Tag Archives: Research

Information Age: Testing, testing, 1 2 3

Jack Gelsthorpe and Lauren Souter are both Audience Researchers working on the new Information Age gallery. Here they discuss some of the work they do in prototyping digital media for the exhibition.

In September 2014 an exciting new gallery, Information Age, which celebrates the history of information and communication technologies, is due to open at the Science Museum.

The gallery will include some truly fascinating objects such as the 2LO transmitter, part of the Enfield telephone Exchange and the impressive Rugby Tuning Coil. As well as these large scale objects, the exhibition will house smaller objects such as a Baudot Keyboard, a Crystal Radio Set, and a Morse Tapper.

Information Age will also contain a host of digital technology and interactive displays where visitors will be able to explore the stories behind the objects and the themes of the exhibition in more detail.

This is where we come in.

As Audience Researchers, it is our job to make sure that visitors can use and engage with the digital displays in this gallery whilst also ensuring that they don’t draw attention away from the objects and the stories they tell.

We do this by testing prototypes of the interactive exhibits, games, web resources and apps with visitors both in the museum and through focus groups. There are three stages in the prototyping process. We begin by showing people a ‘mock up’ of a resource so that we can get feedback on our initial ideas. This can be very basic, for example we have been testing for Information Age with storyboards on paper, handmade models (which have sometimes fallen apart during the testing process!) and computers.

A prototype of an interactive model that represents the Baudot Keyboard

A prototype of an interactive model that represents the Baudot Keyboard

We invite visitors to try these prototypes while we observe and make notes and then we interview them afterwards. This helps us to understand what people think about our ideas, whether people find the resources usable and whether the stories we want to tell are being conveyed effectively. We then discuss our findings with the Exhibition team who are then able to further develop their ideas. The resources are tested a second and third time using the same process to ensure that the final experience is interesting, fun and engaging.

As well as testing these resources in a special prototyping room we also test some of the experiences in the museum galleries to see how visitors react to them in a more realistic setting.

Recently we have been prototyping electro-mechanical interactive models of some of the smaller objects that will be on display in Information Age. These exhibits intend to give visitors an insight into what it would have been like to use these objects whilst explaining the scientific processes behind how they work.

A prototype of an interactive model that represents the Double Needle Telegraph.

A prototype of an interactive model that represents the Double Needle Telegraph.

We will be testing different digital experiences until September, so you may see us in the prototyping room or the galleries. If you see us feel free to say hello and ask us any questions.

Experience these interactive models for yourself in the new Information Age gallery, opening Autumn 2014.

The Art of Boiling Beer: 60 years of the Bubble Chamber

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole explains how beer was used for cutting-edge particle physics research. 

Late one night in 1953, Donald Glaser smuggled a case of beer into his University lab. He wanted to test out the limitations of his revolutionary invention: the bubble chamber.

Previously, Glaser had only tried exotic chemical liquids in his device. But now his sense of experimental adventure had been galvanised by a recent victory over the great and famously infallible physicist Enrico Fermi.

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Fermi, who had invited Glaser to Chicago to find out more about his invention, had already seemingly proved that a bubble chamber could not work. But when Glaser found a mistake in Fermi’s authoritative textbook, he dedicated himself to redoing the calculations.

Glaser found that, if he was correct, that the bubble chamber should work with water. To make absolutely certain he “wasn’t being stupid”, Glaser conducted this curious nocturnal experiment at his Michigan laboratory. He also discovered that the bubble chamber worked just as well when using lager as it had with other chemicals.

There was one practical issue however, the beer caused the whole physics department to smell like a brewery. “And this was a problem for two reasons,” Glaser recalled. “One is that it was illegal to have any alcoholic beverage within 500 yards of the university. The other problem was that the chairman was a very devout teetotaler, and he was furious. He almost fired me on the spot”.

On 1st August 1953, 60 years ago this Thursday, Glaser published his famous paper on the bubble chamber – strangely failing to mention the beer experiment.

Glaser’s device provided a very effective way to detect and visualise particles. It consisted of a tank of pressurised liquid, which was then superheated by reducing the pressure. Charged particles passing through the tank stripped electrons from atoms in the liquid and caused the liquid to boil. Bubbles created from the boiling liquid revealed the particle’s path through the liquid.

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

One of Glaser’s motivations for his invention was to avoid having to work with large groups of scientists at big particle accelerators. Instead, he hoped his device would enable him to study cosmic rays using cloud chambers in the traditional fashion; up a mountain, ski in the day, “and work in sort of splendid, beautiful surroundings. A very pleasant way of life – intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic”

Ironically, as the bubble chamber only worked with controlled sources of particles, it was inherently suited to accelerator research, not cosmic rays. Soon the large accelerator facilities built their own, massive bubble chambers.

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Between 1965-1970 CERN built Gargamelle – a bubble chamber of such proportions that it was named after a giantess from the novels of Francois Rabelais (not the Smurfs’ villain). Gargamelle proved a huge success, enabling the discovery of neutral currents – a crucial step in understanding how some of the basic forces of nature were once unified.

This November you’ll have the chance to see up close the original design drawings for Gargamelle, and much more in the Collider exhibition.

Listen to Your Heart

Dr. Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer in the Contemporary Science team, writes about Listen to your Heart, a Live Science experiment where visitors explore interoception.

How good are you at figuring out what people are thinking? Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Alternatively, are you cool and collected? Can you regulate your emotional responses?

Surprisingly, researchers think that all these qualities could be related to something called interoception – that is, how good you are at sensing the workings of your inner body, like your heartbeat.

We are very familiar with what scientists call exteroceptive signals – sight, sound, smell and other sensory inputs which comes from outside the body. But until I met Dr Manos Tsakiris and his team, I had no idea that we also experience internal sensory input, produced from within our bodies by our ongoing physiological processes. These interoceptive signals create a kind of constant background sensory noise, and some of us are more aware of that noise than others.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864.

Sections of the heart. Engraving made in Paris, 1864. Credit: Florilegius / Science & Society Picture Library

Manos wants to know whether there’s a link between how good our interoceptive awareness is, and how well we engage with other people and our environment. We thought this sounded absolutely fascinating, and so we invited Manos and his research team to do some real live experiments right here in the Museum. Now we need you to come down and take part!

So what happens in the experiment? You’ll place your wrist on a sensor, which will count your heartbeats. Now, without looking at the sensor readout – that would be cheating! – you will be asked to really concentrate, and try to count your own heartbeats.

So this bit of the experiment will tell the guys how good your interoceptive awareness is. The next bit of the experiment will test how good you are at interpreting other people’s feelings, or seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Or maybe how good you are at regulating your emotions, or whether you prefer to rely on your body or your vision to navigate your way around.

The whole thing will only take ten minutes or so, and you’d be contributing to some seriously cool research. This data could, ultimately, help us to understand how interoception creates our sense of self – that sense that there is a “me” residing within our body.

Manos and the team will be our Who Am I? gallery – every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday until 13th July for Listen to your Heart.

Celebrating 100 Years of the Medical Research Council

A guest blog post by Vivienne Parry, MRC Council Member

This year the Medical Research Council (MRC) celebrates 100 years of life-changing discoveries. The MRC has its roots in the National Insurance Act, passed by Parliament in 1911. At the turn of the last century, TB was as great a concern to the Edwardians as cancer is to us today. Desperate for cures, government proposed that one penny per working person per year should be taken from their national insurance tax and put into tuberculosis treatment and research. We would call it ring fenced funding today. By 1913 it was recommended that this research should be extended to all diseases. An advisory council and executive committee was convened to oversee this research and administer funds — and thus it was that the MRC was established.

X-rays showing the healing effects of cod liver oil and sunlight on the lower leg bones of a child with rickets. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

X-rays showing the healing effects of cod liver oil and sunlight on the lower leg bones of a child with rickets. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

And what a 100 years it has been. You can read about some of our outstanding achievements on our Centenary Timeline including the 1916 discovery that rickets is caused by a lack of Vitamin D, the 1933 finding that flu is caused by a virus, the unravelling of the structure of DNA by MRC researchers in 1953, and the invention of the MRI scanner in 1973. Our scientists also invented DNA fingerprinting in 1984 and helped Parkinson’s disease patients with deep brain stimulation in 1995. More recently we have developed the phone app Txt2stop which doubles a smoker’s likelihood of quitting.

A reconstruction of the double helix model of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A reconstruction of the double helix model of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Although it’s great to look back, MRC-funded research continues to have a huge impact on health both in the UK and globally. Less well known is the profound impact that this research has had on our economy and society. We want to share these successes and our birthday celebrations with the British public who today continue to provide the funding for our research through their taxes.

A scientist analysing DNA microarrays. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

A scientist analysing DNA microarrays. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

So far this year we have hosted an installation at Imperial College London looking at the past, present and future of science; saw Her Majesty The Queen open the new building for the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (51 years after opening the original); and revealed that antibiotics won the public vote in our Centenary Poll on the most important medical discovery of the past 100 years. We’ll be celebrating our official birthday on 20 June with our Centenary Open Week, which will see more than 60 public events taking place around the country.

Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin in 1929. Antibiotics were voted as the top invention in the MRC's Centenary Poll. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin in 1929. Antibiotics were voted as the top invention in the MRC’s Centenary Poll. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

To launch Open Week we are offering a ‘teaser’ of MRC research by joining forces with the Science Museum to host The Life Game – a free festival taking place this weekend. Visitors will be able to enter Life and take their character (pal) on a journey through the years talking to our scientists, taking chances and making choices as they progress through the festival, creating the story of a long and healthy life for their character.

Visitors will be able to meet scientists to find out about how friends and family can affect health; ground-breaking research on the brain; the impact of living in different social and physical environments; antibiotic resistance; the allergens that can be found by exploring inside a giant nose and how a disease outbreak can spread. People can also gain an insight into how MRC research is helping to improve the lives of transplant patients, and find out how they compare to other visitors in our health tests.

To celebrate the centenary of the Medical Research Council, visitors at the Science Museum were given the chance to create a pal and take them through a unique life journey. If you would like to see all the different pals created during the The Life Game, then please click here.

Introducing Enterprising Science

Micol Molinari, Project coordinator for the Talk Science project writes about the launch of Enterprising Science, the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

Today is a big day for us. It is the official launch of Enterprising Science, a five year partnership between the Science Museum, King’s College London and BP, bringing together expertise and research in informal science learning.

This new project builds on our Talk Science programme. Since 2007 we have worked with over 2,600 secondary school teachers across the UK to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) teaching and learning. The main aim of Talk Science was to give young people the confidence to find their own voice and have a say in the way science impacts on and shapes their lives. The core our work was with science teachers, because of their important role and ability to make a difference in young people’s lives.

So what did we do for Talk Science? We delivered a 1 day teacher CPD course, in over 30 cities across the UK. We developed physical & digital resources to support teachers in the classroom; ran student and teacher events, delivered communication skills training for scientists working with young audiences and held seminars for other museum educators on informal science learning.

This year we began working with King’s College London to develop, test and share new tools and techniques to engage more secondary schools students with science. The tools and techniques are all grounded in research from Kings College London’s five year ASPIRES study of children’s science and career aspirations, combined with our experience from five years of the Talk Science project. Our partnership with Kings is really exciting: it makes Enterprising Science the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

As part of Enterprising Science, we will be working closely with small groups of partner teachers, to collaboratively develop and trial new tools and techniques for engaging students with science both inside and outside the classroom. These new resources will be shared through our work with schools across the UK and online.

But it is not just about science in the classroom. In fact, research shows that one of the strongest indicators of whether a young person will choose a career in science is the type of support they get outside of school from their families. We will be working with teachers, young people and their families to help create a supportive learning environment for students. By raising the value that young people place on science, we hope to help students develop a genuine interest in science and understand how it is relevant to their lives.

We are excited to see where this project will take all of us. Here’s to the next 5 years!
Micol & the Enterprising Science team.

Recruiting for Research

We are designing a new App for visitors to the Museum and we need your help.

The Museum is looking for participants to help us create content and design a new way for visitors to engage with the objects on display in the museum. You would need to be able to travel to the Science Museum in London for two or three activities in May, where you would get to see behind the scenes at the museum and explore an early prototype of the app, directly contributing to its development.

You don’t need to know anything about app development to take part, as we are just looking for people that are interested in visiting Museums and using mobile technology.

We welcome interest from all sections of the community, and will endeavour to meet any accessibility needs that you may have. The activities will be arranged at a time to suit your schedule, which could even be evenings or weekend, and you will receive a thank you for your time.

If you think you might be interested in getting involved, or have any questions, please get in touch with Jane Rayner (jane.rayner@sciencemuseum.org.uk) for more information by May 6th.

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Fuelling Prosperity

A guest blog post by Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Director Programmes and Fellowship, Royal Academy of Engineering on science and its impact on the UK economy.

The UK has a proud track record of research excellence. We are responsible for 14 of the top 100 medicines in use today (second only to the USA) and have developed technology found in 95% of the world’s mobile phones. Thanks to previous sustained investment we have the most productive research base of the world’s leading economies and our researchers have claimed over 90 Nobel Prizes.

The recent Great British Innovation Vote showed the impact and diversity of our achievements over the last century – and many exciting new developments just opening up, from ionic liquids and graphene to hypersonic planes and quantum dots.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency. Image credit: Nanoco Industries Ltd.

Many of the great challenges that we face – like food security, climate change, energy security and the impacts of ageing – require expertise and collaboration right across the humanities, social, engineering, physical, medical, chemical, biological and mathematical sciences. Responding to climate change, for example, requires an understanding of both the scientific evidence and the engineering approaches to tackle it plus the socioeconomic effects and how they interact.

So efficient is our research system that it achieves world-leading results despite the government spending less on research than our competitors do. The UK government spent just 0.57% of GDP on research and development in 2011, in comparison to 0.85% in Germany and 0.92% in the USA.

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard conducting research and testing on the first British-designed Jet engine

This week the UK’s four national academies – the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society – are together asking the government not to take this success for granted. Fuelling Prosperity explains why continued investment in R&D is essential to rebalancing the UK economy. Listen here to an interview with Sir Paul Nurse on this report. 

The Academies wish to see a stable 10 year investment framework for research, innovation and skills, which should sit at the heart of its emerging industrial strategy and plans for growth.

The science budget is essential to the future economic development of the country and it should continue to be ringfenced to ensure that our highly efficient research system is well resourced. Science, research and engineering should continue to inform policy making across Whitehall.

The Academies want the UK to provide a world class research and innovation environment that is attractive to talent and investment from industry and from overseas and that inspires and supports the next generation of researchers.

Science Museum, Met Office and Defra host water summit

As Britain lurches from flood to drought, even the most hardened climate sceptic would have to admit that our relationship with that most fundamental ingredient of life – water – is undergoing a profound change.

On 28th February, key individuals from Government, industry, academia and consumer bodies met to discuss the major issues facing water use in a meeting organised with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Met Office at the Science Museum.

In opening remarks, the chairman of the Environment Agency Lord Smith said that to become sustainable the country needed to improve water resilience – the balance of demands from homes, industry, agriculture and the need to protect ecosystems – and achieve a reduction in average demand from the current level of around 150 litres per person per day to around 130. The country must also continue to improve flood resilience: in the past 10 months, 8000 properties in England and Wales flooded but 200,000 were protected by defences built over the prior 30 years.

Finally, he said that the nation needs to get more adept at planning for uncertainty.

Chaired by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, five key themes emerged from the round table discussion:

1) Our relationship with water has altered. Long term environmental trends that result from climate change mean that although average annual rainfall is roughly the same, the intensity and variability have increased. There are other pressures on the water supply, caused by the continued reliance on Victorian sewers, demographic trends and the resulting impact of construction, such as covering tracts of land with paving.

2) Science is critical. We require cutting edge science to understand issues ranging from climate change to the behaviour of surface water, which recently leapfrogged rivers as the primary flooding threat, when most warning systems are calibrated by river behaviour. However, much of this science is hedged in uncertainties – such as the limitations of medium range forecasting – and there are huge challenges in conveying them to the public.

3) Collaboration. To deal with the change in Britain’s water, collaborations need to come in different domains: between industry and universities in centres of excellence; multi-agency partnerships of the kind already working successfully between the Environment Agency and Met Office in flood warning; and between the water industry and local communities and councils on local solutions, such as reliance on wetland areas to absorb floodwaters. This relationship has to be a partnership, not paternalistic. These collaborations will not always need to bring about innovation but simply bring things together better. There are also issues finding funding support for applied science. Research councils tend to focus on strategic science and water companies tend to focus on practical research. Examples of collaborations between water industry leaders and universities are emerging, though more are desirable. The UK could also learn from the experience of countries such as Australia, where there is expertise in drought management.

4) Communication. Water is crucial for existence and yet, paradoxically, the consumer needs a better understanding of the role it plays in everyday life, through a more obvious link between the cost, value and uses of water. One challenge is encouraging a community take action in advance of a drought, in preemptive measures that can delay the need for draconian measures, rather than in reactive measures when supplies run short. There are technologies, such as telemetry, which can provide more rapid warning to communities of flood risks, and smart meters, which are more engaging. Another communication issue is to both understand the way consumers respond, whether to warnings or tariffs, and to find the best way for institutions to earn their trust. Finally, the UK is a world leader in many areas and, rather than continuing to do brilliant work modestly, it should be bolder in conveying its successes to the public and globally, since water resources are a planetary issue.

5) Skills. Understanding of the behaviour of local water has moved away from local authorities and, as emphasised in point 3) this has to be re-established in new collaborations, which are more focused on catchment areas than political boundaries. Another issue is maintaining the experience of ‘flood veterans’ who have dealt with earlier emergencies, such as the 2007 floods that triggered Sir Michael Pitt’s review.

Roger Highfield is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

Biggest intelligence test exposes the limits of IQ

By Adam Hampshire, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario

To what extent are some people smarter than others? For a century, psychologists have believed that we can boil differences in cognitive skill down to a single number known as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ). But does one number really represent an individual’s ability to remember, to reason and to think? The answer is an emphatic no, according to the results of a landmark experiment conducted on many tens of thousands of people with the help of Roger Highfield of the Science Museum Group.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPVxAxzhvDA']

With Roger and my colleague Adrian Owen, who works with me at the University of Western Ontario, I describe our findings today in the journal Neuron.

Our  attempt to answer this simple question dates back more than five years, when Roger encountered work that I had conducted with Adrian at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge on a reliable way to carry out cognitive tests online so we could monitor rehabilitation after brain injury, the effect of smart drug trials and so on.

Roger wondered if we could use this test to carry out a mass intelligence test. Drawing on earlier data from brain scans,  Adrian and I came up with a series of tests which we knew would trigger activity in as much of the brain’s anatomy as possible, combining the fewest tasks to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills.

In half an hour, respondents had to complete 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities, as well as a fill in a survey about their background and lifestyle habits (Roger and Adrian describe the tests here).

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

We expected a few hundred responses. But thanks to articles in The Daily Telegraph, Discovery and New Scientist, 110,000 people took part from every corner of the world. Once I had used statistical methods to analyse more than a million data points on a representative group of around 45,000, I found that when a wide range of cognitive abilities are probed, the variations in performance can only be explained with at least three distinct components: short-term memory; reasoning; and finally, a verbal component.

No one component, or ‘IQ’, explained all the variations revealed by the tests.

To bolster our results, Adrian and I used a $5 million brain scanner, which relies on a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study 16 participants as they carried out all 12 tests.  We found that each of the three different factors identified by the analysis did indeed correspond to a different brain network: these differences in cognitive ability map onto three distinct circuits in the brain.

The results disprove once and for all the idea that a single measure of intelligence, such as ‘IQ’, is enough to capture all of the differences in cognitive ability that we see between people. Instead, several different brain circuits contribute to intelligence, each with its own unique capacity. A person may well be good in one of these areas, but they are just as likely to be bad in the other two.

Because so many people took part, the results also provided a wealth of information about how factors such as age, gender and the tendency to play computer games influence our brain function.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBG6LCqj5JY']

For example, people who regularly played computer games did perform significantly better in terms of both reasoning and short-term memory. Smokers performed poorly on the short-term memory and the verbal factors, while people who frequently suffer from anxiety performed badly on the short-term memory factor in particular.

We are now launching a new version of the tests here. To ensure we do not bias the results of the new tests, we can’t say much about the agenda other than that there are many more fascinating questions about the true nature of intelligence that we want to answer.

Adam Hampshire works at the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

Research: putting a very big ‘open’ sign on the door

By Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History

At the end of last month, the Science Museum Group formally launched its new Research and Public History Department. Research is at the heart of every great museum; without it we cannot understand the stories our collections tell, how our audiences engage, or how to slow the deterioration of our objects.

BBC Horizon producers discuss the programme’s history at the Science Museum

Horizon producers discussing the programme’s history at a recent AHRC-funded event organised by the Research & Public History Department.

If research is so central, it may seem odd that we are having this launch now in 2012. And, of course, research has always had a role at the Museum. But what this launch signifies is a hunger to do more, in a greater variety of ways, and with an increasingly diverse range of partners.

Any scholar intrigued by the Museum’s collections, its galleries, or curious about the way that its galleries act as a public space for science and technology, is invited to work with us to delve deeper and to understand better; to research with us.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter, subject of a recently-completed AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate.

Ludmilla Jordanova, the eminent historian and Science Museum Group Trustee, argued at the opening event that, “it is fitting that a group of museums about ‘science’, which in many languages still has the broad meaning of knowledge and learning, should use and foster a wide range of approaches to understanding some of the most central phenomena of human existence, namely science in its more specific sense, medicine and technology.”

But what is research? Ludmilla suggested that it is ‘sustained nosiness’; that it is a kind of ‘systematic curiosity’. This definition gives a clue to that other phrase in our title, public history. At one level, academic research is simply a more intensive version of what all of us do when we visit a museum or gallery with a wish to understand more and better.

So, we are interested in how our visitors think about the history of science, and in developing insights that will enable us to attune our offer better. But we also know that the academics who work with us – historians, education experts, geographers, media scholars and many others – bring new and exciting ways of seeing from their own disciplines.

The research door is open; we encourage you to come in.