It’s always a nice surprise receiving letters from our visitors and we try our best to write back as soon as possible. In fact most of the letters we receive are from Primary Schools who have just visited.
The pupils from Pirbright Village Primary School sent us some lovely letters telling us their favourite parts of the Science Museum. The pupils loved the Exploring Space gallery, Launchpad and the Space Station IMAX 3D film (click to enlarge letters).
Max listened to music through his teeth and built a bridge inside Launchpad
Tom loved our “exquisite” exhibitions and loved watching an IMAX
Harley-Rose’s favourite part was capturing her shadow in Launchpad
Ollie found out more than he already knew whilst in the Exploring Space gallery
Willam was stunned by the “phenomenal” Exploring Space gallery after seeing the moon lander. The ‘Do Not Touch’ interactive was electrifying!
Explainer Fact: If you would like to send us a letter, please send it to: Launchpad Letters, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD
Content Developer Rupert Cole explores the most famous science prize of all, and some of its remarkable winners.
Today, science’s most prestigious and famous accolades will be awarded in Stockholm: the Nobel Prize.
Before we raise a toast to this years’ winners in physics, Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, let’s take a look back at the man behind the Prize, and some of its winners.
A Swedish explosives pioneer who made his millions from inventing dynamite, Alfred Nobel left in his will a bequest to establish an annual prize for those who have “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”, across five domains: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. To this end, he allocated the majority of his enormous wealth.
Alfred Nobel. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL
When Nobel’s will was read after his death in 1896, the prize caused an international controversy. Unsurprisingly, Nobel’s family were not best pleased, and vigorously opposed its establishment. It took five years before it was finally set up and the first lot awarded – the 1901 physics accolade going to Wilhelm Rontgen for his 1895 discovery of x-rays.
Paul Dirac’s maternal mortification
When the phone rang on 9 November 1933, the exceptionally gifted yet eccentric Paul Dirac was a little taken back to hear a voice from Stockholm tell him he had won the Nobel Prize.
The looming press attention, which had always surrounded the Nobels, made the reclusive Dirac consider rejecting the award, until Ernest Rutherford – JJ Thomson’s former student and successor as Cavendish professor – advised him that a “refusal will get you more publicity”.
Under different circumstances Rutherford had been similarly “startled” when he found out he was to be given a Nobel – a physicist through and through, he was awarded the 1908 Prize in Chemistry, joking his sudden “metamorphosis into a chemist” was very unexpected.
Dirac shared the 1933 physics prize with Erwin Schrödinger – famed for his eponymous equation and dead-and-alive cat – for their contributions to quantum mechanics. Each was allowed one guest at the award ceremony held at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. Schrödinger brought his wife, Dirac brought his mother.
Quantum theorists: Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac, 1938. Credit: CERN
Florence Dirac did what all good mothers do: embarrass her son in every way imaginable. The first incident came at a station café in Malmo, where in this unlikely setting an impromptu press conference took place.
Dirac, who had been described by the British papers as “shy as a gazelle and modest as a Victorian maid,” was asked “did the Nobel Prize come as a surprise?” Before he could answer, Dirac’s mother butted in: “Oh no, not particularly, I have been waiting for him to receive the prize as hard as he has been working.”
The next embarrassment came when Mrs Dirac failed to wake up when the train reached Stockholm. She was ejected by a guard, who had thrown her garments and belongings out of the carriage window. The Diracs arrived late, and meekly hid from the attention of the welcoming party – who had been wondering where they were.
The third and final maternal faux pas came at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. The pair had been booked into the finest room – the bridal suite. Mrs Dirac, displeased, demanded a room of her own, which Dirac paid for out of his own pocket. It doesn’t matter if you’ve co-founded quantum mechanics, predicted antimatter and won the Nobel Prize; mothers will be mothers.
Like other humble laureates before him, Peter Higgs wished to duck out of the press furore surrounding the Nobel. At the time of the announcement on the 8th October there was a nail-biting delay. The cause? The Nobel committee could not get hold of Higgs, who had turned his phone off and planned to escape to the Scottish Highlands.
As Peter Higgs revealed to me at the opening of the Colliderexhibition at the Science Museum, if it was not for a dodgy Volkswagen beetle or public transport, Peter would have made it to the Highlands on Nobel day. Instead, he just laid low in Edinburgh.
Peter Higgs (right) with friend Alan Walker and the personalised bottles of London Pride at Collider exhibition opening. Credit: Science Museum.
At the Collider launch last month, we celebrated with Higgs in the appropriate way: over a personalised bottle of London Pride ale – the same beverage he chose in favour of champagne on the flight home from CERN’s public announcement of the Higgs boson discovery. So, when Englert and Higgs receive the honour today, let’s all raise two glasses: an English Ale and a Belgian Blonde!
For more on many of the Nobel prize-winning discoveries in physics history, including those of Dirac, Englert and Higgs, visit the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum.
It looks like a kind of over-engineered Victorian executive toy: A semicircle of metal with carefully marked grooves and two long wooden arms with padded covers like two giant matchsticks. Curator Phil Loring and I are having a go at the Fechner sound pendulum that tried to measure the speed of thought, through timing the “just noticeable difference” heard in each arm hitting the base.
Samira Ahmed and Curator Phil Loring examine the Fechner sound pendulum for the video of the making of the exhibition.
It’s incredibly complex to use and hard to see what useful data they would have obtained. But it is a fascinating example, like all of the exhibits in this new show, of the unique challenge of psychology through the ages and the huge efforts that have gone in over the centuries to quantify scientifically, physically, the hidden processes of our minds.
There’s a historical journey through human attempts to explain the mind’s makeup, searching for physical not just mystical explanations. Medieval Europeans looked to the fluids of the body; the physical power of the four humours to explain character. You can imagine Chaucerian Englanders saying “He’s always really moody. That’s typical black bile, that is.” And it’s comparable to the strangely enduring hold in many cultures today of astrology.
The most dramatic displays are of the physical beauty of a 17th century Italian nerve table. Here we see human nerve strands dissected, stretched out and varnished like an intricate bare-leafed tree, as if in detangling the physical form, one might detangle the intricacy of psychology.
Going through the Science Museum’s storage vaults while making the introductory film (above) for this exhibition, I was struck by how rich the history of mind study is with physical objects. Particularly frogs. On show you’ll see anthropological curiosities like the amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon (to cure fits).
Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon.
Pistolet, or `Frog Pistol’, devised by du Bois-Reymond, for demonstrating the stimulation of nerves in a frog’s leg, by Charles Verdin, Paris, c1904. Credit: Science Museum
Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia, a trained anatomist, got through a lot of dead frogs as they explored the relationship between nerve activity and electricity. In an interesting link back to the medieval humours, Galvani saw electricity as a fluid. And as with the Fechner thought-measuring pendulum, you can feel the frustration embodied in Galvani’s sandglass that could measure fractions of an hour, but not the fractions of a second needed for the speed of nerve movements in his experiments.
Sandglass, in metal frame, Galvani collection. Credit: Science Museum
Freud, shellshock and modern psychiatric medicine are placed for the first time for me, in a scientific continuum: I see in this exhibition a tale within a tale – the story of human thinking stretching ambitiously beyond the technology of its time. The exhibition is the story of nothing less than the human quest to find the elusive quintessence of human existence: the soul and its torments.
Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology, a free exhibition exploring our understanding of the mind, opens on Dec 10 and runs until August 2014. The exhibition is supported by the British Psychological Society (BPS).
Kate Mulcahy in the Learning team blogs on our Early Bird sessions in the Museum.
Museums are my favourite place to visit. I love to see interesting objects from history and to learn new facts, and I love the buzz of other people enjoying the Museum too. But for some of our visitors this isn’t so easy, and it was for this reason the Science Museum launched Early Birds.
A few times a year we open the museum from 08.30 in the morning for Early Birds, a free event for children who have an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) and their families. This gives families a chance to look around our galleries and take part in fun activities before the Museum opens at 10am. We even keep some galleries closed a little longer, just for our Early Birds visitors.
Visitors at Early Birds
For people with an autistic spectrum condition, it can be difficult to be in a busy environment or even waiting in a queue. They can be particularly sensitive to light or sound which can make being near some of our interactive exhibits unpleasant. All of these factors can make it difficult for children who are on the autistic spectrum to visit the museum during our usual opening hours.
For Early Birds, we wanted to create an environment where families would feel safe, happy and could still enjoy visiting the museum. This might mean turning off the sound on some of our louder exhibits or simply creating a nice sensory space where families can go and chill out if they want a break. We also created a Visual Story for families to help prepare for what they might see in the museum.
We have already run a few Early Birds sessions (one family has written about their experience here) and the team are busy organising our next session on 30th November and more dates in 2014. If you would like to take part in Early Birds, there are more details here.
The £25,000 prize was awarded by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning President of the Royal Society, with comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain hosting the event. Speaking after winning the prize, Carroll said, “I feel enormous gratitude towards the thousands of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider and the millions of people who express their love for science everyday!”
This is a timely win for Caroll, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 and last month’s Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert for their theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson. The Science Museum is also telling the story of the world’s greatest experiment and the hunt for the Higgs boson in a new exhibition, Collider.
Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.
The panel was chaired by Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, who described the book as “an exceptional example of the genre and a real rock star of a book.” Frith went on to explain, “Though it’s a topic that has been tackled many times before, Carroll writes with an energy that propels readers along and fills them with his own passion. There’s no doubt that this is an important, enduring piece of literature.”
Carroll’s telling of ‘the greatest science story of our time saw off strong competition from a riveting shortlist of authors:
Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, published by Bloomsbury
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, published by OneWorld Publications
Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen, published by Princeton University Press
Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, published by Profile Books
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, published by Granta
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)
If you would like to read more of these books, the Royal Society have published the first chapter of each book here.
Now in its 25th year, the book prize is sponsored by investment management company Winton Capital Management (supporters of our Collider exhibition). David Harding, Founder and Chairman of Winton Capital Management commented, “Sean Carroll’s book is a fascinating account of an inspiring scientific experiment that has brought thousands of people from different countries together to pursue knowledge in a collective way.”
Under the working title of ‘Russia’s Space Quest’, the Science Museum exhibition will bring unknown stories of space endeavour to life through a unique collection of space artefacts, many of which have never before been seen either outside Russia or in public.
The exhibition will be the headline attraction of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, a year-long programme of events that will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of both countries, according to the British Council and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum
Olga Golodets, the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the year of culture ‘will lay a solid foundation for long-term cooperation in the future in various areas.” Rt Hon. the Baroness D’Souza, Lord Speaker, said it was a delight to launch the initiative.
At a launch event in the museum, Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, stressed the importance of the year for UK-Russia relations and said it would be a “flow of ideas”. This point was echoed by Mikhail Shvydkoy, President Putin’s special envoy for international cultural cooperation, who hoped the project would create “new trust” between the two countries.
Paul de Quincey, director of the British Council in Russia, also announced BP as the first UK Founder Sponsor of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, represented by Peter Charow, VP of BP Russia.
Among the star objects on display in Russia’s Space Quest will be cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, pioneering rocket engines, space suits and other life support systems. There will also be examples of the personal and poignant – memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight.
SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by ‘Zvezda’. Credit: SSPL
The director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, said such an exhibition, the equivalent in impact of the British Museum’s landmark Tutankhamen exhibition, had been a dream of Deputy Keeper, Doug Millard, for more than two decades.
Mr Blatchford said that it was important to have this exhibition to capture the excitement of the early years, while scientists, engineers and technicians from the Russian quest were still alive: “It is imperative that we do this exhibition now, before their stories are lost – as that would be a terrible blow.”
‘Russia’s Space Quest’ will also 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 twentieth century.
The dream of the Cosmists became a reality between October and November 1957, when Sputnik and then Laika the space dog were launched, and 1961 when the rest of the world watched in astonishment as a Russian man became the first human to look down on our fragile blue world.
This week Intandem Films and Russia’s Kremlin Films joined the Russian Embassy to host a special screening in the Museum’s IMAX of the $10 million budgeted biopic Gagarin: First in Space.
The movie, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, is produced by Oleg Kapanets and Igor Tolstunov and stars Yaroslav Zhalnin, Mikhail Pilippov and Viktor Proskurin.
The film dramatizes the story of how Yuri Gagarin was selected from over 3,000 fighter pilots across the USSR to take part in his country’s space program, that culminated in him blasting off in a Vostok rocket on April 12, 1961, after several failed unmanned launches.
The screening at the museum was hosted by the Russian Ambassador Alexander V Yakovenko, who praised Russia’s Space Quest as one of the most important cultural events staged and supported by the U.K. and his country, and attended by Culture Minister Maria Miller.
The biopic was introduced by Yuri Gagarin’s daughter, Elena Gagarin, who said the world changed forever after her father made the first manned flight into space.
Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, remembers Nobel laureate Fred Sanger.
The biochemist and Nobel laureate Fred Sanger would joke that ‘I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.’ Despite his huge influence, Sanger also once said that: ‘I am not academically brilliant.’
Frederick Sanger. Credit: Wikipedia
I met him for the first time among the audience of a Wellcome press conference in London and, not once in our chat about human genomics, did he let slip who he was and the landmark contribution that he had made to the field.
Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, commented on hearing news of his death that Sanger was a ‘giant in genetics, who had an astonishing capacity to crack some of the most challenging problems in biology. His passing marks the end of an era in modern genetics.’
The American genome pioneer and synthetic biologist, Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville and La Jolla, said on hearing the sad news: ‘Fred Sanger was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He twice changed the direction of the scientific world, first with the sequencing of insulin, proving that proteins were linear strings of amino acids and second with his then new method of sequencing DNA, which led to the field of genomics. His contributions will always be remembered.’
Most sequencing performed for the past decades is a direct extension of the methods that were pioneered by Fred Sanger. He unveiled his first partial DNA sequence in May 1975 and went on to deliver the first complete determination of the sequence of a DNA molecule: the 5375 ‘letters’ in the genome of a bacterial virus called phi-X174.
This machine, developed in 1987, uses the Sanger method for DNA sequencing. Credit: Science Museum
The DNA reading method that Sanger developed in Cambridge with Alan Coulson required the manufacture of lots of copies of the DNA molecule using an enzyme called DNA polymerase. For the polymerase to replicate DNA it needs DNA building blocks – molecules called nucleotides – which correspond to the four ‘letters’ of the genetic alphabet.
The enzyme reads from each end of the original molecule to make new copies. For sequencing, Sanger added another ingredient: molecules called ‘terminator nucleotides’, each radioactively-labelled, which are so named because they stop the polymerase when they are incorporated in the growing copy. As a consequence, the enzyme incorporates a terminator in the growing DNA chain, halting the process and marking the end of the growing chain with a radioactive molecule as a full stop.
Because this interruption occurs at any stage of the process of copying vast numbers of DNA molecules in the test tube, a mixture is produced of DNA fragments of varying lengths, each finishing with a radioactively-marked C, G, A or T, depending on which base had been labelled.
An electric field was used to drive these fragments through a gel to separate the DNA molecules according to their size and reveal the sequence: the largest pieces of DNA take more time to migrate through the gel. Because the radioactive label on all four terminators produces the same black mark on an X ray film, Sanger had to carry out four individual experiments, one for each different letter of the code, on four adjacent tracks on the same gel. When the genetic fragments separate, one track shows the DNA fragments that end with a C, one those that end with a G and so on.
Then Sanger and his colleagues studied the film, starting with the first band from the four letter tracks, moving to where the next closest band appeared. In this way, they could read the digital recipe of life. If the first, smallest, piece of DNA was in the C track, for example, then C was the first letter. If the next black mark was in the A track, then an A followed.
Sanger sequenced the 17,000 or so letters of DNA in the human mitochondrion, the energy factory found in our cells. This feat can be regarded the first human genome project. He won the Nobel prize for this work in 1980 but it was far from his first major award.
Fred Sanger used this equipment to study the structure of insulin by electrophoresis in the 1950s. Credit: Science Museum
He had been given his first Nobel prize in 1958, for his research on the structure of proteins, when he worked out the order of the 50 or so amino acids that make up the insulin molecule. This work revealed how DNA specified linear strings of amino acids in proteins, and that proteins were not agglomerations of closely-related substances, as many had thought in the first half of the 20th century, but were indeed a single chemical.
The world has lost a gene genius.
Discover more about genetics in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery.
This week we were joined by two of the world’s most eminent scientists, Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs, to celebrate the opening of our Collider exhibition.
Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.
The exhibition, open until May 2014, explores the people, science and engineering behind the largest scientific experiment ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
After a packed event in Parliament on Monday evening (more about that here), Higgs and Hawking joined us for a full day of public events on Tuesday.
The day began with Professor Peter Higgs answering questions from a lucky group of students from across the UK in our IMAX theatre – with thousands more watching the Guardian live stream online.
Higgs talked about his scientific hero Paul Dirac (who went to Peter’s school), being nominated for the Nobel Prize and whether discovering the Higgs boson was a good thing for physics. “Do you expect me to say it’s a bad thing,” joked Peter.
I always found physics rather dull at school. Chemistry was far more interesting – Peter Higgs.
The afternoon featured a spectacular double-bill of science and culture, with novelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed in conversation and an audience with Stephen Hawking.
Presented by broadcaster Martha Kearney, McEwan and Arkani-Hamed shared their thoughts on similarities and differences between the two cultures. Professor Arkani-Hamed explained that the gulf between arts and science is one of language, often mathematics, with McEwan discussing the obsessive element in science – the pursuit of something larger than ourselves – and it’s similarity to the arts.
I like to think of science as just one part of organised human curiosity – Ian McEwan.
It was a very rare treat, and a huge honour, to journey into time and space with Stephen Hawking. Stephen shared that the Science Museum was one of his favourite places, “I have been coming here for decades. And that simple fact, in itself, tells quite a story.”
He went on to discuss his early work on black holes (Hawking would like the formula he wrote to be on his memorial) and the information they contain, “Information is not lost in black holes, it is just not returned in a useful way. Like burning an encyclopaedia, it’s hard to read.”
Hawking finished his talk with a plea to us all to be curious.
“The fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us, and our universe, is a great triumph.
So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that childlike wonder about what makes the universe exist.”
As the day ended, the recent Nobel Prize winner and our most famous living scientist were given a tour of Collider.
Stephen Hawking views the Collider exhibition with curator Ali Boyle
We’ll leave the final word to Ali Boyle, the Collider exhibition curator.
24 hours of #smCollider launch events and the last man to leave was Peter Higgs. Legend.
Sian Worsfold describes an extraordinary encounter between the worlds of politics and science.
The nation’s newly-minted Nobel prize winner, Professor Peter Higgs, was guest of honour at a special event arranged for Lords and MPs to celebrate the Science Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, Collider.
On Monday night in the Palace of Westminster, a series of special events began to celebrate the launch of an exhibition that allows visitors to step inside the epic Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, better known as CERN.
The opening events were kicked off by an exclusive reception in Portcullis House hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), in collaboration with the Science Museum. MPs, Lords and other distinguished guests had the opportunity to meet leading figures from the field of particle physics, including Professor Peter Higgs, Dr Stephen Myers, CERN’s Director of Accelerators and Technology, and Andrew Taylor, Executive Director of STFC National Laboratories.
Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum discussing the Collider exhibition. Credit: Smith and Scholey
Guests included Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee; Liam Byrne, MP, Shadow science spokesman; Gerry Sutcliffe MP; Julian Huppert MP; Lord Jordan; Dr Lutz-Peter Berg, Science and Technology Attache for the Swiss Embassy; Dr Stephen Benn, Director of Parliamentary Affairs, Institute of Biology; and particle physicist Jon Butterworth.
They were invited to explore and interact with exhibits provided by some of the UK’s leading particle physics groups, including UCL, Imperial College, University of Cambridge and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), and talk to researchers about their latest work.
Dr Chris Tyler, Director of POST, compered the event with the opening speech delivered by Adam Afriyie MP, Chairman of POST and former Conservative science spokesman. Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, thanked supporters of the exhibition, which brings the epic collaborative endeavour at CERN to life with objects, cutting edge theatre and digital techniques. Curator Ali Boyle, Deputy Keeper of Science and Medicine at the museum, and Dr Harry Cliff, particle physicist at University of Cambridge and the museum’s Fellow of Modern Science, also gave an overview of the challenges of recreating the world’s greatest experiment for visitors, and treated guests to a sneak preview of the exhibition trailer.
Dr Stephen Myers, CERN’s Director of Accelerators and Technology, gave an overview of more than 40 years experience of creating collisions at CERN, while Andrew Taylor conveyed his excitement at the STFC and Science Museum working together on the exhibition.
Popular exhibits included a ping-pong accelerator provided by Professor Jordan Nash from Imperial College and a display entitled ‘What is the LHC?’ from Mark Wells at STFC. This featured a scale model of a section of the LHC, highlighting how this international endeavour has advanced a range of scientific fields, from physics and engineering to computational science. Steve Wotton from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge entranced parliamentarians with a cloud chamber and a spark chamber, to demonstrate that high energy particles are all around us.
Adam Afriyie congratulates Peter Higgs. Credit: Smith and Scholey.
Guest of honour, recent Nobel Prizewinner Professor Peter Higgs, received many congratulations throughout the evening for his landmark contribution to the field of particle physics. He was in high demand with everyone, from recent science graduates and Fellows to star struck MPs. At his side was his University of Edinburgh colleague, Alan Walker.
As it began to rain outside, Professor Higgs was given a special umbrella, decorated with an image of one of the great ‘eyes’ of the vast LHC, the CMS detector.