Category Archives: Science news

Higgs seminar

Higgs boson discovered

By Roger Highfield

The world’s most wanted subatomic particle, the Higgs, has been found, ending a quest that dates back decades.

Thought to give all other particles their mass, the existence of the particle was predicted by Peter Higgs, who was recently interviewed by the historian of science Graham Farmelo in preparation for a major new exhibition next year at the Science Museum, which Higgs himself plans to attend.

Though only one of those who predicted the existence of the particle in the 1960s, the modest emeritus professor from Edinburgh University is now synonymous with the quest. A small exhibit in the museum’s Antenna science news gallery is planned this week to mark the announcement today of the discovery of the Higgs boson by two teams, each consisting of 4000 scientists, at the CERN laboratory, Geneva, which operates the £5 billion Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

‘It is a powerful and optimistic day for science and a triumph for amazing patience and rational thinking,’ commented Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

‘It’s really an incredible thing it’s happened in my lifetime,’ said Higgs, who is in CERN.

There, the resulting splash of energy and particles is dissected by the ‘eyes’ of the machine, huge detectors – ALICE, LHCb, ATLAS and CMS – which reveal traces of new particles and phenomena.

The LHC is designed to answer the most profound questions about the universe and, being the most famous experiment on the planet, is going to be the subject of a new exhibition at the Science Museum next autumn, developed in collaboration with CERN.

Alison Boyle, Science Museum curator of modern physics, says that the forthcoming exhibition will include components of ATLAS and CMS, as well as pioneering explorations of the atom by JJ Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, and others. She adds: ‘Discovery of the Higgs boson is a great success but there’s still lots more physics to do, and our exhibition will follow the LHC’s scientists and engineers as they explore even higher energies.’

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

The history of physics is full of tantalising hints of the Higgs that could have been revolutionary, but then evaporated. This time, however, we have concluded the final chapter in the quest, involving 10,000 scientists and engineers from 100 countries.

Excitement about the Higgs has been building for the past six months explained Harry Cliff, the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, who divides his time between the museum and the University of Cambridge team where he works on one of the experiments at CERN.

He explains the current discovery: “’Strictly speaking, it’s the Higgs field that gives most particles mass and the Higgs Boson is a wave travelling in that field – so finding the Higgs Boson is like seeing ripples in the Higgs field.’

Last December, rumours circulated regarding hints of the Higgs at energies of around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), roughly 125 times the mass of a proton. But the catch was that this was around what scientists call a 3-sigma signal , meaning that there is a 0.13 per cent probability that the events happened by chance. This is the level at which particle physicists will only say they have “evidence” for a particle.

Earlier this week scientists sifting information from 500 trillion collisions at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Tevatron collider, east of Batavia, Illinois, said they had found their strongest indication to date for the particle.

A spokesman said: ‘Our data strongly point toward the existence of the Higgs boson, but it will take results from the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to establish a discovery.’

In the rigorous world of particle physics, researchers wait to see a 5-sigma signal, which has only a 0.000028 per cent probability of happening by chance, before claiming that the Higgs has been truly discovered. Higgs himself told Graham Farmelo that he wouldn’t drink champagne to celebrate ‘unless and until they have a 5-sigma signal.’

Thanks to the results coming from the two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, today these preliminary findings appear to show a dramatic 5-sigma signal.

If this is indeed a new particle, then it must be a boson and it would be the heaviest such particle ever found.

Speaking at an event in Westminster to discuss the findings, the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “This news from CERN is a breakthrough in world science. Professor Higgs of Edinburgh University has now secured his place in history.”

Prime Minister David Cameron later announced the news is ‘profoundly significant’.

The flurry of publicity today has come as a crowded seminar in CERN, introduced by Director General Rolf Heuer, was held to discuss the CMS and ATLAS 2012 data analysis, on the eve of the International Conference on High Energy Physics, Melbourne.

“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” said Heuer. “The observation of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

The Higgs boson is 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.

The Standard Model contains many other particles – such as quarks and W bosons – each of which has been found in the last four decades using vast particle colliders, but the Higgs had remained elusive.

The Higgs boson is critical to the Standard Model, because interacting with the Higgs field is what gives all the other particles their mass. Not finding it would have undermined our current understanding of the universe.

While discovery of the Higgs is a remarkable achievement, many researchers are also eager to hear all the details from the experiments, and how they compare, which may indicate that the Higgs boson has slightly different properties than those theoretically predicted.

Any deviations from theory could suggest the existence of heretofore-unknown physics beyond the Standard Model, including models such as supersymmetry, which posits a heavier partner to all known particles.

‘This discovery is just the start,’ I was told by John Womersley, Chief Executive of the STFC. “This could be the gateway to supersymmetry. Now on to dark matter, dark energy and the theory of everything”

Although most physicists call the particle the Higgs boson, one Nobel laureate gave it the grandiose title of the “God particle”, after his publishers refused to let him call his book “The Goddam Particle”: everyone agrees that it is, without doubt, the slipperiest particle of physics.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC, and plans to talk about the quest next year at the Science Museum. Although the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, has today lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery, he says 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 he walked into the crowded CERN seminar today in Geneva, there was a touching round of applause. After a wait of half a century, he is at long last able to celebrate his insight into the mystery of mass with a glass of champagne.

Luvvies and Boffins

Luvvies & Boffins Night at the Museum

Guest post by Peter Barron, Director of External Relations, Google EMEA

This week saw the second gathering of Google’s Luvvies and Boffins — this time with added boffinry courtesy of the Science Museum in London.

The idea came from Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture, delivered in Edinburgh last summer, in which he said Britain needs to bring art and science back together if its creative industries are to have a successful future. Guests were handed lapel badges denoting “Luvvie”, “Boffin” or the Renaissance “Luvviboff”.

Besides great cocktails and conversation, the evening featured a stellar line-up of computing-themed activities. There were guided tours of the new Turing Exhibition, up-close demonstrations of the Babbage Engine in action, and hands-on soldering workshops to make Lumiphones.

As an added bonus, our evening coincided with Science Museum Lates, an adults only event at the museum on the last Wednesday of every month. Geek activities abounded — punk science comedy, a cockroach fancy dress tour, even an impressively silent disco.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening. Thanks to the Science Museum for being such great hosts.

See highlights from the night over on storify

Science Museum

Government Chief Scientist visits the Science Museum

By Roger Highfield

The most influential scientist in the country came to the Science Museum last night to give a unique overview of how he has advised the Prime Minister over the years.

Science Museum

As he approaches the end of his time as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and with his successor Sir Mark Walport now waiting in the wings Professor Sir John Beddington was in a reflective mood during his lecture, given in association with the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and our monthly Lates event.

Like his two predecessors, Sir John has had to spend an inordinate amount discussing badgers, and their role in bovine tuberculosis. The issues he has handled have stretched from shale gas and space weather to black swans. ‘It’s a mad job,” he joked.

Since he stepped into the hot seat at the start of 2008, Sir John has given key advice to Government during a number of huge stories, such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the 2010 volcanic ash incident, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Sir John described how, as chair of Sage (Science Advisory Group in Emergencies) that feeds in to Cobra (a reference to Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, used to handle a crisis), he had to reassure Prime Minister David Cameron that, despite the more hysterical press reports, the wider radiological fallout of Fukushima was much less than Britons would encounter if they evacuated Tokyo on a flight to London.

The ability of Government to make appropriate use of science has been a central issue. He has been responsible for forming a network of those with science and engineering backgrounds within government (now around 4000 strong at the last count) and encouraging all major departments of state to recruit a Chief Scientific Adviser: he illustrated this with a PowerPoint slide of mugshots of the 18 Government Chief Scientists, including a shadowy androgynous cut-out figure in MI5.

One might quibble about the details of how well this is working but, as a Lords Select Committee recently concluded, these advisors are critical, not least because they deal with issues that cut across departments and that can outlive the lifetimes of politicians, such as securing food and energy.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 Sir John raised the concept of the “Perfect Storm” of food, energy and water security in the context of climate change, a global population that will soar by a billion in the next 13 years, and the ever-increasing proportion in vulnerable urban environments, raising this as a priority for the international community.

Sir John has led the way in producing report after report working through the consequences, notably the link between food insecurity and social unrest. And, in response to a question from the audience, he welcomed the move by the United Nations to appoint its own Chief Scientist to help deal with these huge issues.

When it came to last week’s Rio+20 summit, Sir John diplomatically avoided any explicit expression of his disappointment about the outcome, stating that he felt it was better that decisions were made than not at all. However, it was perhaps significant that the most he could find to say about his trip was how bad the weather was in Rio.

At a “Resilient Cities” event the summit Sir John made an urgent appeal for scientists to use plain language if they are to play a larger role in policymaking on climate change, notably to convey an accurate measure of the risks. One example is the use of GM crops to do away with pesticides, where the existing risks of intensive farming are often neglected in the public debate.

He adopted a high profile during the recent furore about genetically altered crops, as demonstrators gathered to protest against the planting of GM wheat in open fields at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. Sir John argued that GM had to be part of a bigger plan to feed the world and predicted enormous increases in the demand for GM food, without which we could expect increased food prices that would harm the poorest of the poor, in particular.

When asked by Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment about the legacy of the ‘Climategate’ e-mails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia, Sir John pointed out that he thought some climate scientists had been harassed through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, but rightly stressed the need for openness and transparency, and to make data available so that research results can be tested through replication.

Sir John was surprisingly outspoken in his criticism of how poorly he feels the European Union is dealing with some issues of risk, highlighting, for instance, the problem of banning some substances purely because of their potential hazard, but failing to take into account whether the low levels of exposure actually constitute any significant risk to public health. On one point in particular, he could not hide his exasperation: “there is complete idiocy.”

I asked Sir John if the Chief Scientist should have more power to decide policy, rather than just advise? This would not be unprecedented: in monetary policy, a huge amount of power is devolved to Mervyn King and the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, presumably because politicians recognise that monetary policy is complex and should be left to the experts.

Surely the same be more true when it comes to aspects of science and engineering policy? No, came back the reply, because power corrupts. It is better to provide advice and insights and, as one example, he explained how a committee is now investigating the use of computer trading in financial markets, where avalanches of pre-programmed trading – up to a quarter of a million per second – can cause huge shifts in share price and market instability.

He also revealed his guiding principle when it comes to dealing with Government and NGOs alike, quoting Steven Chu, the Nobel prize winning physicist who is currently Energy Secretary in the United States: “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”

Mark Kendall, 2012 Laureate

The Rolex Awards

Guest post By Roger Highfield Director of External Affairs

Want to find out who is going to change our world? The answer was given last night at a dinner held in the Science Museum.

The gathering was held to celebrate the winners of the latest in a series of global biennial awards “aimed at fostering a spirit of enterprise ” funded by a philanthropic programme run by Rolex. Since the scheme was first established in 1976, there have been 120 ‘Rolex laureates‘.

The dinner was attended by luminaries from the worlds of science, medicine and the arts, such as heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, physicist and tv presenter Professor Jim Al-Khalili, neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore and Deborah Bull, creative director of the Royal Opera House.

This year there were 3,512 applications to the 2012 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a record number, including a higher percentage of young people than ever before. “We were thrilled,” said Rebecca Irvin, head of the Rolex Institute, Geneva.

Irvin said that five Laureates have been selected to receive Swiss Franc 100,000 and a Rolex chronometer, after an extensive selection process involving leading figures such as geneticist and populariser Steve Jones, ‘Her Deepness’ marine explorer Sylvia Earle and museum professional Mahrukh Tarapor

The five laureates who stood in turn to sustained applause at the dinner are:

Sergei Bereznuk, director of the Vladivostok-based Phoenix Fund, who has spent two decades trying to save the Siberian tiger, or Amur, which is the biggest of the tigers. Bereznuk believes that conservation depends on both anti-poaching measures and educating local people, the elements at the core of his Rolex Award-winning project.
Sergei Bereznuk, 2012 Laureate

Barbara Block, professor at Stanford University, who has pioneered the use of tagging to study large marine predators such as sharks and tuna which are critical for the delicate balance of our ocean ecosystems, but under threat from overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution. With her Rolex Award, Block will create a marine “predator cafés”, or ocean observatories, along the Californian coastline. Her ultimate goal is the creation of a marine UNESCO World Heritage site there.
Barbara Block, 2012 Laureate

Mark Kendall, professor at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland, Australia. With his “Nanopatch” he hopes to tackle problems linked to the traditional needle and syringe vaccination. His Rolex Award should allow Kendall to fast-track use in developing countries of the Nanopatch, which vaccinates with microscopic projections covered with dry vaccine.
Mark Kendall, 2012 Laureate

Erika Cuéllar. Known as “the biologist of the guanacos”, Erika works in the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, the largest protected tropical dry forest. Cuéllar has shifted her focus to the wider Gran Chaco region, which spans Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The award will help her train local ethnic groups such as the Guaraní, Ayoreode and Chiquitano as parabiologists to lead environmental efforts.
Erika Cuéllar, 2012 Laureate

Aggrey Otieno, Executive director of the non-profit organisation Pambazuko Mashinani, who works in Korogocho, Nairobi’s fourth-largest slum, where around 200,000 people are squeezed into only 1.5 kilometres squared. Otieno plans to build a telemedicine centre with a 24-hour, on-call doctor and van and will use his Rolex Award funds to train birth attendants and conduct health education.
Aggrey Otieno, 2012 Laureate

The setting for the celebration was appropriate. The museum, led by Ian Blatchford, is a treasure house of the ideas and the objects that have changed our world. It boasts the most extensive collection of significant objects in science and technology, not least the first practical and long lasting self-winding wristwatch, introduced by Rolex in 1931.

The event was addressed by Rebecca Irvin of the Rolex Institute, Richard de Leyser, managing director of Rolex UK, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, and geneticist Professor Steve Jones, who meditated on the nature and nurture of enterprise.

BBC Microcomputer

Legacy of the BBC Micro

Written by Tilly Blyth, Curator of Computing and Information


Today Nesta and the Science Museum are publishing a report on the legacy of the BBC Micro. Based on research at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre and the online public questionnaire we ran back in March 2012, the report looks at the legacy of computer and the BBC’s broader Computer Literacy Project. We received 372 responses to the questionnaire, with many people leaving detailed responses about their experiences of using computers in the 1980s and the influence it had on their subsequent careers paths.

Despite the BBC Micro being remembered as a schools machine, the report shows that the Computer Literacy Project initially aimed to improve adult computer literacy in the home. It was supported by a range of materials, distributed across a multitude of channels, and enabled local networks to deliver learning directly to many different audiences.

The report also highlights how the Computer Literacy Project had significant economic benefits, creating an increasingly skilled population and stimulating a high technology innovation cluster aroundCambridge. It suggests that any new initiatives which aim to increase computer literacy, such as the Raspberry Pi, should include the need for a strong vision for computer literacy, leadership to coordinate activities, and a desire to create change in the home as well as schools.

The report is available through the Nesta website:

Will Smith meets a group of school children and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford beside the Apollo 10 command module on a visit to the Science Museum, London.

Why Will Smith chose the Science Museum

Will Smith, Hollywood actor, producer and rapper, visited the Science Museum yesterday for a special charity premiere of Men in Black 3 for schoolchildren from diverse backgrounds.

The children gasped, cheered and waved when the two-time Oscar nominee walked into the museum’s packed IMAX theatre.

In a question and answer session before the premiere, the 43-year-old told the audience that he was keen that the event was in the Science Museum ‘because of my passion for math and science.’

‘I’m very excited to be here’ said Smith, who had earlier met the Director of the Science Museum Group, Ian Blatchford, next to the museum’s Apollo 10 command module.

Will Smith meets a group of school children and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford beside the Apollo 10 command module on a visit to the Science Museum, London.

MIB3  features time travel back to 1969, when Apollo 10 staged the dress rehearsal for the first manned moon landing.

‘My best subject at school was math’ explained the star of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ What would have become of the Hollywood actor if he had not become a global celebrity?

Smith told the Science Museum audience that he would have gone into computer engineering.

As he left the Queen’s Gate entrance to the museum he waved at members of the British Science Association. ‘Will Smith loves science,” tweeted one.

Science Museum Annual Dinner 2012

Hawking and Heuer awarded Science Museum Fellowships

By Roger Highfield

Professors Stephen Hawking and Rolf-Dieter Heuer have been made Fellows of the Science Museum, the highest accolade that the Museum can bestow upon an individual.

The awards, which are made to individuals who have had an exceptional influence on modern culture, reflect Prof Hawking’s pioneering research on quantum gravity and his remarkable success in popularising cosmology, notably with A Brief History of Time, as celebrated by an exhibition at the Museum earlier this year.

In the case of Prof Heuer, the fellowship honours his position as the Director General of CERN, in Geneva, where he leads an army of 10,000 scientists and engineers who work in the greatest intellectual adventure on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider.

The awards, which culminated in a standing ovation for Prof Hawking, were made before an audience of more than 400 at the Annual Dinner of the Science Museum by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Douglas Gurr, and handed to them by the Director of the Science Museum Group, and of the Museum itself, Ian Blatchford.

Among the black tie audience was Nobel laureate and Museum Fellow Sir Tim Hunt, Science Minister David Willetts, former Directors Sir Neil Cossons and Prof Chris Rapley, Trustee Janet Street-Porter, biographers Graham Farmelo and Tom Bower, comedian John Sessions and TV presenters Adam Rutherford, Gia Milinovich and Samira Ahmed.

The Science Museum is working with CERN to create a touring temporary exhibition that will open in London in Autumn 2013 and allow visitors to experience what it feels like to operate the biggest scientific experiment on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

‘The Science Museum is among the world’s leading centres for public engagement with science,’ said Heuer, who made a passionate speech about the role the LHC can play in helping to reengage society in this science-dominated age. ‘I’m very pleased for CERN to be working with the museum on this important new touring exhibition about the LHC.’”

In the LHC, a giant particle collider, scientists and engineers work at the extremes of temperature, vacuum and energy to recreate conditions not seen since just after the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. The museum is collaborating with theatre and digital producers to create an immersive experience and give visitors a close-up look at remarkable examples of the collider’s engineering, from the bottle of hydrogen gas that feeds the great machine to its vast and powerful magnets.

The exhibition will feature many historic objects from the Museum’s world leading collections, including JJ Thomson’s apparatus which led to the discovery of the electron, and the accelerator Cockcroft and Walton used to first split the atom. The project team for the CERN exhibit includes Harry Cliff, the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, who divides his time between the museum and the University of Cambridge team working on the LHCb experiment at CERN.

In his speech to the audience, Ian Blatchford highlighted how, as annual visitor numbers have risen to almost 3 million, the museum is extending its collaborations, not just with CERN and Cambridge but with Imperial College London and the space community too; the museum recently hosted the 50th anniversary of Ariel 1 the first international space mission, and is planning a major exhibition on Soviet-era cosmonauts.

He added that there is also a new emphasis in the museum on collaborations with the arts, from its latest exhibition on the symbolism of alchemy to a forthcoming collaboration with the Philharmonia and next year’s Media Space gallery, a partnership with the National Media Museum in Bradford which will focus on visual media.

The museum is evolving. It recently received an award of £6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a 2014 gallery which will tell the story of two centuries of innovation in communication technology. With the forthcoming Media Space Project, the new gallery represents a key step in the delivery of the museum’s Master Plan.

David Hockney draws Stephen Hawking

The new David Hockney animated Hawking portrait

By Roger Highfield and Boris Jardine

Imagine being able to see David Hockney create a new work, stroke by stroke, before your very eyes.

David Hockney Drawing Stephen Hawking

Now imagine this work is a portrait, providing an insight into the way Hockney composes his famous likenesses. Even better, the subject is none other than the distinguished Cambridge University cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.

For the next three weeks the Science Museum will display an animated version of Hockney’s portrait to provide its visitors with a rare opportunity to see how the artist’s skill has evolved since he was first introduced to the Apple gadget, the iPhone, in late 2008 and then the iPad.

The story of how Hockney came to draw new portrait of Hawking began last December, as we were putting the final touches to a museum exhibit to celebrate Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday. We were going to show a rarely seen Hockney portrait, dating from 1978, owned by Hawking’s first wife, Jane. What about an iPad portrait too?

David Hockney drawing Stephen Hawking

Hockney and Hawking were excited by our idea. Arrangements were made to bring them together before the opening of David Hockney’s triumphant A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy but they had to be put on hold as Stephen Hawking fell ill, also missing his birthday celebrations in Cambridge and the museum.

For his iPad art Hockney uses an app called ‘Brushes’, which removes the need to cart around supplies, easel and palette. This is faster than watercolour, or even than coloured pencils. He can use thumbs and fingers, or a stylus, modifying the hue and colour and layering brushstrokes of various widths and opacities.

From today the animated portrait will be on display to the public as part of the Science Museum’s Stephen Hawking: A 70th birthday celebration display.

The portrait begins at the top of Hawking’s head on a beige background. A simple sketch of Hawking’s bespectacled face peers out early on, adorned with violet eyes. Pencil-like strokes add detail, and paint-can sprays fill in his cobalt suit, a light blue cravat, computer screen and shadows. After a while, Hawking’s face gets its hue, polka-dots appear on his cravat and the broader contours of his wheelchair emerge. His hands are moved and a joystick, green background and overhead light installed before Hockney returns to work on his face. Again and again the artist plays with shading and skin tone before the final portrait of the world-famous cosmologist emerges.

Seeing the iPad portrait emerge next to the 1978 line-drawing offers an intriguing comparison — the technology is so different, but, whether paper or a digital drawing pad, it’s Hockney’s draughtsmanship and Hawking’s instantly recognizable face that are the focus.

David Hockney draws Stephen Hawking

This animated tablet art is the latest in Hockney’s long flirtation with technology which has seen him work with multi-screens, high definition video, colour photocopiers, faxes and, of course, the iPad and iPhone too. One is left in no doubt that science has a profound impact on art and culture through its application in technology.

The movie joins other artefacts in the 70th birthday display, which also includes a specially recorded message for the Science Museum and a selection of photographs from Hawking’s life and career that haven’t been seen before. The celebration ends on April 9.

Photographs Copyright Judith Croasdell

Raspberry Pi Model B

From the BBC micro to the Raspberry Pi: Campaigning for Computer Literacy

Guest blog post from Alison Hess, research assistant on our new BBC Micro Project. Learn more about the research and how you can contribute below

Raspberry Pi Model B

Raspberry Pi Model B, image courtesy of the Raspberry Pi Foundation

Last week, a new computer was launched, and within seconds, not only sold out, but also crashed the website! The Raspberry Pi is a British designed device, roughly the size of a credit card and costing a miniscule £22. It has been designed to inspire a new generation of schoolchildren to learn about programming. As their website explains, the idea for this grew out of concern about, “the year-on-year decline in the numbers and skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year.”

While this modest device could be set to revolutionise the way computing is taught in schools today, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is not the first organisation to want to improve our computer literacy. The 1980s marked a boom in personal computers, and many people became concerned that the UK would fall behind. The BBC Computer Literacy Project was launched on the 11th of January 1982, with the transmission of the television series ‘The Computer Programme’. At the same time, Acorn released a BBC licensed microcomputer, called the BBC micro.

BBC micro hardware and software from the Science Museum collection.

BBC micro hardware and software from the Science Museum collection.

By 1985 it had been adopted in 80% of UK schools, and along with a range of BBC educational software, was teaching a generation of children about the creative possibilities of computer programming. Today, this generation of programmers has grown up to populate a thriving computer industry in the UK. Places such as ‘Silicon Fen’ in Cambridge, and ‘Techcity’ in East London are known internationally as dynamic and innovative technology hubs.

In a new piece of research sponsored by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), the Science Museum is investigating the legacy of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, and the BBC micro. To do this we need your help!

Do you have experience of working in the computer and creative industries? Have you set up your own software, design or games company? We’d love to hear about your experiences: Please take our survey and contribute to our research.

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

Stephen Hawking Visits the Science Museum

By Alison Boyle and Roger Highfield

There was a huge buzz of excitement in the Museum on Saturday afternoon when a crowd of visitors sang ‘happy birthday’ to the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking.

There’s no better way to sum up the spirit of the Science Museum than this very public display of affection as the eminent cosmologist visited our new exhibit to celebrate his 70th birthday.

That he is now 70 is remarkable: it was in 1963, then a bright 21-year-old PhD student at Cambridge, that Hawking was told that he had a type of motor neurone disease (today we know it as an atypical form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was given about two years to live.

His visit to the museum on Saturday was in itself news: last month, illness had forced the Cambridge University physicist to miss our VIP reception in honour of the opening of the celebratory exhibit, and he had to pull out of a series of birthday celebrations in Cambridge.

We found out on Friday afternoon that he was well enough for a visit the next day, and organised lunch in the Museum’s Smith Centre.

There he was presented with a special gift from the Science Museum’s inventor in residence, Mark Champkins. Entitled “black hole light”, it consists of illuminated spirals of light to symbolise a black hole and ‘Hawking radiation’, a reference to his famous prediction that black holes will give off radiation. Prof Hawking typed ‘magic’ in response.

Here is a short video clip of Mark talking about the light

Finally, to the delight of crowds of onlookers, Prof Hawking asked to be taken on a tour of the museum, which he describes as ‘one of my favourite places’ and he remained here until 5pm.

Stepehn Hawking Visiting the Apollo 10 capsule at the Science Museum London

His tour included the Apollo 10 capsule in Making the Modern World (Professor Hawking is a keen advocate of human spaceflight) and the Cosmos & Culture gallery where he admired the works of illustrious predecessors such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein. He also checked out our latest exhibits including the Fenix rescue capsule and Oramics to Electronica, and enjoyed seeing younger visitors in our hands-on Launch Pad gallery – we would like to think that there’s a future Stephen Hawking among them.

When Prof Hawking left, he told us: “The museum is much better than when I used to come in the 40s and 50s”.

Stephen Hawking visiting The Science Museum London 25.02.2012

The exhibit in his honour represents the first ever display of items from the Hawking archive and encourages visitors to reflect on the relationship between Hawking’s scientific achievements, particularly the work that established his reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his immense success in popularising astrophysics. Hawking and his daughter Lucy have been involved in the selection of objects for display.