Category Archives: powerful questions

The Echo of Creation – Astronomers Hear the B of the Big Bang

Dr. Harry Cliff, Curator of our Collider exhibition and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science explores one of the most important discoveries of a generation.

In what has been hailed as one of the most important discoveries of a generation, astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole have announced that they have detected gravitational tremors from the birth of our Universe imprinted across the sky. The result is the first direct evidence for inflation, the theory that the Universe expanded unimaginably fast, an infinitesimal instant after time zero.

The BICEP2 telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

The BICEP2 telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Credit: BICEP2

The theory of inflation states that the Universe grew in volume by about a factor of at least 1078, a number so vast that it’s impossible to comprehend (its roughly equal to the number of atoms in the universe). This phenomenal expansion took place in an incredibly short time, in about ten billionths of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, at a time when the Universe was cold, dark and empty. To put this in context, if the full stop at the end of this sentence were to grow by the same factor, it would end up about a hundred times larger than our galaxy.

Inflation is a crucial part of modern cosmological theories and solves many serious problems with the traditional Big Bang model, but so far there has been no direct evidence that it actually happened. However, inflationary theories predict that this violent expansion would have created ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves. These ripples would then have echoed through the cosmos, leaving a mark on the oldest light in the Universe, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Discovered fifty years ago by the American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (who at first mistook it for pigeon poo in their receiver), the CMB is the remnant of the light emitted 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the Universe cooled enough for atoms to form and for light to travel freely across space. The discovery of the CMB was one of the most important events in the history of science, providing convincing evidence that the Universe began in a violent hot expansion known as the Big Bang. This ancient light has been stretched from a searing hot 3000 Kelvin to a freezing 2.7 Kelvin by the expansion of space, leaving it as a faint microwave signal coming from the entire sky.

The BICEP2 telescope is based at the Amundsen-Scott station at the geographic South Pole, where temperatures plummet to below minus 70 degrees Celsius in the Antarctic winter and the base is buffeted by blizzards and gale force winds. Despite these incredibly hostile conditions, the BICEP2 telescope is in the perfect location to study the CMB.

The South Pole is around 3000 metres above sea level, and the driest place on Earth, meaning that there is relatively little atmospheric water vapour that would otherwise screen out the CMB signal. This comes with the added advantage that BICEP2 is able to scan the same small piece of sky all year round, by effectively looking straight down from the bottom of the planet to the point known as the celestial south pole.

BICEP2 astronomers spent almost three years scanning the CMB in incredible detail, but yesterday the freezing conditions and hard work paid off spectacularly as they revealed subtle twists in the CMB, a smoking gun for gravitational waves from inflation. In fact, the BICEP2 astronomers were surprised by just how strong the signal was. “This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said co-leader Clem Pryke.

Twists in the cosmic microwave background that provide evidence for inflation

Twists in the cosmic microwave background that provide evidence for inflation. Credit BICEP2

Although the result hasn’t been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal yet, most astronomers agree that the findings look solid. The fifty-strong BICEP2 team have been sitting on their historic result since the end of 2012, and have spent more than a year checking and rechecking to ensure they have taken account of every possible effect, from gravitational lensing to space dust, which might have given a false result.

So what does this mean for our understanding of our Universe? The BICEP2 result is really three Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries in one. They have found the first convincing evidence that inflation really happened, giving science its first glimpse of the moment in which the universe came into being. Second, they have found the strongest evidence yet for gravitational waves, the last prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity to be verified, and something that astronomers have been searching for for decades. Third, and by no means least, this discovery demonstrates a deep connection between quantum mechanics and gravity, giving hope that we may one day find evidence of a theory of everything, a theory that would unite our theory of particles and forces with our theory of cosmology and gravity. This would undoubtedly be the greatest prize in science.

If confirmed by other observatories, this incredible result will go down in history as one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century, eclipsing even CERN’s discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Nobel Prizes will almost certainly follow. More importantly, this result opens up a new window through which astronomers and cosmologists may, for the first time, glimpse the very moment of creation.

Explore more about astronomy in our Cosmos and Culture gallery and discover the mysteries of deep space in our Hidden Universe 3D IMAX film.

Wonderful Things: Peruvian Rubber Ball

Shaun Aitcheson from our Learning Support Team writes about one of his favourite Science Museum objects.

What do you think this is?

What is this?

Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst this may look like a rock or a big ball of old chewing gum, it’s actually a rubber ball. It was found in the grave of a Peruvian child, and is thought to date from 1590-1610. Rubber balls were invented by the Ancient Mesoamericans who used them in what was probably the first ever ball sport, a game similar to racquetball called the Mesoamerican Ballgame. This game was invented around 1600 BC, but could be even older. In some places, instead of a rubber ball, they would use a human head!

Image Credit: Marjorie Barrick Museum

Today we think of rubber balls as toys, but this one was most likely used as a funeral offering as a symbolic gesture towards the afterlife or perhaps even evidence of a human sacrifice to the gods.

Although this ball is only around 400 years old, it highlights just how long rubber has been used by humans. Incredibly, humans have been creating rubber for over 3500 years.

The first use of rubber was by the Olmec people (Rubber People) of South America. They would boil natural latex, a milky sap-like substance, which they ‘tapped’ from the rubber tree Hevea Brasiliensis, and mixed with the juice of a ‘morning glory’ vine. This created a very stretchy and extremely waterproof material. The Olmec’s used it to create items such as rubber balls, galoshes and waterproof cloaks.

Rubber wasn’t used greatly in the West until 1770 when an Englishman called Joseph Priestly, noticed that the material was very good at rubbing away pencil marks, hence the name ‘rubber’. Charles Mackintosh began using rubber to create his famous waterproof jackets in 1824. However, they were far from perfect as they melted in hot weather and smelled very bad!

Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock are responsible for producing the rubber we know today. In the 1840s they heated it in combination with sulphur to produce vulcanised rubber, strengthening it greatly. Thanks to the invention of the bicycle and motor car, rubber consumption soared as it was the perfect material for tyres, with its very durable and shock absorbent qualities.

The rubber ball can be found in Challenge of Materials, on the first floor of the Science Museum.

10 Bonkers Things About the World

We asked author and journalist Marcus Chown, who is speaking at this month’s Lates, to share his favourite science facts.

I’ve just published a book about how the world of the 21st century works. It’s about everything from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography. As I was writing it, I began to appreciate what an amazing world we live in – more incredible than anything we could possibly have invented – which is why I called my book What A Wonderful World. What better way to illustrate this than to list my Top 10 Bonkers Things About the World.

1. The crucial advantage humans had over Neanderthals was sewing

Human needles made from bone have been unearthed but never a Neanderthal needle. This has led to the speculation that the ability to sew baby clothes may have given human babies a crucial survival advantage during the cruel Ice Age winters.

2. You could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube

Sugar Cubes

Credit: Flickr/KJGarbutt

This is because atoms are 99.9999999999999% empty space. If you could squeeze all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the 7 billion people in the world, you could indeed fit them in the volume of a sugar cube.

3. Slime moulds have 13 sexes

No one knows why. But, then, nobody is sure why there is sex. The best bet, however, is that it evolved to outsmart parasites. Parents, by shuffling together their genes, continually create novel offspring to which parasites are not adapted.

4. You age more quickly on the top floor of a building than the ground floor

This is an effect of Einstein’s theory of gravity, which predicts that time flows more slowly in strong gravity. On the ground floor of a building, you are closer to the mass of the Earth so gravity is marginally stronger and time flows marginally more slowly (If you want to live longer – move to a bungalow!)

5. J. J. Thomson got the Nobel prize for showing that an electron is a particle. His son got it for showing that it isn’t

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The ultimate building blocks of matter – atoms, electrons and so on – have a strange dual nature, behaving simultaneously like tiny, localised billiard balls and spread-out waves. The truth is they are neither particles nor waves but something for which we have no word in our vocabulary and no analogy in the familiar, everyday world.

6. You are 95% alien

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies.

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

That’s right. 95% of the cells in your body do not belong to you. They are microorganisms hitching a ride. Many are essential like the gut bacteria that help you digest your food. You get all the alien microorganism only after you are born – from your mother’s milk and the environment. You are born 100% human but die 95% alien!

7.  Brains are so energy hungry most organisms on Earth do without them

Sections through the brain

Sections through the brain. Credit: Florilegius/SSPL

The best illustration of this comes from the juvenile sea squirt. It swims through the ocean looking for a rock to cling to and make its home. When it finds one, it no longer needs its brain so it… eats it!

8.  Babies are powered by rocket fuel

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Rockets combine liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen to make water. This liberates just about the most energy, pound for pound, of any common chemical reaction. Babies – and in fact all of us – do the same. We combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen stripped from our food. The energy liberated drives all the biological processes in our bodies.

9.  There was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes for 1.4 million years

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Palaeoanthropologists call it the ‘1.4 million years of boredom’. It could be of course that our ancestors made tools from wood, which decayed, or from bone, which are impossible to distinguish from natural bones. And, just because tools did not change, does not mean nothing was happening. All kinds of things that left no record may have been going on such as the taming of fire and the invention of language.

10. 98% of the Universe is invisible

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968. Credit: NASA

Only 4 per cent of the mass of the Universe is made of atoms – the kind of stuff, you, me, the stars and planets are made of – and we have seen only half of that with our telescopes. 23% of the Universe is invisible, or “dark”, matter, whose existence we know of because it tugs with its gravity on the visible stuff. And 73% is dark energy, which is invisible, fills all of space and has repulsive gravity which is speeding up the expansion of the Universe. If you can find out what the dark matter or dark energy is, there is a Nobel prize waiting for you!

Find out more at this month’s Lates or in Marcus Chown’s book What A Wonderful World: One man’s attempt to explain the big stuff (Faber & Faber).

Mission to Mars

Tanya, our Learning Resources Project Developer, blogs on potential missions to Mars and discussing them in the classroom. For more on our Talk Science teachers’ courses, click here.

We are in an interesting period of space travel; news from the past year has been filled with findings from the Curiosity rover and stories of possible manned missions to Mars. For me the release of Mars Explorer Barbie confirmed ‘Mars Mania’ is upon us. There are big questions surrounding the ethics and feasibility of sending humans to Mars, however proposals keep emerging which hope to do so, many of which are private enterprises.

One interesting example is the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which in 2018 plans to perform a Mars flyby, over a period of 501 days, with a married couple as its crew. Another, Mars One, seems to have really captured the public’s imagination.

It may sound like science fiction, but Mars One hopes to establish a colony on Mars by 2023. The plan is to use existing technologies, such as solar power and water recycling, to create a permanent habitat for the astronauts. Over the next ten years they will send rovers, satellites, living units, life support systems and supply units to Mars ready for the arrival of the first settlers in 2023.

Three generations of Mars rovers

Three generations of Mars rovers, including Curiousity far right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Applications for the first round of astronauts closed recently; over 200,000 people, from more than 140 countries applied. Six teams of four will be selected for training, with further opportunities opening every year. The crew will learn medical procedures, how to grow food on Mars, and how to maintain the habitat and rovers. In 2024 a second crew will depart Earth, with four new settlers arriving every two years until 2033, when 20 people should be living on Mars.

This incredibly challenging mission is estimated to cost $6 billion. Interestingly part of the funding will come from a reality TV show which will follow the teams from their recruitment through to their first few years living on Mars. In addition to high costs the team will face Mars’ fiercely hostile environment; high levels of radiation, low gravity, little atmosphere, high impact from the solar winds, and water sources frozen underground. If successful the astronauts will make history, but it won’t be easy and they will never breathe fresh air again.

Picture of mars, taken by the Spirit rover.  Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Picture of mars, taken by the Spirit rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

The mission throws up many interesting questions from both a personal and technological perspective. Maybe try hosting your own debate on the subject, or if you’re a teacher, you could try raising the issues with your students using one of our discussion formats.

Should we send humans to Mars?
How would you feel if a loved one volunteered for a one-way mission to mars?
Do you think that current technologies could sustain life on Mars?

If you want to build your skills for using discussion in the classroom further, we are running the Talk Science teachers’ course in London on 29th November. For details of how to sign up click here.

Wonderful Things: Frost Ornithopter

Becky Honeycombe from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite objects in the Museum. 

Have you ever dreamed of being able to fly like a bird?  Well if you have, you’re certainly not alone.  The ability to fly has been a human obsession for thousands of years.  One of the earliest references to bird-like flight is found in the Ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus who attached feathers to their arms to escape captivity.  However, the story ends in tragedy for Icarus as after a brief flight he crashes to the ground.  Sadly, this has been the fate for many humans who have tried to imitate the story and reach the skies, either by attaching wings to their bodies or by making flying machines that mimic a bird’s flight.

Frost's experimental ornithopter, c 1900. Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

Frost’s experimental ornithopter, c 1900.
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These machines are known as ornithopters and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the earliest designs were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century, but perhaps one of the strangest can be seen in our Flight gallery. The Frost ornithopter, created in 1904 by Edward Purkis Frost, was designed to replicate the wings of a crow. He used both real and imitated feathers combined with an internal combustion engine in an attempt to get his machine off the ground. Frost avidly studied flight and designed a number of contraptions between 1868 and his death in 1922. Despite his best flight being only a ‘jump’ off the ground and his witnessing the development of the conventional aeroplane, Frost remained convinced he had pursued a worthy cause. When asked about his studies towards the end of his life he stated ‘I do not begrudge the time and trouble I expended upon the attempt. The investigations opened my eyes to the wonders of nature. It is a beautiful study’.

University of Toronto's human-powered plane

University of Toronto’s human-powered plane. Photo courtesy of Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies

Incredibly, despite the prominence and success of conventional fixed wing aircraft, contemporary scientists continue to be as fascinated as Frost with constructing the perfect ornithopter. In 2010 the University of Toronto successfully achieved the first level sustained flight by a human-powered ornithopter flying 475 ft over 19.3 seconds.

However, despite this success it may not be propelling man into the sky which eventually proves to be the best use for the ornithopter. Recent research has tended to focus on other uses of the technology such as conservation and surveillance. Researchers at the University of Illinois recently developed an ornithopter perfect for urban surveillance. Its ability to mimic the way a bird hovers and lands in confined spaces could make it ideally suited to cramped city conditions.

The history of ornithopters is long and varied, and research into their development and uses looks set to continue for a long time to come.

What other benefits might there be to using ornithopters?

Wonderful Things: The Drug Castle

Kate Davis, a Learning Resources Project Developer, discovers the story behind one of our more unusual objects.

The fifth floor of the Science Museum is a fascinating area, full of gory and often unusual paraphernalia related to the history of medicine. One of the more unusual objects lurking in this gallery is the Drug Castle.

How long did this take to build?

A castle constructed from pills, capsules and medicine containers.

Our knowledge of medicine and how civilisations have treated illness and disease stretches all the way back to the earliest writings on the subject from Ancient Egypt. However, the ways in which people have treated illness has not changed very much over the centuries. It is only during the last 200 years that scientific developments have gathered pace and enabled doctors to make huge breakthroughs in treatments. It is often easy for us, living in the 21st Century, to forget that as little as 100 years ago there was no penicillin, nobody knew the cause of rickets and there was no vaccine for tuberculosis. 

Now, we can mass produce a whole range of pills and potions for a variety of different ailments that had previously been untreatable. All of the syringes, pill bottles and tablets used to create the Drug Castle are real and it is a brilliant visualisation of how central the use of drugs has become to the treatment of illness in the developed world. However, this shift in how we treat disease does not come without its controversy.

The Drug Castle itself is a reminder of this as it was created to feature in a poster campaign by the East London Health Project in 1978. This campaign aimed to raise questions about whether pharmaceutical companies were more interested in making money or making their medicines available to all. Health care is extremely costly and is frequently an issue that is considered and debated by governments worldwide as they try to provide the best health care they can for their citizens with the funds that they have available to them.

There are also significant issues with the effectiveness of the drugs that are prescribed by doctors.  One of the primary examples of this is with antibiotics, that when first manufactured, were very effective at treating infections, but now are less so because the bacteria has mutated so that antibiotics, such as penicillin, are not as useful. Therefore, in order to keep treating infection scientists will need to develop new drugs that can combat these more virulent illnesses.

Should we keep creating new drugs for antibiotic resistant bugs – or do we need to change the way we take medicines?

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

What *should* we be worried about?

By Pippa Murray and Will Stanley

Ask most people what is worrying them and their answer is often personal. Ask leading thinkers and you could end up worried yourself.  The latter was put to the biggest science minds for this year’s annual question – What should we be worried about? – from the good people at Edge.

Each year, this online literary salon poses a new question – previous examples include ‘What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ and ‘What will change everything?’ – and requests that each contributor responds with a scientifically informed argument. The aim is to step away from the pressing news of the day, and share something new and thought provoking.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950
Credit © Photography Advertising Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

With this in mind it seems right to start with Larry Sanger’s essay, the co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, which looks at the rise of internet silos. In Sager’s opinion, these online websites for news or opinion breed hostility and single mindedness by hosting ‘objectively unsupportable views that stroke the egos of their members,’ that make us ‘overconfident and uncritical’ about the world around us.

Continuing on the theme of modern technologies, Nicholas HumphreyEmeritus School Professor at the London School of Economics, raises his concerns on fast knowledge. While many view today’s easy access to smartphones, search engines and the information that they provide us at the click of a button as a good thing, Humphrey argues the opposite. He states that nowadays, ‘everyone finds themselves going to the same places, when it’s the arrival and not the journey that matters, when nothing whatever memorable happens along on the way, I worry that we end up, despite our extraordinary range of experience, with less to say.’

In contrast to Sanger and Humphrey, Simon Baron-Cohen dissects an age old debate, that of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ from 1969. In his essay, Baron-Cohen recognizes the efforts of literary agents and publishers to make science more accessible, particularly to non-scientists, but states that in other fields of science, such as sex differences in the brain, these two cultures remain separated by a deep chasm.

Among these 140 contributors is one from our own Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, who argues the need for more science heroes to step forward, stating that ‘When it comes to selling the magic of science we need to accept that the most powerful way is through heroic stories.’ Highfield worries about the decline of scientific heroes, because their function as ‘viral transmitters of science in the crowded realm of ideas’ is of vital importance. He concludes that scientific literacy is vital for a modern democracy to function.

Other contributors, such as Steven Pinker, take an alternative approach, eliminating some of the problems that people fixate on. In Pinker’s case he looks at the causes of war, suggesting new and more relevant approaches to these worries. Kevin Kelly chose to turn the focus of a well known topic on its head, sharing the lesser-known worry of under-population.

And while reading all these essays may lead you to worry about many more things than you usually do, a common theme of these essays is the importance of sharing knowledge and challenging the status quo in today’s society, which is not such a bad idea after all.

Read more of what you should be worying about here

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Heroes of Science

“If science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.” This was the key message from Dr. Roger Highfield, our Director of External Affairs, and this year’s recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, at his Royal Society lecture ‘Heroes of Science’ earlier this week.

Modern science is now so often a global collaborative effort, with thousands of researchers joining forces on gigantic scientific undertakings such as the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and the Polymath Project. As research teams have become the norm in scientific discovery, many are asking is modern science is too big for heroes?

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Roger disagrees, arguing in his lecture (and in this Daily Telegraph article) that “it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants.” The likes of Isaac Newton or Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes before dying due to prolonged radiation exposure, provide inspirational stories of scientific discovery, and these stories continue to this day through figures such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

These scientists would never claim to have worked alone, but this is often how they are portrayed. In the crowded realm of ideas, heroes are often the most viral transmitters of the values of science. Our fascination with heroes could perhaps be explained by recent brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, which show the existence of a hard-wired fondness for narratives in us all.

EEG hat

An EEG hat, used to measure brain activity

Roger ended his lecture with a final thought on the use of metaphors to convey complex ideas, noting that by the same token, heroic characters who appreciate scientific discovery are needed to express a vivid sense of the way science works.

The Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar lecture is given annually on a subject relating to the history, philosophy or social function of science. The accompanying Medal is named in memory of three Fellows of the Royal Society, John Desmond Bernal, Peter Medawar, and John Wilkins, the first Secretary of the Society. Previous recipients of the Medal include Melvyn Bragg, who lectured on the history of the Royal Society, and Professor David Edgerton, who discussed twentieth century science and history.

Ask a Curator Day

Is there a question you’d always wanted to ask a curator of the Science Museum, but never had the chance to ask before? Maybe what’s your favourite object? What’s the most famous object in your collection? Or why do you like working at the museum?

Science Museum

Well, tomorrow is your chance to ask those burning questions, because it’s Ask a Curator Day – a worldwide Q&A session which lets you put questions to museums around the world, and the Science Museum in London is taking part!

A crack team of Science Museum curators and other staff members will be standing by online to answer you – so start thinking of your questions now.

All you have to do is send your questions to us via Twitter using the #askacurator hashtag. Anyone can follow the questions using the hashtag, and we’ll be sharing the best questions (and answers) throughout the day.

We’ll do our best to answer your questions, although some might take us a little while and we can’t guarantee to answer every single one. Particularly insightful questions that we want to answer at length may well become the basis of a future blog post, like these two posts from David Rooney, our Transport Curator, on how we got the planes in our collection into the Flight Gallery on the third floor!

Wonderful Things: Human Genome books

From Keith Richards to Jordan, books about people’s lives fly off the shelves. But what if they looked like this….?

Dense bedtime reading in the Human Genome books

Created from the Human Genome Project, these replica books (a printed version can be seen at the Wellcome Collection) show the sequence of 3 billion bases of DNA contained within a human cell.

Who did this?

 Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome project, coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the national institutes of health, intended to identify human genes, develop understanding of genetic diseases and highlight key developmental processes of the human body.  Whilst initial analysis was released in 2001, the final sequence was completed in 2003.

 What exactly were they looking at?

They were looking at the biological data which makes us unique; the things which make us, us.

 Sounds simple. What about the Science?

Ok. To start with, a genome is all in the DNA in an organism, including its genes which carry information for making proteins.

DNA is composed of four letters carrying instructions for making an organism – A, C G AND T.  Three of these letters together create an Amino Acid. These combinations make up 20 different amino acids and come in a vast number of different orders to create proteins from keratin to haemoglobin.

 Got it.

The human genome is made up of 3 billion bases of DNA, split into 24 chromosomes. Each chromosomes contains a selection of genes – the human genome contains about 20,000 – 25,000 genes.

 Ah, so that’s all the letters?

Exactly. This information can be used to develop new ways to diagnose, treat and someday prevent diseases. Scientists also studied the genetic makeup of non-human organisms including e.coli, the fruit fly and a laboratory mouse.

 Sounds useful, if not a bit sci-fi.

 Yes and, as with much boundary-pushing scientific research, this can lead to opposition and criticism. This was the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues around data.  You might want to think about:

  1. Who should have access to this information?
  2. How much should people intervene with genetics material?
  3. How could this information be used?
  4. Could it be used for financial benefits?

 After all that, fancy some beach reading? 

 The Human Genome book is in the Who Am I? Gallery:  first floor, Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby