well as exploring the interaction between hardware, robot, software and computer programme.

This workshop is designed to complement a number of areas of the computing curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. These include evaluating and applying information technology to solve problems, as well as helping pupils understand the hardware and software components that make up computer systems and how they communicate with one another and other systems.

Code Builder runs twice a day every Thursday during term time. Sessions last an hour and are free for schools to attend. To book visit our website.

A young visitor reviews The Energy Show

We’re getting great feedback from audiences attending The Energy Show, which is currently on tour around England and Wales.

We’ve had one fantastic review in particular from seven year old Anna Sherriff that we’d love to share with you. Anna writes:

The Energy Show was fun and exciting with lots of humour and giving a lot of fact as well. Personally I think there could be no improvement at all!

The show was about two scientists doing lots of fun experiments, with i-nstein helping them and explaining some difficult words to the audience. The best bit was the scientists setting fire to the hydrogen and oxygen balloons which went off with loud bangs.

I would recommend The Energy Show because it’s funny, does really cool stuff, and all the people who went with me had a brilliant time too!

Review by Anna Sherriff, aged 7

 

Annabella, Phil and Bernard make science fun for families in The Energy Show. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Annabella, Phil and Bernard make science fun for families in The Energy Show. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

If you’ve seen The Energy Show too and would like to offer feedback please email marketing@sciencemuseum.ac.uk or write to Marketing, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, SW7 2DD. The Energy Show is on tour throughout England and Wales over the next few months and returns to the Science Museum from 22 July – 3 August. Find dates and locations here.

Off the Beaten Track at the Science Museum

Laura from the Learning team shares some alternative things to see on a trip to the Museum.

Half term at the Science Museum can be busy, with families flocking to the exciting interactive galleries (like Launchpad) and energetic science shows. However, there are times when a quiet mosey around a museum is just what you need, away from the bustle of London. 

Here are 9 of my favourites from all the weird and wonderful objects that you might not expect to find in the Science Museum. They’re off the beaten track but are sure to go down well with children and adults alike. See if you can spot them next time you visit with your family…

1. Egyptian Mummy

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Yes, there is a mummy at the Science Museum! And not just one either, you’ll find mummified cats and birds displayed next to our ancient Egyptian friend in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

2. Poo Lunch Box

Found in the Energy gallery

Human poo could be the energy source of the future. Afterall, it was used in ancient China to fertilise crops. But would you be happy to take this lunch box to work or school? Have closer look at this lunchbox in our Energy gallery and find out some more interesting ways of using your poo to save the planet!

3. Models of Human Eyes

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Slightly spooky, ivory peepers – these Victorian models could be taken apart to show how the human eye works. See them in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

4. Shoes made of carpet

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Carpet slippers? How about carpet platforms with these shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood and used in an advertising campaign for Axminster carpets. See them in our Challenge of Materials gallery.

5. Your worst fears, bottled

Found in the Who Am I? gallery

Some fears and phobias that you can probably relate to, and some others that maybe you can’t. Scientists still don’t know why and how we develop some of our more bizarre phobias. See more phobias in our Who Am I? gallery.

6. Toilets, as you’ve never seen them before

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

These two can be found with several other loos on display – how do they compare with yours at home? The one on the left didn’t have a flush mechanism, you would have had to pour a jug of water down the bowl to wash away your business!

7. Play the video game that launched video games

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

You could say that Angry Birds wouldn’t be here without it, it’s Pong, the first ever home video game. Have a go in the Secret Life of the Home gallery and see how you score.

8. Underwater Rolex

Found in the Measuring Time gallery

This Rolex watch looks like a bubble for a reason, it can still function underwater at a depth of 7 miles. See this watch and over 500 timepieces in our Measuring Time gallery.

9. Middle-Eastern Super Sword

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Legend has it this 18th century sword is so strong it could slice right through a European broad sword. Scientists still don’t know how it was made to be so strong, but if you look closely you can see a beautiful ripple pattern on the blade, which may give a clue to it’s unique properties. See it in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

If you’re thinking about a trip to the Science Museum, why not try out the visit us pages to help you pick and choose what you’d like to see.

Making a Splash!

Katie Burke, who manages the Interactive galleries and Explainer team, talks about the development of the new Splash! app.

One of the things I love about my job within the Learning department is the variety of things I get to work on. When we were approached to help with the development of a new app aimed at our pre-school audience, I was really excited. I’m not particularly techy and I don’t know my RAM from my ROM but that didn’t matter – my role in the project was to make sure the app fitted in with the educational ethos of our children’s interactive galleries in the Museum.

The app was made in partnership with a digital agency called GR/DD. We knew we wanted the app to appeal to our pre-school audience so we looked to our most popular exhibits for this age group for inspiration. The water area in our Garden gallery is a firm favourite of our younger visitors and so it made sense to start there.

Garden water area

The water exhibit in the Garden gallery

GR/DD came up with an idea for an app in which children could experiment with floating, sinking and mixing colours within a bath tub environment. We all loved the idea. For me, bath time as a child holds some really happy memories so I really hoped we could recreate that playful atmosphere with the app.

MotionReactiveWater

Tiliting the screen causes the water to move

Choosing which objects to use in the app was a tricky process! They had to be instantly recognisable to children so that they could make the link between the object and how it behaves when it is put into water. During the development process I’d often show my team of Explainers the draft plans to see if they had any ideas or feedback based on their experience of working within the Garden gallery and it was really useful to get their input.

Early on in the process we all agreed that it was important to include a Parents’ Zone within the app. We wanted to provide some information for parents about how they could use the app to encourage the development of key scientific skills. In our interactive galleries we encourage learning through play and open questioning. For that reason, the Parents’ Zone includes hints and tips about open questions that parents can ask their children whilst they play the app or later on during real bath time.

PARENTS ZONE

Parents’ Zone – tips on how parents could use the app to encourage the development of key scientific skills

After months of development we are all so pleased with the final Splash! app. I love how the water on screen moves and flows as the device is tilted and turned, and the sounds that the objects make when they drop into the water. I think the app perfectly captures the fun atmosphere I remember as a child.

It’s aimed at pre-school children but in my experience the adults enjoy playing just as much as the children. In fact, we should probably add a footnote onto the app description which says “for big kids too!”

If this post has whet your appetite to play on Splash! make sure you run the hot tap to the top of the bath to see what happens – it’s my favourite bit!

Discover more about Splash! (priced at 99p) and our other apps here.

Opening the doors for Early Birds

Kate Mulcahy in the Learning team blogs on our Early Bird sessions in the Museum.

Museums are my favourite place to visit. I love to see interesting objects from history and to learn new facts, and I love the buzz of other people enjoying the Museum too. But for some of our visitors this isn’t so easy, and it was for this reason the Science Museum launched Early Birds.

A few times a year we open the museum from 08.30 in the morning for Early Birds, a free event for children who have an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) and their families. This gives families a chance to look around our galleries and take part in fun activities before the Museum opens at 10am. We even keep some galleries closed a little longer, just for our Early Birds visitors.

Visitors at Early Birds

Visitors at Early Birds

For people with an autistic spectrum condition, it can be difficult to be in a busy environment or even waiting in a queue. They can be particularly sensitive to light or sound which can make being near some of our interactive exhibits unpleasant. All of these factors can make it difficult for children who are on the autistic spectrum to visit the museum during our usual opening hours.

For Early Birds, we wanted to create an environment where families would feel safe, happy and could still enjoy visiting the museum. This might mean turning off the sound on some of our louder exhibits or simply creating a nice sensory space where families can go and chill out if they want a break. We also created a Visual Story for families to help prepare for what they might see in the museum.

We have already run many Early Birds sessions (one family has written about their experience here) and the team are busy organising our upcoming sessions for this year. If you would like to take part in Early Birds, there are more details here.

Your guide to becoming a Bubble-ologist

The Science Museum’s outreach team share some of their tips on creating the best bubbles.

Here in the outreach team it’s our job to travel the country (and sometimes the world) bringing exciting science shows and workshops into classrooms, school halls, fields and town centres.

We are often asked about what our favourite shows are, and everyone in the team has their own particular choice. But, our most popular show by far is most certainly The Bubble Show, last year we performed 149 of them!ronan bubble

So with that in mind we thought we’d share a few of our bubble secrets. Why not try them out this half term?

To make your bubble mix you will need:

D090445

Mostly warm water with a splash of washing-up liquid and some glycerol

We add glycerol (sometimes sold as glycerine) to our mix because it slows down the evaporation of the water. This means the bubbles can last longer and the bubble mix is great for making really big bubbles too. Remember, most of the mix is water, with only a small amount of washing-up liquid and glycerol – experiment with different proportions and see how your bubbles change.

You can buy glycerol from a high- street chemist but if you can’t get hold of any, sugar does the job as well. Just dissolve it in some warm water and add a little to your bubble mix. Sugar will make your bubbles sticky though!

Once you have your lovely bucket of bubble mix you can start to make bubbles using all sorts of things, here are a few ideas..

Why not make your own bubble trumpet?

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Or how about a giant bubble wand using a coat hanger? D090473 D090482

Have a look around the house and see what else you could use to make bubbles. Old tennis racquets are great for making lots of little bubbles all at once, even straws or plastic cups with the bottom cut off are great for blowing bubbles.

Check out this printable guide for making even more bubble-blowing devices, or come and catch a free Bubble Show at the Science Museum!

Did you know…

Bubbles are very colourful, but just before they pop they can appear to turn black. Bubbles will always try to form a sphere shape, this shape requires the least amount of energy as it reduces the surface area.

The world record for the largest free floating bubble was set by Jarom Watts in 2009, his bubble was 13.67m3.

Steampunk in the Science Museum

Our summer spectacular, The Energy Show, is staged in a steampunk world which blends the past and the future. Much inspiration for the show was taken from the Science Museum’s collection, especially the machines of The Energy Hall. Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, talks here about some of our ‘steampunk’ objects in the Museum. 

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Inv 1935-513

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Modern technology values function over anything else. Things are stripped down and smooth in appearance. Steampunk is a welcome kickback against this minimalist modern world we live in, reasserting the importance of form against function – and we can find this delicate balancing act played out in our collections.

Take this beam engine, for example. It’s a model of a full-size engine built in 1840 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton for a Leeds flax mill. It was an immense building, possibly the largest single room in the world. To animate the machines inside, Hick’s engine was certainly powerful, but in building it he gave full reign to his imagination. The result was  an Egyptian engine: It has columns with papyrus-headed capitals, a mighty entablature inspired by a temple overlooking the River Nile, and the ‘chronometric’ governor to control the engine’s speed takes the form of a scarab beetle.

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Later Victorian design became rather bulbous, even grotesque, in appearance. But Hick’s engine is a sinuous masterpiece of epic design and brute strength. It reminds us not only of our creative debt to bewhiskered, roaring, big-jawed machine-makers like Hick, but also the significance of amazing nineteenth century machines, not just as a means to the end of production, but as symbolising national affluence and virility. In our present situation, it’s a lesson worth remembering: if you mean business, build machines that shout it out to the world.

Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle telegraph, 1851, Inv 1884-95

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

A recurring theme in Steampunk is the application of nineteenth-century design ideas to modern digital technology: laptops, PCs, even memory sticks can be made antique with brass gearwheels, dials and mahogany cases.

Colliding state of the art technology with the Gothic isn’t just a recent thing, though. In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first successful telegraph system. It was mainly used on Britain’s evolving railway system, conveying messages via wires running alongside the tracks. A slightly lesser-known use of this pioneering system was to convey messages and reports across London, from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to clubs in St James’s.

The Electric Telegraph Company was formed in 1846 and this instrument was installed at the Houses of Parliament in 1851. As a ‘black box’ of purely functional appearance, it would have jarred badly against the Gothic Revival style adopted in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. So, the telegraph was fitted with its admirable Gothic casing, complete with pointed arch, finial, and delicately-realised columns. It must surely have lent a feeling of permanence and robustness to the room that it graced, reflecting the standing of Parliament – and also pre-empting one of the major pillars of steampunk.

Model of the side-lever engines of the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’, 1832. Inv 1900-41

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

The problem with modern technology is that so much of it is intangible, digital, virtual, ephemeral. This point of view certainly underpins many Steampunk projects.

It wasn’t always like this, of course: introducing steam power to ships during the nineteenth was the cutting edge of serious heavy metal technology, and was a highly demanding field to design machines for: engines couldn’t be too heavy, they had to have a low centre of gravity, they couldn’t take up too much space.

These prerequisites offered valuable motivation to innovate in engineering design styles. Rather than big, heavy, monolithic construction and great slab-sided machines, engineers evolved lighter cast-iron structures, with lots of space, openings, and details which could be embellished without adding too much weight. Gothic engines? Check.

This model was built in 1832 for the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’ by the London company Maudslay, Sons and Field. Maudslay was a prolific model-maker, trying out new ideas before committing to them full-size, and this model is one of the finest surviving. The delicate cast iron Gothic tracery of its framing would not look out of place in a cathedral – a very tangible record of the creative impulses afforded to engineering, and perhaps inspiration for those Steampunkers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Take a look at our own Steampunk set Science Museum Live: The Energy Show which runs until 31 August. Book tickets and find more information here.

How we created ‘i-nstein’, the animated character in The Energy Show

One of the main characters in The Energy Show is lab assistant i-nstein. Nina Dunn, responsible for Video Design and Animation Direction, and Mike Wyatt from Attack Animation were the masterminds behind bringing i-nstein to life. Take a look at their process here.

Design:
We started off with a few rough pencil sketches. Then some orthographic representations of the sketches were created in Photoshop. Extra detail was added into the basic form to add interest.

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3D Model:
Using a 3D computer program such as ‘Maya’, the orthographic illustrations are used as reference to build i-nstein as a 3D polygonal model. The pink dots in the middle image are the vertices of the model. A ‘vertex’ is a point in 3D space. The blue lines are the ‘edges’ of the polygons, they are drawn between two vertices. A ‘face’ can be rendered between at least three vertices.  It is best to use 4 vertices for each face, so the polygon which is drawn has 4 vertices and 4 edges draw between these vertices. We call these polygons ‘quads.’

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Rigging:
The next stage is called ‘rigging.’ This is where the puppet strings are built into the geometric model. The individual elements such as the eyebrows, the moustache, and the goggles are ‘skinned’ to curves and joints, before being placed under the influence of ‘controller curves.’ It is then possible to ‘pose’ each element of the model, and to achieve different emotions in the way in which each controller is positioned.

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Texturing:
The ‘texturing’ process is where we add colour and shading to the model.  The geometry is ‘mapped’, as if you were skinning an animal, so that the surface is laid out on a flat, 2D image. This is called ‘UV Mapping’. Using Photoshop, colour information can be painted onto these flat images, which the computer then wraps back around the model.

Texturing

Animation:
i-nstein is animated by posing him in different positions over time. The animator sets ‘keys’ on the time-line, and the computer fills in the spaces between the key frames. Once the animation is complete, a low quality ‘playblast’ movie is created so that the director can sign off the animation before the character is lit and rendered.

Animation

Lighting:
Once the animation of a shot is complete, the model is replaced with a higher resolution ‘mesh.’ This Mesh has a much higher ‘poly-count’ than the low quality ‘proxy mesh’ used for animation. The more polygons the software has to display, the slower the feedback, so this is why make the substitution at this stage. Once the lighter is happy with the general mood and look of this view a render can be made.

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Rendering:
A ‘render’ is a high quality, full resolution image of a particular frame of the animation. It brings all of the underlying elements together and outputs them as one single file. It can take a very long time for the computer to calculate. It took 60 seconds per frame to render i-nstein. There are 25 frames per second. To render 1 second of animation took 25 minutes. We produced about 9 minutes of animation, which took 225 hours to render. That’s almost 9 and a half days of rendering!

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i-nstein is starring in Science Museum Live: The Energy Show at the Science Museum until 31 August. Read more information and book tickets here.