Tag Archives: science museum

Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.

A young visitor reviews The Energy Show

We’re getting great feedback from audiences attending The Energy Show, which is currently on tour around England and Wales.

We’ve had one fantastic review in particular from seven year old Anna Sherriff that we’d love to share with you. Anna writes:

The Energy Show was fun and exciting with lots of humour and giving a lot of fact as well. Personally I think there could be no improvement at all!

The show was about two scientists doing lots of fun experiments, with i-nstein helping them and explaining some difficult words to the audience. The best bit was the scientists setting fire to the hydrogen and oxygen balloons which went off with loud bangs.

I would recommend The Energy Show because it’s funny, does really cool stuff, and all the people who went with me had a brilliant time too!

Review by Anna Sherriff, aged 7

 

Annabella, Phil and Bernard make science fun for families in The Energy Show. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Annabella, Phil and Bernard make science fun for families in The Energy Show. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

If you’ve seen The Energy Show too and would like to offer feedback please email marketing@sciencemuseum.ac.uk or write to Marketing, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, SW7 2DD. The Energy Show is on tour throughout England and Wales over the next few months and returns to the Science Museum from 22 July – 3 August. Find dates and locations here.

Wonderful Things: VCS3 Synthesiser

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

The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer, unlike previous machines which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms. It was created in 1969 by EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a company founded by Peter Zinovieff. The team at EMS used a combination of computer programming knowledge, advanced engineering and musical ambition to create a brand new instrument for all to use. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockrell and the machine’s distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary.

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

The VCS3 was notoriously difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. It sold for £330 and became very popular in a short space of time. By the mid ’70s, the VCS3 (and its little brother, the suitcase-bound model AKS) had become something of a classic and was used by many famous bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who and Roxy Music.

This unique instrument allowed musicians to experiment with a range of new sounds never before available to them. Along with other early synthesisers it came to shape ‘the sound of the future’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with further developments came the drum machines of the ‘80s setting the foundation for electronic dance music. Much of the music we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of groups like EMS and as long as there are developments in technology, there will always be people applying these innovations to music. Inventor Steve Mann has developed many interesting instruments such as the hydraulophone which uses pressurised water to make sounds, while artist and scientist Ariel Garten uses an electroencephalophone to turn brainwaves into music.

What sort of instrument do you think will make the sound of our future?

The VCS3 Synthesiser can be found in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition, on the second floor of the Science Museum.

Particle Fever breaks out at the Science Museum

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Comms at the Science Museum.

What better way to round off events linked to our Collider exhibition about the world’s greatest experiment than with a special screening of Particle Fever, a documentary exploring the same extraordinary story of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN?

Critics, such as the New York Times, have given the film rave reviews and there was a palpable buzz when Director Mark Levinson, was joined in the museum’s IMAX theatre by one of the stars of the film, experimental physicist Monica Dunford, for a revealing pre-screening conversation with broadcaster Alok Jha.

Dunford, who was a relative newcomer to CERN in Geneva when Levinson began filming for Particle Fever in 2007, is one of six scientists and engineers Levinson chose to follow out of more than 10,000 scientists from over 100 nations at CERN. She told the audience that her motivation for getting involved in the film was partly to change attitudes about scientists. As she put it, “my goal is to tell people what I do and them say awesome and not recoil in horror.”

Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker and Monica Dunford, physicist and star of the film “Particle Fever” pictured in the Collider exhibition.  Part of the Collider events programme “Particle Fever” - a special screening of the film with pre-screening Q&A about physics and filmmaking hosted by Alok Jha (Guardian Science correspondent) with director Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker and Monica Dunford, physicist and star of the film.

Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker and Monica Dunford, physicist and star of the film “Particle Fever” pictured in the Collider exhibition. 

With a beguiling mix of wit, levity and scientific gravitas, the film follows events at CERN as the LHC began circulating proton beams in 2008, the setbacks that followed, notably a ‘quench’ and explosive release of one ton of helium, and the jubilation – along with the tears of theoretician Peter Higgs – as history is made with the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, half a century after Higgs had glimpsed its existence with the help of mathematics.

Levinson, who worked on the movie with physicist/producer David Kaplan and editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), was granted huge access and trust by the team at CERN, something he puts down to his own past as a particle physicist before he moved into film making.

Collider event “Particle Fever” Q&A. A special screening of the film with a pre-screening Q&A about physics and filmmaking hosted by Alok Jha (Guardian Science correspondent) with director Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker and Monica Dunford, physicist and star of the film.

The Science Museum hosted a  special screening of the film “Particle Fever” with a pre-screening Q&A about physics and filmmaking hosted by Alok Jha (Guardian Science Correspondent) with director Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker and Monica Dunford, physicist and star of the film.

He and Monica took the time to see our Collider exhibition to compare how our own creative team responded to the world’s greatest experiment: “It was fascinating and impressive to see the authenticity achieved in the Collider exhibition. Monica and I laughed that the detail even extended to the “telephone stations” and “physics cartoons” that are on bulletin boards all over CERN – and included an iconic photo from First Beam Day featuring Monica with a raised fist of celebration!”

The screening rounded off a series of events, staged in partnership with the Guardian, our media partner for Collider, which began with an extraordinary launch day with Professor Peter Higgs answering questions from a group of students from across the UK in our IMAX theatre. He was followed by novelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist, and Particle Fever star, Nima Arkani-Hamed sharing their thoughts on similarities and differences between the cultures of science and culture. The final IMAX event was a lecture by Stephen Hawking, who talked about the impact of the discovery of the Higgs and his life-long love of the Science Museum.

The grand finale of that day was a party launched by the Philharmonia Orchestra and attended by the speakers, along with Chancellor, George Osborne, the Director General of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, and director of the Science Museum Group, Ian Blatchford.

Collider runs at the Science Museum until 5 May 2014 (tickets can be booked here). The exhibition will then open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from May 23 – September 28 2014 (tickets available soon here).

Join our #smCollider Twitter Tour

Update: The Collider Twitter tour can now be seen below.

With just two weeks before our Collider exhibition closes, curator Harry Cliff will be inviting you to step inside the world’s greatest experiment as he takes you on an exclusive twitter tour of the exhibition on Thursday 17 April at 4.30pm (BST).

Curator Dr Harry Cliff in the Collider exhibition.

Curator Dr Harry Cliff in the Collider exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

Harry (who also works on the LHCb experiment at CERN) will live tweet his tour of the exhibition, sharing key objects used at CERN and explaining some of the science behind particle physics.

You can join the tour by following @sciencemuseum on Twitter at 4.30pm (BST) and by using #smCollider to ask any questions.

If you miss the tour (or don’t use Twitter) don’t worry, as we’ll be sharing the tour here on the blog. For more on particle physics and the fascinating work of CERN and our Collider exhibition read the Collider blog or watch our behind the scenes videos.

 

Collider runs at the Science Museum until 5 May 2014 (tickets can be booked here). The exhibition will then open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from May 23 – September 28 2014 (tickets available soon here).

In Conversation with James Lovelock

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

To celebrate the opening of Unlocking Lovelock, our new exhibition on James Lovelock, 94, we were treated to a special audience with the great man himself (listen below to the full conversation), as he joined Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, to discuss his career and  his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane).

Lovelock began by talking about his early visits to the Science Museum at the age of 6 and how his passion for science was inspired by his childhood love of steam engines, notably the one developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and the Flying Scotsman. He said that learning about science at the Science Museum was far more useful than learning in the classroom.

The conversation moved onto his early career at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill as he talked about his work on developing cures for burns during World War II, and how he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits.

He talked about how this work brought him into contact with Stephen Hawking’s father Frank, and the moment he held the infant Hawking in his arms.

Lovelock discussed his next career move to work in Houston for NASA, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating instruments,‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets. After three years, this paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK.

When asked whether he sees any scope for anyone succeeding as a lone scientist, he explained how much easier it was to work as an independent scientist years ago when there was less competition due to an overall lack of scientists in the UK at the time. He remains suspicious of committee and consensus led science.

Describing himself as ‘half a scientist, half an inventor’ he explained to the audience that invention is driven by necessity.

This process is ‘largely intuitive’, he said, and ‘the main advances in the world have not been driven by science, but by invention.’

The conversation moved from his work ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave to the importance of his electron capture detector, ECD, a remarkably sensitive instrument to detect trace amounts of chemicals, and gas chromatography equipment (featured in the exhibition). He talked about his home laboratory at Clovers Cottage where a lot of his experiments took place. The laboratory had a “Danger Radioactivity!” sign used to deter burglars.

The ECD helped hone his thinking about Gaia, a holistic view of the world, where all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment to form a complex system that can be thought of as a single super-organism.

Roger Highfield and Jim Lovelock then looked at the origins of his Gaia hypothesis, how his friend, novelist William Golding came up with the catchy title, his work on the theory with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the opposition Gaia faced in the early days, notably from Richard Dawkins, and his Daisyworld computer model.

Later, when asked by an audience member to defend the theory against the opposing view by someone like David Attenborough, Lovelock replied that ‘To fight for Gaia is worth it’.

You can discover more about the Unlocking Lovelock exhibition in Nature, the Guardian or by watching our exhibition trailer.

Designing Collider

We sat down with Pippa Nissen from Nissen Richards Studio to talk about her team’s work on our Collider exhibition.

Left to right: Pippa Nissen, Simon Rochowski and Ashley Fridd from Nissen Richards Studio

Left to right: Pippa Nissen, Simon Rochowski and Ashley Fridd from Nissen Richards Studio

Can you tell our readers a little about NISSEN RICHARDS studio and the kinds of projects you work on?

We are a bit unusual as a design practice as we work in different sectors; architecture, theatre and exhibition. We love the way that they have slightly different rhythms and processes that all feed on each other. Exhibition design sits nicely between architecture and theatre; it’s about the space and form of different spaces (architecture), but ultimately is about a visitor experience in a timeline across these (theatre).

You went out to CERN several times for the Collider exhibition, what was your impression of the place?

We were completely bowled over by CERN – it was extraordinary as well as full of the ordinary. The sheer size and aesthetic was beautiful – both above ground and below. In the corridors and the warehouses that you arrive in – it felt as if everything was frozen in time from somewhere around 1970 with an austere and functional Swiss graphic language thrown in.

Below ground was like a science fiction film, or being in a giant Ferrari engine – stunningly beautiful and utterly functional.

We also loved the fact that people led normal lives that went on while they were working on such mind-blowing things; and how these clashed unexpectedly. One scientist for example had his kitchen organised so that he could still see the operational screens of CERN – so he could be eating breakfast, helping his children with their homework and watching a collision happening.

The humanness of the spaces also shone through – funny posters about the CERN lifestyle (dancing and singing clubs etc) or jokes pinned up next to an equation and technical drawing of the tunnel – how CERN was filled by thousands of people doing their job – all contributing to something cutting edge and important.

We were particularly taken for example by a scribbled note on a wipe board in the control room saying ‘Don’t forget to reset the undulators!’ next to a comic-book style joke cut out from a magazine about scientists.

What approach did you take in the exhibition design?

We had this amazing experience at CERN, being shown around by extraordinary scientists that were passionate about their work but incredibly friendly and clear in their explanations.

We had a real sense of this being a place where everyone was involved for the good of it all – at the forefront of science – like travelling in space, not knowing exactly what they were about to discover, which was incredibly exciting.

It was full of different people, of different nationalities, with conversations moving freely from English to French to Italian etc. It felt like a truly collaborative and non-hierarchical place.

That is what we wanted to capture – and we decided to base the experience for the visitor to the museum on the same idea – as if you were gaining access to these wonderful people and spaces that few get to see.

Early drawings of the Collider exhibition

Early drawings of the Collider exhibition

As a piece of design, I really enjoy the spatial rhythm of the exhibition; it takes you around the exhibition and helps you in what to look at, giving you clues and gestures, how spaces vary and change as you go through.

Exploring the corridors of CERN, Collider exhibition.

Exploring the corridors of CERN, Collider exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

I also love the graphic language developed by both Finn Ross the video designer (see more of Finn’s photos from his visit to CERN here), and Northover & Brown the 2D designers, which supplements our designs – adding a level of detail in a bold and photographic but abstract way: how the beam of the Collider becomes a character in your journey as a visitor.

There was a very diverse team working on Collider, including people from the worlds of theatre, design, museums and science. What was the development process like?

The “diverse-ness” of the team was hugely enjoyable but also a great challenge. If everyone in the team had been in one room, it could have been quite overwhelming.

There were video designers, lighting designer, sound designer, playwright, costume designers, and actors and there were also other consultants such as graphic designers, conservators, security experts, quantity surveyors, project managers, and of course the scientists and people from CERN.

To find a clear voice we decided to work through workshops; something that we have done before especially in the theatre where we work with many different artists.

This was a very enjoyable process – we would all be together in a room, brainstorm and slowly plot out the visitors’ journey as if we were making a film. We used flipcharts, models, photos, text, films etc that we pinned all round the rooms of various parts of the Science Museum.

Are there any particular highlights during the design process that stand out?

There are so many wonderful moments. But to pick a few; setting up a green screen in the Science Museum while Brian Cox made his cameo; going to the stunning underground spaces of the detectors and filming; and workshop-ing with our playwright and actors in a small rehearsal space in Whitechapel. We all realised that we were creating something quite special.

What has the reaction to the exhibition been?

The day after the exhibition opened we were on tenterhooks and rather perfectly, the Independent Newspaper ran a front-page story with a large picture of Peter Higgs with the headline “Intelligent design: ‘God Particle’ theorist opens sublime exhibition”.

Peter Higgs at the launch of the Collider exhibition.

Peter Higgs at the launch of the Collider exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

I went straight from the newsagent to the framers and now it has pride of place in our studio. The reaction from the press has been very positive with 5* reviews.

But our greatest praise is from visitors who say that they feel as if they have taken a trip to CERN, and understand both what the people are like, and a bit more about the science behind it.

Are there any other exhibitions/projects that inspired your work on Collider?

It is interesting that the work we talked about the most when making Collider – were theatre projects that we had worked on or we had visited. Ones where the audience moves around between events and their journey is tailored and twisted by using actors, musicians, video, props, and installations.

We have worked on a couple of these kinds of projects for Aldeburgh Festival. On “The Way to the Sea” we took over a village in Suffolk for a week, and staged two musical performances in different locations, while a 500 strong audience walked between locations coming across signs, poetry, actors, props, speakers, and installations.

My most memorable type of exhibition event that sticks in my mind and inspired me to study theatre design in the first place is over 20 years ago in the Clink (before it was developed). The artist Robert Wilson worked with a sound designer to create a series of stories that you wandered through as a visitor, each like exquisite tableau.

There were a series of these kind of events in the late 80’s early 90’s and I spent my student years assisting Hildegard Bechtler on a few of her pioneering projects, where she took over buildings to subvert the theatre and create more of a total experience for the audience from the moment they entered the theatre building. It is tremendously exciting to use this in exhibition design years later.

Do you think that the mixture of theatre and exhibition works?

I think that it really works, and for me it is about helping the visitor engage with the content of exhibitions. In a theatrical setting people can have an emotional sensorial connection – through sound, smell, touch – and once engaged they can spend time to understand and interpret the meaning of the objects or artefacts.

I feel that there is a lot of scope in this – and exhibitions are becoming different to what they used to be. It is now not enough to put some objects in a showcase and write a label – I learn from my own children that they often feel like they need a way in when visiting museums.

Ultimately it is all about the objects as they are the authentic elements. However we can help with giving them meaning through designing people’s experience.

We will continue to use elements of theatre in our work, and enjoy the relationship between what is real with its own set of history, and what we are adding to allow you in.

The Collider exhibition runs at the Science Museum until 5 May 2014 (tickets can be booked here). The exhibition will then open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from May 23 – September 28 2014 (tickets available soon here).

Off the Beaten Track at the Science Museum

Laura from the Learning team shares some alternative things to see on a trip to the Museum.

Half term at the Science Museum can be busy, with families flocking to the exciting interactive galleries (like Launchpad) and energetic science shows. However, there are times when a quiet mosey around a museum is just what you need, away from the bustle of London. 

Here are 9 of my favourites from all the weird and wonderful objects that you might not expect to find in the Science Museum. They’re off the beaten track but are sure to go down well with children and adults alike. See if you can spot them next time you visit with your family…

1. Egyptian Mummy

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Yes, there is a mummy at the Science Museum! And not just one either, you’ll find mummified cats and birds displayed next to our ancient Egyptian friend in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

2. Poo Lunch Box

Found in the Energy gallery

Human poo could be the energy source of the future. Afterall, it was used in ancient China to fertilise crops. But would you be happy to take this lunch box to work or school? Have closer look at this lunchbox in our Energy gallery and find out some more interesting ways of using your poo to save the planet!

3. Models of Human Eyes

Found in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery

Slightly spooky, ivory peepers – these Victorian models could be taken apart to show how the human eye works. See them in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

4. Shoes made of carpet

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Carpet slippers? How about carpet platforms with these shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood and used in an advertising campaign for Axminster carpets. See them in our Challenge of Materials gallery.

5. Your worst fears, bottled

Found in the Who Am I? gallery

Some fears and phobias that you can probably relate to, and some others that maybe you can’t. Scientists still don’t know why and how we develop some of our more bizarre phobias. See more phobias in our Who Am I? gallery.

6. Toilets, as you’ve never seen them before

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

These two can be found with several other loos on display – how do they compare with yours at home? The one on the left didn’t have a flush mechanism, you would have had to pour a jug of water down the bowl to wash away your business!

7. Play the video game that launched video games

Found in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

You could say that Angry Birds wouldn’t be here without it, it’s Pong, the first ever home video game. Have a go in the Secret Life of the Home gallery and see how you score.

8. Underwater Rolex

Found in the Measuring Time gallery

This Rolex watch looks like a bubble for a reason, it can still function underwater at a depth of 7 miles. See this watch and over 500 timepieces in our Measuring Time gallery.

9. Middle-Eastern Super Sword

Found in the Challenge of Materials gallery

Legend has it this 18th century sword is so strong it could slice right through a European broad sword. Scientists still don’t know how it was made to be so strong, but if you look closely you can see a beautiful ripple pattern on the blade, which may give a clue to it’s unique properties. See it in the Challenge of Materials gallery.

If you’re thinking about a trip to the Science Museum, why not try out the visit us pages to help you pick and choose what you’d like to see.

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.

Mischievous Mirrors – From the 18th century to the modern day

Explainer Affelia in our Learning team looks at some mischievous mirrors in the Science Museum. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? We all know this famous saying from Snow White, but mirrors are incredibly useful in our day to day lives. We use them in the morning to check our hair, in cars to avoid crashes and some buildings have them in corridors for safety. But there are some other, more mischievous, ways to use them. For example, our Grab the Bling exhibit in Launchpad uses a huge spherical concave mirror (one that bulges inwards) to trick people into thinking they can touch a desirable watch.

DSC01782

This watch is impossible to grab

In fact, the concave mirror produces something called an inverted real image of the watch. This means that the image of the watch is upside down compared to the real watch and is made by beams of light meeting at a single point in front of the mirror. People would then think that the image is the actual watch and try to snatch it, when in fact our watch is perfectly safe underneath.

DSC01822

How Grab the Bling works: the spherical concave mirror reflects the light so that the actual watch (in black) looks like it’s easy to steal but in fact the viewer only sees its image (in grey)!

Mirrors are also used in our Seeing Through Walls exhibit which I like to use to pretend that I’m Superman.

DSC01816

Seeing through walls exhibit inside Launchpad

Looking at the shape of the tubes, it’s clear that light can’t go up or through the wall and so it must go down. The two tubes are connected by a pipe in the raised area of the floor

Four mirrors are carefully placed where the tubes change direction so that the light can be directed around the tube and you and your buddy can see each other!

seeing through walls

How Seeing Through Walls Work. Why do they look farther away than they expected…? (Clue: Think about how long the tube would be if it went through the wall…)

The Science in the 18th Century gallery next door to Launchpad has many interesting devices that use mirrors to work. This gallery is pretty awesome because it’s filled with equipment used by King George III and his science tutor, Stephen Demainbray, to learn about science. Basically, it’s a 250 year old version of Launchpad! One of the equipments in this gallery that uses mirrors to trick people is a polemoscope, or “jealousy glass”.

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Jealous of my polemoscope? Displayed in the Science in the 18th Century gallery

They were used by opera goers to look at other people in the audience in private. They look very similar to opera glasses which were used to see the actors on stage more clearly, but instead a mirror inside is slanted at 45° so that the user can see what’s going on to one side of them. This makes the polemoscope ideal to secretly spy on people!

polemoscope

How a polemoscope works

So there you have it, it seems that mirrors aren’t only used to see who’s fairest of them all, but also who’s the cheekiest!