Category Archives: Science news

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum and member of the Longitude Committee.

In a few days, the subject of the world’s greatest challenge prize – the £10 million Longitude Prize 2014 – will be unveiled by the BBC after an unprecedented public vote.

However, it became clear at a meeting held in the museum this week that the motivation to reincarnate the Longitude Prize on its 300th anniversary is not just a matter of money, though it is certainly newsworthy, nor is it simply the glory of being the first, or best, or most innovative.

As Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder put it, it is also because “we want a culture where kids aspire to be great scientists and get the societal recognition.”

And he hoped the prize, launched last year by the Prime Minister, would motivate those who lie outside the traditional spheres of well-funded grand institutions and specialised scholars and ‘tap into all the other crazy people out there.’

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum. Credit: Longitude Prize 2014

Longitude Lounge at the Science Museum. Credit: Longitude Prize 2014

Wales was addressing the Longitude Lounge, organised at the museum by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation who are developing and running the Prize, with support from the Technology Strategy Board. The aim is to ‘push innovation on the boundaries of the possible and impossible,’ Geoff Mulgan, Nesta Chief Executive, told leading innovators who had gathered at the museum.

The new prize is open to anyone, anywhere, he said. However, in a departure from the original, it is also down to the public to decide which of six challenges to tackle around low carbon flight, food and water security, and paralysis, antibiotic resistance and dementia (you can vote here).

The prize has been promoted on the BBC. Amazon is emailing its UK customers, estimated to be many millions, to encourage them to take part. And around 300 schools have registered to take part in the Longitude Prize schools programme.

How will the public vote? Wales said that the six challenges all have ‘different levels of public appeal and prizeability’ but, on balance, he backed the paralysis challenge, not least because it could benefit from a wide range of existing computer and machine assisted technologies.

Also speaking was Naveen Jain, entrepreneur and founder of Moon Express, who said he felt the public would back the water challenge ‘but it if is audacious, it has to be dementia.’

The third speaker, designer, artist and writer Daisy Ginsberg, picked the antibiotics and food challenges, though she felt that food was perhaps the more exciting. ‘We should put our money where our mouth is.’

Lord Rees, who chairs the Longitude Committee, said that once the public had voted, an expert group would formulate the rules for the prize (‘that is going to be the difficult part’) but he added that he hoped the remaining areas would find commercial sponsors.

He said that it was inspirational to have the meeting in the Science Museum, ‘the greatest shrine to science, technology and innovation.’

Lord Rees added that he hoped that he would not be as curmudgeonly as his Longitude predecessor, Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 and sat on the first Board of Longitude.

Click here to vote for the Longitude Prize 2014. Voting closes on 25 June 2014. For more on the history of the Longitude Prize click here

Longitude Prize 2014

Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and Chair of the Longitude Prize 2014 Committee, blogs on the launch of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The prowess of the nation’s historic achievements in science and technology is displayed for all to see in the Science Museum – a cathedral to the history of science where visitors can share in the celebration. The Museum is unique in its ability to allow us to reflect on our past achievements, while also inspiring future generations to keep pushing forward the frontiers of science and technology.

I’m pleased to be involved in a new project that I also hope will inspire the next generation of British scientists. Developed and run by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as a funding partner and launched this week on Horizon (Thursday 9pm, BBC2), the Longitude Prize 2014 will give innovators an incentive to grapple with a global problem and to produce a solution that will benefit humankind. Anyone who can find the solution will be rewarded with a multi-million pound prize.

The Longitude Prize 2014 is being launched on the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act where the British government offered £20,000 to find a way for sailors to determine their Longitude at sea.

At that time seafaring vessels were vital to the booming economy of Britain, and to prevent massive loss of life from shipwrecks was a government priority. Many intriguing innovations were developed to ‘discover’ longitude. Eventually, the fund was awarded to John Harrison, for his Marine Chronometer.

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

John Harrison with his marine chronometer, c 1767. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Today, we live in a period of accelerated change as modern technology revolutionises every aspect of our daily lives:  communications, travel and health. There are many challenges that we face both nationally and globally.

The new Longitude Prize gives the chance for everyone to express a view on which area deserves top priority and offers the greatest scope. We’ve identified six challenges for public consideration. Through a text and online vote, anyone can influence which of these six challenges will become the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014.

The Longitude Prize 2014 Challenges:

Water
Water is a finite resource and we must seek to find ways of producing more fresh water. Some 98% of the Earth’s water is too salty for drinking or agriculture and as water requirements grow and as our reserves shrink, many are turning to desalination. However the current desalination technology isn’t optimal for small-scale use.

Antibiotics
Antibiotics have changed the face of healthcare for the better; they on average add 20 years to over lives. 80 years on from the discovery of penicillin, we are still unable to distinguish bacterial from viral infections, or the type of bacteria in the clinic, which has caused the overuse of antibiotics and the evolution of multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Dementia
An ageing population means more people are developing dementia and unfortunately there is currently no existing cure. This means there is a need to find ways to support a person’s dignity, physical and emotional wellbeing and extend their ability to live independently.

Paralysis
Paralysis can emerge from a number of different injuries, conditions and disorders and the effects can be devastating. Every day can be a challenge when mobility, bowel control, sexual function and respiration are lost or impaired. We need to find a way to vastly increase the freedom of movement for people with paralysis.

Food
The world’s population is growing, getting richer and moving to cities. Current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be about 9 billion people on the planet; moreover our tastes will have turned to more resource-hungry foods such as meat and milk. In the face of limited resources and climate change, we must learn how to feed the world with less.

Flight
The rapid growth of carbon emissions caused by air travel needs to be addressed to help tackle climate change. The potential of zero-carbon flight has been demonstrated but it has had little impact on the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, which still relies exclusively on fossil fuels. We need to bring novel technologies into the mainstream to stimulate a significant change.

The Science Museum opens the world of science and technology to everyone. I hope that the Longitude Prize 2014 will stimulate wide interest, as well as encouraging inventors and innovators.

Please watch Horizon and then cast your vote to decide which of these challenges you would like to win the Longitude Prize 2014.

Visitors to the Science Museum Lates on 28 May can discover more about the Longitude Prize 2014, with further information available at longitudeprize.org

Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

Chancellor launches gender agenda at Science Museum

By Will Stanley and Roger Highfield

A major government campaign was launched today at the Science Museum to boost the numbers of young people —especially women — studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Announced by George Osborne MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Your Life campaign has the ambitious aim of increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects by 50% over the next three years.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life.

Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of Your Life. Credit: Science Museum

There is plenty of evidence that women and minorities face an uphill struggle in UK science. As one sign of the prevailing concern, 600 people joined us this morning for the launch of Your Life, which includes a three year exhibition at the Science Museum.

Fewer than 20% of 16-19 year olds take A-Level Maths and half of mixed state schools have no girls study A-Level Physics in 2011. ‘Only two per cent of girls are doing physics A level. That is not good enough. That is something we have got to change,’ said the Chancellor.

Surrounded by some of the most important objects in the history of science, in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, the Chancellor spoke about the need to inspire the next generation.

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Guests for the Your Life Campaign launch in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

He told the audience that ‘all my life’ he had been visiting the Science Museum. ‘I bring my children to this museum and when you see all the incredible exhibits here, the steam engines, aircraft, early electricity generation and spacecraft, it is easy to think this happened in Britain’s past….that is not true.

One of the key things we are trying to challenge in this campaign is the idea that science engineering and design are all part of Britain’s great industrial past, not our future’

As one example of how Britain is contributing to the future, he singled out the museum’s Collider exhibition, which celebrates the achievements of a vast army of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in finding the Higgs particle, due to open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester later this month.

To help meet this challenge of attracting more students to careers in STEM, the Science Museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, announced a major three-year exhibition, backed by leading companies and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Watch this space for more news over the coming months.

Mr Blatchford pointed out how of the 3.4 million visitors to the Science Museum, half are women, and that the museum plays a key role in inspiring people to study STEM, for instance with its festivals celebrating the role of women in fields such as Formula 1, energy, space and aeronautics.

Education Minister Liz Truss MP praised the ‘fantastic turnout’ at the museum echoed the Chancellor’s words, citing the common Chinese saying “science and maths can get us everywhere.”

Too many teenagers, especially girls, don’t realise this, she added, saying she wants to ‘eradicate science deserts….if we get this right, the opportunities will be huge.’

The Museum  is one of over 170 businesses, universities, schools and organisations supporting the Your Life campaign.

Organisations such as Google, Arup, BP, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Airbus, BSkyB and the Royal Academy of Engineering have also pledged to highlight the opportunities open to those studying STEM subjects, with the commitment to create over 2,000 new STEM jobs.

Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby, Eben Upton, founder of Raspberry Pi and Roma Agrawal, a structural Engineer who worked on the Shard, are all advocates for the Your Life campaign, which was trending on Twitter this morning.

Dunn, who co-created the Tesco Clubcard, and her independent board of eight entrepreneurs and advocates hope to transform the way young people think about maths and physics and the careers to which they lead.

The Chancellor was also joined by David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Matthew Hancock MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Women, Nicky Morgan MP.  Support was voiced by the Prime Minister and Energy and Climate Change Minister Baroness Verma who said: “My personal commitment is to ensure that 30% of energy company executive board members are female by 2030.

Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.

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.

Happy 25th Birthday World Wide Web!

Tilly Blyth, Lead Curator for Information Age, reflects on how the World Wide Web came into existence.

It was 25 years ago today that the World Wide Web was born. Only a quarter of a century ago, but in that short time it has transformed our world. In a recent Great British Innovation Vote, musician Brian Eno said that ‘no technology has been so pervasive so quickly as the internet’.

On 12 March 1989, the British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his influential paper “Information Management: A Proposal” and circulated it to colleagues at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists from all over the world were brought together at CERN to conduct research, but Berners-Lee identified that there was a problem with the way information was managed and shared between them. His proposal suggested a way of linking documents through a system of hypertext.

Rather wonderfully, Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall commented that the proposal was ‘Vague but exciting…’ but he agreed to purchase a NeXT computer. The machine was to become the world’s first web server and Berners-Lee used it to build the first ever website. Today, the only evidence on the machine of its important history is a torn sticker that says: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!”

To celebrate the birthday of the Web, from today we are putting Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT cube computer on display in our Making the Modern World gallery. In Autumn 2014 it will move into our new Information Age gallery, to play a leading role in the stories of the last 200 years of information and communication technologies.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox (co-founder of Lastminute.com) visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, at an event to mark 25 years since Berners-Lee submitted the first proposal for the web on 12 March 1989 at CERN.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox visiting the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT cube – the original machine on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web. Credit Science Museum.

Yesterday, we celebrated the arrival of the NeXT computer at the Museum and the impending anniversary, with a reception attended by Martha Lane Fox and Rick Haythornthwaite, Chair of the Web Foundation.

But a birthday for the Web is not just a chance to reflect on the past, but to look towards the future. What kind of Web do we want? Currently only 3 in 5 people across the world have access to the Web. Do we want a tool that is open and accessible to anyone? And do we want to control our public and private data? How can we ensure that the Web isn’t only a device for a few companies, but gives us all rights to achieve our potential? Through the #web25 hashtag Tim Berners-Lee is inviting us all to share our thoughts.

Discover more about how the web has shaped our world in the new Information Age gallery, opening in Autumn 2014.

A Nobel Tradition

Content Developer Rupert Cole explores the most famous science prize of all, and some of its remarkable winners. 

Today, science’s most prestigious and famous accolades will be awarded in Stockholm: the Nobel Prize.

Before we raise a toast to this years’ winners in physics, Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, let’s take a look back at the man behind the Prize, and some of its winners.

Alfred Nobel

A Swedish explosives pioneer who made his millions from inventing dynamite, Alfred Nobel left in his will a bequest to establish an annual prize for those who have “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”, across five domains: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. To this end, he allocated the majority of his enormous wealth.

Alfred Nobel. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Alfred Nobel. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

When Nobel’s will was read after his death in 1896, the prize caused an international controversy. Unsurprisingly, Nobel’s family were not best pleased, and vigorously opposed its establishment. It took five years before it was finally set up and the first lot awarded – the 1901 physics accolade going to Wilhelm Rontgen for his 1895 discovery of x-rays.

Paul Dirac’s maternal mortification

When the phone rang on 9 November 1933, the exceptionally gifted yet eccentric Paul Dirac was a little taken back to hear a voice from Stockholm tell him he had won the Nobel Prize.

The looming press attention, which had always surrounded the Nobels, made the reclusive Dirac consider rejecting the award, until Ernest Rutherford – JJ Thomson’s former student and successor as Cavendish professor – advised him that a “refusal will get you more publicity”.

Under different circumstances Rutherford had been similarly “startled” when he found out he was to be given a Nobel – a physicist through and through, he was awarded the 1908 Prize in Chemistry, joking his sudden “metamorphosis into a chemist” was very unexpected.

Dirac shared the 1933 physics prize with Erwin Schrödinger – famed for his eponymous equation and dead-and-alive cat – for their contributions to quantum mechanics. Each was allowed one guest at the award ceremony held at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. Schrödinger brought his wife, Dirac brought his mother.

Quantum theorists: Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac, 1938. Credit: CERN

Quantum theorists: Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac, 1938. Credit: CERN

Florence Dirac did what all good mothers do: embarrass her son in every way imaginable. The first incident came at a station café in Malmo, where in this unlikely setting an impromptu press conference took place.

Dirac, who had been described by the British papers as “shy as a gazelle and modest as a Victorian maid,” was asked “did the Nobel Prize come as a surprise?” Before he could answer, Dirac’s mother butted in: “Oh no, not particularly, I have been waiting for him to receive the prize as hard as he has been working.”

The next embarrassment came when Mrs Dirac failed to wake up when the train reached Stockholm. She was ejected by a guard, who had thrown her garments and belongings out of the carriage window. The Diracs arrived late, and meekly hid from the attention of the welcoming party – who had been wondering where they were.

The third and final maternal faux pas came at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. The pair had been booked into the finest room – the bridal suite. Mrs Dirac, displeased, demanded a room of her own, which Dirac paid for out of his own pocket. It doesn’t matter if you’ve co-founded quantum mechanics, predicted antimatter and won the Nobel Prize; mothers will be mothers.

Peter’s Pride

Like other humble laureates before him, Peter Higgs wished to duck out of the press furore surrounding the Nobel. At the time of the announcement on the 8th October there was a nail-biting delay. The cause? The Nobel committee could not get hold of Higgs, who had turned his phone off and planned to escape to the Scottish Highlands.

As Peter Higgs revealed to me at the opening of the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum, if it was not for a dodgy Volkswagen beetle or public transport, Peter would have made it to the Highlands on Nobel day. Instead, he just laid low in Edinburgh.

Peter Higgs (right) with friend Alan Walker and the personalised bottles of London Pride at Collider opening. Credit: Science Museum.

Peter Higgs (right) with friend Alan Walker and the personalised bottles of London Pride at Collider exhibition opening. Credit: Science Museum.

At the Collider launch last month, we celebrated with Higgs in the appropriate way: over a personalised bottle of London Pride ale – the same beverage he chose in favour of champagne on the flight home from CERN’s public announcement of the Higgs boson discovery. So, when Englert and Higgs receive the honour today, let’s all raise two glasses: an English Ale and a Belgian Blonde!

For more on many of the Nobel prize-winning discoveries in physics history, including those of Dirac, Englert and Higgs, visit the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum.

Obituary: Fred Sanger (1918 – 2013)

Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, remembers Nobel laureate Fred Sanger.

The biochemist and Nobel laureate Fred Sanger would joke that ‘I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.’ Despite his huge influence, Sanger also once said that: ‘I am not academically brilliant.’

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia

I met him for the first time among the audience of a Wellcome press conference in London and, not once in our chat about human genomics, did he let slip who he was and the landmark contribution that he had made to the field.

In fact this modest man was one of the greatest innovators of all time with his emphasis on developing new techniques, notably DNA sequencing, the ability to read the genome, or genetic recipe, of an organism while working at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, commented on hearing news of his death that  Sanger was a ‘giant in genetics, who had an astonishing capacity to crack some of the most challenging problems in biology. His passing marks the end of an era in modern genetics.’

The American genome pioneer and synthetic biologist, Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville and La Jolla, said on hearing the sad news: ‘Fred Sanger was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He twice changed the direction of the scientific world, first with the sequencing of insulin, proving that proteins were linear strings of amino acids and second with his then new method of sequencing DNA, which led to the field of genomics. His contributions will always be remembered.’

Most sequencing performed for the past decades is a direct extension of the methods that were pioneered by Fred Sanger. He unveiled his first partial DNA sequence in May 1975 and went on to deliver the first complete determination of the sequence of a DNA molecule: the 5375 ‘letters’ in the genome of a bacterial virus called phi-X174.

This machine, developed in 1987, uses the Sanger method for DNA sequencing. Credit: Science Museum

This machine, developed in 1987, uses the Sanger method for DNA sequencing. Credit: Science Museum

The DNA reading method that Sanger developed in Cambridge with Alan Coulson required the manufacture of lots of copies of the DNA molecule using an enzyme called DNA polymerase. For the polymerase to replicate DNA it needs DNA building blocks – molecules called nucleotides – which correspond to the four ‘letters’ of the genetic alphabet.

The enzyme reads from each end of the original molecule to make new copies. For sequencing, Sanger added another ingredient: molecules called ‘terminator nucleotides’, each radioactively-labelled, which are so named because they stop the polymerase when they are incorporated in the growing copy. As a consequence, the enzyme incorporates a terminator in the growing DNA chain, halting the process and marking the end of the growing chain with a radioactive molecule as a full stop.

Because this interruption occurs at any stage of the process of copying vast numbers of DNA molecules in the test tube, a mixture is produced of DNA fragments of varying lengths, each finishing with a radioactively-marked C, G, A or T, depending on which base had been labelled.

An electric field was used to drive these fragments through a gel to separate the DNA molecules according to their size and reveal the sequence: the largest pieces of DNA take more time to migrate through the gel. Because the radioactive label on all four terminators produces the same black mark on an X ray film, Sanger had to carry out four individual experiments, one for each different letter of the code, on four adjacent tracks on the same gel. When the genetic fragments separate, one track shows the DNA fragments that end with a C, one those that end with a G and so on.

Then Sanger and his colleagues studied the film, starting with the first band from the four letter tracks, moving to where the next closest band appeared. In this way, they could read the digital recipe of life. If the first, smallest, piece of DNA was in the C track, for example, then C was the first letter. If the next black mark was in the A track, then an A followed.

Sanger sequenced the 17,000 or so letters of DNA in the human mitochondrion, the energy factory found in our cells. This feat can be regarded the first human genome project. He won the Nobel prize for this work in 1980 but it was far from his first major award.

Frederick Sanger used this equipment to study the structure of insulin by electrophoresis in the 1950s. Credit: Science Museum

Fred Sanger used this equipment to study the structure of insulin by electrophoresis in the 1950s. Credit: Science Museum

He had been given his first Nobel prize in 1958, for his research on the structure of proteins, when he worked out the order of the 50 or so amino acids that make up the insulin molecule. This work revealed how DNA specified linear strings of amino acids in proteins, and that proteins were not agglomerations of closely-related substances, as many had thought in the first half of the 20th century, but were indeed a single chemical.

The world has lost a gene genius.

Discover more about genetics in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery.

3D printing – an explosion of creativity!

Suzy Antoniw, Content Developer in the Contemporary Science Team, looks at the creation of a new exhibition on 3D printing.

What can make impossible shapes solidly real and create unique, one-off medical treatments that could change your life? A 3D printer of course!

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

Around nine months ago we were given the exciting challenge of creating 3D: Printing the Future, a new Contemporary Science exhibition to show off the real-life capabilities of these hugely hyped machines and highlight the latest 3D printing research.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer. Image credit: Science Museum

But hang on, what exactly is a 3D printer? Even if you’ve read stories about them in the news you probably don’t have one sitting on your desk just yet. So here’s our definition: A 3D printer is a manufacturing machine that turns 3D computer data into a physical object, usually by building it in layers. They come in a variety of types that range from simple consumer models to sophisticated industrial printers.

A prosthetic arm concept  made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

A prosthetic arm concept made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

As well as covering the basics, we decided that our exhibition should focus on the incredible things that 3D printers can create – such as replacement body organs and teeth, that could make a difference to the lives of our visitors.

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printers have been around for decades, so what’s changed? In recent years the patents on simple 3D printing technologies have run out. 3D printers have become available to more people in the form of affordable consumer models, or even as open source plans freely available on the internet.

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

This new freedom to invent has generated an explosion of creativity. And it’s not just hackers, tinkerers and makers who’ve felt the benefits of this new breath of life for engineering and design, but established industry and academia too. So how do you represent a diverse and dynamic explosion of creativity?

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

In July we began collecting 3D printed stuff for what has been known as ‘an explosion’, our ‘mass display’, ‘the wave’, ‘the wall’ and (my favourite) a ‘tsunami of objects’. The display contains over 663 objects – the largest number we’ve ever acquired for a Contemporary Science exhibition, thanks to generous loans, donations and the enthusiasm of the maker community.

Among the amazing ‘wave’ of objects you can see a display of 150 miniature 3D printed people – visitors who volunteered to have themselves scanned in 3D at the Museum over the summer holidays. Look closely at the wall and you may spot actress Jenny Agutter reading her script, model Lily Cole and BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis - with his arm in a sling!

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

The free exhibition is open to the public from 9 October and will run for nine months.