Category Archives: Science Museum

Next mission revealed for Dr Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space

Dr Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, today declared that she would like to join the director of the Science Museum on a space flight during the launch of the museum’s most ambitious exhibition ever, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Dr Valentina Tereshkova and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford stand in front of Vostok 6 in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Dr Valentina Tereshkova and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford stand in front of Vostok 6 in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

With the director, Ian Blatchford, and Dr Tereshkova was Sergei Krikalev a veteran of six space flights and eight space walks who, until very recently, held the record for the amount of time in space – 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes.

Mr Blatchford had joked with them that he would like to be launched into orbit explaining how, after spending five years on the project, he has great connections and ‘great moral strength – but am a physical coward.”

Tereshkova looked at him and said, in English, “together.”

To the cheers of the press pack, she explained in Russian: “If you and I went together, this would be the best proof of British-Russian cooperation.”

She said that the fact the exhibition was held in London in the Science Museum was “very symbolic of good cooperation between British and Russian scientists – of course we would like it to be broader and deeper.”

She was reunited in the museum with the spacecraft that was her home for almost three days, Vostok 6 (Russian: Orient 6) , which was launched on June 16, 1963.

Dr Valentina Tereshkova and Vostok 6 in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Dr Valentina Tereshkova and Vostok 6 in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

That same mission made her the first civilian in space and she remains the only woman to have flown a solo space mission.

Dr Tereshkova added that every time she sees the craft, with its scorched heat-shield, she strokes it and says. “My lovely one, my best and most beautiful friend, my best and most beautiful man.”

It emerged that the Soviet scientists and engineers had forgotten a key provision when she was launched: a toothbrush. When asked how she coped, she said: “I was very resourceful, as any woman would be. I had my hands and I had water.”

But she added that, of course, this was nothing compared with a serious engineering error that made her spacecraft ascend ‘up and up’ rather than descend to Earth. “I discovered that mistake, reported it back to ground control and we corrected it.”

She implored the mastermind behind the Soviet space programme Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, not to punish the engineer responsible. He said I want your word you would never tell anyone about it, especially journalists. I kept the secret for 30 years whereas the engineer himself told the whole world. Cosmonauts can keep their word  – both men and women. Particularly women.”

Re-entry of her module was on a steep ‘ballistic trajectory,’ she explained, and it was hard to control. ‘There were huge overloads for the spaceship.”

She ended up over the Altai region of what is now the Russian Federation and “at a height of seven kilometres, I catapulted out of the spacecraft and parachuted down to Earth.”

At one point she thought she might end up in a lake. “I begged god not to land on water. God heard my prayers and allowed me to land on the shores of that lake.”

When asked if she was disappointed that there have been so few woman cosmonauts recently, she replied: “Of course I was disappointed, we were all disappointed.” But she added: “The attitude to women will change: do you hear me!”

The exhibition has several cosmonaut-flown space craft and other objects that capture the birth of the space age – and mark those extraordinary Soviet firsts that saw humans leave Earth for the first time.

Krikalev said that he was lucky to learn so much from  pioneering cosmonauts such as Dr Tereshkova.

The launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (L-R) Dr Valentina Tereshkova, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford and Sergei Krikalev © Science Museum

The launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (L-R) Dr Valentina Tereshkova, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford and Sergei Krikalev © Science Museum

Apart from his remarkable space endurance records, he is famous for being in orbit in a space station when the Soviet Union turned into the Russian Federation. “Our operations in space were more stable than what was happening down on Earth.”

When it comes to the future of spaceflight, Krikalev said the useful life of the International Space Station will be extended to 2020, perhaps 2024.

He explained that the US and Russia are developing new spacecraft to fly beyond low Earth orbit, and Russia is considering ‘building a lunar station.”

Tereshkova added that ‘The first priority is the moon.”

Mr Blatchford said that Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age shows how, decades before manned flight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was imagining space flight and accurately predicting much of what followed. He cited Tsiolkovsky’s famous remark: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”

His work inspired a whole generation. The exhibition covers milestone missions such as Luna 9, which carried out the soft landing on the Moon in 1966 (just after Korolev died), Venera 7 – first ever landing on another planet in 1970 (Venus),  and the remarkable Russian expertise in long endurance missions, such as Mir.

Venera 7 lander and parachute (engineering model, 1970) in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Venera 7 lander and parachute (engineering model, 1970) in Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Mr Blatchford thanked Doug Millard, space curator, who has spent almost a decade on this project, the Russian Ministry of Culture, The State Museum and Exhibition Centre (Rosizo), The Russian Space Agency (Roscomos), United Space and Rocket Corporation, British Council and the exhibition’s Lead Sponsor: BP.

On visiting the exhibition, Professor Brian Cox said: “I think you will leave the Cosmonauts exhibition with a different view of humanity’s place in the cosmos.”

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is open from 18 September 2015 – 13 March 2016. The exhibition is supported by BP and has additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.


Building Bridges – ‘Guardians of the Gallery’ VIP event for students

Anna Fisher, Learning Resources Project Coordinator, shares the latest news from the Building Bridges project.

An amazing VIP late-night event occurred at the Science Museum last week for students involved in the Building Bridges project.  The students have been working with us all year and this special celebration was a chance for them to show off the work they have done to their families, and get involved in a variety of exciting activities such as extracting strawberry DNA, eating ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, testing their tolerance of chillies and getting creative with SM:Art Mechanics.

Liquid nitrogen ice cream tasting © Science Museum

For the past three years the Building Bridges project has been working with schools across London and Reading to expose and engage students with science inside and outside the classroom, and at home with their families. All of the students involved have followed a year-long programme made up of Outreach shows, classroom resources, museum activities, workshops with research scientists and family activities.

The project hopes to use the new resources that have been developed to better engage families in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). All of the resources have been researched throughout the project and we hope that they will help support both informal and formal learning.

This year students have all worked really hard and contributed to their own exhibition, ‘Guardians of the Gallery’, which was showcased at the VIP event. This exhibition showcased objects that the students had chosen to represent how science and technology helps us to solve everyday problems. For example, a dress made from LEDs with a solar-powered handbag was chosen as something that you could wear to a VIP event, a self-driving car was the travel option of choice for one student working out how they were going to get to their holiday destination, and a daylight simulating lamp was suggested by one student as something that would help them get up early.

Guardians of the gallery exhibition © Science Museum

With the help of some incredible teachers, wonderful students and the helpful teams within our Learning department, the Building Bridges project has been able to develop and deliver a number of new, successful activities and events for this year’s programme. We are looking forward to meeting the students taking part in the project next year, and using the research findings to increase science engagement and literacy even further.

If you are looking for exciting activities for your family in the Museum head to our events calendar to see what’s on.  The Learning team run fun free science shows in the Museum every day of the week, with extra workshops, storytelling, drama characters and family-friendly tours at weekends and during the school holidays.

Professor Stephen Hawking gives London’s Guest of Honour a tour of the Museum

This week, Professor Stephen Hawking gave London’s Guest of Honour, Adaeze Uyanwah, a personal guided tour of the Science Museum.

Describing the museum as one of his favourite places, the Cambridge University cosmologist told Adaeze “It helped fuel my fascination with physics and I have been coming here for decades.”

Professor Stephen Hawking arrives at the Museum and greets Guest of London Adaeze

Professor Stephen Hawking arrives at the Museum and greets London’s Guest of Honour, Adaeze

The tour, which lasted more than an hour, is one of a series of magic moments for Adaeze, 24, from California, who beat off over 10,000 international entrants to win a trip of a lifetime to London.

Adaeze and Professor Hawking  were formally welcomed by Ian Blatchford, Director, and Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Board of Trustees.

The tour reflected Professor Hawking’s passion for space travel, cosmology and the museum itself. In the Energy Hall, he talked about the science of thermodynamics and his prediction that black holes would emit radiation, now called Hawking radiation, which has been highly influential  in fundamental physics.

In the Making the Modern World gallery, he pointed out the command module of Apollo 10, launched in May 1969 as a dress rehearsal for the first Moon landing, and in the Exploring Space gallery, a model of the Apollo 11 moon lander, telling Adaeze “it is important we continue human space exploration”.

Curator Doug Millard, who accompanied the tour alongside fellow Curators Alison Boyle and Andrew Nahum, carefully opened the Apollo 10 command module. Adaeza had the rare opportunity to peer inside the module, which carried astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan to within 14 kilometres of the surface of the Moon.  Professor Hawking also had the opportunity to peer inside, with the help of a camera on a stick.

Curator Doug Millard showing Adaeza the inside of the Apollo 10 command module

Curator Doug Millard showing Adaeza the inside of the Apollo 10 command module

Professor Hawking introduced Adaeze to items from the collection that hold special significance for him, including a rare copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, one of the most important books in science, and an iPad portrait of him drawn for a 70th birthday exhibit in the museum by David Hockney, about which he commented: “I’m still not quite sure about the fingers.”

He also discussed his speech synthesiser, the first version of which is in the museum’s collections. “I was happy to lend my voice recently to Eddie Redmayne recently to give him a bit of a boost in his efforts to win an Oscar. Unfortunately, Eddie did not inherit my good looks.”

Voice synthesiser

Voice synthesiser

During the tour, which included the double helix, Adaeze asked Professor Hawking what of our common shortcomings as human beings would he alter, and what of our virtues would he magnify, if it were possible. He replied:

“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory, or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all. A major nuclear war would be the end of civilization, and maybe the end of the human race. The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”

Adaeze said that Professor Hawking’s tour of the Science Museum was a once in a life time experience which would stay with her:

“It’s incredible to think that decades from now, when my grandchildren are learning Stephen Hawking’s theories in science class, I’ll be able to tell them I had a personal meeting with him and heard his views first hand. It’s something I’ll never forget and I’m so grateful to him and the Museum for this awesome experience.”

Professor Hawking and Adaeza in front of a model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander

Professor Hawking and Adaeza in front of a model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander

Professor Hawking, who is a fellow of the museum, has been visiting since his childhood.”When we were young, my mother used to leave me at the science museum, my sister, Mary, at the Natural History Museum, and my younger sister, Philippa, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the end of the day, my mother collected us all.”

Each year around one million school age children visit the museum, which plays a fundamental role in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.


Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake: Britain’s First Female Surgeon

Curator Helen Peavitt and Stephanie Millard uncover the life of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, who is celebrated in a new Science Museum display

The medical achievements of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, come under the spotlight in a new display at the Science Museum. If her name isn’t familiar then it certainly deserves to be. One hundred years ago she was busy writing to every woman on the medical register to enlist their help in setting up hospitals to treat soldiers injured on the eastern battlefields of the First World War. 

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

Aldrich-Blake’s war work saw her, temporarily, leave the shores of Britain. In 1915 she crossed the Channel to work as surgeon for the Anglo-French Red Cross in the 600-bed field hospital at Abbaye du Royaumont near Paris. Conditions there were certainly very difficult. Louisa characteristically rose to the challenge, seeking out every trace of bullet fragments from the war-torn bodies of those under her knife. Such determination earned her the nickname of ‘Madame Générale’ from her patients.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.  Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.
Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The work of Louisa and her fellow female doctors serving overseas helped turn the tide of popular opinion back home in their favour. Their skill and dedication in treating soldiers, often close to the front line, was widely recognised and welcomed – helping to silence the War Office, which was initially reluctant to enlist the help of female medical staff. Furthermore, their example inspired other women to enter medical school for the first time.

By the time war broke out Louisa’s own medical career was already distinguished. She enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1887 aged 22, along with a handful of other new students. Her ambition was largely driven by a deeply held desire to do ‘something useful’. After completing her bachelor degree in medicine she quickly gained her Master of Surgery degree – the first British woman to do so. She also became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women.

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Aldrich-Blake also researched and pioneered new surgical methods to treat cervical and rectal cancers. In 1903 her paper on a new procedure to treat rectal cancer was published in the British Medical Journal. She was evidently extremely proud of this, because if you leaf through her notebooks – now held at the Wellcome Library in London – you will find a copy of the paper, carefully folded and pressed between the pages.

Aldrich-Blake’s contribution to medicine is celebrated in a statue erected in her honour in Tavistock Square in London – near the headquarters of the British Medical Association. You can visit the showcase exploring Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s life on the ground floor of the Science Museum.

Go on Punk, make my day!

Jon Milton from our Punk Science team writes about a new era for Punk Science.

Just like when you buy a pack of chewing gum and only have a £20 note, change is inevitable. And change has lifted its fickle finger and pointed at Punk Science. For those of you who are new to Punk Science may I suggest using the excellent search engine Google to familiarise yourself with our oeuvre. Or, if you can’t be bothered doing that, here’s a potted history. Punk Science is the world’s first museum based science comedy team. We started back in 2004 featuring the talents of Rufus Hound, Kat Nilsson, Brad Gross, Ben Samuels and myself. The line-up has changed over the years as has the format from more of a stand-up style, to a hybrid of stand up and the excellent science shows performed by the Science Museum’s brilliant Learning team.

But now, a new era is about to begin in Punk Science. With the immensely talented Dan Hope leaving to pursue his acting career we were faced with the unique challenge of finding someone who is both quite good at science communication and can be quite amusing at the same time. After an arduous selection process involving an assault course, a baking contest and a spelling test, it was Science Museum Explainer and comedian Sam Furniss who served up a particularly good millefeuille accompanied by an ability to spell millefeuille that lead to his selection.

What can you expect to see in the new era of Punk Science?

Punk Science: The Gameshow

Punk Science: The Gameshow

Some of the same stuff people liked from our extensive back catalogue along with the new game show featuring at Lates on the last Wednesday of every month. This is a new style of science show taking the conventional demonstrations based format and combining it with the competitive elements of a TV game show. The idea is to attract an adult audience who wouldn’t normally go to a science themed event by using main stream entertainment techniques. It’s the next generation of “The Generation Game”. For those of you, who aren’t familiar with “The Generation Game”, add it to the list of things to Google.

Punk Science: The audience

Punk Science: The audience

Tickets are available for the all new Punk Science: The Game Show via the Science Museum website. You can also catch them at NerdNite London this month, and next month at NerdNite Brighton as part of the Brighton Science Festival, as well as at The Angel Comedy Club.  Follow them on Twitter for updates and science-based comedy interjections.

Their children’s book “The Intergalactic Supermassive Space Book” is available via the Science Museum shop and at other good retailers.

Download the free, new Lates app and gain access to exclusive special offers and information about Lates. Available on Android and iPhone.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Chancellor Announces £3 Million Investment in Museum of Science & Industry

By Kate Campbell-Payne and Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne MP, today announced a £3 million investment to create a new special exhibition space at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

Speaking in the Museum at the official launch and celebration of Manchester as the European City of Science 2016, Europe’s greatest scientific gathering, the Chancellor set out further Government plans to prioritise science investment in the North West.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Mr Osborne said that it was ‘great to be back’ in the Museum, not just in an official capacity but as a local resident who visits with his children.

He told the audience of leading figures that Manchester was the first great scientific city in the modern world and that it was developing into a global force.

Today’s investment will allow the Museum to take forward ambitious plans to convert the brick-vaulted basement of its historic 1830 Warehouse – the first ever railway warehouse – into a venue for world-class exhibitions that will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

This will help shift the centre of gravity of the Science Museum Group towards the north and enable the Museum of Science & Industry to develop its own touring exhibitions, along the lines of Collider. ‘It is a real pleasure to be here as a near local MP and someone who believes passionately in the future of the city,” he said.

Director Sally MacDonald said the investment would enable the iconic site to create a ‘really stunning’ gallery: “With the support of our partners, we want to develop ground-breaking exhibitions that can tour internationally, shining a global spotlight on our collections and our great city of Manchester.”

She hopes the new gallery will help boost the current audience of around 700,000 visitors by tens of thousands more. “This is a place where ideas can change the world, from industrial revolution to today and beyond.”

Today’s announcement comes just days after the Chancellor announced plans for a £235 million Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research and Innovation at the University of Manchester. “I want it to be the best in the world,” he told the audience.

This, the centrepiece of investment plans for the region announced last week, will build on two centuries of innovation in developing materials that has underpinned Manchester’s rise as one of the first globalised industrial cities.

The £3 million Government investment in the Museum is in addition to an £800,000 grant that funded preparatory work, including the selection of the best location for the new exhibition space from across the Museum’s historic 7.5 acre site.

It was at the Museum’s Power Hall in June that George Osborne announced his intention to create a “Northern supercity” to rival London, New York and other major cities by building HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds.

At the launch was Professor Brian Cox, who still lectures in the university and conducted a bioluminescence experiment in the Museum for primary schoolchildren, along with the Chancellor. He remarked on how, over the past decade, more and more children were inspired by STEM.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Prof Cox laid down a challenge to all the political parties in the coming election to ring fence the science budget, or indeed increase it, to match the huge research budgets of Germany and America.

Prof Cox said that the UK can indeed be the best place in the world to do science, building on its infrastructure of world class schools, universities and museums. “I am extremely optimistic about the future.”

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said that the city has a tally of around 25 Nobel Prize winners. “Science is at the heart of Manchester, its past present and future,” he said, adding that around 50,000 people in Greater Manchester are employed in science and technology.

Manchester is the home of many world changing science achievements:  John Dalton’s atomic theory of the 19th Century; the pioneering work of James Joule in thermodynamics; Rutherford’s work to reveal the atomic nucleus by smashing helium nuclei into gold foil;  the world’s first programmable computer in 1948; the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby, in 1978; and in 2004 when Manchester made headlines with  ’graphene’ an atom-thick wonder material.

That long history is celebrated throughout the Museum of Science & Industry and in its collections, ranging from Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame (1775) to the creation of Terylene, the world’s first wholly synthetic fibre (1941) , and the isolation of graphene just a decade ago.

The Museum is constantly innovating new ways to tell this story so as to make science accessible and enticing for its visitors, from its partnership with the largest STEMNET contract outside of London to the annual Manchester Science Festival.

The Museum’s major partnerships include relationships with the Wellcome Trust and the University of Manchester with whom the Museum is working on a new exhibition on graphene, which will open in 2016.

The Museum audience was also addressed by Rowena Burns, CEO of Manchester Science Partnerships, on the ‘limitless opportunities’ for life sciences in the region.  Plans for the European City of Science, “an unmatched opportunity to showcase our science and innovation to the world”, were outlined by Prof  Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester; and Professor Colin Bailey, Vice-President of the University of Manchester, told the audience that the new Sir Henry Royce Institute will “ hit the sweet spot in the innovation chain of materials” to speed their delivery from lab bench to market.

Science Museum IMAX plays host to Christopher Nolan and his Interstellar team

World-renowned director and blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan visited the Science Museum last night for a special screening of his latest acclaimed feature, Interstellar, in our IMAX Theatre.

He was joined by the film’s editor Lee Smith, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for an exclusive Q&A with BAFTA members hosted by writer and journalist Mark Salisbury.

Mark Salisbury, Christopher Nolan, Lee Smith, Paul Franklin and Hoyte van Hoytema at the Science Museum IMAX for a screening of Interstellar © Katherine Leedale

Mark Salisbury, Christopher Nolan, Lee Smith, Paul Franklin and Hoyte van Hoytema at the Science Museum IMAX for a screening of Interstellar © Katherine Leedale

The Science Museum IMAX is one of only four screens in the UK to show Interstellar in Nolan’s intended 70mm IMAX format, with one of the other three at our sister museum, Bradford’s National Media Museum. Presented in the highest quality resolution and combined with specially made IMAX sound, the experience is the most immersive presentation of Nolan’s most ambitious film to date.

On making his films a spectacular experience for audiences, Nolan has said: “IMAX is the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

Christopher Nolan during the making of Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan during the making of Interstellar.

Featuring an outstanding cast led by Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar draws on the scientific research of eminent physicist Kip Thorne whose theories centre here on traversable wormholes through space and time.

Screenings of Interstellar in IMAX 70mm continue at the Science Museum until Sunday 14 December. For tickets click here.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaks at Information Age reception

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told a Parliamentary reception to celebrate the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery he believes innovation will continue to overcome big challenges facing the world and specifically those facing the World Wide Web.

Solutions to data security will, he predicted, lie in what he called `redecentralising the web` through local storage of data. He told the audience of leaders from the world of science and technology that through `collaborative systems that are very much more powerful` the web will play an important part in solving massive global problems such as climate change and cancer.

The reception at Portcullis House was hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), whose Chairman Adam Afriyie MP, introduced Sir Tim, remarking that he didn`t think it was `possible to overstate his impact on the development of modern culture’.

Adam Afriyie MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) welcomes guests to the event.

Adam Afriyie MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) welcomes guests to the event. Image credit: Earl Smith

Speaking modestly about his invention (`the thing that started when I wrote a memo`), Sir Tim recalled some of what he called the `nifty things` CERN did at the outset, such as agreeing that it wouldn`t charge royalties and letting him have a `machine to code the thing up`.

Thanks to that same generosity of spirit at CERN, the Information Age Gallery is now home to `that machine` – the NeXT computer on which Sir Tim invented the web. Having told the audience a little about the transformation in communications technology in which he has played such a fundamental role, Sir Tim urged the audience to `go to the Science Museum and learn about it`.

Alongside lighter moments such as his impression of a dial up modem, Sir Tim said he and others would continue ‘carrying placards’ to defend their original vision of the web as ‘neutral, like a blank piece of paper’, recognising that this would lead to ongoing robust exchanges with governments and others around the world.

Guests, including Professor Dame Wendy Hall and parliamentarians such as Sir Peter Bottomley MP and Baroness Jay, were invited to explore exhibits provided by the Science Museum and meet the Information Age exhibition team, including lead curator Dr Tilly Blyth. Future technologies were represented by Cubic Transportation Systems and Elsevier, which each showcased examples of how big data is shaping business, including transportation systems.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications at Cubic Transportation Systems, which sponsored the event, spoke about the need to “get a balance between benefit and privacy”.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications, Cubic Transportation Systems.

Martin Howell, Director, Worldwide Communications, Cubic Transportation Systems. Image credit: Earl Smith.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum, spoke of her delight at the initial success of Information Age, which has already received 50,000 visitors, and thanked Sir Tim for his contribution to the gallery.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum.

Jean Franczyk, Deputy Director of the Science Museum. Image credit: Earl Smith

From the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America in minutes rather than weeks, to the advanced computing power of the modern smartphone, Information Age looks at the communication networks that created our modern connected world. The gallery features more than 800 stunning objects from a tiny thimble to the 6-metre high aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station that stands at its centre.

Last night’s event was attended by representatives of some of the organisations that helped to make Information Age possible such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT, ARM, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google, Accenture, Garfield Weston Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Bonita Trust and  Motorola Solutions Foundation.

The event followed last year’s successful reception for the Science Museum’s Collider exhibition, which was also hosted by POST and its Director, Dr Chris Tyler.

Earlier in the day, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham was among the guests at a POST seminar on Big Data and Governance.

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, 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.