Tag Archives: science museum

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

People’s Postcode Lottery

A guest blog from Kate Pearson, Deputy Head of Charities and Trusts Manager at People’s Postcode Lottery

Working at People’s Postcode Lottery in the charities team is busy, challenging and of course, rewarding!  We’re a charity lottery and we are proud to say that, along with our sister lotteries in Holland and Sweden, our players have contributed over €5.9 billion to charitable organisations across the world.

Our aim is to raise funds for good causes, with 22.5% of every £2 ticket going directly to charities – over the last five years players of People’s Postcode Lottery have raised over £33.2 Million. This year we are delighted to announce that, thanks to our players, the Science Museum Group will receive an incredible £200,000.

We are delighted that projects in London and Manchester will benefit from the funding. This will ensure that many people, including players, will be able to experience the wonderful exhibits on offer at the Science Museum in London and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

As funders of good causes, our commitment is to offer flexible funding that charities can use where they really need it, and we hope to be able to support the Science Museum Group on a long-term basis.

We are so excited to support the work of the Science Museum Group because we believe it’s important that people all across Great Britain can learn about the history and contemporary practice of science, medicine, technology, industry and media. The organisation is one of the most significant groups of museums of science and innovation worldwide, and we’re so glad to be able to award them this funding.

People's Postcode Lottery

Our Award-winning Volunteers

Sally Munday-Webb, Volunteer coordinator at Science Museum blogs on our award-winning volunteers.

Delroy Joseph (DJ) has been a volunteer at the Science Museum for over a year now. He came to us through Certitude, a company that supports people with learning difficulties or mental health support needs into employment, training or education. His advisor, Teresa, got in touch as she thought DJ would make a great volunteer.

DJ started at the Museum as a volunteer ambassador, meaning he helps our visitors by answering questions and giving directions.

At first he came in once a fortnight with Teresa, but soon he began to come on his own, upping his commitment to once a week and he is now one of our most loyal and trustworthy volunteers.

Once a year, the London Heritage Volunteer Manager’s Network holds an award ceremony to celebrate the success of London’s museum volunteers. When I saw that there was a category called ‘Developing in a Role’ I could think of nobody more worthy than DJ.

His personal development since volunteering here is visible and all staff and visitors who come into contact with him comment on his great attitude and fab personality.

DJ and Sally at the Awards Ceremony

DJ and Sally at the Awards Ceremony

On the night of the awards, DJ looked great in his new suit and when he was awarded Highly Commended, we could not have been more proud of him! He was even gracious enough to go and congratulate and shake the hand of the winner of the category.

Teresa said that we ‘are all so proud of his development and hope he continues to volunteer here for as long as he can. DJ really deserved his Highly Commended award at the London Volunteers in Museums Awards’.

Congratulations Delroy!

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering at the Science Museum, please contact volunteers@sciencemuseum.ac.uk.

From Frog Pistols to Freud – the Making of the Mind Maps Exhibition

Journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed goes behind the scenes of our new exhibition, Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology, which opens to the public this week.

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.

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.

Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon.

And German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond’s “frog pistol” in the 1860s. Frogs are certainly featured in the work of the 18th century Italian pioneer whose work forms the highlight of Mind Maps: equipment and sketches belonging to Luigi Galvani of Bologna – who gave his name to galvanism and has inspired everything Gothic and re-animated from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Douglas Trumbull’s film Brainstorm.

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

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

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).

 For more of Samira’s writing follow her via @samiraahmeduk or on samiraahmed.co.uk

Science Museum stars in UK-Russia Year of Culture

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reveals a remarkable new exhibition opening in 2014.

A landmark exhibition of the Russian vision and technological ingenuity that launched the space age is to be the centrepiece of the largest ever festival of Russian and British culture.

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

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'.

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.

‘Russia’s Space Quest’, which is being led by curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina, represents a major collaboration between the Moscow State Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and draws on the support of many institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia.

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.

Collider: Celebrating with Higgs and Hawking

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.

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

Stephen Hawking views the Collider exhibition with curator Ali Boyle

We’ll leave the final word to Ali Boyle, the Collider exhibition curator.

Reflections on the latest climate change report

Howard Covington and Prof. Chris Rapley reflect on the latest climate change report.

In 2010, the Science Museum opened atmosphere, a gallery exploring climate science. Three years on and the Museum is a partner in a commercial venture to build the UK’s largest solar farm on a disused airfield it owns near Swindon. The project will eventually generate 40mw of electricity, enough for 12,000 homes.

Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

Here in microcosm is what is taking place in countries around the world as our understanding of the threat of climate change deepens and slowly prompts action to transform the energy infrastructure on which we rely. Are the many piecemeal actions of this kind enough to leave us feeling confident?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently confirmed the likely consequences of continuing to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As a global community, we are about as well informed on climate science as we might hope to be. But the uncertainties that surround climate change still leave us guessing where things are likely to come out.

There are three big uncertainties. The first is how fast humanity will cut carbon emissions. For the moment, we are on track to double atmospheric carbon dioxide by some point in the second half of the century. The second is how the climate will respond. A widely used indicator is the change in global average surface temperature when carbon dioxide concentration doubles. The best estimate is in the range 1.5 to 4.5 degrees centigrade. The third uncertainty is the impact of such a change on future human wellbeing and the material damages it might cause.

In the absence of stronger action than is currently evident there is a finite risk that we could hit 4 degrees of warming in the second half of the century, with the possibility of amplifying feedbacks locking in further temperature increasing processes over which we would have no control. The resulting climate changes would play out over centuries and millennia, producing permanent climate instabilities and shifts not experienced over human history.

Risk could be reduced by policy changes among the principal emitters. By far the simplest action would be an agreed price for carbon emissions to accelerate the piecemeal transformation of energy infrastructure already underway. We might also get lucky if it turns out that the response of the climate to emissions lies at the lower end of the range. We should know where we stand in the next few decades. Meanwhile we might reasonably spend a moment on the implications of a 4 degree world.

Here we are again beset with uncertainty. We don’t know with precision how fast polar ice sheets will disintegrate and sea level will rise. Nor do we know how climatic zones may shift or how higher average temperatures and rainfall will combine with more frequent weather extremes and changing weather patterns to disrupt water supplies and agriculture.

The pattern of cereal production could be significantly affected. Cereal demand may double by 2050 in response to population increases and changes in food preferences. This demand might be met by improved technology and waste elimination. Weather extremes and instability at 4 degrees may cut crop yields significantly, creating a further gap to be filled, perhaps by genetically improved robustness and the cultivation of newly productive northern lands.

Geo-engineering might provide a temporary window of opportunity for a crash programme to decarbonise economies and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, although with a substantial risk of unintended and unwelcome consequences. On the other hand we might have to cope with disruption triggered by populations seeking to move from areas rendered inhospitable by inundations, floods, drought, extreme temperatures, fires and local shortages of food and water.

How all of this will play out is clearly impossible to say. Optimists believe that with luck, free markets and technological ingenuity we could rise to a 4 degree challenge if we can’t avoid it altogether. Pessimists argue that 4 degrees is beyond adaptation and may lead to a period of dislocation. Either way our lives are likely to be transformed in the next few decades as we thoughtfully re-engineer food and energy production and relocate climate migrants or rather more chaotically seek to respond to the multiple pressures of population growth, energy needs and climate disruption.

The UK is relatively small, open and unprotected and may not do well in the face of climate disruption. On the other hand it is highly creative and nurtures much scientific and technological talent. Its leading universities are rich in individuals and teams who understand the technologies of a low carbon future. It has an opportunity to lead an industrial revolution that is poised to happen. The case for maximising long-term value and reducing risk by seizing this opportunity is powerful.

Preventing dangerous climate change is principally a matter for the world’s largest emitters. The UK, however, has set an example by adopting tough emissions targets and by using its international influence and scientific strength for the good. It should continue to advance policies that spur a new industrial revolution from which it could benefit greatly, while heading off a climate transition that it may struggle to cope with.

The Science Museum is one of the world’s finest institutions in which to explore the history of science and technology. It is greatly to its credit that it is not only informing its visitors about the climate challenges ahead but also playing its part in dealing with them.

Howard Covington is a trustee of the Science Museum. Chris Rapley is Professor of Climate Science at University College London and a former director of the Science Museum.

LHC: Lip Hair Champions

Content Developer Rupert Cole explores some famous moustaches in particle physics ahead of the opening of our new Collider exhibition on 13th November. 

It’s that time again: Movember – the eminently charitable moustache-growing month raising awareness for men’s health. But what, you might reasonably wonder, has facial hair got to do with particle physics? Well, I have a theory; one backed by hard pictorial and anecdotal evidence…

The Cavendish lab’s moustachioed students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The Cavendish lab’s moustachioed students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

Consider the glory days of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, during which the first subatomic particle was identified, a revolutionary particle detector invented, and the atomic nucleus split by one of the first particle accelerators. Significantly, the great Cavendish leaders and pioneers of this period cannot be accurately described as clean shaven.

Joseph John Thomson

JJ Thomson has a “rather straggling moustache,” wrote a talented student called Ernest Rutherford in 1896, “but a very clever-looking face and a fine forehead”. In another letter to his fiancé, Rutherford made the additional comment that Thomson “shaves very badly”.

We may detect a hint of jealousy in Rutherford’s description of Professor “JJ”. As, according to one chronicler of the lab’s history, the young student Rutherford possessed only “a thinly sprouting moustache”.

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

Nevertheless, concealed in Thomson’s supposedly wayward bristles was a creative and audacious genius. At the time, the Cavendish’s director had been performing his groundbreaking experiments on cathode rays. The next year he shocked the scientific world when he announced the existence of a particle smaller than the smallest atom – later dubbed the “electron”.

Ernest Rutherford

Once the rambunctious New Zealander’s lip-hair had acquired its full bushy substance, he was well on the way to scientific stardom.

His first momentous contribution to physics came in 1902 at McGill University, Canada. Rutherford and his colleague Frederick Soddy explained what radioactivity actually is – the process of atomic decay.

Soddy described his co-discoverer simply as an “exuberant natural, young man with a moustache”. Biographers would later characterise Rutherford’s ever-growing asset as reminiscent of a “walrus”.

By the time he succeeded his old moustachioed mentor, JJ Thomson, as Professor of the Cavendish, Rutherford had already discovered the atomic nucleus (1911) and managed to split nitrogen atoms in half, causing them to transmute into two oxygen atoms (1917-19).

But it was at the Cavendish that he ushered in the era of accelerator physics. Contemporaries recall a particular accessory: a pipe, containing the world’s driest and instantly-flammable tobacco.

Ernest “The Walrus” Rutherford. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Ernest “The Walrus” Rutherford. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

On one Spring day in 1932, Rutherford entered the lab in a famously foul mood. His pipe “went off like a volcano” – having pre-dried his tobacco on a radiator. Impatient at the progress his young researchers John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton had made with their 800,000-volt proton accelerator, he instructed them to “stop messing about… and arrange that these protons were put to good use”.

At Rutherford’s suggestion, they immediately installed a zinc-sulphide scintillation screen – a device which causes charged particles to sparkle when they hit – into their wooden observation hut. A few days later, Walton saw on this screen evidence that their machine was splitting the nucleus of lithium atoms!

Had the authority of the tache and pipe not intervened, the Cavendish men may have been pipped to the discovery by the clean-shaven American teams, who boasted the biggest and best of accelerators.

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

CTR Wilson, one of Rutherford’s fellow students at the Cavendish, was a
“modest” personality with a similarly unassuming moustache. He spent 16 years assembling cloud chambers – a device he initially invented to study meteorological phenomena.

A keen mountaineer – an activity that always complements well-trimmed bristles – Wilson derived inspiration to build cloud chambers when he was atop Ben Nevis, observing beautiful optical effects.

His third and final chamber, completed in 1911, was later described by Rutherford as “the most original and wonderful instrument in scientific history”. Incredibly, it could capture with photographs the tracks of particles. Wilson had invented the first detector that could visualise and record the subatomic world.

CTR Wilson, 1927. Credit: AB Lagrelius and Westphal

CTR Wilson, 1927. Credit: AB Lagrelius and Westphal

It seems remarkable that the humble moustache may have had such a crucial role in the foundation particle physics. Never again would the Cavendish be led by lip-hair champions; and considering the lab’s unprecedented success in this golden period, we can reliably infer the cost of this absence.

I leave you with the words of Arthur Eddington: “An atom which has lost an electron is like a friend who has shaved-off his moustache.”

Next week you can see Thomson’s cathode-ray tube, Rutherford’s atomic models, the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator, CTR Wilson’s cloud chamber, and much more at the Science Museum’s new Collider exhibition. 

For more famous physics moustaches click here.