The Science of Interstellar

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.

Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.

What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).

Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.

This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.


Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.

This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.

Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.

Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.

To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.

Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”

This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.

‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’

At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.

Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.

As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.

Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.

Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.

It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.

In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.

Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.

In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”

At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.

So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.

See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.

Dogs in Space

By Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering and Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant.

On this day (3 November) in 1957, just one month after the launch of Sputnik, a dog called Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. But sadly, with no means of returning her safely to Earth, she was on a one-way mission. Enough reserve supplies were prepared for Laika to survive one week in orbit inside the Sputnik 2 satellite, but she overheated and died only a few hours after launch.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Laika’s flight followed earlier stratospheric flights with dogs as crew. These sub-orbital missions were crucial for gathering knowledge of what happens to living creatures in space, as well as testing the equipment, ejection and parachute landing systems that would later be used by cosmonauts. The space dogs were used all the way up until the first manned space flight and after, flying in Vostok-type spacecraft.

On 22 July 1951, after six months of training, two small dogs nicknamed Tsygan and Dezik were launched from the site of the first Soviet cosmodrome in a region called Kapustin Yar. At a height of 110 km, the head of the rocket containing the dogs separated and began to free-fall back down to Earth. They experienced intense G-forces during descent, but after a heavy jolt from the parachute, the cabin containing the two four-legged pilots slowed and touched down safely. The trip, which lasted 15 minutes from start to finish, made Tsygan and Dezik the first animals to experience space flight and to emerge from the craft unharmed.

The completely new field of space biology was asking many questions about whether humans and other animals could survive an extended trip into outer space. The scientists involved needed to test the boundaries of endurance on actual living creatures. Was it possible to survive the extreme accelerations and decelerations of launching and landing? How could basic life-support needs – such as air, water and food – be supplied away from the home planet? And finally, would the experience of weightlessness inside a small capsule be harmful? Scientists needed to test life-support equipment, develop a training regimen for crews and perform tests in space. All of this had to be completed before human crews could embark on space exploration.

By the time of the first Soviet space dog crew, American scientists had attempted a number of launches using monkeys in V2 and Aerobee rockets, and all of them ended in the death of the animals. But the information collected during the flights demonstrated that the animals could cope with the intense G-forces and stresses of the rocket launches.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev decided that the Soviet space programme would, on the other hand, work with dogs. The choice of dogs, ‘man’s best friend’, over monkeys, among our closest genetic relatives, was based on rational reasoning springing from emotional attachment. The Russian scientists believed they could build stronger bonds with the animals and so ensure their obedience. They also believed that the dogs eking out an existence on the harsh streets of Moscow would possess a survivalist temperament.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

There were strict criteria for scouting the first star squad of dogs. They had to be female, because the specialised clothing and toilet technology was easier to tailor to them. And they needed to be small in size: 6 to 7 kg each to accommodate the strict weight limit for the rocket. These dogs also needed to have light-coloured fur, in order to show up clearly in front of the on-board camera. The scientists had even attempted to bleach the fur of one of their favourite darker dogs without success.

In the six years of stratospheric dog flights only a few launches ended in tragedy. But through these sacrifices enough information was gathered on whether living beings were likely to survive a trip into space. After the launch of an untrained puppy called ZIB (a quick replacement for a runaway dog), Chief Designer Korolev was ecstatic. At the landing site, when greeted by the happy puppy, he announced to his colleagues:

‘Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!’

These early tests, conducted in secrecy, culminated in the final question: could a living creature survive a prolonged stay in zero gravity?

The most successful canine mission was perhaps the one performed by Belka and Strelka in 1960, who completed 18 orbits and returned to Earth in perfect health. They were greeted by an international press corps at a news conference in Moscow and their friendly faces were broadcast around the world. Belka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which was given to the American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy by Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

At the time of this gift, Korolev already knew the name of the cosmonaut who would be the first to fly into space. By the time of Gagarin’s flight, 48 dogs had been to space and 20 had perished.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening soon.

Information Age: evolution or revolution?

On Friday 24 October 2014, the Science Museum celebrated the launch of a new permanent gallery; Information Age. The gallery explores over 200 years of information and communication technologies and was officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen who marked the occasion by sending the first tweet by a reigning monarch. In the afternoon, the Museum’s IMAX auditorium continued the celebrations, bringing together a panel of some of the world’s leading thinkers and entrepreneurs to share their insights and predictions about the big events that have shaped the communication technology we are familiar with today, and look ahead to what the future may hold.

Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield introduces the panel at Information Age: evolution or revolution?

We’re repeatedly told that we are experiencing more rapid technological advances than ever before. But over the past two centuries, our predecessors witnessed transformational developments in communication technology that were arguably far more revolutionary, from the laying of the first telegraph cable that connected the UK and USA to the birth of radio and TV broadcasting.

What can we learn from their experiences? Is what we are going through truly an unparalleled revolution, or does our focus on the now distort our perspective on an ongoing evolution in our relationship to information?

Click here to listen to the whole discussion and decide for yourself…

Chaired by Tom Standage, Digital Editor of The Economist and author of The Victorian Internet and Writing on the Wall, the expert panel brought together to discuss this question featured:

  • Hermann Hauser, computing engineer and co-founder of venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners
  • Baroness Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, Chancellor of the Open University, chair of Go ON and board member of Marks and Spencer
  • Mo Ibrahim, mobile communications entrepreneur and founder of Celtel, one of Africa’s leading telecommunications operators, and
  • Jim Gleick, best-selling author of Chaos and The Information

The opening of Information Age marks the start of the biggest period of development of the Museum since it was opened over a century ago. Over the next five years, about a third of the Museum will be transformed by exciting new galleries, including a brand new mathematics gallery designed by Stirling Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

Information Age is now open, located on floor 2 of the Museum. A new book entitled Information Age, to which the event’s panel have all contributed, is also now on sale in the Museum shop and online.

Wonderful Things: Memory box

Rosanna Denyer from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

By 2015, 850,000 people in the UK will have been diagnosed with dementia. Dementia is a term used to describe the symptoms of diseases that cause memory loss, confusion and problems with communication. Dementia is progressive,so the symptoms become worse as time goes on.

Until 1906 it was thought that dementia was an inevitable part of growing old. This changed when Dr Alois Alzheimer,a leading neurologist who researched the brain and the nervous system, gave a lecture about a disease which caused memory loss, hallucinations and problems with communicating and understanding. He was describing what we now know as Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

Doctors now know that the death of neuron cells in the brain is the main cause of dementia. Neurons need nutrients, oxygen and close contact with other cells in order to survive. Scientists are always looking for possible cures for dementia, a great deal of the research is aimed at treating the symptoms, for example trying to delay memory loss.

However, treatment for memory loss does not lie solely in the hands of scientists. Memory boxes, such as the one on display in the Who Am I? gallery, are used by people with dementia, with their friends and families, to help them retain memories.

Memory Box

Memory Box in the Who Am I? gallery at the Science Museum

Photographs and objects that have special memories connected to them can be kept inside the boxes. The person with dementia can look through the box and be reminded of people, places and events from their lives. They can be used to trigger memories of a past career or love.

In the next 10 years a further one million people in the UK will develop dementia. Whilst scientists research and test treatments, families and communities will continue to develop ways to manage the symptoms. A memory box may seem simple, but it is a method which is accessible, affordable and effective.

The issue of how to treat and manage dementia is experienced by communities all over the world. By 2030, the number of people with dementia worldwide is estimated to reach 65 million.

Some countries are finding unique ways to help people live with the symptoms of dementia. One care home in Amsterdam has created an entire village which is ‘dementia friendly.’ The 152 residents live in the small village of Hogewey which has a restaurant, theatre, beauty salon and village shop.  The village is staffed by healthcare workers and volunteers and gives elderly people with dementia a safe environment in which to enjoy everyday life.

What memories would you want to keep in your memory box?

The memory box can be found in the Who Am I? gallery, on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing in the Science Museum.

Celebrating the opening of Information Age

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

On Friday, we were delighted to welcome Her Majesty The Queen to open our pioneering new Information Age gallery at the Science Museum. The Queen opened the gallery by sending her first tweet, 76 years after her first visit to the Museum.

The Queen sends her first tweet to open the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The Queen sends her first tweet to open the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The historic moment took place in front of around 600 supporters of the Museum who had gathered to celebrate the opening of Information Age. The audience included communications entrepreneurs, authors and experts, from Baroness Lane Fox, Hermann Hauser and Mo Ibrahim to Prof Steve FurberJames GleickTom Standage and Sir Nigel Shadbolt.

Guests received a warm welcome from Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director, before being treated to a performance of John Adams’ ‘A Short ride in a fast machine’ by the Philharmonia concert band.

Standing in front of the monumental aerial inductance coil from Rugby Radio which was donated to the Science Museum by BT, Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Group, Lead Principal Sponsor of the gallery, spoke of his tremendous pride in seeing the iconic tuning coil reassembled and on public display.

The Queen meets Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Group at the opening of the Information Age gallery.

The Queen meets Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Group at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

He used the opportunity to highlight some triumphs from BT’s history of pioneering new technologies, from the first electric telegram to the first transatlantic telephone call. He said that the “spirit of the Information Age creates a future of endless possibilities” and that BT was thrilled to be involved in the gallery.

Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, Principal Sponsor, stressed the growing need for more young people to take up careers in engineering, which he described as “vital to the future prosperity of the UK”.

The Queen meets Simon Segars, CEO of ARM. Image credit: Tim Anderson

The Queen meets Simon Segars, CEO of ARM. Image credit: Science Museum

Mr Segars described how his first visit to the Science Museum as a child had inspired him to pursue a career in engineering. He expressed his hopes that today’s young people would take similar inspiration from the Information Age gallery.

The relationship between the arts and science was the focus of Patricia E Harris’ speech as CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Principal Funder of the gallery. Ms Harris spoke of Bloomberg’s interest in supporting institutions that harness the power of both arts and technology, praising Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s new digital and interactive artwork in the gallery. Information Age was, she said, a “perfect fit” for Bloomberg’s support, as the Science Museum is one of the most popular museums in the UK.

The Queen meets Patricia E. Harris, CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Brian McClendon, VP Engineering, Google at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Tim Anderson

The Queen meets Patricia E. Harris, CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Brian McClendon, VP Engineering, Google at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s ability to inspire the next generation, was further highlighted by Brian McClendon, VP Engineering at Google and the founder of Google Earth. Google is a Principal Funder of the gallery and has contributed a number of objects including a Google Corkboard Server which is on display in the Web section of the gallery.

On arrival at the Museum, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were greeted by the Lord Lieutenant, Sir David Brewer, the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Councillor Maighread Condon-Simmonds, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum and Dr Gill Samuels, Interim Chairman of the Science Museum Group. Her Majesty also received a welcome cheer in the Energy Hall from a group of children from Marlborough Primary School who were visiting the Museum that day.

The Queen is greeted by school children as she enters the Museum with Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford. Image credit: Tim Anderson

The Queen is greeted by children from Marlborough Primary School as she enters the Museum with Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford. Image credit: Tim Anderson

Within the Information Age gallery, Lead Curator Tilly Blyth gave The Queen a short tour of some of the exhibition highlights, from a bright yellow call box from Cameroon to the BBC’s first radio transmitter from 1922. The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh also visited the broadcast area of the gallery and listened for the first time to recordings of the personal recollections of people whose first experience of television was watching the Coronation in 1953.

Following the tour, Ian Blatchford welcomed The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, describing Information Age as “the beginning of a renaissance for the Museum”. He thanked BT for its generous donation of 80 objects to the gallery and expressed his delight that “our friends at CERN have lent us Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer, the first web server.”

Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford welcomes The Queen to the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford welcomes The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh to the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Carole Souter CBE, Chief Executive of The Heritage Lottery Fund emphasised the importance of collaboration between public and private donors and their £6 million contribution to the gallery. She spoke warmly of HLF’s “great respect and fondness” for the Science Museum and our commitment to bringing science and technology to life in a way that everyone can relate to.

The Queen meets Carole Souter, CEO of the Heritage Lottery Fund at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Tim Anderson

The Queen meets Carole Souter, CEO of the Heritage Lottery Fund at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The Queen later accepted an Honorary Fellowship of the Science Museum from Dr Gill Samuels, Interim Chairman of the Trustees. The presentation was made by Michael G Wilson OBE, Chairman of the Science Museum Foundation and Ms Edwina Dunn, Trustee of the Foundation. The Fellowship is an honour normally awarded to outstanding scientists.

The Queen is presented with a Science Museum Fellowship at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Tim Anderson

The Queen is presented with a Science Museum Fellowship at the opening of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Inviting The Queen to open the gallery, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford remarked on how royalty had embraced communications technology, from the day Queen Victoria took an interest in the invention of the telephone, which was demonstrated to her in January 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. “Your Majesty has followed in this tradition,” said Mr Blatchford. “You made the first live Christmas broadcast in 1957 and an event relished by historians took place on 26 March 1976, when you became the first monarch to send an email, during a visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment.”

He then invited The Queen to join him to “send your first Tweet”. The Queen removed a glove to send her pioneering tweet from the @BritishMonarchy Twitter account.

Following a fanfare from the Philharmonia, The Queen was presented with a specially created bouquet of flowers by Catherine Patterson, the daughter of Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Group. Made from punch cards and telegraph printing tape, the bouquet was designed by Mark Champkins, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence.

Catherine Patterson presents an 'information bouquet' to HM The Queen. Image credit: Tim Anderson

Catherine Patterson presents an ‘information bouquet’ to The Queen. Image credit: Science Museum

The Information Age gallery is now open to the public on the second floor of the Science Museum. More information can be found on our website.

Information Age has been made possible through the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT (Lead Principal Sponsor), ARM (Principal Sponsor), Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google (Principal Funders). Major Funders include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Bonita Trust and Motorola Solutions Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Accenture (Connect Circle Sponsor) as well as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Cambridge Wireless (CW) Qualcomm Foundation, The David and Claudia Harding Foundation and other individual donors. The Science Museum would also like to thank the BBC for their assistance.

Her Majesty The Queen sends her first tweet to unveil the Information Age

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Her Majesty The Queen this morning opened the pioneering Information Age gallery at the Science Museum by sending her first tweet to the world, 76 years after The Queen’s first visit to the museum.

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum's Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet

HM The Queen opens the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery by sending her first tweet. Credit: Science Museum

The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh had earlier toured the landmark gallery, which explores the six networks that have transformed global communications, listening to personal recollections of people whose first experience of television was watching her Coronation in 1953.

Inviting Her Majesty to open the gallery, Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford remarked on how royalty had embraced communications technology from the day Queen Victoria took an interest in the invention of the telephone, which was demonstrated to her in January 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell at Osborne House, Isle of Wight.

“Your Majesty has followed in this tradition,” said Mr Blatchford while addressing around 600 guests including communications entrepreneurs, authors and experts, from Baroness Lane Fox, Hermann Hauser and Mo Ibrahim to Prof Steve Furber, James Gleick, Tom Standage and Sir Nigel Shadbolt.

“You made the first live Christmas broadcast in 1957,” he added, “and an event relished by historians took place on 26 March 1976, when you became the first monarch to send an email, during a visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. “

Then Mr Blatchford invited Her Majesty to join him to “send your first Tweet”.

The Queen removed a glove to send her pioneering tweet from the @BritishMonarchy Twitter account.

 

The Queen's first Tweet

The Queen’s first Tweet

This marked the first time that a reigning British monarch contributed one of the half billion or so tweets that are sent every day.

The Queen has a long relationship with the Science Museum and first visited in March 1938, as a princess, a few years after it launched a pioneering Children’s Gallery.

Today she explored Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World, the first museum gallery dedicated to the history of information technologies, containing more than 800 iconic objects and six state-of-the art interactive displays in story boxes connected by an elevated walkway.

The £16 million project saw collaborations with leading artists and thinkers, including Olivier award-winning video and projection designer Finn Ross, artists Matthew Robins and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, broadcaster Bonnie Greer and developer of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

From the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America  to the birth of the modern smartphone, it looks at how today’s  world was forged with six communication networks: the telegraph; the telephone, radio and television broadcasting; satellite communications; computer networks; and mobile communications.

Lead curator Dr Tilly Blyth showed The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh around the exhibition, from the bright yellow call box from Cameroon to the BBC’s first radio transmitter from 1922 to the monumental 6-metre high aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station that lies at the heart of the gallery.

This strangely beautiful web of copper and wood was once part of the most powerful radio transmitter in the world and was donated to the Science Museum by BT.

Over 410,000 people follow the Science Museum on Twitter via @sciencemuseum.

We use twitter to share as many fascinating objects (some weird, others wonderful) and stories from our exhibitions and collections as possible.  In the past we have shared science jokes and organised a Q&A with an astronaut.

We’ve even taken our followers inside Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 Command Module.

Our curators regularly take over the @sciencemuseum account, taking hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter tours of their favourite objects. In the past, @rooneyvision has shared his story of how we made the modern world, with @ali_boyle selecting her favourite objects from our astronomy collection (you can read the #CosmosTour here).

The @ScienceMuseum account was also at the heart of the Great British Innovation vote which attracted more than 50,000 votes from the public for their favourite innovation.

We love reading tweets from the millions of you who visit each year, sharing stories of visits, getting engaged and even dancing under our rockets.

From astronauts to pop stars, we have had the pleasure of meeting and tweeting many famous faces. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, joked with us about driving a NASA moon buggy, with Chris Hadfield sharing stories of life on board the International Space Station, and will.i.am joining us for a tour of the museum.

And it was a remarkable day when both Prof Stephen Hawking and Nobel prize-winner Prof Peter Higgs met in the Science Museum for our Collider exhibition opening.

This year a record breaking 450,000 young people visited the Science Museum on educational trips, or benefitted from its outreach programme, more than any other UK museum. Our Learning team (@SM_Learn) helps schools to plan their visits as well as sharing science demos and experiments that wow visitors every day.

Information Age has been made possible through the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT (Lead Principal Sponsor), ARM (Principal Sponsor), Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google (Principal Funders).  Major Funders include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Bonita Trust and the Motorola Solutions Foundation. 

Additional support has been provided by Accenture (Connect Circle Sponsor) as well as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Cambridge Wireless (CW), the David and Claudia Harding Foundation and other individual donors.  The Science Museum would also like to thank the BBC for their assistance.

Revealing The Real Cooke and Wheatstone Telegraph Dial

John Liffen, Curator of Communications, blogs about an important discovery to be displayed for the first time in our new Information Age gallery opening 25 October 2014.

The Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery features over 800 objects spanning 200 years of telecommunications. Many have been on display before, but most are on show for the first time in this gallery. Among these are newly-acquired objects that show the latest developments in communications, while others are drawn from the Museum’s extensive collections.

One object in particular represents what we believe to be a major discovery.

The object in question is a large Cooke and Wheatstone electric telegraph dial, on loan from Kings College London since 1963. The object has never before been on public display because of doubts over its authenticity. However, I am now confident that it dates from 1837, the year that the practical electric telegraph was introduced in Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Five Needle Telegraph © Science Museum

The newly-identified Cooke and Wheatstone Five Needle Telegraph, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

Since 1876, the Museum has displayed a smaller five-needle instrument and has claimed it to be one of the original instruments installed at either Euston or Camden Town in 1837 when Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke demonstrated their electric telegraph system to the directors of the newly-opened London and Birmingham Railway.

I had long been suspicious of this because there were several technical features which just did not ‘add up’. All the history books repeated the Museum’s assertion about its originality and yet there was no real evidence to confirm it. I decided it was time to find out for certain.

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

I researched the whole story again, this time using only contemporary records such as Cooke’s letters, other manuscript documents and press reports. After much work, I concluded that the large dial was almost certainly one of the two 1837 originals, whereas the smaller instrument was likely to be one of the working models made for demonstration at a High Court hearing in 1850 when a rival company was disputing Cooke and Wheatstone’s priority in the invention.

The layout of the dial was Wheatstone’s idea. Any of the 20 letters on the dial can be indicated by making the appropriate pair of needles point to it. No knowledge of a code is needed and the dial is big enough for a crowd of people to see it working. Then as now, good salesmanship was needed to put over new technology.

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph  © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

So why is this discovery so important?

The electric telegraph was the first practical use of electricity and from the 1840s onwards it transformed world communications. After a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, messages between Europe and North America took only hours to arrive rather than weeks. Moreover, Cooke saw the emerging railway system as a major customer for the new technology. To operate safely, the railways needed to observe a timetable based on a standard time system.

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge  looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The electric telegraph enabled Greenwich time to be distributed right across Britain, and within a few years local time, based on the times of sunrise and sunset, had been replaced by standard (Greenwich) time. The telegraph could also help catch criminals. In 1845 a message sent from Slough railway station to Paddington enabled murder suspect John Tawell to be identified, arrested, and in due course, executed.

After many years of doubt, I am now satisfied that one of the key inventions from the beginning of electric telegraphy has been authenticated and rightly takes its place in our new Information Age gallery.

Paralyzed man walks again with the help of cells from his nose

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum.

Almost a decade ago, at a talk at the Royal College of Physicians in London, I heard Prof Geoff Raisman describe to a packed audience how he was on the verge of treating paralysed spinal cord injury patients with their own stem cells.

Today, marking the culmination of almost half a century of effort, the BBC reports how Prof Raisman’s pioneering therapy has at long last been carried out by surgeons in Poland, enabling a paralysed man to walk again.

Darek Fidyka, aged 40, was paralysed from the chest down after his spinal cord was severed in a  knife attack in 2010 and had not responded to intensive physiotherapy.

Now he is able walk using a frame after cells from his nasal cavity were transplanted into his spinal cord, according to a paper in the journal Cell Transplantation.

Mr Fidyka told the BBC how walking again  – with the support of a frame – was “an incredible feeling”, adding: “When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s like you were born again.”

Prof Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London, said that for a paralysed person this feat was “more impressive than man walking on the moon”.

When a nerve fibre is severed it attempts to regrow but is unable to do this is due to the disruption of the pathway along which the nerve fibres need to travel. Often that gap is blocked by cells that close off the spinal cord by forming a scar.

The new hope rests on the discovery that there is only one part of the nervous system in which nerve fibres are in a state of continuous growth throughout adult life. These nerves are at the top of the nose and are concerned with the sense of smell.

Prof Raisman spent years studying in animals how to bridge a severed spinal cord using these olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs). Depending on where the spine is severed in laboratory animals these cell transplants result in the ability to reach with a paw or to climb.

In the first of two operations on Darek Fidyka, when he was 38 years old, surgeons in Wroclaw removed one of his olfactory bulbs and grew the component cells in culture.

Two weeks later the team led by Dr Pawel Tabakow, consultant neurosurgeon at Wroclaw Medical University,  transplanted around half a million of these cells above and below his spinal cord along with strips of nerve tissue taken from the patient’s ankle, providing the means for the gap to be closed once again. Being the patient’s own cells, there was no danger of rejection and thus no need for immunosuppressive drugs.

After three months, Mr Fidyka noticed that his left thigh began putting on muscle. Six months later he took steps with the help of parallel bars, leg braces and the support of a physiotherapist. After two years  he can now walk using a frame. He has also recovered a degree of bladder and bowel sensation and sexual function.

Spinal cord injury is classified into five categories on the ‘ASIA Impairment Scale.’  “After OEC transplantation and the building of the nerve bridge, this patient improved from ASIA A to ASIA C,” said Dr Tabakow (“A” indicates a “complete” spinal cord injury where no motor or sensory function is preserved and “C” indicates an “incomplete” spinal cord injury).

“Prior to the transplantation we estimated that without this treatment, our patient’s recovery chances were less than one percent,” he explained. “However, we observed a gradual recovery of both sensory and motor function that began four months after the surgery.”

MRI scans suggest that the 8 mm gap in the cord has closed up following the treatment. However, Prof Raisman stresses that the success with Mr Fidyka will need to be repeated in more patients to show definitively whether it can stimulate spinal cord regeneration.

The research was supported by the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation and the UK Stem Cell Foundation.

Click here to learn more about stem cells and discover more about the latest science stories from our Contemporary Science team.

Zaha Hadid on Maths, Architecture and Women in Science

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs.

When Zaha Hadid won the commission to design a new Mathematics gallery at the Science Museum, there was one question that I simply had to ask her: given she studied mathematics at university and the pervasive evidence that science is institutionally sexist, how much of a hurdle faces women today and how much of an inspiration would her appointment prove to be?


Her acknowledgement that, even for her, the gender gap remains an issue, and particularly in Britain, surprised me: “I’ve come across it a lot in my career here and I never felt it anywhere else to be honest,” she remarks. Her comments, made during a recent visit to the Science Museum, are particularly salient on Ada Lovelace Day (14 Oct), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The Iraqi-British architect was born in 1950 and raised in one of Baghdad’s first Bauhaus-inspired houses. “In Iraq, maths was taught as a way of life,” she recalls. “We used to just do maths to resolve problems continuously, as if we were sketching.”

But when she came to boarding school in Britain in the early 1960s she found that she “was much more advanced in the sciences than many of the kids at the time, not because they were not smart. I think it was badly taught and it’s very important to teach sciences and maths in a way that makes it appealing.”

Before she went to boarding school, aged around 10, Dame Zaha vividly remembers a trip with her parents to the Science Museum. “It was for me at the time extremely fascinating to see instruments and understand about science. And, around the same time, I also went to art museums. I used to come every summer to London when I was in my teens.”

She went on to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut. The explosion of interest in construction and modernity of the 1960s encouraged her to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Today, she is one of the most sought-after architects on the planet, the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of the field.

From the Aquatics Centre she designed for the London Olympics to Rome’s curvilinear National Museum of the XXI Century Arts and China’s Guangzhou opera house, her concepts are futuristic and often voluptuous, with powerful, curving forms. Her work, she explains, has its roots in movement that is a century old, citing the work of Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich. The dire economic situation in the West in the seventies “fostered in us similar ambitions: we thought to apply radical new ideas to regenerate society.”

One would have thought that her global success as a ‘starchitect’ is a testament to how the gender gap is no longer a hurdle in Britain. However, like her late British-educated father, an economist and industrialist who helped to found the Iraqi National Democratic party, she found that she had to be dogged to succeed in her career. “I took a risk. “People were thinking I was crazy to do what I did even 30 years ago because it was very risky and that no-one’s going to give me a job. They were right.”

In the 1970s Dame Zaha met Peter Rice, an engineer, who encouraged her and she established her own London-based practice. However, she still struggled for recognition. Twenty years ago, the Millennium Commission refused to fund her winning “crystal necklace” design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Dame Zaha said at the time that she had been stigmatised on grounds of gender and race.

There is plenty of evidence that it remains a battle for women to pursue science and mathematics with the same ease enjoyed by men. According to the US National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21% of full science professors (just 5% of full engineering professors) even though they earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the US. They have to work harder to make the same impact.

One study, published last December by Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University Bloomington, and colleagues, evaluated 5,483,841 papers published between 2008–2012 and concluded that “in the most productive countries, all articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions”.

It is a similar picture for the UK and for architecture too. Last year Dame Zaha criticised the “misogyny” among UK architects, arguing that society is not equipped to help women back to work after childbirth. “You know we still suffer,” Dame Zaha tells me. “ it’s not very smooth. There’s been a problem always – the stereotype is that girls can’t do sciences.”

But, of course, they can. Over the years she has taught at many prestigious institutions, from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and The University of Applied Arts, Vienna. “Some of my best students are women,” she remarks. “I think it’s very important to encourage them.”

She acknowledges that her struggle and resulting success plays an inspirational role. “I do notice now when I go out to give a talk somewhere there are many girls who come to me. They want to be reassured that they actually can break that barrier and also do it with confidence. That’s why education is very important as it gives you confidence to conquer the next step. That confidence allows you to take risks.”

At the launch of the museum’s new Mathematics gallery in September, Dame Zaha was accompanied by museum Director Ian Blatchford, David and Claudia Harding – who made an unprecedented £5 million donation to build the gallery through their foundation – Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and her business partner, architect Patrik Schumacher, who helps Dame Zaha lead her team of 300 people.

Science Museum Curator David Rooney explained how the centrepiece of the forthcoming gallery will be the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12-metre wingspan that was designed to fly safely at slow speeds from short take-offs.

The aircraft’s aerodynamics proved influential at the very beginnings of civilian air travel. In the same way, the swirling flows of air around the aircraft in flight inspired Dame Zaha’s design and will allow mathematics to take flight in the museum.


Behind the Handley Page in her design lie three minimal surfaces (they enclose the smallest possible area that satisfy some constraints) that are based on the shapes of the vortices in the turbulence created behind the plane in flight. The equation defining these surfaces is governed by six different parameters and, by tweaking them, a menagerie of sensuous shapes emerges on screen in the offices of Zaha Hadid Architects. “Mathematics and geometry has an amazing influence particularly on our work,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”

Some of these surfaces will provide the backdrops to support display cases used throughout the galleries to provide an appropriate setting for a dazzling range of objects that will span 400 years of science and mathematics. It seems only appropriate to point out, on the day we celebrate the ‘first computer programmer‘, that the shapes were generated with Mathematica software.

The Mathematics gallery is the fourth commission this year as part of the redevelopment of the Science Museum. Wilkinson Eyre has been appointed to create £24 million Medical Galleries; London-based Coffey Architects is designing a new £1.8 million library and research centre in the museum’s Wellcome Wolfson Building; and Muf, a collective of artists, architects and urban designers, was selected to design a £4 million interactive gallery in the museum. Around one third of the building will change over the next few years, marking the biggest transformation of the museum since it was established more than a century ago.

Open for Business: The story of contemporary British industry

Curator Ben Russell reflects on the story of contemporary British industry, on show in our Open for Business exhibition. 

Our collections include some of most celebrated icons of manufacturing and engineering in history, including Puffing Billy, Newcomen’s engine and Stephensons’s Rocket. These objects embody the ingenuity, resourcefulness and resolve of the engineers and manufacturers who created them.

Stephenson's 'Rocket' (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Fast forward to the present day, and it seems like many people’s perceptions of manufacturing continue to be dominated by heavy industrial images of men in boiler suits bathed in oil, up to their elbows in a machine. Of course, that’s still an integral part of industry, and one not without its attractions. But what we don’t often recognise is just how much contemporary British manufacturing has (literally) smashed these conventions into pieces.

Many people think Britain doesn’t actually make things anymore, but the reality is very different. Making things and selling them around the world remains strategically important for Britain, and its resilience continues to draw many manufacturing companies back to the UK after relocating to the Far East. As well as the mass production of everything from tin can tops to cars, many British companies thrive by carving out their own unique niches, from building yachts to weaving fine textiles. Many companies make a reputation for the excellence of their product: Quality sells.

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Our exhibition Open for Business tells the story of contemporary British manufacturing through the images of nine Magum photographers. They each concentrated on a different region of the UK, visiting one-man businesses and FTSE 100 companies like Airbus and Renishaw, to try and create a snapshot of industry across the UK.

Their subjects can seem surprising, with photographs that include Aardman animators and theatre propmakers, as well as shipbuilding and factory workers. Renowned photographer David Hurn wanted to show the variety of manufacturing in Wales. Rather than just focus on the coal mines more commonly associated with industry in Wales, he chose to photograph Corgi Hosiery, a Welsh company that produces a range of socks designed by Prince Charles.

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

The incredible diversity of British manufacturing challenges the perceptions of what’s needed behind-the-scenes to make things. Roles in contemporary UK industry are vast, varied and can no longer be defined by the image of men in boiler suits.

Of course, it was ever thus: in the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s reputation as workshop of the world was attributed, not to the rise of the machines, but to the excellence of her people. In 1803, a French commentator praised ‘the wonderful practical skills’ of Britain’s ‘adventurers in the useful application of knowledge, and the superiority of her workmen in rapid and masterly execution’. The same could equally be said about making things in Britain today.

See more stunning images in our Open for Business exhibition, which closes 2 November 2014.