Revealing the invisible

Adam Stoneman, Explainer at the Science Museum looks at the impact of the early photographic experiments in Media Space exhibition Revelations, and wonders whether today’s innovations will have the same lasting influence.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experiments in Photography at Media Space, Science Museum © Kate Elliott

Revelations: Experimentations in Photography traces the impact of early scientific experiments on the history of photography and showcases the innovative scientists and artists who strived to see the world anew.

Early pioneers like Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton and Eadweard Muybridge were driven by a desire to reveal the invisible processes and structures of our physical world. This desire is still with us and today there are countless magazines, websites and blogs dedicated to sharing photographic experiments – both dark room and digital – but has the popularisation of these once revolutionary photographic techniques – x-rays, high-speed photography photomicrography etc. – diminished the ‘revelatory’ impact they once had? After all, a revelation only happens once.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 - Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 – Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

The development of technology over the last 100 years has made photography popular and accessible. Almost all of us carry a relatively high quality camera with us on our phones these days, and digital reproduction has expanded the audience for photographic experiments. Bernice Abbott’s now iconic MIT photographs became widely known as illustrations in physics textbooks but today blogging and photo-sharing websites like Flickr and Instagram foster a much wider, international audience for photographic experimentation. Harold Edgerton’s early experiments helped to popularise the stroboscope; a once obscure laboratory device for photographing objects at high speed; and now slow motion photography is part of our everyday visual language. Ubiquitous on advertising billboards and in music videos, slow motion imaging is also an internet phenomenon; the Slow Mo Guys, a Youtube channel dedicated to capturing high-speed processes like exploding watermelons and bursting balloons, have 5.5 million subscribers and over 500 million views.

Thanks to pioneers such as Edgerton and Étienne Jules Marey, many of the photographic techniques featured in Revelations have become a familiar part of our visual culture, but we shouldn’t forget how astounding these techniques once were.

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

The story goes that when French film pioneers the Lumière brothers first screened their film Train Pulling Into a Station in 1895, audiences jumped out of their seats for fear of their lives. Early films like this one had a frightening effect on people because of their novelty – it was unlike anything they had experienced before. 120 years of cinema history later and we have become very used the medium of film, so that a sequence of a train pulling into a station is unlikely to carry the same impact (although more recent advances in 3D technology and motion simulation as featured in the Science Museum’s IMAX and Discovery Motion Theatre might come closer to simulating the original shock of the Lumière brothers’ film!).

The innovative photographic techniques displayed in Revelations may have lost their novelty but viewing these photographs today it is hard to deny how striking and effective they still are as images.

Why is this? Certainly it helps that the exhibition frames them in terms of their historical significance, which makes their innovative aspect clear. The remarkable aesthetic quality of these early photographs is also important to consider, and this is especially evident when you see them alongside art photography (the great originality of this exhibition). The photographs taken by Edgerton during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrate a visual sensibility in their complementary pastel backgrounds and Alfred Ehrhardt and Carl Strüwe’s photomicrographs show an interest in the ‘abstract beauty’ of microstructures.

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany  VG Bild-Kunst

Proboscis of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, 1928, Carl Strüwe © Carl Strüwe Archive, Bielefeld, Germany VG Bild-Kunst

No doubt the experiments in photography being carried out today and shared online to vast audiences will soon lose their initial ‘novelty’ impact. Whether their value as striking and ‘revelatory’ images will last, however, is a question for future generations.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography is at Media Space until 13 September 2015. Click here to book tickets. An accompanying book edited by co-curator Ben Burbridge, entitled Revelations and co-published with MACK, is available to buy online from the Science Museum Shop. The exhibition transfers to the National Media Museum, Bradford where it will run from 19 November 2015 to 7 February 2016.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE

Wonderful Things: Ancient Egyptian Curling Tongs

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

For pretty much as long as people have had hair they have looked for ways to change it. Inventions such as curling tongs feel relatively modern but they have actually been around for centuries.

We only have to look at paintings and carvings from the ancient world to see that having curls was a fashion that crossed many cultures. Babylonian and Assyrian men dyed their hair and square beards black, then crimped and curled them with basic curling irons. Persian and Greek nobles also used rods of iron or bronze heated over a fire to produce impressive hairstyles which would highlight their wealth and beauty. Egyptian nobles often cropped their hair close or shaved their heads but on ceremonial occasions, for protection from the sun, they wore wigs. The wigs would be long and full of curls or braids, which were styled with tools like this one.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These bronze curling tongs are combined with a hair trimmer and would have been heated up on a fire before pieces of hair were curled around them.

In the 1890s tonging became very popular as hair was elaborately styled on top of the head often with loose curls or ringlets around the face. Books and articles with instructions were written about the arrangement of hair to emphasise a woman’s beauty, and upper class women were expected to follow these guidelines.

The fashion wasn’t just for the very wealthy anymore though as the emerging middle classes tried to emulate the style. Curling tongs still resembled those from Ancient Egypt, and many accidents resulting in burnt or damaged hair occurred as the heat of the metal tongs was difficult to control.

Illustrations from 'Fashionable Hair Dressing' an article in The Delineator, 1894

Illustrations from ‘Fashionable Hair Dressing’ an article in The Delineator, 1894.

With the advent of electricity curling tongs started to resemble those we use today. Curling tongs were invented which could be plugged into a light socket which meant more temperature control and less scorched hair! By the mid-twentieth century there were many varying designs, so much so that the definitive inventor of the modern curling iron is much disputed. They now come in many sizes and styles depending on the type of curls you desire from tight ringlets to loose waves or even crimped styles. Everyone now has the freedom to express themselves by styling their hair in an infinite variety of ways and as technology develops who knows what new tools may be invented.

What hairstyles do you think will be in fashion in 50 years time?

This object is currently on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. There are also other examples of some 19th Century curling tongs in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.

Funders and our climate science gallery

By Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group

I wanted to respond to a story in the Guardian in which a campaign group that opposes sponsorship by oil companies highlights the Science Museum’s relationship with Shell, with whom the museum has a long-standing partnership.

Shell was a major funder of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject. The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people.

As with all of our exhibitions and curatorial programmes, the editorial vision and control sits with our curatorial team.

The campaigners say emails between Shell and our fundraising team, which we shared in response to a Freedom of Information request, suggest that Shell was seeking to influence the direction of Atmosphere and the associated curatorial programme. Having spoken to our curatorial team, I can confirm that not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted from these email exchanges.

I know some people will have a broader disagreement with our decision to form partnerships with corporations such as Shell. I respect their right to hold that opinion but I fundamentally disagree. And it’s not just because external funding is vital in enabling us to remain free to millions of visitors each year and in allowing us to curate ground-breaking temporary exhibitions at a time when Government funding is declining. More importantly it’s because when it comes to the major challenges facing our society, from climate change to inspiring the next generation of engineers, we need to be engaging with all the key players including governments, industry and the public, not hiding away in a comfortable ivory tower.

In the case of our Atmosphere gallery, the Science Museum invited Shell’s Group Climate Change Advisor David Hone to sit on an advisory panel alongside people such as Tony Juniper, the former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth. We knew that decision wouldn’t please everyone, but we wanted to hear all sides of the debate and we’re proud of Atmosphere and the role the gallery and accompanying programme have played in raising awareness of climate change among visitors to the Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov on the birth of the space age

As Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov celebrates his birthday this week (30 May), Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, spent a day with the pioneering cosmonaut for the launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

With the help of chalk and blackboard, Alexei Leonov recently gave a vivid personal account of the first seventy years of practical cosmonautics, from the birthplace of modern rocket science in Nazi Germany to his first ‘step into the abyss’ and the prospect of asteroid apocalypse.

At an event organised by the Starmus Festival, Leonov was introduced to a celebrity-laden audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre by Director, Ian Blatchford. Earlier that same day Blatchford and Leonov had sat in front of a reproduction of Leonov’s painting of his pioneering spacewalk to announce the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP, when many Soviet spacecraft will be gathered together for the first time.


As Mr Blatchford thanked the twice-hero of the Soviet Union, whose character is every bit as bold as his space feats, Sputnik 3, Soyuz and a Lunokhod 2 rover were being lifted through the museum into their temporary home on the first floor. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 had arrived the day before, the first wave of around 150 iconic objects that hail from the dawn of space exploration.

Leonov began by recounting Nazi Germany’s attempt ‘to destroy London’ in the Second World War, when modern rocketry was launched with the V-2, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. When the Russian Army entered Peenemünde, among them an expert group including Sergei Korolev, who would come to be known as ‘The Chief Designer’ in the Soviet Union), the Germans had left only 10 minutes earlier. ‘The coffee was still warm’, said Leonov.

The German rocketeers who had already fled included Wernher von Braun, who would become the father of the US Apollo moon programme, and had by then surrendered to the Americans in Austria. Von Braun had wanted to defect to the Americans but later told Leonov that he would have worked for the Soviets too, claiming he wanted to use rocketry for exploration, not murder. ‘He was very sincere, very frank,’ said Leonov, ‘though you may chose not to believe his words because these were weapons, after all.’

The USSR captured a number of V-2s, including one from the marshes of Peenemünde, and German staff. This paved the way for the manufacture of a Soviet duplicate, the R-1. By August 1957, a descendant, the R-7, was capable of launching a satellite into orbit.

The space age dawned with the launch of Sputnik 1, which was ‘just a sphere with a transmitter…beep beep, beep beep,’ said Leonov. ‘That was sufficient for people to get very excited, now we are in an era where there is an artificial object floating in space. This was only the beginning.’

The Soviet Union followed Sputnik by launching the first animal, man and woman into orbit in just six years, feats that will be recorded by the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibition with objects ranging from a dog ejector seat from a sub-orbital rocket to a model of Vostok 1 (Russian for ‘East’), which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.

After chalking the outline of a Vostok, Leonov moved on to the Voskhod (Russian for “sunrise”), which he said was part of a lunar programme that began with a directive in 1962 and was officially sanctioned by the Politburo two years later.

Voskhod 1 launched on October 12, 1964. Even though there was not enough room to wear space suits, or time to develop a launch escape system, it successfully took the first three-man crew into orbit years before the US Apollo’s three-man crews.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in front of Vostok 6 and Voshkod 1 in the Cosmonauts exhibition. © Science Museum

Voskhod 2 featured more powerful propulsion, TV and had been adapted to allow Leonov to carry out the first ever spacewalk. The spacecraft carried a ‘genius invention’, he said, an airlock that could be inflated through which a cosmonaut could step into open space. ‘That was me,’ said Leonov.

Earlier, Korolev had told him, ‘as a sailor should know how to swim in open ocean, so a cosmonaut should be able to swim in space.’

But Leonov’s ill-fated mission almost did not take place. An earlier automated unmanned test flight - Voskhod 3KD – had been destroyed after ground controllers sent a sequence of commands that accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism designed to prevent the craft ending up in enemy hands.

At a meeting in a hotel, Korolev told Leonov he hoped to adapt his Voskhod 2 to complete the unmanned mission to test the airlock and spacesuit. ‘We were set dead against it,’ said Leonov. He protested to The Chief Designer: ‘We have personally worked through 3000 emergency scenarios’, which was greeted, understandably, with scepticism. ‘Yeah, of course you did,’ said Korolev. ‘You are sure to come across the three thousand and first. And, of course, Leonov ‘would know what to do.’

Leonov admitted to the audience that Korolev’s cynicism was well placed. To carry out his spacewalk above the Black Sea, on 18 March 1965, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev came across the ‘three thousandth and second and third and fifth and sixth…all of them were not described in any instructions before.’

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

A painting by Alexei Leonov. Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

As Leonov ‘stepped into the abyss’, he was struck by the sound of his own breathing, his heartbeat and a sense of the universe ‘being limitless in time and space’. Given that in the darkness the temperatures plunged to minus 140 deg C and in sunlight rose to 150 deg C his suit was ‘a stroke of genius’ for the way it kept him at a comfortable 20 deg C.

But eight minutes into the spacewalk, he felt that his gloves had expanded so much that he could no longer feel them with his fingers any more. His legs started to shake. Leonov’s spacesuit had by now ballooned in space to an alarming degree. ‘I started feverishly thinking of what I was going to do to re-enter the spacecraft’.

First he had to coil his tether. Every 50 cm dangled a 2.5 cm diameter ring, which he was supposed to hook.’ But he had ‘no support’ and was hanging on by one hand. ‘It was very hard.’

He disobeyed the orders of Korolev – there was no time to wait for a committee to be assembled to deliberate on his predicament – and opened a valve to bleed of some of the suit’s pressure, risking the bends by lowering the pressure beyond the safety limit.

On his back Leonov wore ‘metal tanks with ninety minutes’ worth of oxygen’  but it was clear from his talk that he remained concerned he had not left enough time for the nitrogen from the oxygen/nitrogen mix inside Voskhod to be purged from his blood. ‘There was a danger of nitrogen boiling in my blood and I was feeling this needling sensation in my fingers but I had no choice.’ Fortunately, ‘The feeling went away.’

Instead of entering legs first, as he had trained to do, Leonov went in head first, requiring ‘an awful amount of energy’ to turn around in the confines of the 1.2 m diameter airlock (he measured 1.9 m in his spacesuit). His core body temperature soared by 1.8 °C as he contorted himself. ‘That was the most stressful moment.’ Overall, the spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. By that time, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts.

The mission’s problems were far from over. The descent module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, leading to a slow leak. The craft’s automated systems flooded the craft with oxygen, raising the risk of fire of the kind seen in the Apollo 1 tragedy.

When they turned on their automatic descent systems, the spacecraft did not stop rotating. ‘It was difficult and dangerous to stop.’ Their automatic guidance system had malfunctioned. They asked Korolev for permission to conduct a manual descent, which the craft was not designed to do. ‘It was very similar to driving a car looking out the window from the side.’ From an ‘ancient Soviet radio station’ in Antarctica came permission, along with a note of caution: ‘Be careful.’

‘You know what, let us land in the Red Square, it would be so jolly funny,’ remarked Leonov, who was the mission navigator. Belyayev, commander, replied that they would ‘clip all the stars in the Kremlin so I don’t think we should do it’. Eventually, Voskhod 2 ended up far from the primary landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests – taiga – around 180 kilometres from Perm in Siberia. ‘To us, the trees of 30-40 m looked like a manicured lawn.’ Leonov transmitted a call sign with a manual telegraph system – ‘everything is in order’ – but it was greeted by silence.

A gust of cold air entered when they opened the hatch. Belyayev jumped out and ended up neck deep in snow. Leonov was sloshing around knee deep in water in his spacesuit. They stripped in the cold and Leonov wrung out his underwear. ‘Can you imagine this picture – a spacecraft, the taiga, and naked chaps standing next to each other?’

The next day, ‘comrades on skis’ arrived and, after another night and a nine kilometre ski trip, they were picked up by helicopter.

The Soviets had originally planned to orbit the moon in 1967 and had two parallel lunar programmes, one manned and one unmanned (This was a mistake, Leonov conceded). On his blackboard, Leonov drew a Soyuz (Russian for ‘Union’) 7K-L1 ‘Zond’ (‘probe’) spacecraft that was designed to circle the Moon and described how he had even studied the sky in Somalia to decide which stars to use for lunar navigation. ‘Everything was ready.’

Leonov was once the Soviet cosmonaut thought most likely to become the first human on the Moon. But the Soviet lunar programme was starved of resources compared with America’s Apollo programme, the Soviet manned moon-flyby missions lost political momentum and Korolev died in 1966 (‘those who took his place decided this was too risky’). One could sense his frustration when he declared: ‘Six spacecraft orbited the moon without a man on board.’

However, Science Museum visitors will be able to inspect the monumental five metre LK-3 lunar lander, the finest example of its kind, which was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon’s surface.

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Leonov counted himself lucky to be part of the Apollo Soyuz mission, when ‘the cold war could become a hot war at any moment.’ Conducted in July 1975, it was the first joint US–Soviet space flight, and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft. The mission was a symbol of superpower détente. ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America,’ said Leonov. He groaned with mock horror, ‘awwww’, acting out the apoplexy of small-town America at the thought of a cosmonaut orbiting overhead.

Leonov went on to talk about how singer Sarah Brightman had cancelled her trip to the International Space Station, mention the Soviet Buran shuttle, which was delayed by discussions about pilots and automated control (the latter won but ‘we lost three years, launched only one and then nobody commissioned it’) and discussions to allow China to dock with the ISS.

He also discussed the greatest threat to humanity, that of asteroid impacts (now marked by Asteroid Day), which demanded the best of human ingenuity and technology in response. In 2008 the Association of Space Explorer’s Committee on Near-Earth Objects and its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation gave recommendations to the United Nations. ‘So far we have not heard back from them. I think they are waiting for the asteroid to hit them’.

Leonov had before him in the Science Museum IMAX an audience that ranged from amateur space enthusiasts to rock legends Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had recently given a highly publicised tour of the Science Museum. Leonov described him as ‘amazingly courageous’.

Sitting in the front row of the IMAX was the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose Sokol space suit will be shown in Cosmonauts. Leonov described how he had a ‘very moving’ reunion in the museum with ‘little Helen.’ ‘The best pupil I have ever had,’ said Leonov.

Sharman had been selected to travel into space on 25 November 1989 ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She blasted off in 1991. Leonov encouraged her to stand, and the audience showed their appreciation with a round of applause. ‘She had a special energy, special intellect. You should be proud of this person.’

At the end of the event, Leonov was presented an honorary fellowship of the Science Museum by Hawking and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer. In return, Leonov, who had dined with Hawking earlier that day, presented the Cambridge cosmologist with a portrait he had sketched after lunch. ‘Stephen smiled, hooray,’ a delighted Leonov told the audience, who were also addressed by Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society, and astronomer Garik Israelian of the Starmus Festival.

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

Alexei Leonov presents his drawing to Prof Stephen Hawking © Science Museum

At a celebratory dinner in the museum that night, Leonov gave a speech in Russian (he preferred his mother tongue because, as he cheerfully recounted, he once ended a speech given in English by wishing his audience ‘sex for life’ rather than ‘a successful life.’) Leonov also alluded to the prevailing American bias in museum accounts of space history. He praised the Science Museum for containing the ‘wisdom of the world’ that would be an ‘inspiration and lesson for future generations.’ Finally, he wished Ian Blatchford ‘good luck’ with Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Credit: Chalmers University of Technology

Secret of Scientific Creativity revealed by Andre Geim, ‘godfather of graphene’

At a Hay Festival event sponsored by the Royal Society, Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield interviewed Andre Geim, the Nobel prize winner best known for his work on graphene, the subject of an exhibition that will open next year at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester. 

He created graphene, the first two dimensional object on the planet. He levitated frogs. And his pet hamster too. He created tape that mimics the adhesive properties of Gecko feet. But what makes the Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim one of the most creative figures in physics?

A revealing glimpse of how his mind makes adventurous leaps in supposedly well-trodden areas of research emerged when I interviewed the Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor at Manchester University, who is best known for his research on the wonder material graphene, along with his deadpan wit and candour.

Born in Sochi and raised in Soviet-era Russia, Geim does not pinpoint his success to being inspired by a particular teacher or childhood experience but being gifted in mathematics and physics and stimulated by a peripatetic existence, aided by the end of the Cold War and a basic hunger for new experiences.

He is serious about play, enjoying stressful hikes across Borneo, and an eventful trip to the Grand Canyon, where he endured both pneumonia and a rattlesnake bite. Equally, he is playful about the serious business of work. ‘I measure life not in years but in experiences.’

Our Hay event was entitled ‘Random Walk to Graphene,’ in honour of his Nobel lecture on a ‘random walk to Stockholm’, a nod to the mathematical term used to describe a path that consists of a succession of random steps. Because his career trajectory has been a little random, he feels that he has learned something new at every step.

This is a far cry from the traditional blinkered way of doing science, which he encountered first-hand when he conducted the equivalent of a doctorate at the Institute of Solid State Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Chernogolovka.

A slide from his Nobel lecture shows his 1987 thesis citation was entitled: “Investigation of mechanisms of transport relaxation in metals by a helicon resonance method” (He told the Hay audience: ‘I really have forgotten what is was all about.’)

Geim said that many of the six or seven million people worldwide who do professional research are trapped in a style of science that he likens to ‘a railway from your scientific cradle to scientific coffin’, one which is ‘absolutely straight’ and where diversions are not allowed.

In the eighties, ‘I did two or three papers which were cited once or twice by my supervisor, no one else,’ he said. ‘That was the experience of my PhD.’ Bottom line, never torture students with what he calls ‘zombie projects.’

Wind forward to Radboud University Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands where he had ended up, attracted by the greater opportunities and freedom in the West: the Royal Society had sponsored a visit to the University of Nottingham during which he achieved more in his first six months than in the previous ‘six years of boredom.’

One Friday in Nijmegen, two decades of curiosity about the phenomenon of diamagnetism got the better of him. He poured a bottle of water into one of the lab’s powerful electromagnets, some 50 times stronger than a fridge magnet. It was in the evening, when the electricity was cheaper. Lo and behold droplets of water started floating in the powerful magnetic field. ‘It is a ridiculous experiment,’ he conceded. ‘But nobody had come with the same stupid idea.’

His colleagues suggested he now try beer. Instead, his wife and fellow physicist Irina Grigorieva, who accompanied him and their daughter to Hay, ’came up with a brilliant idea.’ He should try a frog too, just to underline to scientific sceptics as much as the layperson how everything is diamagnetic.

Levitating frog. Credit: Andre Geim

Levitating frog. Credit: Andre Geim

The Geim family pet hamster Tisha was quickly levitated. Not only did he live to squeak the tale for another three years, he even co-authored a paper with Geim in the journal Physical B to, as Geim puts it, ‘acknowledge his personal contribution.’ Geim wanted to ensure his work had real impact rather than swell the ranks of uncited papers.

Letter to Andre Geim

Letter to Andre Geim

The rest is history and he won the ‘Ig Nobel prize’ for innovations that make people ‘laugh, then think.’ But ‘behind every joke there is something very serious.’ He shared the Ig Nobel Prize with Sir Michael Berry of the University of Bristol, who had worked with Geim on the theory of levitation. Even today, scientists come up to Geim at conferences and say. ‘I have no idea about graphene’ and then talk in delight about his levitating frog.

Geim has since enshrined the idea of the Friday Night Experiment in his way of working. His playfulness and commitment to scientific adventure (‘search, not re-search’) was what attracted Kostya Novoselov to Geim’s laboratory in Holland.

And it was what would take them both on a random walk to the Nobel prize, after a wrong first step by Geim’s first PhD student when he moved to the University of Manchester. Da Jiang had arrived from China with poor English and in 2002 Geim gave him a simple project: take a piece of graphite, the stuff of pencils, albeit a chunk worth around £300, and isolate the thinnest sliver he could.

Geim wanted to study a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms that had long been posited by theorists, and was predicted to have fascinating electronic properties, but had never been seen. This Friday Night Experiment  was a step in the wrong direction: Da Jiang used a specialised machine to grind the piece of graphene down to a little piece. ‘It was not thin enough’ and Geim asked him to try again. Da Jiang requested another piece of graphite and, given he had reduced the last to dust, ‘You can imagine how excited I was’.

Artistic impression of a graphene sheet. Credit: Jannik Meyer

Artistic impression of a graphene sheet. Credit: Jannik Meyer

Then Geim’s Ukrainian postdoc Oleg Shklyarevskii took an interest and had an idea: physicists used Scotch tape to clean graphite, which is commonly studied in laboratories. ‘What those guys did not realise,’ explained Geim, ‘was that throwing away the Scotch tape they were throwing away the Nobel Prize as well.’

After rummaging in the bin, pieces of tape emerged coated with ultrathin graphite: not atomic thickness but transparent, which raised the hopes of Geim that graphene could be made. ‘I knew that if it is transparent it must be very, very thin. From the very first moment I knew that we could get with this technique something that has never been studied before.’

Here Novoselov re-enters the story and lo and behold after a year to 18 months, they isolated a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. The flat, parallel sheets of carbon atoms in the graphite of pencil lead could indeed be peeled apart to yield a single atomic layer.  (Geim hates calling this the ‘Scotch tape technique,’ which is ‘plebeian.’)

Geim’s random, playful leaps across physics are not as effortless as they sound: it takes careful background research to make sense of what many others have done before, do something different, and to describe a novel leap in familiar terms that peers can understand. This exercise in due diligence is not helped by the vast amounts of chaff in the scientific literature: he points out that of the 100,000 or so research papers each year (excluding those from China), half are never cited.

Their first paper about the isolation of graphene was rejected when it was sent to Nature. Although one referee remarked ‘this paper does not represent a scientific advance,’ Geim is sanguine about the conservatism of science. Eventually it was accepted and published in the journal Science in 2004.

It was astounding that heat energy (‘Brownian motion’) did not shake graphene’s gossamer atomic lattice apart, a hint of its extraordinary properties – miraculous strength, lightness, flexibility – and conductivity too. This material was 100 times stronger than steel and 100 times more conductive than copper, promising a wealth of applications, from supercapacitors and composites to lighting and superfast electronics.

By 2010, the first paper by Novoselov and Geim was cited more than 3,000 times. That same year, they shared the Nobel Prize, though Geim says that, in reality, ‘six or seven people’ were behind the breakthrough.

And how did he feel when the call from the Nobel committee came? ‘People were expecting me to win the prize for two or three years before,’ he said. ‘In a sense I was mentally prepared that there would be a call.’ But he messed up the actual timing and did not realise that it would be that particular Monday when the prize was announced. Still, when a female voice with a Swedish accent materialised on his phone to say she had something very important to tell him,’ he immediately replied: “Are you going to tell me that I won the Nobel prize?”

‘Nothing changed that day. I went to work. I had a few drinks. Otherwise, nothing special. ’There were plenty of calls from journalists but ‘it was not very interesting. Journalism is not my favourite profession. Sorry, Roger…they write quicker than they think.’

Today Geim maintains a small, close-knit team of two postdocs and two or three students. He believes in the power of ‘self-organisation’, quickly losing interest in students who do not pass muster. He wants to do science, not admin: ‘I am in the lab several times a day.’ He has resisted the temptation to build an empire.

Even though his work has spawned a £61 million National Graphene Institute in Manchester, ‘a good facility’ he is ambivalent about the relatively small scale of the effort compared with rival nations, the sluggishness of the UK response to the race to commercialise graphene, and how the money was spent on the building rather than research (architects, along with politicians, journalists and students attract his ire). ‘It is money put into the British building industry rather than science.’

He has met Chancellor George Osborne a couple of times but quickly lost interest. ‘I am not an industrialist or property developer…my strength is probably being a little bit unconventional…I am not interested in political games.’

Graphene is now ‘more or less done’, he said. His latest research is backed mostly by European Union funding, which he says is more focused on blue sky than immediate returns. Geim has now moved on to creating novel designer materials by assembling the emerging family of two dimensional ‘brothers and sisters of graphene’, including hexagonal boron nitride, fluorographene and so on, in a Lego-like fashion. His hope is that these metamaterials will have extraordinary new properties for instance for quantum computers and much more. The world is entering the era of what he calls ‘Graphene 3.0’.

Graphene pencil drawing credit: Chalmers University of Technology.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Celebrating the best of British engineering talent

The finalists have been announced for engineering’s answer to the Oscars: the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Here, the Chair of Judges and leading nuclear engineer, Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, describes the three finalists for 2015 and the importance of engineering innovation in society.

Three British companies are in the running for the UK’s most prestigious and longest-running engineering prize, the MacRobert Award:

  • Artemis Intelligent Power, based in Edinburgh, has developed a digital hydraulic power system that could improve efficiency and unlock the potential of offshore wind turbines as a cost-effective, sustainable future energy source.
  • Cambridge-based Endomag has pioneered a new diagnostic tool that could end the postcode lottery for breast cancer staging.
  • The third finalist Victrex, based in Blackpool, has developed the world’s highest-performing ultra-thin plastics, used in the speakers found in over a billion mobile devices.

The MacRobert Award recognises technologies that show how outstanding engineering achievement provides value to the economy and society. Many previous winning technologies are now ubiquitous in modern medicine, transport and technology. The very first award in 1969 went to the Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine, used in the iconic Harrier jets, and in 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Victrex has developed the highest-performing ultra-thin plastics in the world, enabling tiny, high-quality sound for smartphone speakers and earbuds.

Despite operating in very different sectors, all of this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate the application of engineering innovation to tackle social and technological challenges.

The finalists are great examples of home-grown innovations that have achieved commercial success in the UK and abroad. It is hardly surprising that recent statistics show that the UK is first in the world for engineering productivity, and that engineering-related products make up almost half of our total exports.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Endomag’s breast cancer staging diagnostic system accurately locates individual sentinel nodes so surgeons can identify where a cancerous tumour has spread.

Yet the continued success of the UK’s engineering industry could be under threat in the future if we cannot overcome the huge challenge of securing future talent. Engineering still suffers from old, stereotyped perceptions, which can be off-putting to many young people when considering their career choice. This means that we’re facing a shortfall of people with the skills to use technology to overcome some of the world’s biggest challenges.

We must also attract more women into engineering – only 7% of UK professional engineers are female. I have been lucky enough to have a really rewarding and enjoyable career in engineering and I am delighted that government is taking this issue seriously. The Your Life campaign, launched at the Science Museum a year ago, aims to increase the number of students – especially women –  studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 50% within three years.

As this year’s MacRobert Award finalists demonstrate, engineering is a humanitarian as well as a technical endeavour, with the potential to transform every aspect of life. Anyone who is passionate about changing the world for the better should look seriously at a career in engineering.

If you’d like to know more about what you can do with engineering, visit the Engineer Your Future exhibition at the Science Museum.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Space pioneer Alexei Leonov heralds Cosmonauts Exhibition

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Half a century after he risked his life to become the first person to go on a spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov today joined Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford to announce the museum’s most ambitious temporary exhibition to date, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov at the Science Museum for the announcement of the forthcoming exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Tickets are now on sale for the exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015 and will feature the greatest collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever assembled in once place, including eight that had to be declassified for this project, to provide a vivid insight into how the Soviet Union kick-started the space age.

Speaking at a news conference this morning at the Science Museum, Leonov told journalists he was convinced the Soviets could also have beaten the U.S. to the first manned orbit of the moon but for the conservatism of those running their highly secretive moon programme following the death in 1966 of Sergei Korolev, the lead rocket engineer and spacecraft designer on the Russian Space Programme.


Leonov told the audience that he and Yuri Gagarin argued for pressing ahead with the manned orbit but were overruled: “Both Yuri and myself went to the Politburo and asked that we go ahead. But our bureaucrats said it was too risky so let us try a sixth (unmanned) probe. And of course it landed a few hundred metres from where it was supposed to….so unfortunately it didn’t work out for me.”

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will include the monumental five metre tall LK-3 lunar lander that Leonov trained on in Star City. Designed to take a single cosmonaut to the moon, three Soviet lunar landers were tested successfully in space although none ever touched down on the surface of the moon.

Ian Blatchford spoke of the honour of having Alexei Leonov alongside him (see Leonov’s dramatic account of his battle to reenter the spacecraft here) as he announced the “most audacious and complex exhibition in the history of the Science Museum and indeed one of the most ambitious projects ever presented by any great museum”.

He then invited journalists to see the first of 150 objects to arrive from Russia -  including Vostok-6, the capsule that carried Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space, and safely returned her to Earth in 1963.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford speak at the announcement of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age © Science Museum

The Science Museum Director described how the exhibition will explore a critical moment in the history of humankind, when people first set forth beyond the confines of their home world: “the Russian space programme is one of the great cultural, scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century.”

Cosmonauts, which has drawn on the help and support of the first generation of Soviet space pioneers, will explore the science and technology of Russian space travel in its cultural and spiritual context, revealing a deep-rooted national yearning for space that was shaped by the turbulent early decades of the 20th century. The exhibition will feature rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s extraordinary 1933 drawings of space flight, depicting spacewalks, weightlessness and life in orbit almost thirty years before it became a reality.

Ian Blatchford also thanked all the cosmonauts, partners and funders who have made this exhibition possible. Cosmonauts represents a major collaboration between the Science Museum, the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. The support of many other institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia has also been crucial in the development of the exhibition.

The exhibition opens on 18 September 2015 and will run until 13 March 2016 at the Science Museum in London. The Museum will be open until 10pm every Friday evening during this period to allow visitors more opportunities to see the exhibition.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age has had additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

Planning Human Voyages to the Moon

On this day (18 May) in 1969 Apollo 10 launched, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan to the Moon. This was a dry run for the mission (Apollo 11) that would put the first men on the Moon.

You can see the Apollo 10 Command Module on display in the Museum (and inside it in our Journeys of Invention app). It is an incredible sight and remains the fastest ever manned vehicle, exceeding 24,790 mph (39,887 km/h) on its return to Earth.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

But away from public view, NASA produced millions of documents to prepare for each mission. The immense level of detail required in planning human voyages to the Moon is captured in this Apollo 10 Lunar Module Descent Monitoring Chart, which we recently acquired for the museum.

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA

These photographic charts were widely used by NASA to show the surface features that the spacecraft would fly above as it orbited the Moon. Generated from unmanned Lunar Orbiter missions of 1966-67, the charts provided an accurate prediction of where each Apollo spacecraft would be and what features would be visible to the crew and mission controllers at any specific time.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

A section of the LM Descent Monitoring Chart, Apollo Mission 10. Credit: NASA.

This particular chart was produced for the Apollo 10 mission (using a 24 May 1969 launch date rather than 18 May, the date finally chosen), which tested the lunar module (lander) down to 11 km altitude above the lunar surface. Combining the technical with the aesthetic, the chart shows target landing site number 5, one of several earmarked for future landing missions.

You can discover more about space in our Exploring Space gallery and see the Apollo 10 Command Module in our Making the Modern World gallery. 

Galvanising speech amid glamour of Director’s Dinner

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communication, Science Museum

Strong calls for evidence-based policy-making and gender equality were made last night by guest speaker, Professor Anne Glover, at the Science Museum’s Director’s Annual Dinner.

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Professor Anne Glover delivers a speech at the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Speaking on the day the European Commission (EC) revealed that her previous role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the EC President will now be performed by a committee of high level scientists, the biologist warned of the perils of preventing scientists who advise Government from speaking openly about their work.

Professor Glover, Vice Principal for External Affairs and Dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, urged the scientists among the high-profile audience to be bold in speaking up about evidence and challenged everyone in the room to do more to nominate talented women (as well as men) for positions of influence in our society.

Earlier Science Museum Group Director (SMG), Ian Blatchford, had welcomed the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, noting the Group’s delight on discovering that the evening was his first official engagement. Later that night the minister tweeted: 

The Director took the high profile audience on a whistle-stop tour of the year’s highlights including the Queen’s first tweet at the opening of the Information Age gallery; a celebration of two hundred years of London science with the Royal Society; our plans for the Clockmakers’ museum; and the announcement that Zaha Hadid will be the designer for our new Mathematics gallery.

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford addresses guests at the Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner 2015 © Science Museum

That last project was made possible by the largest private donation in the Science Museum’s history from David and Claudia Harding. So it was no surprise that David Harding, a noted philanthropist and dedicated supporter of maths and science, was one of the two distinguished guests bidden to the stage by SMG Chairman, Dame Mary Archer, to accept Science Museum Fellowships. He and Nobel laureate Professor John O’Keefe were described by Dame Mary as “rare individuals who’ve given exceptional service to science and to SMG” as they were invited to receive their scrolls.

Professor John O'Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer in the presence of Ian Blatchford and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP © Science Museum

Professor John O’Keefe and David Harding are presented with Science Museum Fellowships by Dame Mary Archer (centre) in the presence of Ian Blatchford (far left) and The Right Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP (far right) © Science Museum

Dame Mary also told the audience how the Group is “equally ambitious for our very own Northern Powerhouse — our museums in York, Manchester and Bradford.” She highlighted their plans, including a stunning new exhibition gallery planned in Manchester for 2018, generously funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Treasury, and an exhibition on graphene, first synthesised in 2004 at the University of Manchester.

To underline the significance of the two million children who visit SMG museums each year, Dame Mary emphasised how the country’s economy depends on the understanding and application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics yet, she added, “Britain is desperately short of engineers, only 20% of young people in the UK do any maths beyond GCSE, and more than 80% of postgraduate STEM students in our universities come from — and mostly go back to — countries outside the European Union.”

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield with Kate Bush, SMG Head of Photography and Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery © Science Museum

The MC of the event was the SMG Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield and other guests included the new Director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan; film producer Michael Wilson; Trustees David Willetts, Lords Grade and Faulkner; Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport; Director of the Science Media Centre Fiona Fox; Pestival Director Bridget Nicholls, photographers Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low; Emmy and Bafta award winning director and producer Anthony Geffen; Naomi Weir of the Campaign for Science and Engineering; Wellcome Director of Strategy Clare Matterson and double Oscar-winner Paul Franklin.

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director's Annual Dinner © Science Museum

Lord and Lady Grade of Yarmouth attend the 2015 Science Museum Director’s Annual Dinner © Science Museum

The Pegasus Computer

Volunteer Chris Burton reflects on helping maintain and run Pegasus, one of the oldest computers in the world. Chris is a member of the Computer Conservation Society. 

Surrounded by paper tape readers, paper tape punch and teleprinter, I am in control of an early electronic computer named Pegasus. The imposing array of switches, lights, knobs and display screens, gives me command of a powerful yet responsive machine. There is a lot of noise from the cooling air blowers, and occasionally the machine emits strange sounds from its loudspeaker indicating the progress of an application program. This is how the original operators of Pegasus would have felt in the 1950s.


Sometimes an operator would be the person who actually designed and wrote the program, taking hands-on control to ensure the program worked correctly. Operators became wizards at manipulating the control switches to direct what the machine does, as well as monitoring the binary data shown on the cathode ray tube screens. While the program was running, they rolled-up any punched-paper tapes to be kept, or glanced up at the clock to write the next log-book entry. There was a pervading feeling of warmth, comfort and order.

The Ferranti Pegasus computer was developed in the early 1950s by a team of former Elliott Brothers Ltd engineers using a technology pioneered in the Elliott/NRDC 401 computer. The engineering of Pegasus is outstanding. It is assembled from hundreds of plug-in electronic modules (see below) about the size of a paper-back book which contain two or three valves (vacuum tubes – pre-dating the use of transistors or microprocessors)

Some of these modules are used as the internal memory of the computer but the main memory is based on magnetised spots on the surface of a rotating drum, similar to a modern day magnetic disc drive. Data input and output is via 5-track punched-paper tape. No typewriter keyboard or display screen!

Ferranti Pegasus computer circuit boards, 1956. © Science Museum / SSPL

Ferranti Pegasus computer circuit boards, 1956. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pegasus was the first “user friendly” computer, and about forty Pegasus systems were sold, between 1956 and 1962. Scores of programmers and users of the machine have commented on the ease of programming and operation. A fundamental part of Pegasus was a simple operating system, a set of routines called Initial Orders which was stored permanently in a write-protected area of the drum. Pressing the “Start” key caused the Initial Orders to be executed, and they gave the programmer facilities for inputting programs and data, for debugging, for assembling large program systems from sub-sections and libraries, and so on.

Ferranti Pegasus II computer in use, c 1958. © Science Museum / SSPL

Ferranti Pegasus II computer in use, c 1958. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pegasus and the Science Museum
The Science Museum Pegasus, serial number 25, has been re-located at least eight times in its life, including a period in Sweden. The museum acquired it from UCL London in 1983 and it was initially displayed in Manchester where it was occasionally maintained by a colleague and myself. After a couple of years the machine moved back to London.

When the Computer Conservation Society was formed in 1989, a group of expert volunteers re-commissioned and demonstrated Pegasus at the museum. It was put on prominent display in the Computing gallery in 2000, where for the first time in its long life, Pegasus was on view to the public. It is a tribute to the quality of the original engineering that Pegasus survived this repeated stripping down, moving, and re-assembling.

For nearly a decade Pegasus was demonstrated every fortnight, but in 2009 a fault with the machine required it to be shut down and Health and Safety considerations subsequently stopped further operation. This historic, 60-year old computer continues to be an important artefact in the Science Museum’s Computing and Data Processing collections.

For more information on Pegasus, read “The Pegasus Story” by Simon Lavington published by the Science Museum. In 2015, the Computing gallery will close, reopening in late 2016 as the new Mathematics gallery. You can discover more about the history of information and communication technologies in the Information Age gallery, opened in October 2014.