Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake: Britain’s First Female Surgeon

Curator Helen Peavitt and Stephanie Millard uncover the life of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, who is celebrated in a new Science Museum display

The medical achievements of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, come under the spotlight in a new display at the Science Museum. If her name isn’t familiar then it certainly deserves to be. One hundred years ago she was busy writing to every woman on the medical register to enlist their help in setting up hospitals to treat soldiers injured on the eastern battlefields of the First World War. 

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

Aldrich-Blake’s war work saw her, temporarily, leave the shores of Britain. In 1915 she crossed the Channel to work as surgeon for the Anglo-French Red Cross in the 600-bed field hospital at Abbaye du Royaumont near Paris. Conditions there were certainly very difficult. Louisa characteristically rose to the challenge, seeking out every trace of bullet fragments from the war-torn bodies of those under her knife. Such determination earned her the nickname of ‘Madame Générale’ from her patients.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.  Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.
Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The work of Louisa and her fellow female doctors serving overseas helped turn the tide of popular opinion back home in their favour. Their skill and dedication in treating soldiers, often close to the front line, was widely recognised and welcomed – helping to silence the War Office, which was initially reluctant to enlist the help of female medical staff. Furthermore, their example inspired other women to enter medical school for the first time.

By the time war broke out Louisa’s own medical career was already distinguished. She enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1887 aged 22, along with a handful of other new students. Her ambition was largely driven by a deeply held desire to do ‘something useful’. After completing her bachelor degree in medicine she quickly gained her Master of Surgery degree – the first British woman to do so. She also became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women.

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Aldrich-Blake also researched and pioneered new surgical methods to treat cervical and rectal cancers. In 1903 her paper on a new procedure to treat rectal cancer was published in the British Medical Journal. She was evidently extremely proud of this, because if you leaf through her notebooks – now held at the Wellcome Library in London – you will find a copy of the paper, carefully folded and pressed between the pages.

Aldrich-Blake’s contribution to medicine is celebrated in a statue erected in her honour in Tavistock Square in London – near the headquarters of the British Medical Association. You can visit the showcase exploring Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s life on the ground floor of the Science Museum.

Go on Punk, make my day!

Jon Milton from our Punk Science team writes about a new era for Punk Science.

Just like when you buy a pack of chewing gum and only have a £20 note, change is inevitable. And change has lifted its fickle finger and pointed at Punk Science. For those of you who are new to Punk Science may I suggest using the excellent search engine Google to familiarise yourself with our oeuvre. Or, if you can’t be bothered doing that, here’s a potted history. Punk Science is the world’s first museum based science comedy team. We started back in 2004 featuring the talents of Rufus Hound, Kat Nilsson, Brad Gross, Ben Samuels and myself. The line-up has changed over the years as has the format from more of a stand-up style, to a hybrid of stand up and the excellent science shows performed by the Science Museum’s brilliant Learning team.

But now, a new era is about to begin in Punk Science. With the immensely talented Dan Hope leaving to pursue his acting career we were faced with the unique challenge of finding someone who is both quite good at science communication and can be quite amusing at the same time. After an arduous selection process involving an assault course, a baking contest and a spelling test, it was Science Museum Explainer and comedian Sam Furniss who served up a particularly good millefeuille accompanied by an ability to spell millefeuille that lead to his selection.

What can you expect to see in the new era of Punk Science?

Punk Science: The Gameshow

Punk Science: The Gameshow

Some of the same stuff people liked from our extensive back catalogue along with the new game show featuring at Lates on the last Wednesday of every month. This is a new style of science show taking the conventional demonstrations based format and combining it with the competitive elements of a TV game show. The idea is to attract an adult audience who wouldn’t normally go to a science themed event by using main stream entertainment techniques. It’s the next generation of “The Generation Game”. For those of you, who aren’t familiar with “The Generation Game”, add it to the list of things to Google.

Punk Science: The audience

Punk Science: The audience

Tickets are available for the all new Punk Science: The Game Show via the Science Museum website. You can also catch them at NerdNite London this month, and next month at NerdNite Brighton as part of the Brighton Science Festival, as well as at The Angel Comedy Club.  Follow them on Twitter for updates and science-based comedy interjections.

Their children’s book “The Intergalactic Supermassive Space Book” is available via the Science Museum shop and at other good retailers.

Download the free, new Lates app and gain access to exclusive special offers and information about Lates. Available on Android and iPhone.

Celebrating Churchill’s Scientists with Sir Winston’s great-grandson

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

‘Science isn’t a word most people associate with my great-grandfather’ said Randolph Churchill, standing in front of an imposing image of his iconic relative as he addressed journalists at the press preview of Churchill’s Scientists.

Randolph Churchill addresses guests at the media preview of Churchill's Scientists. Image credit: Science Museum

Randolph Churchill addresses guests at the media preview of Churchill’s Scientists. Image credit: Science Museum

The exhibition opened to the public today on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death. It celebrates a crucial, but often overlooked element of Churchill’s life and legacy – his relationship with science and the incredible breakthroughs that he championed during his time as Prime Minister, during the Second World War and post-war era.

Randolph told the audience that his great-grandfather had been fascinated with science from a young age. He lived through an age of great technological change, which saw the development of flight, electronics, atomic physics, telephones and televisions, mass consumerism and mass destruction.

He spoke of Sir Winston’s passion for aviation and how he was probably the first Government minister to learn how to fly, at a time when the sport was still considered highly dangerous. This story is brought to life in the exhibition through the display of a model aeroplane.

A guest peers at a model Bleriot plane in the exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

A guest peers at a model Bleriot plane in the exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

Randolph also read an extract from a prescient 1924 essay by his great-grandfather that highlighted Churchill’s acute awareness of both the creative and destructive potential of science. The essay speculates about “a bomb no bigger than an orange” with “the secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings – nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke”.

Randolph Churchill examines a Jacob Epstein bust of Sir Winston Churchill. Image credit: Science Museum

Randolph Churchill examines a Jacob Epstein bust of Sir Winston Churchill. Image credit: Science Museum

Churchill’s Scientists illuminates other aspects of Churchill’s life including his love of fashion, shown in the display of a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – an all-in-one ‘romper suit’ which bears strong resemblance to the ‘onesie’. At the heart of the exhibition are the stories of the individuals who flourished under Churchill’s patronage, from Robert Watson-Watt, inventor of radar, to Bernard Lovell who created the world’s largest radio telescope, told through unique objects, original archive film footage, letters and photographs.

Randolph Churchill with a high speed camera that captured the first microseconds of the detonation of Britain's first atomic bomb. Image credit: Science Museum

Randolph Churchill with a high speed camera that captured the first microseconds of the detonation of Britain’s first atomic bomb. Image credit: Science Museum

The exhibition forms part of Churchill 2015, a year-long programme of events that commemorate Churchill’s life, work and achievements.

The exhibition is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, The Stanley Foundation and The de Laszlo Foundation. The exhibition is free and runs until March 2016.

Winston Churchill: style icon and inventor of the ‘onesie’

Martin Wise, Archivist at Turnbull & Asser shares the story behind Sir Winston Churchill’s famous ‘siren suit’, as one goes on display for the first time in the Museum’s new Churchill’s Scientists exhibition which opens next week

The ‘siren suit’, which bears resemblance to the infamous ‘onesie’, is a practical one-piece item of clothing originally designed by Sir Winston Churchill during the Second World War to be quickly slipped over his clothes in the event of an air raid. The great statesman had a variety of siren suits, which he referred to as ‘romper suits,’ including sombre, military style suits, as well as more extravagant pin-striped and velvet versions.

Winston Churchill wearing   one of his siren suits. Image credit: Turnbull & Asser

Winston Churchill wearing one of his siren suits. Image credit: Turnbull & Asser

There are only three original Winston Churchill siren suits known to be in existence, including a green velvet garment created by Turnbull & Asser. Churchill reportedly returned his siren suits to the Jermyn Street shirt-maker for repair on several occasions – damaged not through enemy action but by cigar burns.

It would seem that the former Prime Minister had developed something of a penchant for the outfit, opting to sport it for the most formal of occasions. Churchill wore one of these suits on a visit to the White House, Washington, in December 1941. At a press conference that week, Mrs Roosevelt declared she was having one made for her husband.

Winston Churchill making a BBC broadcast wearing one of his siren suits in on 30th November 1942. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Winston Churchill making a BBC broadcast wearing one of his siren suits on 30th November 1942. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

After the war, Churchill wore a siren suit again when he sat for sculptor Oscar Nemon in the 1950’s. After the sittings he gave the suit to Nemon as a souvenir. Small splashes of red paint on the trousers suggested Churchill also wore it whilst painting.

Due to Churchill’s rather large proportions, Turnbull & Asser have commissioned a bespoke mannequin to display the unique garment in the Science Museum. Expertly built using a fibreglass frame, the mannequin is covered in padding to mimic the former Prime Minister’s body shape, bringing the siren suit to life.

The pattern for Sir Winston Churchill's siren suit. Image credit: Turnbull & Asser

The pattern for Sir Winston Churchill’s siren suit. Image credit: Turnbull & Asser

For those wishing to emulate the British bulldog’s style, Turnbull & Asser are due to launch a Churchill-inspired capsule collection to mark the 50th anniversary of his death this year, celebrating a great man, whose bold style and strong leadership inspired a nation.

You can see the green velvet siren suit on display together with the cigar Churchill smoked on the evening of the 1951 election when he heard he had been re-elected as Prime Minister.

Churchill’s Scientists opens to the public on Friday 23 January. For more information visit our website.

Winston Churchill: Up In The Air

Rachel Boon, Content Developer, looks at the lesser known story of Winston Churchill’s passion for flying, soon to be revealed in a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January. 

Sir Winston Churchill was passionate about technology, in particular aviation. He was one of the first people, and likely the first politician to learn how to fly. Heavier than air flight was less than a decade old when Churchill first jumped into the pilot seat. This was in the days when flying was still considered a dangerous sport and no pilot would let Churchill fly alone for fear that he may have an accident on their watch. He was a keen learner and was reported to go up in the air over ten times a day.

Winston Churchill after his arrival by air at Portsmouth, from Upavon, Wiltshire, 1914. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Winston Churchill after his arrival by air at Portsmouth, from Upavon, Wiltshire, 1914. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Fears about Churchill’s safety grew after one of his instructors, Captain Lushington was killed in a plane crash in Kent. Churchill reluctantly gave up his hobby in 1913, following pleas from his friends and wife Clementine, which is illustrated in many of their letters to each other. Clementine’s anxieties are reflected in one letter in which she says, “Your telegram arrived late last night, after we were in bed – every time I see a telegram now, I think it is to announce that you have been killed flying… goodbye dear but cruel one.”

Eventually, after giving up the sport, he sadly reflected, ‘This is a wrench. … Anyhow, I can feel I know a good deal about this fascinating new art … well enough to understand all the questions of policy which will arise in the near future.’

As Churchill’s political career developed he earned a living as a journalist. Although he never qualified for a pilot’s license, Churchill wasn’t one to miss an opportunity to write dramatically about learning to fly. He published two articles in Nash’s Pall Mall entitled “In the Air” and “Why I gave up flying: The story of two almost fatal crashes” in June and July 1924.

Flying model, enlarged "Eclipse", c. 1911. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Flying model, enlarged “Eclipse”, c. 1911. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

This is one of a pair of model Bleriot planes the Museum acquired with a note that one was ‘broken by Sir Winston Churchill when he was flying it with the Marquis of Blandford at Blenheim Castle‘. It is one of the star objects on display in the new exhibition Churchill’s Scientists which opens later this month.

The exhibition explores developments in science during the Second World War and post war period when Churchill was Prime Minister. This model plane is yet another example of Churchill’s hobby and it supports our story of his fascination with the potential of rapidly emerging new technologies of the 20th century.

Churchill’s Scientists opens to the public on Friday 23 January. For more details visit our website.

A Day In the Life of an Explainer

A guest post by Sarah, one of the Science Museum’s Explainers. 

Hello again…I’m Sarah, one of the Explainers here at the Science Museum and I’m here to tell you about a day in my life as an Explainer. The first thing to say is that there is no such thing as a typical day!

You may have read my previous blog “Observations of a New Explainer” a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve learnt loads of new things and gained lots of new experiences, such as running our brand new Information Age workshop Code Builder (about basic computer programming) and performing the Feel the Force lecture theatre show to primary schools.

One particular highlight has been learning to present the brilliant Rocket Show, an interactive show aimed at Key Stage 3 children about Newton’s Laws of Motion, so I’ve chosen to tell you a bit more about one of the days when I perform this show.

I have to say that one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done since I’ve been here is learning the Rocket Show and presenting it to my very first audience of school kids. Handling a packed show space of 100 plus assorted teenagers, teachers and other visitors is both daunting and thrilling!

I’ve had audiences that have ranged from just a handful of visitors to those packed with very excited and unruly teenagers; enthusiastic holiday-time audiences (my favourite) to shows whereby the kids are so busy texting on their phones or scribbling down notes that they don’t respond!

I’ve learned it’s a real skill to be able to adjust your approach to engage different audiences and give them a memorable and exciting experience…..but that’s what we do!

P1010373 cropped

Explainer Sarah transferring hydrogen gas from a rubber bladder into a Pringles tube

“What goes into preparing for and delivering a Rocket Show?” you ask. Well, imagine I’ve just rushed up 4 floors to the Launchpad Showspace after an hour in the Garden gallery. After collecting some props, I rush back down four floors behind the scenes of the Science Museum to collect the essential ingredient that gives the Rocket Show its wow-factor…..Rocket fuel!

“What ….isn’t that highly dangerous stuff??”, I hear you cry.  Well, potentially yes, but we take safety extremely seriously. The fuel we use is hydrogen gas which is very flammable and is kept in cylinders outside. Rain or shine (quite often rain!) it’s collected in special rubber gas-bladders and carried (carefully) to Launchpad.

Some of the hydrogen gas is used to fill balloons for use in the show, but what happens to the rest? The rest is used for the amazing indoor rocket that demonstrates Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion (“for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”), where we attempt to launch a Pringles tube into Space…something that gets a response from even the teenagers!

So, together with setting fire to stuff and blowing stuff up, we dress up, ride on chairs with wheels and generally have a rocket-tastic time with the help of plenty of brave volunteers and the brilliance of Sir Isaac Newton.

Intrigued?? Why not visit and see a Rocket show!

Explainer Fact: We fire a thousand Pringle Rockets every year.

Happy New Year (of Light)!

150 years ago today (1 January), James Clerk Maxwell published his work on light, electricity and magnetism. Our resident physicist, Dr. Harry Cliff, reflects on how Maxwell helped transform the way we live.

Whether you were up with the lark this morning to greet the dawn of the New Year or crawled bleary-eyed from bed after an over-exuberant farewell to 2014, it’s likely that one of the first things you did was to switch on a light or throw open the curtains.

An appropriate way to start what UNESCO has proclaimed as the International Year of Light, a 365-day celebration of light science and technologies, inspired by a number of major scientific anniversaries that fall this year.

It was 150 years ago today that one of the most important scientific articles of the 19th century was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Written by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, it was titled A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, and its contents were to profoundly alter the way we think about light, electricity and magnetism and transform the way we live.

A facsimile of Maxwell's 'A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field' on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery.

A facsimile of Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’ on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery.

Maxwell had been grappling with the relationship between electricity and magnetism for a number of years, in particular with a very old and thorny problem: how is it that when I hold a magnet some distance away from a piece of iron, the iron is moved without actually touching the magnet?

This so called ‘action at a distance’ was troubling in a mechanical age when scientists were trying to describe all forces in terms of direct physical contact between physical entities. In Maxwell’s previous work on electromagnetism, he had made an attempt to explain action at a distance using the commonly-accepted existence of an all-pervading invisible fluid, the luminiferous aether, full of spinning vortices that transmitted electrical and magnetic forces.

Maxwell’s great breakthrough in his new paper came from his decision to try to describe electricity and magnetism without worrying very much about the details of what the aether was like. Instead he introduced the concept of the electromagnetic ‘field’, which in his words:

    “is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions.”

In other words, the electromagnetic field described the force that would be experienced by an electric charge or magnet when placed close to another charge or magnet. A common experiment at school is to visualise the magnetic field around a bar magnet by sprinkling it with iron filings.

Iron filings showing the magnetic field lines produced by a bar magnet. Source: Newton Henry Black, Harvey N. Davis (1913) Practical Physics, The MacMillan Co., USA, p. 242, fig. 200.

Iron filings showing the magnetic field lines produced by a bar magnet. Source: Newton Henry Black, Harvey N. Davis (1913) Practical Physics, The MacMillan Co., USA, p. 242, fig. 200.

However, whereas today physicists consider the electromagnetic field to have existence in its own right, Maxwell still thought of it as an effect of the arrangement of some underlying physical luminferous aether.

Armed with his electromagnetic field concept, Maxwell derived twenty equations that could be used to describe almost any electromagnetic system, and made plain the deep connections between electricity and magnetism. He then applied his equations to describe undulations or waves travelling through the electromagnetic field. His goal was nothing short of explaining the nature of light itself.

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine in 1869.

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine in 1869.

What Maxwell found was to change the course of science and technology forever. He derived an equation that described a wave of oscillating electric and magnetic fields; little ripples in the electromagnetic field that could even travel through empty space. Calculating the speed with which these ripples would travel, Maxwell found that it agreed precisely with the best measurement of the speed of light. Maxwell concluded:

“The agreement of the results seems to show that light and magnetism are affectations of the same substance, and that light is an electromagnetic disturbance propagated through the field according to electromagnetic laws.”

This was a stunning result, but it would take time for Maxwell’s theory to become widely accepted. The mathematics were so unfamiliar that most physicists were unable to understand, let alone appreciate Maxwell’s work. In 1879 a prize was offered by the Prussian Academy of Science for anyone able to provide experimental verification of Maxwell’s theory.

Experimental support for the theory would not arrive until after Maxwell’s death in 1879 at the age of just 48. In a series of experiments conducted between 1886 and 1888, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the transmission of electromagnetic waves, proving Maxwell right and opening up a new technological age, one in which electromagnetic signals could be beamed across the planet, radically shrinking the size of the world and allowing communication at a distance never before imagined.

Replica of a set of Knochenhauer spirals used in what proved to be the starting point of Hertz's work on electromagnetic waves. See the spirals on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. Image: Science Museum

Replica of a set of Knochenhauer spirals used in what proved to be the starting point of Hertz’s work on electromagnetic waves. See the spirals on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. Image: Science Museum

Although Maxwell never lived to see the full impact of his work, those who followed in his footsteps transformed the scientific landscape. It was Maxwell’s wave equation that inspired Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which did away with the lumineferous aether and recast the very notions of space and time. Einstein himself kept a framed photograph of Maxwell on the wall of his office, and Maxwell is now widely regarded as one of the greatest physicists to have ever lived, second perhaps only to Isaac Newton and Einstein himself.

I will leave the final word to the 20th century quantum physicist Richard Feynman:

“From a long view of the history of the world—seen from, say, ten thousand years from now—there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electromagnetism. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

Find out more about how Maxwell’s work opened up a new age of telecommunication in the Science Museum’s new Information Age Gallery.

How To Survive A Christmas On Rations: Eat, Exercise And Be Merry

Rachel Boon, Content Developer, reveals the radical quest by two nutritionists to create a healthy national diet during the Second World War – one of the stories featured in a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January.

The Second World War challenged the health of the home population as well as the fighting services. Even before the war, Britain depended on a huge quantity of imported goods, including food. Enemy ships targeted incoming Allied merchant vessels sending their precious cargo to the depths of the Atlantic.  As various items became scarce, food consumption was rationed.

Winston Churchill was keen, wherever possible, to limit austerity in the interests of morale. Even his scientific adviser, the teetotal Frederick Lindemann, was glad that the Ministry of Food undertook to provide the normal stocks of beer.

Used Ration Book, and two partly used Ration Book Supplements, issued by the Ministry of Food during the second World War. Image credit: Science Museum

Used Ration Book, and two partly used Ration Book Supplements, issued by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War. Image credit: Science Museum

This period saw the rise of a small group of scientists whose experimental research helped ensure people had enough food to survive.

Pioneering studies assessed the impact of rationing and established a healthy balance of available foods. Nutritionists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson led this investigation. Their task was to see how far food produced in Britain could meet the needs of the population and how much shipping could be saved.

Both scientists were familiar with self-experimentation before the war, having explored the chemical make-up of food and its effect on human health. Their book, The Composition of Foods was first published in 1940 and became a standard work in the field of nutrition.

This task was no different. Funded by the Medical Research Council, McCance, Widdowson and a small group of volunteers drastically reduced their intake of food and drink to a level some considered ‘intolerable’.  Although wholemeal bread and potatoes were unrationed, each person was allowed the following quantities per week: 110g fat, 150g sugar, one egg, 110g cheese, 450g meat and fish combined and quarter of a pint of milk a day.

After enduring this diet for three months, the volunteers moved to the Lake District for the second stage of their experiment. In chilly December 1940, the team proved that by enduring gruelling climbs, hikes and bicycle rides, this basic diet could meet the nation’s health needs.

Elsie Widdowson with volunteers in the Lake District. Image credit: Margaret Ashwell

Elsie Widdowson with volunteers in the Lake District. Image credit: Margaret Ashwell

One of McCance and Widdowson’s most important findings was the risk of calcium deficiency from a diet low in dairy products. Their recommendation for fortifying bread with calcium carbonate (chalk) was met with criticism, but later made law.  McCance and Widdowson’s work was made public after the war with their book, An Experimental Study of Rationing, published in 1946.

Table showing foods consumed during days of strenuous exercise. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

Table showing foods consumed during days of strenuous exercise. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The book shows that even in the hardships of McCance and Widdowson’s  experiment, they celebrated Christmas with a hearty meal as their ‘calorie intake was affected by comfort and good cheer’. There was a plum pudding made from ingredients saved from the previous week’s rations and McCance ate five large potatoes ‘more than he had ever eaten in one day before’. This may sound familiar, but he had cycled for 52 miles the day before!

Extract showing calorie consumption on christmas day, from An Experimental Study of Rationing. Image credit: Medical Research Council

Extract showing calorie consumption on Christmas Day, from An Experimental Study of Rationing. Image credit: Medical Research Council

As you tuck into your plate of turkey, pigs-in-blankets, roast potatoes and that token Brussels sprout, spare a thought for those intrepid nutritionists whose experiments ensured people had enough food on their tables during the Second World War.

Churchill’s Scientists is a free exhibition that opens to the public on 23 January 2015. To find out more visit our website 


A Christmas message from the First World War

Rory Cook, Corporate Information & Enquiries Officer, writes how he stumbled across a Christmas message to Science Museum staff written during the First World War.

We all know the story of the First World War Christmas Day football match, we have all seen the recent popular supermarket Christmas advert depicting the event and we have all hummed along to Paul Mccartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’. These romanticised versions can often hide the fact that the First World War, whilst massive in scale, was a very personal event; impacting on every city, every town, every factory, every business, every family in the county.

British World War I postcard of 1914

British World War I postcard of 1914 © UIG History / Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum, only officially formed in 1909, did not escape the horrors of war. Working in the Museum’s Records and Archives Department I am privileged to study and view some of the Museum’s oldest documents. Recently I stumbled upon one of the first Science Museum Staff Orders – an old school version of a staff wide email. The personal and heartfelt nature of this Christmas message touched me.


Science Museum Staff Orders, 1914

A colleague of mine asked “what are the numbers at the bottom?” That is the date of the order – 23rd November 1914. Of course back then there was no Ebay or Amazon for next day delivery! So Christrmasing early was a must. The Staff Order is a timely reminder of the true nature of Christmas; being thankful for what we have and loving those nearest to us no matter how far away they maybe. Wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas.

How Eddie Redmayne Mastered Stephen Hawking’s Voice

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about upcoming Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.

Only one person is known to have used the voice synthesiser that now sits in the Cosmos and Culture gallery in the Science Museum: cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who describes the museum as ‘one of my favourite places’.

Voice synthesiser

Voice synthesiser, on display in Cosmos and Culture

Now a second person has mastered Hawking’s voice, that paradoxical blend of machine and personality: the actor Eddie Redmayne, who undergoes an extraordinary feat of transformation during The Theory of Everything (released on 1 January).

He depicts how Hawking changed from a lazy student into the world’s best known scientist who, as a result of motor neurone disease, has only the use of a few muscles.

Hawking caught pneumonia in 1985 and underwent a tracheotomy but regained the ability to ‘speak’ using a computer operated by a hand switch to painstakingly build up words, sentences and phrases so they could be read out by the voice synthesiser that is now in the museum.

Redmayne’s remarkable dedication to his craft can be seen in this biopic, which is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife Jane.

Redmayne describes it as “an incredibly delicate and intricate and quite complicated love story.” One of the most extraordinary dimensions of that story is Jane’s determination to stick with Hawking despite his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, an apparent death sentence, at the age of 21.

Stephen Hawking

Still from The Theory of Everything with Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)

The film’s production design department took great pains to accurately recreate the progression of wheelchairs that Hawking used throughout his life, from regular to electric and then one adapted to include a computer and his voice synthesiser.

Redmayne had spent months studying archival material, from books to video; worked with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and a neurology clinic in University College London, meeting some 30 patients; rehearsed the change in his movements as the disease took hold with a dance teacher; and wore prosthetics to show how Hawking had aged and deformed with the disease, such as oversized ears that could, with oversized clothes, make his face look gaunt.

One of the pivotal scenes with Hawking’s first wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones) took 15 minutes during an intense day of filming using a hand switch to operate a replica of Hawking’s synthesiser system, he explained. Though only an edited version of his laborious original effort remains in the film, it speaks volumes about Redmayne’s attention to detail that he was prepared to go so far.

Hawking was so impressed with the film, said Redmayne, that he responded with a generous gift — allowing the filmmakers to swap the synthetic voice they had to create and replace it with his own, trademarked computerized version.

Trying to balance his science with his personal story presented some of the same challenges for the James Marsh, director of The Theory of Everything, as it did for curators three years ago, when the Science Museum put on an exhibition to celebrate Hawking’s 70th birthday.

While Stephen Hawking might be a celebrity, he is first and foremost a scientist and not only that but a theoretical physicist, one who deals with ideas rather than something tangible like technology. Redmayne admits that it was daunting getting the right balance between science and entertainment.

Still, the film shows how Hawking first captured the attention of his peers in the late 1960s, working with Roger Penrose (played by Christian McKay) on how the laws of physics – notably Einstein’s law of gravity – sometimes break down, resulting in something called a spacetime singularity. If general relativity was correct, they showed, then such singularities must occur inside black holes – and, most probably, at the start of the universe

This idea implies that singularities mark the beginning and end of space and time, which was created during the Big Bang and breaks down within black holes, where it is necessary to incorporate quantum theory – the theory of the very small – in order to understand what is really going on.

The film makes much of how Hawking was determined to find “a simple eloquent explanation” for the universe. One of Hawking’s long-standing goals has been to blend the theory of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quantum theory) to produce an overarching theory known as quantum gravity.

As the film points out – with the help of its consultant, Jerome Gauntlett, former PhD student in Stephen’s group, who is now Head of the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London –  Hawking moved on to a more radical formulation which incorporates some aspects of quantum theory, the no boundary idea, which says that the entire history of the universe, all of space and time, forms a kind of four-dimensional sphere. Thus speculation about the beginning or end of the universe is as meaningless as talking about the beginning or end of a sphere.

One strange consequence of quantum theory is that empty space isn’t empty at all: pairs of particles are constantly popping into and out of existence. If they appear on the event horizon – the point of no return from the gravity well of a black hole – they may find themselves on different sides, with one sucked in, and the other zooming free as “Hawking radiation.”

There’s a scene in the film showing when Hawking gets a sweater trapped halfway over his head and has an insight that leads to this discovery. “Hawking radiation is widely considered to be the single most important insight into quantum gravity that has been discovered so far,” says Gauntlett, who also helped to bring Redmayne up to speed with Hawking’s science.

The director James Marsh told me that he sees the movie as a human story first and foremost but he does hope, as does Gauntlett, that it will encourage those who are intrigued by the science to find out more. “To be honest, dramatic film is not the best place to explore theoretical physics” Marsh explained. “The idea was to make the science universally available and that meant simple. Better that than address a snobbish or elitist audience. Better that a 14 year old boy or girl watches the film and is intrigued to find out more.”

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

A Brief History of Time, on display in Cosmos and Culture

One way he used to lay out scientific thinking in lay terms was to allow the character of Jane to do some explaining, rather that Stephen himself. But, of course, Hawking himself has provided the most stellar example of how to bridge the gulf between the public and cosmologists with A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. To celebrate this remarkable achievement, a copy can be found in the Cosmos and Culture gallery.

The Theory of Everything will be showing at the Science Museum IMAX from 1 January 2015. Book tickets here.