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A sustainable future

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development for the Science Museum Group, looks at how we measure and minimise the environmental impact of our exhibitions and galleries.

The Science Museum Group places sustainability at the heart of its work. In 2010 we created a sustainability policy that would sit at the heart of all our official work practices, but well before that we were developing ideas and projects that would pave the way for the innovative work we do today.

In 2005 we became the first national museum to install solar panels on the roof – awarded for innovation by the Department for Trade and Industry – which have so far produced over half-a-million kW of energy for the museum. It’s amazing how quickly technology is developing; those original panels produced 80W, our soon-to-be-installed new panels generate 280W and newer designs will be even more energy efficient.

While it’s easy to get carried away with whizz-bang new kit, we need to be conscious that our buildings, subject to changing building techniques over the last 100 or so years, are complicated to heat, light and make suitable for our visitors and irreplaceable objects.

The hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

The Hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

We increasingly look at the ‘fabric-first’ approach to sustainability as we develop new projects and structures. By being intelligent with the building structures we can use the materials they are made from to help passively maintain good conditions for the objects they contain. The Hempcrete Museum Store at our Wroughton site is a fantastic example of this. It uses a hemp and lime construction medium to balance the humidity within the building according to temperature, decreasing the amount of air-conditioning that is required.

This work is not all big innovation though, there are many small, practical steps that have been taken to make the museum more energy efficient; from reprogramming the building management systems and lighting controllers to turning kit on only when it’s needed and changing our light bulbs to ever more efficient versions. This is important work for buildings of this scale and achieves impressive results – the lighting alone at our sister museum, the National Railway Museum, accounted for 44% of the energy used!

It is important when we develop new exhibitions and galleries that we plan and collaborate on the impacts and benefits that materials, electronic equipment and staff activity all have on a project. When the Atmosphere gallery was conceived, considerable effort was spent on understanding the environmental footprint, from the procurement chain to end of life disposal. This has become a core element of exhibitions being developed today; none more so than the Rubbish Collection!

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Waste is an inevitable by-product of the Museum’s operation, and we are becoming more agile at dealing and developing new ways to divert this resource away from pointless burial. Our current system ensures that almost no waste is sent to landfill. What can’t be recycled is sent to Grundon’s highly efficient energy from waste plant, where with the increasing value of some of the raw materials means that our waste can become products that have a second, third or even fourth life after leaving the museum. Keeping waste to a minimum is an important part of the story, and through procurement we encourage suppliers to minimise both the travel distances for their products and the packaging associated with them.

Across our group of Museums, sustainability initiatives over the last year have seen many successes: at Wroughton, biodiversity actions have brought two poor-condition County Wildlife Sites into a land management plan. The cafés at all our sites achieved high levels of recognition from the Sustainable Restaurants Association for sourcing food from local and ethical suppliers, along with good practice within the cafés to minimise food waste and energy use. Café development at the Science Museum over the last few months has included innovatively planted walls and herb gardens in the new terrace area. Our procurement team is working hard to ensure that our suppliers and contractors have a good record and work with us to improve sourcing and energy efficiency.

The terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

Plants adorn the new terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

So, what does the future hold for sustainability in the Science Museum Group? An ever-increasing need to be efficient in energy use will see developments in building fabric performance, energy efficiency technology and energy generation at our sites and when we develop our visitor spaces, new materials, efficient interactives and intelligent systems will add to the Museum experience. We’ll also be trying to put more energy back into the national grid than we take out with a 40MW solar project at our Wroughton site – that’s about four times the electricity that the Science Museum Group consumes!

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.

Win a walk-on-part in The Energy Show + a weekend break in London

Stand back and cover your ears – a trip to the theatre just got explosively exciting! The Energy Show is on tour around the country until July 22, when it returns to London for a spectacular final two weeks at the Science Museum.

To mark the launch of this fun-filled show, we’ve teamed up with The Sunday Mirror to give one lucky child (aged 7 – 12) the opportunity of a lifetime – a walk-on part in The Energy Show in London. This great prize includes three tickets for family or friends and an overnight stay at the four-star Cavendish Hotel.

Three runners-up will also win four tickets each to the show at their chosen tour venues. Visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/energyshow for details on dates and venues.

The Energy Show

How to enter
Q) Which of these is NOT a famous scientist?
1) Marie Curie
2) Albert Einstein
3) Simon Cowell

CALL 0900 586 4613 and follow the instructions (61p/min). Or TEXT SMHOL followed by a space then your answer (1, 2 or 3), your name, full address, postcode and email address to 85858 (£1/text).

Terms & Conditions

1. Lines close 11.59 pm on Saturday April 12, 2014. Landline calls cost 61p/min plus network extras max 2.5 mins. Payphones and mobiles will be higher. Texts cost £1 each plus one standard network rate message. Entries received after this date may not be counted but will still be charged. To decline marketing messages add NOINFO to the end of your text.
2. Employees of Trinity Mirror plc, Science Museum Group, associated companies, agents or anyone involved in the running of the competition are excluded from entering.
3. ONE winner (aged 18/over) drawn at random after lines close from all correct entries. Winner must be child’s parent/legal guardian, contactable by 17:00 April 21, 2014 and available August 2-3, 2014.
4. PRIZE: walk-on part for one child aged 7–12 in one performance of The Energy Show at London’s Science Museum, 12.00 on winner’s choice of either Saturday August 2,  2014 or Sunday August 3, 2014. Includes performance tickets for 3 family members, overnight stay for 4 the night before the show, plus 4 Science Museum tickets to Red Arrows 3D experience. Winner and parent/guardian required to attend rehearsals and health & safety briefing at 09.00 on the day of the show. By entering Winner agreed to take part in any media activity carried out as part of this competition including any post-competition publicity if required. The Science Museum will seek the necessary consents for filming.
5. THREE Runners-up: each 4 standard tickets giving one admittance to The Energy Show at any tour venue of winner’s choice (subject to availability).
6. Travel, any other costs/expenses not included with any tickets (winner’s cost & responsibility)
7. Trinity Mirror Plc accepts no liability whatsoever for winner’s subsequent participation in this prize.
8. Prizes non-transferable, no whole/part cash alternatives.
9. Standard Trinity Mirror plc Rules apply, see www.mirror.co.uk/rules
10. SP: JMedia UK Ltd, SW4 7BX Helpline: 0844 800 1188

‘Tis the season to 3D print your Christmas

Press Officer Laura Singleton explores some festive 3D printing.

Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year – with presents to wrap, trees to be put up and cards to be written. Finding the perfect gift or decoration can be expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. Could the rise of 3D printing provide the answer to our seasonal woes and even tap into our hidden creativity?

Earlier this month we were pleased to unveil a dramatic 3D printed titanium star, which sits on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. The star, which measures 44cm wide, is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved on a 3D printer. The star’s design is based on fractals, the self-repeating patterns found within a Mandelbrot set.

Close up of Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Close up of Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

The star was the result of a challenge set by the Science Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford at last year’s Christmas party. Attendees to the event were challenged to come up with an innovative design for a star – to be created and displayed on our Christmas tree.

Jessica Noble's 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Jessica Noble’s 3D printed titanium star. Image credits: Science Museum

Conceived and designed by London based designer Jessica Noble, with help from Nottingham University, the star features a central nylon core and 97 3D printed individual titanium stars printed by Renishaw that were then connected to the core using carbon fibre rods. The individual parts make the star easy to assemble, dissemble and rearrange – a clear advantage over other types of decoration. The Mandelbrot reference gives a nod to the Science Museum’s mathematical collections.

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director's Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

Designer Jessica Noble with her 3D printed star on top of the Director’s Christmas tree. Image credits: Science Museum

However, you don’t need to be an artist or designer to take advantage of the benefits of 3D printing. Many printers are now available on the high street and can produce smaller scale designs of your choice. Our Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins, has taken advantage of the technology by creating a range of decorations and gift tags for the Science Museum’s shop that can be 3D printed in under 15 minutes.

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum's store. Image credits: Science Museum

A selection of 3D printed snowflakes created in the Science Museum’s store. Image credits: Science Museum

As the museum’s store now sells 3D printers, we’ve set one up to demonstrate how the technology works. Should you wish to buy a decoration such as a snowflake or star, you can choose a design and watch it being printed – ready for you to take home. Why not pay a visit to the museum and try it out?

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

A 3D printed snowflake designed by Inventor in Residence, Mark Champkins. Image credits: Science Museum

The link between science and design was the topic of a recent debate held jointly at the Science Museum and Design Museum and attended by Universities and Science Minister, David Willets MP. Organised with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the debate focused on breaking down language barriers and encouraging interaction between scientists, engineers and designers explained David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the TSB.

3D printing is rapidly changing society – whether at home, work or our leisure activities. You can find more examples of how the technology is growing in our free exhibition, 3D: Printing The Future, which showcases over 600 3D printed objects including prototypes for replacement body organs, bike gadgets and aeroplane parts.

People’s Postcode Lottery

A guest blog from Kate Pearson, Deputy Head of Charities and Trusts Manager at People’s Postcode Lottery

Working at People’s Postcode Lottery in the charities team is busy, challenging and of course, rewarding!  We’re a charity lottery and we are proud to say that, along with our sister lotteries in Holland and Sweden, our players have contributed over €5.9 billion to charitable organisations across the world.

Our aim is to raise funds for good causes, with 22.5% of every £2 ticket going directly to charities – over the last five years players of People’s Postcode Lottery have raised over £33.2 Million. This year we are delighted to announce that, thanks to our players, the Science Museum Group will receive an incredible £200,000.

We are delighted that projects in London and Manchester will benefit from the funding. This will ensure that many people, including players, will be able to experience the wonderful exhibits on offer at the Science Museum in London and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

As funders of good causes, our commitment is to offer flexible funding that charities can use where they really need it, and we hope to be able to support the Science Museum Group on a long-term basis.

We are so excited to support the work of the Science Museum Group because we believe it’s important that people all across Great Britain can learn about the history and contemporary practice of science, medicine, technology, industry and media. The organisation is one of the most significant groups of museums of science and innovation worldwide, and we’re so glad to be able to award them this funding.

People's Postcode Lottery

Chinese Science Theatre Group visits the Museum

Outreach officer Laura talks about the Science Museum’s new education links with China

The Science Museum recently hosted a very special visit from the Science Theatre Group from the Dongguan Science and Technology Museum (DGSTM) in China.

Much like our Explainers here at the museum, the theatre group perform free science shows for visitors at the DGSTM – the main difference being their performers are mostly between the ages of 6 and 12 years!

Kitted out with beautiful costumes and having meticulously learned their scripts in English, the young performers presented a variety of shows to Science Museum visitors. We learned about the fascinating life of the humble ant in the Amazing Ants show, as well as some lessons about marine conservation in Dr Shark and the Café de Coral. Finally two of the adult performers from the DGSTM dispelled some myths about magic in their interactive show The Magic of Science.

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Creatures of the deep

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Learning about the delicate balance of the marine eco-system

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The Magic of Science with ‘magicians’ Newton and Curie

The visit from the lively theatre group came out of a growing partnership between the DGSTM and the Science Museum following a visit to Dongguan from our outreach team in November last year.

Members of the outreach team worked closely with the DGSTM and the British Council and were able to reach over 7000 people over two weeks in China and Hong Kong. The team performed the ever popular Feel the Force show along with the Mission to Mars workshop.

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Investigating magnetism during ‘Feel the Force’

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Outreach officer Shane launching rockets with children at the Dongguan Science and Technology Museum

The Science Museum is working to coordinate regular visits to China so it was a great opportunity to reciprocate the DGSTM’s hospitality in hosting their performances here in London.

The shows went down a treat with museum visitors as well as members of local Chinese community groups who attended the performances. Some members of the audience even had the chance to pose for photos with the performers!

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Science: Not Just for Laboratories

Outreach Officer Laura talks about the Science Museum’s trip to the Lounge on the Farm festival.

Its festival season and the Science Museum’s outreach team are on hand to bring explosions and experiments to the muddy music festival crowds. That’s right, there is a place for science alongside the bizarre and off the wall experiences of a music festival.

Last month the outreach team returned for the 2nd year running to the Lounge on the Farm festival, nestled in the Kentish countryside on Merton Farm. Amongst a variety of acts including comedians, storytellers and the enigmatically named ‘Lord of Lobsters’ we performed some of our best-loved experiments for festival-going families.

Check out some of our favourite action shots!

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Making ice cream with Liquid Nitrogen

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Barbie gets ready to take off..

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Coke and Mentos fountain!

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Setting up the stupid egg trick

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Success! 3 eggs in 3 cups!

We love to bring a little something special to our audiences and there’s nothing like a splosh of liquid nitrogen for getting a gasp of delight or an exploding hydrogen balloon to keep people on the edge of their seats. But many of our experiments can be re-created at home or in the classroom, science is all around us, it is the way our world works and having fun with science is not reserved for lab-coat clad professors!

There’s no doubt that our first experiences of science are in the classroom and science teachers work hard to deliver lessons that are packed with science facts. But how do you keep those lessons fresh and engaging? Here at the Science Museum, bringing science to everyone is as much about making science fun as it is about spreading the word on how it has shaped our lives. So teachers, why not check out this video from our Punk Science duo for some tips on spicing up your science lessons.

Google Chrome Web Lab in the Science Museum

Web Lab nominated for three Webby Awards

Chrome Web Lab has been nominated for three Webby Awards – Best Visual Design (Aesthetic), Education and NetArt – but now we need your votes.

Web Lab, a series of interactive Chrome Experiments developed by Google and running online 24/7 here at the Science Museum in London, brings the extraordinary workings of the internet to life.

Over 5 million online users – and hundreds of thousands of museum visitors – have already created music together (included musician Will.i.am), watched their portrait being drawn by a robot and discovered much more about the hidden workings of the World Wide Web.

Will.i.am explores Google Web Lab at the Science Museum

Will.i.am explores Google Web Lab at the Science Museum

The Webby Awards – now in their 17th year – showcase the best of the web, and this year Chrome Web Lab has been nominated along with the likes of TED Education, the Exploratorium and Walking with Dinosaurs.

If you’ve enjoyed visiting Web Lab (either online or when here at the Museum) please cast your vote for Web Lab in one (or all) of the categories below.

Click and vote for Web Lab…
Best Visual Design (Aesthetic
Education
NetArt

We were also delighted to discover our recently re-designed homepage was also given an Honoree mention in the Best Homepage category.

View of the LHCb cavern

X-citing news from CERN

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a new discovery at CERN for our blog. A new Science Museum exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider will open in November 2013, showcasing particle detectors and the stories of scientific discoveries.

In 2003 physicists at the Belle experiment in Japan reported they had discovered a brand new particle.

Adding a new entry to the big book of particle physics is certainly satisfying, but not usually cause for much excitement. The discovery of the Higgs-like boson last year was an exception. After all, hundreds of particles have shown up in experiments over the last century. So many in fact, that they were often referred to, rather derisively, as a “zoo”.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Image Credit: CERN

But the particle found at Belle was different.

It didn’t fit neatly into the picture painted by theory and there was no clear explanation for its origin. It was a bit of an enigma, and earned a suitably enigmatic name: the X particle.

Professor Val Gibson from the University of Cambridge told me that she and her colleagues “have been mesmerized” about the identify this mysterious particle for the last ten years.

The Particle Zoo

The vast majority of the particles that make up the particle zoo are not fundamental; in other words they are made up of smaller things and these things are fundamental particles called quarks. Six different types of quark have been discovered and they can form a large number of different combinations, explaining the particle zoo.

However, quarks only bind together in very specific ways. Two ways in fact. One option is a ménage à trois known as a baryon. Baryons include the proton and the neutron, the building blocks of the atomic nucleus. The other option is where a quark and an antiquark couple up to form a meson.

The X didn’t fit easily into either of these pictures. This generated a lot of excitement and there was speculation as to whether it could be an ordinary meson, or some new exotic combination involving four quarks, a tetraquark, or a “molecule” of two mesons stuck together.

If this were true it would be the first time such an exotic state had been definitively seen in nature.

The only way to tell would be to measure the quantum numbers of the X, three properties that give a clue to its internal structure. This hadn’t been possible, until now.

Exciting, Exotic X

Amid the hundreds of trillions of collisions generated by the Large Hadron Collider over the past three years physicists at the LHCb experiment (the experiment I work on) managed to pick out about 300 X particles.

View of the LHCb cavern

View of the LHCb cavern. Image credit: CERN

This week, they presented the first full measurement of the quantum numbers of the X, at a conference at La Thuile in Italy. The result was emphatic – the X is not a meson, it is something altogether more exotic.

LHCb physicist Dr Matt Needham told me that “this measurement is a great step forward in understanding this mysterious X” and a “very exciting result”. However, there is still work to be done.

“The real nature (of the X) is still unclear”. Whether it’s a tetraquark, meson molecule or something else entirely must now be determined.

His colleagues at LHCb will now search for signs of the X decaying in new ways to try to separate out the various different options. Although the Large Hadron Collider has now shut down for two years physicists at LHCb will have no shortage of data to work with. An unprecedented sample was collected during 2012, corresponding to 180 trillion collisions, each one producing hundreds of particles.

The true nature of this enigmatic particle may soon be known. Whatever the result, we have now had our first glimpse of an altogether new state of matter. Finding out exactly what the X is will bring us deeper understanding of nature’s fundamental building blocks and the forces that bind them together.

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013. The exhibition will showcase real pieces of the LHC, including an intricate particle detector from the heart of the LHCb experiment.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

The ingenious inventions of Mr Babbage!

By Cate Watson – Content Developer on the Babbage display

Although Charles Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, plans of which are now on display in the Computing gallery, he was a life long inventor with a passion for improvement.

As a 16 year old Babbage nearly drowned when he trialed his newly invented shoes for walking on water. This setback failed to discourage him and Babbage’s inventions ranged from designs for a locomotive ‘cow catcher’, an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, a ‘black box’ recorder for monitoring railway tracks and ‘speaking-tubes’ linking London and Liverpool among many other ideas.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Babbage fervently believed that new inventions should be freely available to all – when he constructed the first known opthalmoscope in 1847 for internal eye examinations he refused to patent it. The credit went to Herman von Helmhotz 4 years later instead.

You can see another of Babbage’s inventions in the Museum – an occulting light mechanism to help with ship navigation. Ship captains used lights on shore to steer by but the increasing number of lights on the coast led to confusion. Babbage designed a light with mechanical shutters to create a unique flashing signal for ships.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

Frustratingly for Babbage, this invention, like many of his ideas, found no favour at home. It did however sufficiently impress the Russians, who used the principle of his signalling lights against the British in the Crimean war.

Babbage’s foresight wasn’t limited to his inventions. He predicted the end of the coal mines and recommended tidal power instead, commenting that if posterity failed to find a substitute source of power it deserved to be ‘frostbitten’!

See more of Babbage’s inventive drawings in a new display in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.