Category Archives: Science news

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.

The last particle?

Could the Higgs be the end of particle physics? We’re still a long way from answering one of the biggest questions of all, says Dr Harry Cliff, Head of Content on our Collider exhibition.

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for their work that explains why subatomic particles have mass. They predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle, which was confirmed last year by experiments conducted at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But today’s celebrations mask a growing anxiety among physicists. The discovery of the Higgs boson is an undoubted triumph, but many note that it hasn’t brought us any closer to answering some of the most troubling problems in fundamental science.

A senior physicist went so far as to tell me that he was “totally unexcited by the discovery of the Higgs boson”. Though not the typical reaction, this discovery threatens to close a chapter of 20th century physics without a hint of how to start writing the next page.

Until July last year, when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced its discovery, the Higgs boson remained the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory that describes all the particles that make up the world we live in with stunning accuracy. The Standard Model has passed every experimental test thrown at it with flying colours, and yet has some rather embarrassing holes.

According to astronomical measurements, the matter described by the Standard Model that makes up the stars, planets and ultimately us, only accounts for a tiny fraction of the universe. We appear to be a thin layer of froth, floating on top of an invisible ocean of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.

Worse still, according to the Standard Model, we shouldn’t exist at all. The theory predicts that, after the Big Bang, equal quantities of matter and antimatter should have obliterated each other, leaving an empty universe.

Both of these are good scientific reasons to doubt that the Standard Model is the end of the story when it comes to the laws of physics. But there is another, aesthetic principle that has led many physicists to doubt its completeness – the principle of “naturalness”.

The Standard Model is regarded as a highly “unnatural” theory. Aside from having a large number of different particles and forces, many of which seem surplus to requirement, it is also very precariously balanced. If you change any of the 20+ numbers that have to be put into the theory even a little, you rapidly find yourself living in a universe without atoms. This spooky fine-tuning worries many physicists, leaving the universe looking as though it has been set up in just the right way for life to exist.

The Higgs’s boson provides us with one of the worst cases of unnatural fine-tuning. A surprising discovery of the 20th century was the realisation that empty space is far from empty. The vacuum is, in fact, a broiling soup of invisible “virtual” particles, constantly popping in and out of existence.

The conventional wisdom states that as the Higgs boson passes through the vacuum it interacts with this soup of virtual particles and this interaction drives its mass to an absolutely enormous value – potentially up to a hundred million billion times larger than the one measured at the LHC.

Theorists have attempted to tame the unruly Higgs mass by proposing extensions of the Standard Model. The most popular of which is “supersymmetry”, which introduces a heavier super-particle or “sparticle” for every particle in the Standard Model. These sparticles cancel out the effect of the virtual particles in the vacuum, reducing the Higgs mass to a reasonable value and eliminating the need for any unpleasant fine-tuning.

Supersymmetry has other features that have made it popular with physicists. Perhaps its best selling point is that one of these sparticles provides a neat explanation for the mysterious dark matter that makes up about a quarter of the universe.

Although discovering the Higgs boson may have been put forward as the main reason for building the 27km Large Hadron Collider (LHC), what most physicists have really been waiting for is a sign of something new. As Higgs himself said shortly after the discovery last year, “[The Higgs boson] is not the most interesting thing that the LHC is looking for”.

So far however, the LHC has turned up nothing.

If supersymmetry is really responsible for keeping the Higgs boson’s mass low, then sparticles should show up at energies not much higher than where the LHC found the Higgs. The fact that nothing has been found has already ruled out many popular forms of supersymmetry.

This has led some theorists to abandon naturalness altogether. One relatively new idea known as “split-supersymmetry” accepts fine-tuning in the Higgs mass, but keeps the other nice features of supersymmetry, like a dark matter particle.

This may sound like a technical difference, but the implications for the nature of our universe are profound. The argument is that we live in a fine-tuned universe because it happens to be one among an effectively infinite number of different universes, each with different laws of physics. The constants of nature are what they are because if they were different atoms could not form, and hence we wouldn’t be around to wonder about them.

This anthropic argument is in part motivated by developments in string theory, a potential “theory of everything”, for which there are a vast number (roughly 10500) different possible universes with different laws of physics. (This huge number of universes is often used as a criticism of string theory, sometimes derided as a “theory of everything else” as no one has so far found a solution that corresponds to the universe we live in.) However, if split-supersymmetry is right, the lack of new physics at the LHC could be indirect evidence for the existence of the very multiverse anticipated by string theory.

All of this could be rather bad news for the LHC. If the battle for naturalness is lost, then there is no reason why new particles must appear in the next few years. Some physicists are campaigning for an even larger collider, four times longer and seven times more powerful than the LHC.

This monster collider could be used to settle the question once and for all, but it’s hard to imagine that such a machine will get the go ahead, especially if the LHC fails to find anything beyond the Higgs.

We are at a critical juncture in particle physics. Perhaps after it restarts the LHC in 2015, it will uncover new particles, naturalness will survive and particle physicists will stay in business. There are reasons to be optimistic. After all, we know that there must be something new that explains dark matter, and there remains a good chance that the LHC will find it.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the LHC will find nothing. The Higgs boson could be particle physics’ swansong, the last particle of the accelerator age. Though a worrying possibility for experimentalists, such a result could lead to a profound shift in our understanding of the universe, and our place in it.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening on 13th November 2013.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, celebrates the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics ahead of the opening of our Collider exhibition next month.      

Congratulations to Briton Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

A few minutes ago, after an unusual delay, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the physics prize in Stockholm, ending this chapter of the quest for new elementary particles, the greatest intellectual adventure to date.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, comments: “That it has taken decades to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson illustrates the remarkable vision of the theoretical work that Higgs, Francois Englert and others did with pen and paper half a century ago, one that launched an effort by  thousands of scientists and inspired a staggering feat of engineering in the guise of the Large Hadron Collider.

What is the Higgs? Here’s all you need to know, in just 90 seconds, from Harry Cliff, a Cambridge University physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Although the identity of the winners has been a closely-guarded secret, many have speculated that those who played a central role in discovery of the long-sought Higgs, notably the emeritus Edinburgh professor himself, were leading contenders for a place in history.

The Science Museum has been so confident that the Large Hadron Collider would change our view of nature that we have invested more than £1 million, and worked closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, to celebrate this epic undertaking with its new exhibition, Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, which opens to the public on 13 November. 

Here Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to what is now Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN’s £5 billion Large Hadron Collider reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson, technically a ripple in an invisible energy field that gives most particles their mass.

This discovery represented the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who will attend the launch of Collider, bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC.

Another speaker at the Collider launch, the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery (though he is adamant that Higgs deserves the Nobel Prize).

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When Higgs was in the CERN auditorium last year to hear scientists tell the world about the discovery, he was caught reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing his eyes.  On the flight home, he celebrated this extraordinary achievement with a can of London Pride beer.

The Science Museum hoped to have the can, now deemed a piece of history Alas, Higgs had dumped it in the rubbish before we could collect it. However, the museum does possess the champagne bottle that Higgs emptied with his friends the night before the big announcement.

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The modest 84-year-old  is now synonymous with the quest: the proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.

But there have been demands that the particle be renamed to acknowledge the work of others. Deciding who should share this Nobel has been further complicated because a maximum of three people only can be honoured (prompting many to question the criteria used by the Nobel committee).

The LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is the cumulative endeavour of around ten thousand men and women from across the globe. In recognition of this the Collider exhibition will tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Higgs discovery from the viewpoint of a young PhD student given the awesome task of announcing the discovery to her colleagues (though fictional, the character is based on Mingming Yang of MIT who is attending the launch).

However, although one suggestion is to allow the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson to share the accolade, the Nobel committee traditionally awards science prizes to individuals and not organizations (unlike the Nobel Peace Prize).

Instead, the Nobel committee honoured the theoreticians who first anticipated the existence of the Higgs.

Six scientists published the relevant papers in 1964 though, as Belgium’s Robert Brout died in 2011, there were five contenders (the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously).

In August 1964, François Englert from the Free University of Brussels with Brout, published their theory of particle masses. A month later, while working at Edinburgh University, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was – crucially – the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.

Last week, Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who works at CERN, said it would be ‘odd and perverse’ not to give the Nobel to Peter Higgs, and also singled out Lyn ‘the atom’ Evans, the Welshman in charge of building the collider, as a candidate.

And the two likeliest winners were named as Peter Higgs – after whom the particle was named – and François Englert, according to a citation analysis by Thomson Reuters.

Today’s announcement marks the formal recognition of a profound advance in human understanding, the discovery of one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening 13th November 2013.

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.

Cultured Beef

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger. Would you eat the burger? Vote here 

The world’s first lab-grown or ‘in vitro’ hamburger was cooked and eaten today at a press conference in London for a demonstration project to show the future of food, funded by Google’s Sergey Brin.

The cultured cell burger, estimated to be worth around  £220,000, was created by Prof Mark Post of Maastrict University in a project that took him two years.

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

The burger was cooked in butter by chef Richard McGowan before an audience of journalists, then subject to a taste test by US-based food author Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler.

The verdict? Close to meat, though more like ‘animal protein cake’, said Schonwald. All commented that it lacked fat, salt and pepper.

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry/PA

You can follow the press conference on Storify, watch a video here and read reports by the BBC, Daily Telegraph, New York Times and Popular Science.

The event heralded  a ‘Brave Moo World’  according to Channel 4.

To create the hamburger, muscle cells taken from the shoulder muscle of a cow and multiplied to form muscle tissue, the main component of beef.

The cells arranged themselves into tiny ‘myotubes’ which are grown around gel hubs, attached to Velcro ‘anchor points’ in a culture dish.  Electrical stimulation was then used to make the muscle strips contract and ‘bulk up’.

With this technique, a single strand can produce over a trillion new strands. And when all these tiny pieces are added together, tissue is the result; it took 20,000 of these small strands of meat to create one normal sized hamburger.

Other ingredients include salt, egg powder, and breadcrumbs. Beetroot juice and saffron were added to provide authentic beef colouring.

One reason Brin is backing this project is that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next four decades and current production methods are not sustainable.

Livestock also contributes to global warming through releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, via belching and farting.

According to Prof Post, research carried out at the University of Oxford suggests that producing cultured, or in vitro, beef could use as much as 99% less space than current livestock farming methods and will have smaller emissions.

Standard Model Stands Firm

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a recent discovery at CERN. A new Collider exhibition opens in November 2013, taking a behind-the-scenes look at the famous particle physics laboratory. 

On Friday afternoon, at the EPS conference in Stockholm, two colleagues of mine from CERN stood up to announce that the search for one of the rarest processes in fundamental physics is over. The result is a stunning success for the Standard Model, our current best theory of particles and forces, and yet another blow for those hoping for signs of new physics from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The Compact Muon Spectrometer, an experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The Compact Muon Spectrometer, an experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The LHCb and CMS experiments at the LHC have made the first definitive observation of a particle called a Bs meson decaying into two muons, confirming a tentative sighting at LHCb (my experiment) last autumn. The discovery has far-reaching implications for the search for new particles and forces of nature.

Beyond the Standard Model

There are a lot of reasons to suspect that the current Standard Model isn’t the end of the story when it comes to the building blocks of our Universe. Despite agreeing with almost every experimental measurement to date, it has several gaping holes. It completely leaves out the force of gravity and has no explanation for the enigmatic dark matter and dark energy that are thought to make up 95% of the Universe. The theory also requires a large amount of “fine-tuning” to match experimental observations, leaving it looking suspiciously like the laws of physics have been tinkered with in a very unnatural way to produce the Universe we live in.

In the last few decades a number of theories have been put forward that attempt to solve some of the Standard Model’s problems. One particularly popular idea is supersymmetry (SUSY for short), which proposes a slew of new fundamental particles, each one a mirror image of the particles of the Standard Model.

The Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

The Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment at CERN. Image credit: CERN.

SUSY has many attractive features: it provides a neat explanation for dark matter and unifies the strengths of the three forces of the Standard Model (this suggests that they could all be aspects of one unified force, which should definitely be referred to as The Force, if it turns out to exist someday). It would also keep my colleagues in work for decades to come, thanks to a whole new load of super-particles (or sparticles) to discover and study.

However, physicists were first attracted to it because the theory is aesthetically pleasing. Unlike the Standard Model, SUSY doesn’t require any awkward fine-tuning to produce laws of physics that match our experience. This is not a very scientific argument, more a desire amongst physicists for theories to be elegant, but historically it has often been the case that the most beautiful theory turns out to be right one.

On the hunt

The decay observed at LHCb and CMS is predicted to be extremely rare in the Standard Model, with a Bs meson only decaying into two muons about 3 times in every billion. However, if ideas like SUSY are correct than the chances of the decay can be significantly boosted.

Finding particle decays this rare makes hunting for a needle in a haystack seem like a doddle. Hundreds of millions of collisions take place every second at the LHC, each one producing hundreds of new particles that leave electrical signals in the giant detectors. Physicists from LHCb and CMS trawled through two years worth of data, searching untold trillions of collisions for signs of two muons coming from a Bs meson. The pressure to be the first to find evidence of this rare process was intense, as Dr. Marc-Olivier Bettler, a colleague of mine from Cambridge and member of the LHCb team told me.

“It is a very strange type of race. To avoid bias, we don’t allow ourselves to look at the data until the last minute. So it’s a bit like running blindfolded – you can’t see the landscape around you or your competitors, even though you know that they’re there, so you have no idea if you are doing well or not! You only find out after you cross the finish line.”

However, ultimately the race ended in a draw. Neither LHCb nor CMS alone had enough data to announce a formal discovery, each turning up just a handful of likely candidates. But when their results are formally combined next week it is expected that the number of observed decays will pass the all-important “five sigma” level, above which a discovery can be declared.

Standard Model Stands Firm

In a blow for supporters of SUSY, LHCb and CMS observed the decay occurring at exactly the rate predicted by the Standard Model – approximately 3 times in a billion. This is yet another triumph for the Standard Model and kills off a number of the most popular SUSY theories.

Professor Val Gibson, leader of the Cambridge particle physics group and member of the LHCb experiment explained that, Measurements of this very rare decay significantly squeeze the places new physics can hide. We are now looking forward to the LHC returning at even higher energy and to an upgrade of the experiment so that we can investigate why new physics is so shy.”

This result is certainly not the end of the road for ideas like supersymmetry, which has many different versions. However, combined with the recent discovery of the Higgs boson (whose mass is larger than predicted by many SUSY theories) this new result may only leave us with versions of SUSY that are somewhat inelegant, meaning that the original motivation – a natural description of nature – is lost.

This new result from CERN is yet another demonstration of the fantastic (and somewhat annoying) accuracy of the Standard Model. Incredible precision is now being achieved by experiments at the LHC, allowing physicists to uncover ever-rarer particles and phenomena. If ideas like supersymmetry are to survive the onslaught of high precision tests made by the LHC experiments, we may have to accept that we live in a spookily fine-tuned Universe.

3D Gun goes on display

For the past two months the Contemporary Science team has been working hard to obtain a 3D printed gun. This week it arrived, explains Assistant Content Developer Pippa Hough.

The 3D printed gun now on display has a short, but complex history. The design was created by Defence Distributed – a non-profit digital organisation and placed, open source, on their website so anyone could freely download and share it.

The 3D printed gun, now on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The 3D printed gun, now on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Ville Vaarnes, a journalist in Finland, did just that and had the design printed in a university lab using a high quality 3D printer. He then put it together with the help of a gun maker and fired it. The gun broke into several pieces, shattering the gun barrel.

The 3D printed gun in pieces.

The 3D printed gun in pieces. Credit: Science Museum

It is completely illegal to own even a single component of a hand gun in the UK, including a 3D printed gun unless, like the Science Museum, you have a special licence. Manufacturing our own wasn’t an option as we only have a licence to display hand guns. Having seen a video of the gun being fired, we decided this was the only feasible opportunity we would have of acquiring a 3D printed gun.

From an engineering point of view, the gun isn’t particularly special, but displaying it allows us to start a conversation around how the limitless possibilities free access to information, combined with new manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, will impact on our lives.

On the face it having a printer that could sit on your desk and print any object you have the design for seems like a wonderful prospect. The gun represents the limitless, freely available objects you could print, but also the possible desire or need for regulations to limit our access to this information or the tools to produce them.

The inside of the 3D printed gun. Image: Science Museum

The inside of the 3D printed gun. Image: Science Museum

Creating physically dangerous items like the gun isn’t the only potential threat from 3D printing in the future. You could produce counterfeit designs of a copyrighted item, damaging the business that spent time and money producing the original. What incentive does a business have to produce innovative, exciting products if their designs can be so easily pirated? The music and film industries have struggled with these problems for years. How will other industries cope?

On the other hand what about our freedom to design and print whatever we want? The internet is not restricted by borders. You can download files from all over the world. If the information can’t be controlled can the means of manufacture? Should 3D printers require a licence to own?

When the initial story broke we wrote a news story, including a poll question ‘Should we have access to 3D-print plans for guns?’ 780 people voted, 42% said ‘no’ way 43% voted ‘yes’. The rest voted maybe or I’m not sure. Our visitors are clearly split on the issue; law makers have quite a challenge on their hands trying to maintain the maximum freedom while ensuring public safety.

Science Museum launches Britain’s first official astronaut

By Roger Highfield and Doug Millard. Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group. Doug Millard is Deputy Keeper Technologies & Engineering and is currently leading on content for a major new exhibition of Russian space exploration opening in 2014.

The Science Museum has welcomed many astronauts and cosmonauts over the years and each time our visitors have been spellbound. Today, we witnessed the announcement of Briton Tim Peake’s mission to visit the International Space Station, ISS.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station. Image: BIS

Peake (who tweets as @astro_timpeake), will join Expedition 46 to the ISS, and will be carried aloft by a Soyuz mission in November 2015.

His selection by the European Space Agency was announced to the world’s media in the Science Museum’s IMAX at an event introduced by Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director (l) welcomes Tim Peake and Science Minister David Willetts (r) to the Museum. Image: Science Museum

Peake, who is based in the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, said  that he is ”absolutely delighted” and saw the mission as the culmination of everything he had worked for during his  career, though he admitted that he had misgivings about the disruption caused by moving his family – he has two young sons – to Houston.

However, he was not concerned about the risks of the mission, since his future career was ‘probably safer’ than past career as helicopter test pilot.

His tasks once in orbit will include helping to maintain the space station, operating its robotic arm and carrying out science experiments in Esa’s Columbus laboratory module, which is attached to the front of the 400-ton ISS complex.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Backdropped by a colourful Earth, this full view of the International Space Station was photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Credit: NASA/SSPL

Peake said that he hoped there would be space biomedicine experiments and that the UK scientific community would rise to the opportunities presented by microgravity experiments.

“Major Tim” told the press conference that in preparation for this challenge he had lived in a Sardinian cave for a week, flew on what is popularly known as a ‘vomit comet’, has spent 12 days in Nasa’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, an underwater base, and he has undergone training with Russian and American spacesuits so he will also be able to perform a spacewalk.

The recently returned ISS commander, Canadian Chris Hadfield, attracted a big following for his tweets, videos and songs from the platform which Peake said built a worldwide audience. However, Peake dashed any hopes of a pop video by admitting: ‘I do play the guitar but very badly.’

Peake hails from Chichester, and is the “first official British astronaut” for the European Space Agency, selected from 8000 candidates. Previous UK-born individuals who have gone into orbit have done so either through the US space agency (Nasa) as American citizens or on independent ventures organised with the assistance of the Russian space agency.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum.

Tim Peake answers questions from the press at the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Thomas Reiter, a former astronaut and Director of ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, congratulated Peake ‘It is a remarkable moment for your country. You all can be proud of Timothy.’ And Dr David Parker of the UK Space Agency said nothing inspires like human explorers at the final frontier.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said that this mission is part of effort to rebalance the economy – the UK space industry is worth £9.1 billion to the economy – and pointed out that the space sector is growing by 8 per cent each year.

He added that the mission underlined the inspirational values of space – the ‘Apollo effect’ – and will encourage more young people to take up STEM (science, technology and maths) subjects at schools and universities. ‘I have high hopes it will interest a generation of students in science and technology.’

The minister said that the objects in the Science Museum are a reminder of the UK’s distinguished history in space exploration and that he is now looking into a competition for schools based on the mission to the ISS.

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Tim Peake pictured with a space suit from the Exploring Space gallery. Image: Science Museum

Prime Minister, David Cameron, commented:  “This is a momentous day, not just for Tim Peake but for Great Britain. Tim was picked for this historic role from over 8,000 applicants from around the world. I am sure he will do us proud.”

Helen Sharman was the first Briton to go into space in 1991 in a joint venture between a number of UK companies and the Soviet government and spent a week at the Mir space station.

Sharman spoke at a recent event at the museum to celebrate International Women’s Day. The museum has her space suit on display and, only a few weeks ago, she stood before her suit as she told leading figures in drama and theatre about her experiences in orbit.

The most experienced UK-born astronaut is Nasa’s Michael Foale, who completed long-duration missions to both the ISS and Mir.

Media Space unveiled to film, theatre and TV celebrities

Blog post by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The museum’s plans to create a £4 million Media Space - a showcase for photography, visual media, technology and science - were outlined a few days ago to leading figures in drama, film and the arts, from Jenny Agutter and Imogen Stubbs to Terry Gilliam and Ben Okri.

Call the midwife actress with Ian Blatchford and Roger Highfield.

Call the midwife actress, Jenny Agutter OBE, with Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford (left) and Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield.

Kathy Lette, Eammon Holmes and Michael G Wilson

Australian author Kathy Lette, Presenter Eamonn Holmes and Film Producer and Chairman of the Science Museum Foundation, Michael G WIlson.

Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, give an overview of how the new venture will open on the second floor of the museum this September to display some of the finest collections on the planet while speaking at a lunch organised by Chris Hastings of the Mail on Sunday, also attended by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.

Ian Blatchford's speech.

Director of Science Museum Ian Blatchford welcoming guests to the lunch.

Media Space will draw on the National Photography Collection held by the National Media Museum, Bradford. The first exhibition will be Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr,  and the inaugural installation in the Virgin Media Studio will be by digital artist studio collaborators Universal Everything, supported by Hyundai Motor UK.

Michael G Wilson

Chairman of the Science Museum Foundation and executive producer of the James Bond movies, Michael G WIlson, addresses Dame Diana Rigg and guests at the Sixth Arts Media Lunch.

Also addressing the lunch was Michael Wilson, executive producer of the James Bond films, who has been one of the most passionate supporters of Media Space over the years through his interest in photography, which dates back to the 1970s.

Between 2004 and 2012, Wilson was a trustee of the Science Museum and it was during this time he conceived a plan to develop a 1800 m² space in the Museum to display photographs, a venture which has now grown to include new media.

Today, Michael Wilson is a member of the museum’s Foundation , which “ensures philanthropic leadership”, encouraging donors to give their support to  the museum’s development.

Other guests included Lord Bragg, Haydn Gwynne, Lesley Manville, Eamonn Holmes,  Prof Steve Jones, Duncan Kenworthy;  Kathy Lette, Arlene Phillips and Brigitte Hjort Sorensen.

Also present was Ali Boyle, Project Leader on Collider, a new exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Opening in November 2013, Collider is being created with the help of Nissen Richards Studio, playwright Michael Wynne and video artist Finn Ross.

After lunch, many of the guests went on a tour of the museum’s award-winning Turing exhibition, given by curator David Rooney.

To view more photos from the sixth Arts Media Lunch at the Science Museum visit the Science Museum’s flickr gallery.

Science Museum, Met Office and Defra host water summit

As Britain lurches from flood to drought, even the most hardened climate sceptic would have to admit that our relationship with that most fundamental ingredient of life – water – is undergoing a profound change.

On 28th February, key individuals from Government, industry, academia and consumer bodies met to discuss the major issues facing water use in a meeting organised with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Met Office at the Science Museum.

In opening remarks, the chairman of the Environment Agency Lord Smith said that to become sustainable the country needed to improve water resilience – the balance of demands from homes, industry, agriculture and the need to protect ecosystems – and achieve a reduction in average demand from the current level of around 150 litres per person per day to around 130. The country must also continue to improve flood resilience: in the past 10 months, 8000 properties in England and Wales flooded but 200,000 were protected by defences built over the prior 30 years.

Finally, he said that the nation needs to get more adept at planning for uncertainty.

Chaired by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, five key themes emerged from the round table discussion:

1) Our relationship with water has altered. Long term environmental trends that result from climate change mean that although average annual rainfall is roughly the same, the intensity and variability have increased. There are other pressures on the water supply, caused by the continued reliance on Victorian sewers, demographic trends and the resulting impact of construction, such as covering tracts of land with paving.

2) Science is critical. We require cutting edge science to understand issues ranging from climate change to the behaviour of surface water, which recently leapfrogged rivers as the primary flooding threat, when most warning systems are calibrated by river behaviour. However, much of this science is hedged in uncertainties – such as the limitations of medium range forecasting – and there are huge challenges in conveying them to the public.

3) Collaboration. To deal with the change in Britain’s water, collaborations need to come in different domains: between industry and universities in centres of excellence; multi-agency partnerships of the kind already working successfully between the Environment Agency and Met Office in flood warning; and between the water industry and local communities and councils on local solutions, such as reliance on wetland areas to absorb floodwaters. This relationship has to be a partnership, not paternalistic. These collaborations will not always need to bring about innovation but simply bring things together better. There are also issues finding funding support for applied science. Research councils tend to focus on strategic science and water companies tend to focus on practical research. Examples of collaborations between water industry leaders and universities are emerging, though more are desirable. The UK could also learn from the experience of countries such as Australia, where there is expertise in drought management.

4) Communication. Water is crucial for existence and yet, paradoxically, the consumer needs a better understanding of the role it plays in everyday life, through a more obvious link between the cost, value and uses of water. One challenge is encouraging a community take action in advance of a drought, in preemptive measures that can delay the need for draconian measures, rather than in reactive measures when supplies run short. There are technologies, such as telemetry, which can provide more rapid warning to communities of flood risks, and smart meters, which are more engaging. Another communication issue is to both understand the way consumers respond, whether to warnings or tariffs, and to find the best way for institutions to earn their trust. Finally, the UK is a world leader in many areas and, rather than continuing to do brilliant work modestly, it should be bolder in conveying its successes to the public and globally, since water resources are a planetary issue.

5) Skills. Understanding of the behaviour of local water has moved away from local authorities and, as emphasised in point 3) this has to be re-established in new collaborations, which are more focused on catchment areas than political boundaries. Another issue is maintaining the experience of ‘flood veterans’ who have dealt with earlier emergencies, such as the 2007 floods that triggered Sir Michael Pitt’s review.

Roger Highfield is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.