Laura Body from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.
Inside this little bottle is a substance which marked a huge turning point in medical history: Penicillin. The first antibiotic to be discovered and mass-produced, it appeared to be a wonder drug which enabled doctors to effectively treat infection for the first time in history.
Glass bottle of penicillin powder, 1943 Credit: Science Museum/SSPL
In 1928, Dr Alexander Fleming returned from holiday to find a mould growing in one of the Petri dishes in his lab. Upon closer inspection under a microscope, he discovered the mould was preventing the growth of bacteria in the dish, and he came to a remarkable conclusion: the Penicillium mould could potentially be used to fight infection.
It was 10 years later that Fleming’s discovery was picked up and worked on by a team at Oxford University. The team, in collaboration with American scientists, developed Fleming’s discovery into an effective drug which could be mass produced. This crucial breakthrough came during World War II, when vast quantities of the lifesaving antibiotic were desperately needed for treating a range of war-related infections.
The substance in our bottle is some of the first penicillin to have been manufactured, clinically tested and used by the military. In an effort to begin mass producing the drug, a solution was made by a chemical company and then sent on a truck to a team in Oxford University. Their job was to take the weak solution, extract the valuable penicillin from it and purify it. The browny-yellow colour is due to remaining impurities in the sample.
Advertisement for penicillin production from Life magazine, 1944 Credit: Science Museum/SSPL
However, as Fleming correctly predicted in his Nobel Prize Lecture, the misuse of Penicillin would cause harmful microbes to become resistant to the antibiotic.
Today, antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to progress, as people are dying from bacterial infections which used to be treatable. It is thought 25 million courses of antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed every year in the UK for ailments such as coughs and colds that don’t require the use of this valuable treatment. To combat this growing issue, the Longitude Prize set a challenge to design a test that will help healthcare professionals administer antibiotics correctly, with a £10 million prize for the winning idea.
Do you think the development of Penicillin was the most important medical breakthrough in history, or are there other more important advances?
To see this object and discover more about the story of penicillin, visit the Churchill’s Scientists exhibition, open until March 2016.
To mark the birthday of Philosophical Transactions, Roger Highfield surveys the history of citizen science, which dates back much further than many realise.
Even though the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary last year, the practice is several centuries old, as quickly becomes evident when thumbing through back issues of the oldest journal dedicated to science.
Philosophical Transactions, which celebrates its 350th birthday on 6 March, has plenty of evidence of citizen science that dates back long before the 20th century, before the internet put terabytes of data at our fingertips, long before TV and long before even the term ‘scientist’ was coined in 1833.
Halley’s solar eclipse observations printed in Philosophical Transactions. Credit: Royal Society
When in 1749, crowds gathered in Green Park in London to watch the great firework display of King George II, a 20 year old Fellow of the Royal Society, Benjamin Robins, published an appeal in the Gentleman’s Magazine to ask people to help record this spectacle of the age, which he reported in Phil Trans.
Due in great part to the complex instructions devised by Robins (citizen scientists take note), only one report was sent in, from a Welshman some 140 miles away who couldn’t see individual fireworks, but upon seeing flashes, reckoned that the pyrotechnics were a waste of money.
Creature surveys date back a long time. When Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he browsed popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents (a project to compare this approach with today’s citizen science is now under way by Chris Lintott and Sally Shuttleworth at Oxford, with Gowan Dawson in Leicester.)
The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is but one example of a long-standing tradition which has persisted to the present day. Butterfly counts are another example, with schemes starting in the UK and North America in the mid 1970s.
Various wildlife surveys were also conducted by MegaLab, a project that began with the BBC and Daily Telegraph in 1995, using mass media and phone lines to earn the ‘mega’ prefix. Some projects were citizen science in the strict sense defined by the OED (‘‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’). Others invited a broader form of citizen engagement, where a mass audience provided test subjects to further understanding of the human body and mind.
The first experiment, which was in the latter category, was conducted with Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire. We used national television, radio and press (BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World, BBC Radio One and The Daily Telegraph, where I was science editor) to test whether it is easier to detect lies in print, radio or TV.
A million call attempts were made but, due to overload, we only recorded data on 40,000. In the journal Nature, Richard Wiseman reported that the radio listeners detected the lies 73.4% of the time, the newspaper readers 64.2% and the television viewers 51.8%.
The web extends the reach of scientists engaging with citizens, and in many different ways. One was to harness idle computer processing power, as with seti@home, which helps look for extraterrestrial intelligence, or a DIY climate forecasting project that I launched in The Daily Telegraph.
The web could also help reach out to an audience. MegaLab used the web to conduct Turing tests, for example, and there are many more examples of internet based projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, which asks for help in classifying images of distant galaxies, and the fold.it site, which runs a game to fold the structure of selected proteins as well as possible.
The web also allowed an intelligence test to be undertaken worldwide in 2010 by New Scientist, which I edited at the time, with Adrian Owen, now at the University of Western Ontario, and colleagues. Some 110,000 people took part and the findings challenged the idea of IQ and led to a paper in the journal Neuron.
Another substantial citizen science project – #hookedonmusic – was created by computational musicologists at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. The project has been run by Wellcome Trust public engagement fellow Erinma Ochu and the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester to investigate the science of songs which may have implications for future research into dementia. To date there have been 175,000 players of #HookedonMusic, reviewed here, across 199 countries and research papers are expected based on its findings.
The range of citizen science is expanding. To prove that you don’t have to be an adult to do original science, children from a Primary School in Blackawton, Devon, published the results of an experiment on how bees forage for food in different coloured flowers in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.
Working with Royal Society Research Fellow, Beau Lotto, they came up with a question, made simple observations about simple phenomena, and discovered ‘bees use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which flower to forage from.’ Gratifyingly they also discovered that ‘science is cool and fun.’ Lotto also ran a laboratory at the Science Museum from late 2010 to the spring of 2012 called, appropriately enough, Lotto Lab.
The museum, through its Lates and Live Science program, has offered many other researchers a chance to experiment on the museum’s three million plus visitors each year. Subjects tackled over the past 15 years range from face scans for surgeons in Great Ormond Street Hospital to gait analysis with Oxford Brookes, synaesthesia with Sussex, and risk-taking with UCL.
Various papers have been published as a result of experiments on visitors, for instance on self recognition and also the way groups behave and crowd behaviour, explored in our ZombieLab event. We are currently running a taste experiment (you can take part here) devised by food scientist Charles Spence from Oxford University, with the support of chef Heston Blumenthal.
And, no doubt, a range of new technologies, such as cheap open source computing power from the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, drones and 3D printing, will aid the long, remarkable and productive rise of the citizen scientist.
The Royal Society is marking the anniversary of Philosophical Transactions with the launch of a series of short films, special issues of the journal, an exhibition and other activities.
Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs, Science Museum, and a member of the Royal Society’s Inspiring Stories committee.
Anne Prugnon, New Media Manager, examines the Science Museum’s creative use of digital technology in enhancing visitors’ experience of the Information Age gallery.
Featuring over 800 objects and spanning 200 years of dramatic moments in the history of communication and information technology, the Information Age gallery provided us with the perfect opportunity to bring a new edge to storytelling through the most advanced digital technology. In each of the six areas of the gallery (Networks) digital elements work in harmony with historical objects to help increase visitors’ understanding and enjoyment of the Museum’s collections.
A wide view of the Information Age gallery showing the Constellation Network. Image credit: Andrew Meredith for Universal Design Studio
In a Science Museum first, the gallery features a suite of transparent interactive LCD screens that sit in front of significant objects from our collections (see one in action in the video below).These displays allow visitors to discover more about the various objects while using creative lighting to retain the object in central view.
A number of object display cases have been specially designed to include video screens. This enables important archive films to be presented alongside related objects and to form an integral part of the narrative within each case.
Visitors can also enjoy trying out a number of interactive replicas of historical objects, while sensors track their interaction with each object. As people use the model they can see in real time how the information is transmitted, demonstrating the invisible science behind the technology.
At the heart of each Information Age Network sits a Story Box, a large semi-enclosed space that brings the six gallery themes to life in surprising and creative ways.
Each Story Box allows you to engage in the various themes of the gallery, through the use of LEDs and video environments to multiple screen projections, mobile phone controlled animations and even a mechanical puppet theatre.
A visitor explores the Web Story Box. Image credit: Science Museum
Throughout the gallery, people can use their mobile devices to find further content on the Museum’s website and can download a number of apps specially designed for the gallery.
Another highlight is Fiducial Voice Beacons, a digital art installation by BAFTA award winning artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The artwork consists of a series of glimmering light beacons on the ceiling of the gallery, each containing a sound recording that is translated into a light sequence.
Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and his artwork, ‘Fiducial Voice Beacons’. Image credit: Science Museum
Visitors interact with the artwork by downloading a free app which allows them to listen to each recording or contribute with their own message. The Information Age apps and art installation are supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
You can find out more about the Information Age gallery here.
In this guest blog post, Arthur Kay, founder and CEO of bio-bean, explores how his company is working with the Science Museum to recycle coffee waste into useful fuels.
2015 is such an exciting year for bio-bean, as we work to close the loop on London’s coffee waste, but what does that have to do with the Science Museum? bio-bean are huge fans of the museum, and our technology is even featured in an exhibit called ‘How could coffee power our cities?’
Part of the bio-bean exhibit on display at the Science Museum.
This set us thinking about the actual waste coffee that comes out of the museum, so we decided to work with Benugo, who supply food and drink to the Science Museum’s cafes. Later this year, when you drink a cup of coffee in the Energy Cafe or Deep Blue, the waste coffee grounds will be separated, collected and transported to our world-first processing facility, a 20,000 square foot factory just outside London.
Our process is patented and world-first so we can’t give away too many details, but bio-bean will recycle waste coffee grounds from the Science Museum into Advanced Biofuels of two forms: pellets and biodiesel.
Advanced Biofuels are an energy source made from something that would otherwise have been wasted. This is what we mean by ‘closing the loop.’ If biodiesel from waste coffee can go back into powering our cars or lorries, we can get closer to reducing dependency on conventional fuels.
We want bio-bean to help engage young people with science – that’s a goal we share with the Science Museum. bio-bean was set up with a spirit of innovation to meet a real-world challenge. We want to one day soon have a bio-bean van powered entirely by coffee waste collected from the V&A, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. This is such a great opportunity for us to really demonstrate our commitment to the circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
We were honoured late last year to be invited to show our technology in the Science Museum. As the first company in the world to industrialise this process, we are keen to tell our story and inspire others to approach real-world problems with a sense of curiosity, adventure and experimentation.
Arthur Kay is the winner of the international 2014 Green Challenge award which supporters green entrepreneurs in pioneering business. The Green Challenge is funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
In Launchpad our visitors ask questions, experiment, challenge themselves and discover the science behind exhibits – often with impressive results! This is especially true with our “Build a Bridge” activity.
To celebrate our visitors’ hard work and engineering skills, here are a collection of some of their masterpieces – that not only stand up but are also easy on the eye. Click to enlarge.
Try building your own bridge on your next visit to Launchpad!
Dr Robert Bud, Research Keeper at the Science Museum, previews a new conference devoted to science and culture in the early 20th century. Tickets are available at the early bird rate hereuntil 28th Feb.
This year, the 22nd April marks the centenary of the first use of poison gas on the western front. This strange new weapon was quickly seen as the emblem of how the power of science was outstripping morality. After the First World War, electricity, the wireless and the aeroplane as well as new theories — not just of physics but also psychoanalysis — came to be associated in the public mind with exciting, and sometimes threatening, developments. Engagement with science began to be commonly used as a sign of being modern across culture in Britain and the western world.
Today, historians from many different specialities are looking again at the excited discussions about science that circulated among writers and artists, through the press and radio, and in museums, government and universities in the years after the First World War.
This interdisciplinary conference aims to bring together people who do not normally meet in the same space. Scholars from a range of disciplines can explore how the complex interpretations of science affected the re-creation of what it was to be modern. The meeting will be held at a centre of historical research in London, the Institute of Historical Research, and tickets can be booked here.
A limited number of free tickets to the video opera “Three Tales” by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot to be performed live at the Science Museum 22 and 24 April will be available to registered participants at the conference.
The exhibition was well received by public and critics alike, with The Observer saying that ‘The collection is… the best that has been hitherto exhibited… there are many works of a degree of merit which may not be surpassed.’
The venue chosen for the exhibition was a gallery situated above the museum’s Refreshment Rooms – the very first museum restaurant.
Today, less than a few hundred yards from that initial gallery sits the Science Museum’s Media Space, a bright and airy part of the museum building dedicated to exhibiting photography across two spaces and held together by its own ‘Refreshment Rooms’; the Media Space café.
The gallery’s current exhibition, Drawn by Light, showcases the highlights of the Royal Photographic Society Collection from the dawn of photography to the present. The exhibition was recently reviewed by The Observer, and was similarly well-received to its 1858 predecessor, with the newspaper’s art critic calling the assembled photographs ‘a stupendous selection’ and a ‘magnificent exhibition’.
In February 1882, Captain William de Wiveleslie Abney, the South Kensington Museum’s Director of Science and President of the Royal Photographic Society on several occasions, had a letter published in the British Journal of Photography stating that ‘the Director of the South Kensington Museum is anxious to obtain a collection illustrating the history of photography’. This represented the beginnings of what became the Science Museum Group’s National Photography Collection – a collection of international significance containing some of the most important items in the history of the medium.
Throughout the 20th century, as the Collection continued to expand, the Museum continued to exhibit photography, with a major part of the RPS collection shown in the Science Museum at the end of the 1920s, in a gallery just below where Media Space stands today.
All of the major movements of 19th century photography are represented in the collection, which is situated in the fascinating National Media Museum archives in Bradford. The major focus of the collection’s 20th century holdings is on British post-war documentary photography. The jewel in the crown here is the archive of Tony Ray-Jones (showcased in our exhibition Only in England, which is touring to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery where it runs until 7 June), but there are also strong bodies of work by Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Peter Mitchell.
The Science Museum Group would not necessarily be the first institution on people’s lips if they were asked to name a committed collector of photography, but the collection as it stands today grew out of the birth of the medium when exhibitors at the Great Exhibition were unsure whether to situate their photo displays in the Science section or the Arts section. They chose to give their display its own site as an ‘independent art’ and photography has retained something of this middle ground up to the present day. The Science Museum’s Optics Collection has many pre-photographic camera obscuras as well as an exhibit on the grinding of lenses. The Aeronautics Collection has an example of a microphotograph flown into Paris by pigeon when the city was under siege in 1870-71.
The collection also continues to expand, both in size and in reputation, as more and more work by a diverse range of contemporary photographers is acquired and a wide programme of touring and loans ensures that our rich archive is a resource which is shared as widely as possible.
‘Now, more than ever, photography plays a prominent role in contemporary life and part of the collection’s function is to provide opportunities for dialogue between genres, periods and other contexts for photography. Building and using a comprehensive collection of the medium’s various cultural histories, produces a greater understanding of what is particular, special and important to photography in the visual arts, media, popular culture and the everyday.’ – Greg Hobson, Curator of Photographs, National Media Museum, Bradford.
Describing the museum as one of his favourite places, the Cambridge University cosmologist told Adaeze “It helped fuel my fascination with physics and I have been coming here for decades.”
Professor Stephen Hawking arrives at the Museum and greets London’s Guest of Honour, Adaeze
The tour, which lasted more than an hour, is one of a series of magic moments for Adaeze, 24, from California, who beat off over 10,000 international entrants to win a trip of a lifetime to London.
Adaeze and Professor Hawking were formally welcomed by Ian Blatchford, Director, and Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Board of Trustees.
The tour reflected Professor Hawking’s passion for space travel, cosmology and the museum itself. In the Energy Hall, he talked about the science of thermodynamics and his prediction that black holes would emit radiation, now called Hawking radiation, which has been highly influential in fundamental physics.
In the Making the Modern World gallery, he pointed out the command module of Apollo 10, launched in May 1969 as a dress rehearsal for the first Moon landing, and in the Exploring Space gallery, a model of the Apollo 11 moon lander, telling Adaeze “it is important we continue human space exploration”.
Curator Doug Millard, who accompanied the tour alongside fellow Curators Alison Boyle and Andrew Nahum, carefully opened the Apollo 10 command module. Adaeza had the rare opportunity to peer inside the module, which carried astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan to within 14 kilometres of the surface of the Moon. Professor Hawking also had the opportunity to peer inside, with the help of a camera on a stick.
Curator Doug Millard showing Adaeza the inside of the Apollo 10 command module
Professor Hawking introduced Adaeze to items from the collection that hold special significance for him, including a rare copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, one of the most important books in science, and an iPad portrait of him drawn for a 70th birthday exhibit in the museum by David Hockney, about which he commented: “I’m still not quite sure about the fingers.”
He also discussed his speech synthesiser, the first version of which is in the museum’s collections. “I was happy to lend my voice recently to Eddie Redmayne recently to give him a bit of a boost in his efforts to win an Oscar. Unfortunately, Eddie did not inherit my good looks.”
During the tour, which included the double helix, Adaeze asked Professor Hawking what of our common shortcomings as human beings would he alter, and what of our virtues would he magnify, if it were possible. He replied:
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory, or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all. A major nuclear war would be the end of civilization, and maybe the end of the human race. The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”
Adaeze said that Professor Hawking’s tour of the Science Museum was a once in a life time experience which would stay with her:
“It’s incredible to think that decades from now, when my grandchildren are learning Stephen Hawking’s theories in science class, I’ll be able to tell them I had a personal meeting with him and heard his views first hand. It’s something I’ll never forget and I’m so grateful to him and the Museum for this awesome experience.”
Professor Hawking and Adaeza in front of a model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander
Professor Hawking, who is a fellow of the museum, has been visiting since his childhood.”When we were young, my mother used to leave me at the science museum, my sister, Mary, at the Natural History Museum, and my younger sister, Philippa, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the end of the day, my mother collected us all.”
What’s driving your food obsession? Is it the colour of your spoon, the food your mum ate while pregnant, the trillions of bacteria that dine with you, or the little known ‘second brain’ in your gut?
The answers to these questions and more can be found in Cravings: Can Your Food Control You?, a new exhibition which looks at how your appetite is shaped by food, from the flavours you learned to love in the womb to the very next bite you take.
Cravings exhibition at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum
In the exhibition you can discover how scientists and chefs are manipulating our senses to make food seem healthier and tastier. Quirky dining utensils that use colour, material and shape to trick our sense of taste are on display (see them in action here), alongside art-inspired food such as ‘Salad with a Taste of Kandinsky’, created by scientists and chefs to help understand how the brain creates the perception of taste and flavour.
Salad with a taste of Kandinsky. Credit Bottletop / Science Museum.
BBC Breakfast broadcasting live from the Cravings exhibition. Credit: Science Museum
Jean M. Franczyk, the Science Museum’s Deputy Director, welcomed guests to the press preview, remarking that, ‘You don’t need me to tell you that food has an increasing grip on the nation – whether it’s eating out at trendy restaurants, staying in to watch Great British Bake Off on TV or public discourse about obesity. Yet little is known about our cravings. What drives us to take that extra bite, or reach for another helping of breakfast? Our fabulous Cravings exhibition brings together the latest scientific research on food and appetite with personal stories and fascinating objects to explore these questions and many more.’
Chef Heston Blumenthal made a special appearance at the press preview via video and the exhibition was officially opened by Prof Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, who said, ‘I think this exhibition shows the relationship with our weight and food wonderfully. What Ling has managed to do with her colleagues is bring new science and technology together, revealing how the food we all eat shapes our appetite throughout life, from the very beginnings as an embryo.’
Ling Lee, Project leader for the Cravings exhibition, explained more, ‘Everything you’ve ever eaten, and will eat, leaves a stamp on you. Through the latest scientific research on appetite, Cravings reveals the inner workings of our brain, gut brain and gut bacteria and – more importantly – how all three work together to regulate our eating habits.’
An artificial gut developed by scientists at the University of Reading. Credit: Science Museum.
When you eat, 100 trillion gut bacteria dine with you, and their response to food has a big effect on your appetite. Cravings delves inside the hidden world of these gut bacteria and your second ‘gut’ brain – millions of nerve cells embedded in the gut wall – which can make you feel hungry, full or even crave certain foods. In the exhibition you can see an artificial gut used by scientists to study gut bacteria and discover how NASA are studying how gut bacteria behave in space and on Earth thanks to astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly.
Cravings: Can Your Food Control You?is generously supported by GSK (Major Sponsor) and Danone (Associate Sponsor), with additional support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council. The exhibition is free and is open until January 2016. For more information visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/cravings.
Dr. Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History at the Science Museum reflects on a series of upcoming public events exploring science, technology and music.
In 1935, the Science Museum staged a very uncharacteristic temporary exhibition, on the theme of noise abatement. The Museum’s exhibitions in those days usually celebrated new technologies, such as television (in 1937) or showed unfamiliar parts of its collections, for example ‘rafts, canoes and boats’ (1931). But noise was seen as a by-product of industrial modernity that needed to be tackled, not least by new silent technologies and measuring devices, and so the exhibition was planned.
‘Silent lift’ display in 1935’s Noise Abatement exhibition. Credit: Science Museum
To celebrate the 80th anniversary of this exhibition, and as part of the research towards a future exhibition on science, technology and music, the museum has organised a series of events, organised around the themes of ‘Music, Noise and Silence’. The series, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is being developed in conjunction with the Royal College of Music and the University Nottingham. Each workshop includes publicly-accessible concerts and talks by high profile speakers.
Logotype of the Anti-Noise League, pressure group behind the 1935 exhibition. Credit: Science Museum.
On February 25-26 at the Royal College of Music, we explore Music and Silence, starting form the idea that silence is the ‘absolute zero’ of both music and the science of acoustics. The conversations will discuss the proposition that modern ‘quiet’ musics – including experimental, ambient and spiritual genres – are responses to industrial modernity.
The publicly-accessible concerts and talks for ‘Music and Silence’ features a two-part concert on 25th February and an afternoon of presentations by David Toop (author of Ocean of Sound, 1995) and Hillel Schwartz (Making Noise, 2011) on 26 February (book here).
On 26–27 March, we explore Noise and Silence at the University of Nottingham, focussing on the issues that led to the Museum’s 1935 exhibition and their resonances today.
How can electronics mediate a noisy world? Advertising flyer, Electronic Music Studios, c.1975
Finally, at the Science Museum on 23–24 April, we go into Music and Noise, exploring the interactions and musical possibilities that industrial modernity has opened up for new kinds of music of all kinds. Watch this space for updates on the later events.