Tag Archives: Lates

10 Bonkers Things About the World

We asked author and journalist Marcus Chown, who is speaking at this month’s Lates, to share his favourite science facts.

I’ve just published a book about how the world of the 21st century works. It’s about everything from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography. As I was writing it, I began to appreciate what an amazing world we live in – more incredible than anything we could possibly have invented – which is why I called my book What A Wonderful World. What better way to illustrate this than to list my Top 10 Bonkers Things About the World.

1. The crucial advantage humans had over Neanderthals was sewing

Human needles made from bone have been unearthed but never a Neanderthal needle. This has led to the speculation that the ability to sew baby clothes may have given human babies a crucial survival advantage during the cruel Ice Age winters.

2. You could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube

Sugar Cubes

Credit: Flickr/KJGarbutt

This is because atoms are 99.9999999999999% empty space. If you could squeeze all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the 7 billion people in the world, you could indeed fit them in the volume of a sugar cube.

3. Slime moulds have 13 sexes

No one knows why. But, then, nobody is sure why there is sex. The best bet, however, is that it evolved to outsmart parasites. Parents, by shuffling together their genes, continually create novel offspring to which parasites are not adapted.

4. You age more quickly on the top floor of a building than the ground floor

This is an effect of Einstein’s theory of gravity, which predicts that time flows more slowly in strong gravity. On the ground floor of a building, you are closer to the mass of the Earth so gravity is marginally stronger and time flows marginally more slowly (If you want to live longer – move to a bungalow!)

5. J. J. Thomson got the Nobel prize for showing that an electron is a particle. His son got it for showing that it isn’t

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The ultimate building blocks of matter – atoms, electrons and so on – have a strange dual nature, behaving simultaneously like tiny, localised billiard balls and spread-out waves. The truth is they are neither particles nor waves but something for which we have no word in our vocabulary and no analogy in the familiar, everyday world.

6. You are 95% alien

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies.

Stacks of Petri Dishes with Bacterial Colonies. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

That’s right. 95% of the cells in your body do not belong to you. They are microorganisms hitching a ride. Many are essential like the gut bacteria that help you digest your food. You get all the alien microorganism only after you are born – from your mother’s milk and the environment. You are born 100% human but die 95% alien!

7.  Brains are so energy hungry most organisms on Earth do without them

Sections through the brain

Sections through the brain. Credit: Florilegius/SSPL

The best illustration of this comes from the juvenile sea squirt. It swims through the ocean looking for a rock to cling to and make its home. When it finds one, it no longer needs its brain so it… eats it!

8.  Babies are powered by rocket fuel

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Atlas V Launches Inmarsat Communications Satellite. Credit: Science Faction/UIGH/SSPL

Rockets combine liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen to make water. This liberates just about the most energy, pound for pound, of any common chemical reaction. Babies – and in fact all of us – do the same. We combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen stripped from our food. The energy liberated drives all the biological processes in our bodies.

9.  There was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes for 1.4 million years

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A mesolithic hand axe, found in Saint Acheul, near Amiens, France. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Palaeoanthropologists call it the ‘1.4 million years of boredom’. It could be of course that our ancestors made tools from wood, which decayed, or from bone, which are impossible to distinguish from natural bones. And, just because tools did not change, does not mean nothing was happening. All kinds of things that left no record may have been going on such as the taming of fire and the invention of language.

10. 98% of the Universe is invisible

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968. Credit: NASA

Only 4 per cent of the mass of the Universe is made of atoms – the kind of stuff, you, me, the stars and planets are made of – and we have seen only half of that with our telescopes. 23% of the Universe is invisible, or “dark”, matter, whose existence we know of because it tugs with its gravity on the visible stuff. And 73% is dark energy, which is invisible, fills all of space and has repulsive gravity which is speeding up the expansion of the Universe. If you can find out what the dark matter or dark energy is, there is a Nobel prize waiting for you!

Find out more at this month’s Lates or in Marcus Chown’s book What A Wonderful World: One man’s attempt to explain the big stuff (Faber & Faber).

Science Museum makes Lily’s wish come true

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, examines Lily Cole’s gift culture project impossible.com which launched its ‘giving trees’ at the Science Museum in September

Visitors to the Science Museum’s adults only Lates event left a total of 1500 wishes in a little copse of ‘giving trees’ established in the museum’s Wellcome wing by the model, actor, activist and entrepreneur Lily Cole.

The wishes were left during the September, October and November Lates, which were visited by as many as 15,000 visitors. Each person who took part was invited to upload their wishes to Lily Cole’s ‘gift culture’ social network, impossible.com.

The impossible.com website, which is currently still in beta, is a tool to facilitate a gift culture in which people can exchange their skills, knowledge or possessions for free.

Through the website people have been giving screen printing lessons, knitting lessons, business advice and even an astronaut who asked for help to send a little girl with an illness to Japan.

Lily Cole delivering Science Museum presents to Manchester Children's Hospital for her impossible project. Image credit: Lily Cole

Lily Cole delivering Science Museum presents to Manchester Children’s Hospital for her impossible project. Image credit: Lily Cole

The site, impossible.com, available online and as an app available from the Apple App Store was conceived by the 25 year old Lily with a friend during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008. The impossible tree initiative was launched to an audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre at the September Lates evening.

In the Science Museum, Lily expressed her belief in the universal kindness between strangers that can be harnessed by impossible.com to challenge our bartering economy through a currency of “thank-yous” instead of money.

Lily said: “Hosting our wishing trees at the Science Museum for the last three months – alongside a talk on the science of cooperation – was such a (scientifically) magical beginning for impossible. A huge thank you to everyone at the Science Museum who helped organise it, and to everyone who came and left a wish.”

The museum answered one of Lily’s wishes too, and provided gifts – micro-copters – for her to deliver to children in the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

“Thanks also for the toys and helicopters which we delivered to Manchester Children’s Hospital in answer to someone’s wish. It gave me great joy to deliver them” she added.

impossible.com was developed with advice from Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Nobel Peace Prize recipient and economics professor Muhammad Yunus. On the advice of Yunus, impossible.com will run as a for-profit social business, with profits being re-invested into the company or in other social enterprises.

The impossible.com app is available on https://itunes.apple.com/app/*impossible*/id638819253?ls=1&mt=8

Impossible trees grow in the Science Museum

My evening with the entrepreneurial Lily Cole, by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A little copse of ‘giving trees’ will once again sprout in the entrance to the museum’s Wellcome wing as part of our highly-successful Lates events.

The olive trees first appeared at our last adults-only evening to celebrate the work of the actor, activist and entrepreneur Lily Cole. That night Lily and I met in the museum to discuss her ‘gift culture’ social network Impossible.com, which is now being developed into an App.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates.

Shinto Wish Trees at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

The last time we encountered each other, we discussed her work with the World Land Trust to help elephant migration routes. This time around, and before a packed IMAX, Lily and I compared notes on the ideas behind her grander vision of cooperation, as seen in her website impossible.com, which is currently in beta. 

She conceived the idea for her new sharing economy during the depths of the financial crisis and has followed through with admirable determination on her plans to create a moneyless system for exchanging goods and services. Or, as Lily put it:  ‘What if technology could communicate people’s needs?’

Lily has consulted many people for her project, including Muhammad Yunus, who won the noble peace prize for micro finance. Indeed, one of her investors was so inspired by his first meeting with her that he started work on her app without any prompting.

At the core of Lily’s thesis lies her belief in the universal kindness between strangers, one that impossible.com taps into, which challenges our bartering economy through a currency of “thank-yous” instead of money.

While she approaches the question of cooperation from the perspective of her Cambridge University background in arts, anthropology and economics, I adopted that of my co-author Martin Nowak of Harvard University, who has done experiments to study the origins of cooperation, whether by studying idealised mathematical agents or people.

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates

Roger Highfield and Lily Cole discuss cooperation at Lates. Credit: Science Museum

What Nowak has shown, with the help of a famous game theory experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, is that evolution undermines cooperation without the help of mechanisms.

We know such mechanisms must exist because cooperation is so ubiquitous. Some of my examples from nature were familiar to the audience, such as leaf ants, bees who tirelessly harvest pollen for the good of the hive, and naked mole rats.

Because of the many parallels between these societies and multicellular creatures, where the job of reproduction is specialised, mole rate colonies, ant nests and beehives are known as superorganisms.

Some of my examples were downright odd, such as the ‘unicorn of the sea’, or pyrosome. These are composed of thousands of individuals, called zooids,  which form hollow bioluminescent cylinders up to 20 m long and large enough for a scuba diver to swim inside.

Cooperation is ancient, dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, more than three billion years ago. Among filaments of cyanobacteria, for example, one dies every 10 or 20 to feed its neighbours with nitrogen. Other bacteria forage in groups, much as a pride of lions hunt together.

Slides from the Science of Cooperation discussion

Martin Nowak has identified five basic mechanisms of cooperation: direct reciprocity (I scratch your back, you scratch mine); indirect reciprocity (I scratch your back and someone else scratches mine); spatial selection (exploiting population structure, whether due to geography, friendship or common interests); multilevel selection (I will sacrifice myself for the greater good) ; and, finally, kin selection (we help our relatives – nepotism). People use all five – that’s why Martin and I call them supercooperators. Of that list of mechanisms, Lily’s impossible.com makes the most use of ‘indirect reciprocity,’ which is linked to the evolution of social intelligence and language.

Our views of cooperation overlap on one key point: that to prevent environmental catastrophe, we need to improve the way that we work together not just for our own good but also for the benefit of future generations: we need to do more to cooperate with the unborn, if you like.

After the event, Lily and I returned to the little copse where museum visitors had been encouraged to write their wishes on wooden boards, following the Shinto tradition, in the hope that at least one of the 4000 people who visited that night could make it come true.

Jimmy Wales, American Internet entrepreneur and a co-founder of Wikipedia had joined the milling crowd earlier that evening as they penned their wishes in Sharpie onto small wooden boards and hung them on the trees. Later we met Science Minister, David Willetts, who was there to meet the winners of the Medical Research Council’s Max Perutz prize, and Dr Penny Fidler and her colleagues from the Association of Science and Discovery Centres, who were attending their annual conference.

Lily has also been 3D scanned for a new museum exhibition 3D: Printing the Future (try to find the resulting mini Lily on the exhibition wall) and contributed to a mass experiment on music, #Hooked, organised by our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Our experience with Lily was, in its own way, a wonderful testament to the power of cooperation.

The next Science Museum Lates is space-themed and runs from 6:45-10pm on Wednesday 30th October.

The Pavegen dance floor, used to generate electricity from movement

Climate Change Lates

The unpredictable British weather has had a big impact on our lives already this year. So, as we emerge from the April showers, what better theme for a Lates evening is there than the science of climate change?

Join us for a fun and thought-provoking evening where we take a closer look at the new technologies being pioneered to help solve some of the most pressing climate related issues that affect our daily lives.

How do we meet the demand of a growing population and the expansion of our cities? Ian Bowman, Head of Sustainability UK and NW Europe, Siemens looks at how new technology is the key to meeting these challenges and offers up solutions which have minimum ecological impact such as the use of wind power technology, electric vehicles and hybrid transport and more eco-friendly healthcare systems. For more examples of eco-engineering you can check out the hydrogen fuel cell car which is on display in our Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Great London Flood. Some experts think that the increased risk of flooding from climate change may render the Thames Barrier redundant by the middle of the century. So how will London be protected? Meet Tim Reeder, Regional Climate Change Programme Manager at the Environment Agency who will talk about the challenge of planning for sea level rise in London and how the Thames Estuary 2100 plan is going to tackle it.

Imagine if your night in a club or walk to work could power the lights for your journey home. Test out your moves in the Energy Dance-off, which features an incredible energy harvesting dance floor from Pavegen that converts the kinetic energy of your dance steps into electricity, powering a reactive light installation.

The Pavegen dance floor.

The Pavegen dance floor. Image credit: Pavegen

Already used by runners at this year’s Paris Marathon, every impact on a Pavegen tile generates between 4 and 8 joules of electrical energy, power that would otherwise have gone to waste. You can also follow the dance floor on twitter to see just how much energy Lates visitors generate.

Throughout the evening you can have fun with the Climate Playground and try your hand at some old-school kids’ games and indulge in all the usual Lates activities such as the Silent Disco, Pub Quiz and Launchpad gallery.

Entry to Lates is FREE and open to anyone over the age of 18. Can’t get to London on Wednesday? You can also follow Lates via @sciencemuseum & #smLates

A zombie with its handler

ZombieLab: Grappling with consciousness

On Wednesday night, the zombies outbreak began, driving over 5,000 people to the Science Museum’s Lates to search for answers and a better understanding of consciousness. 

A zombie with its handler

A zombie with its handler

Scientists from across the UK will gather in the Science Museum this weekend (2/3 Feb, 11-5.30pm) for ZombieLab. Worried members of the public are invited to study zombies and the science of consciousness as society searches for answers. 

Here’s our guide to ZombieLab and the murky world of consciousness…

First, you must prove you’re not already been afflicted with Quarantine. With ten minutes until the safe house doors slam shut, complete the tasks to show you’re fully conscious and you might survive…

Next, watch experts from Cambridge and UCL give a live clinical diagnosis of one of the afflicted, before Prof Anil Seth answers the questions you’ve always wanted to know in his Are Zombies Conscious? talk.

Visitors must prove they are not already afflicted through a series of tests at ZombieLab

Maya Kaushick at Imperial and Frank Swain, author and zombie expert, will look at what affects our behaviour, the way we experience the world and whether current research could explain the cause of a zombie outbreak? We also ask how our senses drive our conscious experience, and how can we use this knowledge to better understand how zombies hunt?

As the Zombies lurch towards you, can you escape their grasp? Adrian, the neuroscientist behind new smartphone app Zombies, Run! will be on hand to explain how fear and hungry are powerful motivators while you outrun a zombies pack, and Collective behaviour experts Edd Codling and Nikolai Bode of the University of Essex will put you through your paces in the zombie predator-prey game, Horde.

Pro-Zombie Action Group

Zombies are people too!

Time passes, and as a cure is found, society asks are zombies accountable for their actions? Join the Trial and decide whether zombie-killers should be imprisoned, not celebrated. The Community Jury Initiative needs you to decide. Outside the Trial, the Pro-Zombie Action Group will be in full swing: Zombies are people too! Stand up for zombie rights with banners, speeches and impromptu demonstrations.

If zombie films are more your thing, buy tickets here for our exclusive Sunday afternoon showing of Warm Bodies.

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If you’ve enjoyed ZombieLab, please make a conscious decision and donate £3 to the Museum. You can text Zombie to 70500 or donate here.