Category Archives: Science news

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner drops into Science Museum

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner had just seconds to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view, before stepping off his capsule and reaching supersonic speeds as he fell into the void.

Twenty four miles and a little over five minutes after leaving the capsule, Felix was back on Earth, having broken the sound barrier and reached speeds of up to 834 mph as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

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Today Felix visited the Science Museum where he told the museum’s Roger Highfield how, with only 10 minutes of oxygen remaining, he had just a few seconds to enjoy the majestic view of his home world before continuing with the mission protocol. Felix also talked about the first few terrifying moments, when he spun out of control in the near-vacuum conditions.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, Felix took a quick tour, starting with the Making the Modern World gallery, the museum’s ‘greatest hits’ of modern science and technology, which includes the Apollo 10 Command capsule.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Stopping to admire the Apollo 10 capsule, Felix discussed the differences with his own capsule and took a special interest in Apollo’s battered heat shield – a testament to an achievement that seems greater today, in 2012, than it did in 1969.

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Felix visited the museum with his mentor Joe Kittinger - an 84-year-old former U.S. Air Force colonel who set the previous freefall record in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800 feet. Joe was the “Capcom” (capsule communications) and primary point of radio contact for Felix Baumgartner during his remarkable mission.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: The Lovelock Archive

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum

It’s an amazing image to conjure with: the 23-year old James Lovelock, our most famous independent scientist, cradling a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best known scientist, Stephen Hawking.

Lovelock told me about this touching encounter during one of his recent visits to the Science Museum, a vivid reminder of why the museum has spent £300,000 on his archive, an extraordinary collection of notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence that reveals the remarkable extent of his research over a lifetime, from cryobiology and colds to Gaia and geoengineering.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: Notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence from the Lovelock archive

Lovelock, who was born on 26 July 1919, must have encountered the great cosmologist in the year of Hawking’s birth, 1942, when he was working at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, after graduating in chemistry from Manchester University the year before.

Hawking’s father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who spent much of his working life at the NIMR studying parasitology. Lovelock was doing research at the time of the encounter on sneezing and disinfection, publishing his first scientific paper, in the British Medical Journal, that same year.

As for his impact, there’s no better way to emphasise Lovelock’s stature than to read the foreword of one of his recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who describes him as among the most important independent scientists of the last century: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”

Lovelock has made headlines for his views on the environment, and his support for nuclear power (he once told me he would happily store nuclear waste in his garden), but he is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld, helped Gaia mature from a hypothesis into a theory by putting it on a mathematical foundation. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within an idealised world, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth. Among the items acquired by the museum is a Hewlett Packard computer that Lovelock used for Daisyworld.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence, the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated worldwide in a form that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that are able to cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space. Today, Gaia’s influence stretches beyond Earth to music, fiction and even computer games.

The Science Museum’s collection includes Lovelock’s Electron Capture Detector which he invented in 1956 to detect a range of substances, he explained, ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’ In the summer of 1967 Lovelock used it measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion. ‘It’s sad that it would now be almost impossible for a lone scientist like me to make or use an ECD without breaking the health and safety laws,’ he told me.

Electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph

James Lovelock developed this highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution in 1960.

I have met this green guru on and off since 1991 and, the last time we talked, he was as provocative as ever. The attempts to model the Earth’s climate system do not yet fully include the response of the ecosystem of the land or oceans, and Lovelock warned about feedback effects, some that can damp down climate change and others that accelerate it, and he predicts a threshold above which there could be a five degree increase in temperature.

He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science. That is no surprise. From 1964 Lovelock has worked as an independent scientist and he is writing a book about being a lone scientist in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the scientific process can only happen through collaboration. Lovelock believes that lone scientists can work more like artists in that they can be reflective and do not necessarily need other people to collaborate with.

And when it comes to the fate of our home world, all is not lost. Lovelock, like many others, is receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering, or “planetary medicine”, which could mean cooling the Earth by the use of space mirrors or clouds of particulates.

Lovelock, who has been visiting the Science Museum since the age of seven, teamed with a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, to devise another way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902

World’s first colour moving pictures discovered

Today, our sister museum, the National Media Museum, unveiled the earliest colour moving pictures ever made. These vivid images are now on show to the public for the first time in over a hundred years at the Museum in Bradford.

These films were made by photographer and inventor Edward Turner using a process he patented with his financial backer Frederick Lee in 1899. Experts at the Museum have dated the films to 1901/2, making these the earliest examples of colour moving pictures in existence.

Lee and Turner’s invention has always been regarded by film historians as a practical failure but it has now been ‘unlocked’ through digital technology, revealing the images produced by the process for the first time in over a hundred years. It’s also a story of young death and commercial intrigue in the earliest days of the film industry.

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Find out more about this discovery on the National Media Museum blog

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

Switch To A Different You?

By Dr Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer

Do you look like your parents? Do you have your mother’s green eyes, or your father’s freckles? We’re so used to thinking of physical traits in terms of genes – genes for height, genes for eye colour, even genes for baldness. But new research reveals that your genes are only a tiny part of what makes you, you. In our new display case, Switch To A Different You? – the Science Museum explores the significance of a groundbreaking discovery.

Switch To A Different You?

Genes make up only around 2% of your DNA. So what’s the rest of it for? We used to think that most of our DNA was junk – but it isn’t. Scientists working on the Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements project – called ENCODE for short – have discovered that, in reality, our “junk” DNA is made up of millions of switches, which act to turn those few genes on and off. Your DNA is, in effect, a gigantic, dynamic, dancing switchboard.

What does this mean for science – and for our sense of identity? If our genes are such a small part of our DNA, then why do we look the way we do? How does our childhood environment influence the behaviour of our genetic switchboard? If we could live our life again, would we look very different? And how will the discovery of this vast genetic switchboard help us to understand – and maybe treat – genetic diseases?

The Museum is celebrating ENCODE’s groundbreaking discoveries in a unique way. Ling Lee, on the science news team here at the Museum, came up with the wonderful idea of visualising DNA replication via an aerial silk dance. So Ling, together with Ewan Birney, one of the ENCODE project leaders, worked with acrobat Michèle Lainé of Viva Aerial Dance to choreograph a spectacular (and scientifically accurate!) performance. Join us on the Who Am I gallery at 1.30 pm tomorrow, Thursday 6th September, to see the dance that Ling and Michele created – and to find out more about the science that inspired the display.

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

In Switch To A Different You?, we begin to explore the significance of ENCODE’s discoveries. We don’t have all the answers – this science is so new that we don’t yet know where it will lead us. But we want to know what you think. If you could live your life all over again, do you think you’d be the same person you are today?

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

By Roger Highfield

The one-ton Curiosity rover, suspended from the Sky Crane ‘rocket backpack’, touched down onto Mars first thing this morning to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation of the Gale Crater.

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

Many missions to Mars have failed, such as Britain’s ill fated Beagle 2 mission, a replica of which can be viewed in the Science Museum.

However, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried the six wheeled rover, succeeded in the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the nylon bridle cords and flight of the Sky Crane away from the landing site, according to the US space agency Nasa.

The most ambitious mission of its kind, and the largest ever to land on another planet, aims to help answer the question of whether there is life on Mars, though it will focus on finding the ingredients rather than life itself (not least because no one can quite agree on what life actually is)

In 1854, William Whewell, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who popularized the word scientist, theorized that Mars had seas, land and possibly life forms. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli speculated in his 1893 book, Life on Mars that there were channels on the surface (actually optical illusions created by the telescopes of the time)

The term use used was “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but the term was mistranslated into English as “canals”, which suggested an artificial construction and triggered much speculation. In our Cosmos & Culture gallery, a Mars globe by Antoniadi, 1896-99 shows surface details named by Schiaparelli in 1877.

Among the most fervent supporters of the artificial-canal hypothesis was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent much of his life trying to prove the existence of intelligent life on the red planet. The search for life on Mars appeared to hit a dead end in 1976 when Viking landers touched down on the red planet and failed to detect activity.

There was a huge flurry of excitement a decade later, when Nasa thought it had found evidence of life in a Mars meteorite but doubts have since been cast on that finding, although meteorites may still hold Important clues.

Some still claim the Viking spacecraft may in fact have encountered signs of a life form however the debate will not end until there is direct evidence and Curiosity will search for conditions on the Red Planet that might enable microbial life to thrive, which can endure extreme conditions.

Al Chen, an engineer on the rover’s entry, descent and landing team, said the words that space scientists had been awaiting for a decade: “Touchdown confirmed.” Applause erupted after images arrived at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The rover itself tweeted an image of its shadow on @MarsCuriosity.

Cheering at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030′s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”

Previous missions such as Vikings I and II and the Mars Phoenix Lander used retrorockets to lower spacecraft all the way to the surface atop a legged lander. Others, such as Beagle 2, have used airbags. Neither method is feasible for a rover of this size.

Curiosity landed around 6.30am but it took almost 14 minutes for the news to reach Earth. It settled down near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles inside Gale Crater, after the use of parachute, heat shield, 76 explosive bolts and sky crane, an eight rocket jetpack attached to the rover. It was billed by Nasa as ‘seven minutes of terror.’

Remarkably, an image of the dramatic descent was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter and by an onboard camera, which ends by revealing the plumes of dust sent up when the Sky Crane went into action. See this composite video of the simulated and actual descent, plus the scenes in mission control.

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. About two hours after landing it transmitted a higher resolution image of its new home. More images are anticipated as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms. For the latest images, check the mission multimedia gallery which includes the first colour image.

“Our Curiosity is talking to us from the surface of Mars,” said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives.”

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the earlier Nasa Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the composition of rocks from a distance.

The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter and find pictures on the Nasa website.

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:  www.nesta.org.uk