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Modern art is Rubbish

In the latest of our series of blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence Mark Champkins looks back at Phase 1, while Project Curator Sarah Harvey gives us a sneak preview of Phase 2 before it opens on 25 July.

Phase 1 – Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence

Tuesday 15 July was the last day of sorting through Museum waste for The Rubbish Collection project, and my last chance to put in a shift filtering through discarded drinks bottles and leftover lunches.

The project is fascinating. It aims to examine what constitutes the waste that passes through the Museum, where it would normally go, and what might be usefully recycled.

The exhibition is split into two parts. The first involves the collection of every piece of waste generated by the Museum over a month. A team of volunteers has been sorting and photographing the contents of the Museum’s rubbish bags, and pulling out items of particular interest. The second part will start on 25 July, and will be an exhibition of cleaned and collated rubbish materials.

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

As I began my shift, what struck me first was the smell of the gallery. It’s a sweet, fruity smell, not unlike over-ripe apples. It comes from the vast amount of sugary drinks and half eaten fruit thrown into the bins, the likely source being the hundreds of packed lunches eaten in the Museum every day. Throughout the Museum, the usual bins have been replaced with ‘General Waste’ and ‘Recycling’ bins. It soon became clear to me that in order to avoid the worst of the smell, the bags to pick out to sort through are the ones marked ‘Recycling’. This avoids the majority of the decomposing foodstuffs.

The task is to open up the bags, lay out the contents on a large white table, sort the contents as you see fit, and then snap a photo of the arranged items on an overhead camera. The opportunity to arrange the rubbish in whatever way you want has brought out the creativity of the volunteers. To this end, within a few days, a tumblr account was opened to show off some of the most imaginative of the layouts. Amongst my favourites are the seascape, composed of blue plastic bags and fruit, and blazing sun in the sky, made from bread sticks, paper towels and what looks like parsley. You can have a look here.

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

After half a dozen bags, a disheartening pattern starts to emerge. Much of what is being thrown away is perfectly good. Lots of the food is unopened or untouched. Leaflets and flyers are almost always pristine. It’s as though the bins are being used to de-clutter, rather than being a place to put things when they have reached the end of their useful lives. It seems inexplicable how many of the items have ended up in the bins. Three wheelchairs have been collected, over a dozen shoes, two fridges, a bra and a giant toothbrush.

Spurred by the some of the weird and wonderful items collected I have set myself a challenge. Like a Science Museum Womble, I aim to filter through the items left behind to put together some items that can be repurposed and redesigned to make a one-off product, that we can sell in the Museum shop. Watch this space…

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Phase 2 – Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, The Rubbish Collection

After 30 frenzied days of documenting all the Science Museum waste, you might have expected artist Joshua Sofaer to take a well-earned break. No such luck. Since the documentation finished on 15 July, The Rubbish Collection has remained a hive of activity and an almost miraculous transformation has taken place. Gone are the sorting tables, bin bags and faint whiff of old packed lunch; in their place Joshua has created an intriguing and magical exhibition showcasing 30 days of Science Museum rubbish.

The exhibition is comprised of some of the bizarre and surprising items that were retained from the bins in the documentation phase of the project, displayed alongside almost 18 tonnes of materials processed and recycled from the Science Museum rubbish. Both the scale and the beauty of these materials and objects is quite unexpected, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’m just going to give you some teaser images (below). The exhibition opens to the public at 11am on Friday 25 July, so please come down and experience the wonder of ‘rubbish’ for yourself.

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection opens at the Science Museum on 25 July and runs until 14 September 2014.

281,647 visitors: a ‘rubbish’ story

In the next in our series of blogs about The Rubbish Collection, Project Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at what we have collected and reflects on what Phase 1 of the exhibition has taught us about our relationship with waste.

Thirty days of sorting and documenting all the Science Museum‘s rubbish have come to a close. It’s been surprising, sometimes shocking and certainly thought-provoking, fun, hard work and, at times, a little bit smelly!

We’ve documented all the rubbish produced by the Museum’s 281,647 visitors, 500+ staff and contractors, five cafés, two building sites, three shops, two Science Nights, one Lates event and several storage cupboard clearances. We’re still waiting to see the figures but, it’s safe to say, it was a lot of rubbish.

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the thirty days, artist Joshua Sofaer, his assistants and the Science Museum volunteers, along with hundreds of brave visitors eager to take up this unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with the trash, have rummaged tirelessly through approximately 250 bags of rubbish per day.

Along with the expected items like crisp packets, drinks cans and the remains of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes, we’ve also found some more unexpected objects hidden amongst the detritus of everyday Museum life. 16.5 pairs of shoes, two two-piece suits, a bra, three fridges, one dishwasher, a box of old floppy disks (visiting school children didn’t know what they were), piles of discarded over-the-counter medicines, three wheelchairs and a staggering volume of disposable cutlery.

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

So, what have we learnt from all this investigating and documenting? Aside from the revelation that kids don’t eat the fruit in their packed lunch (one day I’ll count the number of untouched apples we documented), the most obvious thing is that we don’t recycle as much as we could.

Over the last few months the Science Museum has been working hard to put new systems in place for separating our rubbish both in public spaces and offices. The addition of recycling bins in public areas is a long overdue step forward for the Museum but we found that almost all recycling bags in public areas were contaminated with non-recyclable rubbish, so we need to do more to encourage and help visitors to recycle while they are here.

The amount of recyclable material lost to incineration because we are not yet separating café waste is a lot more than we would like but there are plans in place to roll out new segregation systems to all the Museum’s cafés in the near future. Just separating out the café food waste could reduce the Museum’s general waste tonnage by around a third.

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Whilst the documentation was taking place in the Museum, behind the scenes we’ve been doing some detective work to find out where and how those materials are processed and what they go on to become. These days, very little is lost to landfill so most of the rubbish that left the Museum has been transformed into some other physical form, either through recycling or through incineration.

That transformed rubbish is now travelling back to the Science Museum, to be reunited with some of the most interesting items we retained from the bins. Over the next 10 days, Joshua Sofaer will be creating an exhibition showcasing what is produced from our rubbish, examining the beauty and value of the materials but also looking at the sheer volume that was produced over one month. The exhibition will open on 25 July but if you want a sneak preview before then, make sure to watch this space…

The Rubbish Collection continues with Phase 2 from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Managing our waste

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, talks to Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management.

Grundon is the Science Museum’s main waste contractor, handling all our general and recyclable waste – approximately 30 tonnes per month in total! The Museum’s waste either goes to their Colnbrook Materials Recovery Facility and transfer station, or if non-recyclable, to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant. Lakeside produces around 37 Megawatts of electricity each year – enough to power 50,000 homes.

I spoke to Neil Grundon, the company’s Deputy Chairman, about the future of recycling and waste management, and what we can all do to help.

Sarah: What does Grundon do?

Neil: Grundon is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of waste management and environmental services. We partner with our customers to help them reduce the financial and environmental impacts of their waste.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw away?

Neil: The strangest thing I’ve seen is a stuffed European Bear holding a lampstand. We’ve also taken a variety of wooden spacecraft used on film sets.

With regards to the most difficult things to deal with, my personal dislikes are garden hoses, inflatable rubber dinghies and beach balls. They always come in as one-offs and are impossible to segregate and recycle. I am sure that somebody will correct me on this, but by the time they reach us the only thing that we can do is to incinerate them for energy. Oh, I would also add those fluorescent glow necklaces that people wear at festivals – I dislike those too.

Sarah: What do you see as being the main challenges that the industry faces?

Neil: The main challenge for the industry is one of perception. Believe it or not, it is the leaders of waste management companies who lay awake at night wondering how to recycle composite plastics, not the manufacturers, the pressure groups or the public.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?

Neil: All consumers and organisations can do better – companies like Grundon only take away waste and treat it. We trust you to do the right things – and put it in the right bin!

My top 3 things that people could do differently would be:

1.       Where possible to separate food waste. It contaminates recyclables and it is heavy and too expensive to dispose of in landfill.

2.       Choose what you buy wisely, as ‘recycled’ does not always mean recyclable.

3.       Simply – use recycling bins.

Sarah: How can we encourage the public to recycle more?

Neil: The public need incentives to recycle. People see no benefit from separating their waste and are often conflicted when they hear various scare stories in the media.

Grundon have invested in a company called Greenredeem to correct this disconnect between us and the consumer. Greenredeem combines ‘reverse vending’ kiosk technology with a web-based membership and reward scheme. It aims to encourage people to recycle at home and ‘on the go’ and to help cut the vast number of cans and bottles which end up in landfill from litter bins or simply thrown away on the street.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Neil: If the industry changes as much in the next 50 years as it has in the last 20 years it will be unrecognisable. At present we have two initiatives that we are very excited about. The first uses carbon dioxide to fix heavy metals within incinerator fly ash (a by-product of the Energy from Waste process) to create a carbon negative aggregate, which is used to create building blocks.

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

The second is a large facility that has been designed to extract the propellant gases and liquid content from aerosols and capture it for reuse. The added bonus is that we can then also recycle the aluminium and steel cans.

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

I am very excited about 3D printing, as I think it will revolutionise the supply chain and hopefully eliminate much of our packaging. However, there is a question mark over what we do with redundant printed material. One of the greatest challenges for the industry will be what to do with the recycled products of today when they become the waste products of tomorrow.

Many of these materials will happily go round time and time again, however that garden hose… …well who knows!

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s ‘The Rubbish Collection’ project?

Neil: What did I think? Well, it’s great that Joshua and the exhibition is raising awareness of the value of waste. Thank you Joshua, we need all the help we can get!

Visitors can take part in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato – getting hands-on at the Science Museum

In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at our Antenna Gallery gets a volunteer’s view on the exhibition.

‘Do people just get naked in the Science Museum?’ Katyanna Quach asks me, with a suspicious look in her eyes. Before I have time to give that mental image the thorough probing that it deserves, I’m given a bit of context. “We’ve found a bra, some shoes…”

‘And an entire suit. And money. And a television,’ adds her colleague Hannah Burke. We’re standing in the basement of the Museum, surrounded by the bagged detritus of the previous day – waste from galleries, cafés, offices and kitchens. But they’re here for a good reason: this, friends, is art. Katyanna and Hannah are two of the many volunteers helping artist Joshua Sofaer in his quest to document an entire month’s Museum waste.

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Joshua’s Rubbish Collection is an unusual art installation – over the next few weeks, every single item that goes into a Museum bin will be taken out again and publicly documented. Joshua is building a photographic archive of 21st century Museum waste – every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato (and, it would appear, every bra and every television). For the last few months I’ve been watching my colleagues work with Joshua to draw this idea, this ‘contemporary archaeology’ project, out of Joshua’s head and onto the Museum floor. Today, I’ve come to see the result – and to meet the Museum volunteers at the centre of this unique archive.

Joshua hopes that the Rubbish Collection will make us “… consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.” It’s certainly making the volunteers think.

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

‘I’ve seen whole uneaten lunches from Waitrose. Not touched at all. You just think, “Why didn’t you take it home?”’ says Hannah Tran. ‘Even Museum cafés create food waste – obviously they can’t keep sandwiches forever, but on the night shift we get a lot of completely unopened paninis.’

Katyanna shares Hannah Tran’s unease at the sheer volume of waste we produce. ‘You see how much of it there is and think, “I shouldn’t waste so much. I should recycle more.” Some stuff that could be recycled is just put in with general waste, and then it’s contaminated so you can’t recycle it.’ Katyanna, like many of the volunteers here, was driven to get involved with The Rubbish Collection because she feels that we need to make ourselves think about waste. ‘So much media attention is devoted to wildlife at risk, to species going extinct … but still, some people don’t really care. So this project is an interesting way to talk to the public and get them to think about rubbish, and recycling, differently.’

So what do visitors make of the whole experience?

‘Well, it looks really factory-like in here. Because we’re dressed in boiler suits, I think people come over and think, “Oh, these guys are working!”’ says Katyanna. ‘So I go, “Hi! Do you want to sort rubbish?”, and explain what we’re doing. Some people do really enjoy it and try their hardest to make something pretty out of it. Some people are disgusted by it, but do it anyway.’

Katyanna  Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Katyanna Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Visitors don’t have to get too close for comfort , of course. They’re just as welcome to come and observe the documentation process, and to talk to Joshua and his friendly team of assistants and volunteers. It’s certainly not the sort of gallery you see often. Or, indeed, ever.

‘I don’t think visitors to the Science Museum expect to find an art installation here. Especially this one, because it’s not “done” yet. It’s quite conceptual,’ says Hannah Tran. ‘It’s very different from the other stuff in the Museum. But people are really curious – kids are more interested in the rubbish itself, and older people often want to talk about the kind of stuff we find, but also about just how much waste there is.’

Tempted to take part? Let Hannah Burke convince you. ‘Although it may sound crazy, many of the rubbish bags have their own interesting stories to tell, and that can really make the job of sorting through rubbish worthwhile. It is always exciting to see enthusiastic members of the public become immersed at the task in hand. I can’t wait to see what interesting items the next three weeks have to offer!’

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

The art of rubbish

Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, considers how art can inspire us to question our everyday relationships with ‘rubbish’.

The newly opened Rubbish Collection exhibition is the latest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the Science Museum’s art commissions. Artist Joshua Sofaer’s exploration of what we throw away, both as an institution and as individuals.

The Rubbish Collection continues our series of thought provoking exhibitions, installations and events relating to the Atmosphere gallery and Climate Changing… programme. Art has had a strong presence throughout this programme, for instance within the Climate Changing Stories (2011-May 2014), David Shrigley’s House of cards (2010) and Tony White’s downloadable novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013).

So, why has art played such an important role in the Science Museum’s exploration of climate science and sustainability? The ability of artists to offer a unique and creative perspective on this challenging subject and to make visible the forgotten or intangible aspects of the world around us is the key.

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection is an excellent example of this. Sofaer’s concept is deceptively simple: get people to look at what they throw away and consider what happens to it next. It’s certainly not the way a curator would have tackled this topic; it has taken an artist to think the unthinkable and invite Science Museum visitors to help sort piles of rubbish.

Sofaer is cleverly utilising and playing with the recognisable role of the Museum, in collecting, sorting and displaying precious objects, and using them to tell stories. Rather than looking outward, to examine the material production of the world around us, we will be looking at what the Science Museum itself produces in the form of waste and exposing the value of these overlooked materials, both in aesthetic and monetary terms.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

The concept is surprising – and in some ways utterly absurd – yet the outcome has the potential to shock as Sofaer brings us face to face with the reality of our daily consumption and waste of resources.

The Climate Changing… programme’s aim was to be thought provoking and The Rubbish Collection certainly fulfils this brief. In the run up to the exhibition it has already stimulated conversations within the Science Museum and it is exciting to know this self-reflection will have an impact on the future decisions the institution makes in relation to sustainability and climate change.  As Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, the project has certainly made me think about rubbish in a very different light. I hope it will inspire all those who take part too.

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July until 14 September 2014.

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.

X&Y at MOSI’s 1830 Warehouse for the Manchester Science Festival

X&Y, a new show from mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Complicite actress Victoria Gould, starts at the Manchester Science Festival next week.

Blending maths with theatre, it explores big questions about our universe – is it infinite? Does it have an edge? With a stark and simple set, X&Y creates its own little ‘universe’ inside a brightly lit cube, making it perfect for unconventional ‘pop-up’ theatre spaces.  For its London run at the Science Museum earlier this month, it was performed in a converted empty exhibition gallery.

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

The Manchester Science Festival takes place in venues across Greater Manchester from 24 October – 3 November and X&Y is taking up residence for 5 days at MOSI’s stunning Grade 1 listed 1830 Warehouse at Liverpool Road Station.

1830 Warehouse

Liverpool Road Station was the Manchester terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first purpose-built passenger and goods railway. The original coach offices (passenger station), warehouse and intervening viaduct survive, making this the world’s oldest railway station. All four buildings and the two viaducts are listed in recognition of their historic and architectural importance. When British Rail closed the station in 1975, the two oldest buildings were in a very poor state of repair. Since then the whole site has been carefully restored.

The aptly named ‘1830 Warehouse’ was built in 1830 and it was the world’s first railway warehouse. Earlier railways, which mainly carried coal, did not need warehousing but the success of the Railway’s goods services created an immediate need for more storage.

1830 Warehouse

On 3 April 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company placed a notice in the Manchester Guardian inviting tenders for the construction of five brick warehouses. This description is misleading as the resulting building was actually one warehouse divided into five bays. Five firms submitted tenders ranging in cost from £12,000 to £14,000 (approx. £1.16 million to £1.35 million today). 

The second lowest bidder, David Bellhouse Jnr, gained the contract. He had taken over his father’s building and contracting business in about 1820. His father, David Bellhouse Snr., was also a leading local timber merchant. These family business connections were valuable because the appointed contractor was responsible for procuring the necessary building materials, other than bricks, which were supplied by the L&MR Company. The stated completion date was 15 August 1830, giving less than four months for construction. The schedule was tough, but Bellhouse managed it. The demanding schedule was doubtless one of the reasons why the 1830 Warehouse has a timber frame rather than a fireproof frame of brick and iron. A timber frame was faster to fabricate and assemble.

The 1830 Warehouse was used for the storage of a variety of goods. Cotton, one of the L&MR’s most important cargoes, was only stored there until two Cotton Stores were completed in 1831.

Two stock books found in the warehouse in 1991 reveal the type of goods stored there in 1885 and 1905. They list a wide range of goods including various meats, bananas, chemicals such as caustic soda and bleach, clog blocks and bottles. Oyster shells and cockleshells were found in the building, suggesting that it was also used for storing shellfish.

As the Manchester Science Festival takes over MOSI and other venues for 10 days, the 1830 Warehouse will be the home of Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould and the creative team for X&Y. 

Find out more about the 1830 Warehouse at MOSI here.

Find out more about X&Y at the Manchester Science Festival from 30 October – 3 November here.

Take a look at some of the production shots from London

Extracts from this blog from The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

X&Y’s Dermot Keaney – from Director to hammerhead shark-man

X&Y, a new play that asks big questions about the universe, opens next week at the Science Museum before transferring to the Manchester Science Festival later this month. We spoke to Dermot Keaney, X&Y’s Co-Creator and Director.

I am a co-creator and the director of X&Y. My role is to help Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould, the actors in the show, tell their amazing story and create a play that will be enjoyed by audience of all ages and backgrounds. You don’t have to be a ‘maths geek’ to enjoy this, you just have to be a ‘story geek’ and I believe that we are all one of those.

Dermot Keaney

I’ve been acting professionally for 20 years but I’m doing more and more directing these days. I love to tell stories and hope that X&Y will be the first of many collaborations with the Science Museum. It’s great to get to work with incredibly bright people every day and be part of a team that is creating something, truly unique and magical.

Working at the Science Museum is incredibly inspiring because everywhere you look you see the evidence of genius, creativity and discovery. One feels the presence of giants all around.

My favourite object at the Museum has to be Stephenson’s Rocket. I remember seeing it for the first time as a 9-year-old and understanding how important this object was in the history of invention. I say hello to it every time I walk past. The Apollo 10 Command Module runs a close second.

Stephenson's Rocket locomotive, 1829.

Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, 1829

The most memorable show I have worked on would have to be as an actor when I played Maccus, the hammerhead shark-man in Pirates of the Caribbean. The sheer scale of the production was breath-taking and to be part of animation history is very satisfying. I also had my character made into an action figure, which was cool!

Maccus

Dermot Keaney as Maccus in Pirates of the Caribbean. Credit: Disney.

Follow Dermot on Twitter @dermot110

X&Y starring Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould runs at the Science Museum from 10 – 16 October and Manchester Science Festival, MOSI, from 30 October – 3 November 2013. 

Win tickets to X&Y

Next week the Science Museum welcomes mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy and actress-mathematician Victoria Gould for X&Y – playful new theatre that explores some of the biggest questions about our universe using maths.

To celebrate, we’ve teamed up with HegartyMaths.com to run a competition to win a pair of tickets to the show. It runs from 10 – 16 October at the Science Museum.

To enter, simply retweet this. Good luck!

Marcus du Sautoy

A word from HegartyMaths

HegartyMaths is set up and created by Colin Hegarty and Brian Arnold, two full time London Maths teachers.  We love maths and the creativity and joy that comes from solving maths problems.  At the same time we understand that skill in Maths is also, in effect, a life differentiator and we want to help students raise their standards in the discipline in order to open up their life chances.  Our mission is to provide free, high quality maths tuition via the website to students who need a bit of extra suport in Maths.  All our work is free so that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can, in effect, benefit from what is like free personal maths tuition.  We have made over 700 videos covering Key Stage 3 Maths, GCSE Maths and A-Level Maths.

Steampunk in the Science Museum

Our summer spectacular, The Energy Show, is staged in a steampunk world which blends the past and the future. Much inspiration for the show was taken from the Science Museum’s collection, especially the machines of The Energy Hall. Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, talks here about some of our ‘steampunk’ objects in the Museum. 

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Inv 1935-513

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Modern technology values function over anything else. Things are stripped down and smooth in appearance. Steampunk is a welcome kickback against this minimalist modern world we live in, reasserting the importance of form against function – and we can find this delicate balancing act played out in our collections.

Take this beam engine, for example. It’s a model of a full-size engine built in 1840 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton for a Leeds flax mill. It was an immense building, possibly the largest single room in the world. To animate the machines inside, Hick’s engine was certainly powerful, but in building it he gave full reign to his imagination. The result was  an Egyptian engine: It has columns with papyrus-headed capitals, a mighty entablature inspired by a temple overlooking the River Nile, and the ‘chronometric’ governor to control the engine’s speed takes the form of a scarab beetle.

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Later Victorian design became rather bulbous, even grotesque, in appearance. But Hick’s engine is a sinuous masterpiece of epic design and brute strength. It reminds us not only of our creative debt to bewhiskered, roaring, big-jawed machine-makers like Hick, but also the significance of amazing nineteenth century machines, not just as a means to the end of production, but as symbolising national affluence and virility. In our present situation, it’s a lesson worth remembering: if you mean business, build machines that shout it out to the world.

Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle telegraph, 1851, Inv 1884-95

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

A recurring theme in Steampunk is the application of nineteenth-century design ideas to modern digital technology: laptops, PCs, even memory sticks can be made antique with brass gearwheels, dials and mahogany cases.

Colliding state of the art technology with the Gothic isn’t just a recent thing, though. In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first successful telegraph system. It was mainly used on Britain’s evolving railway system, conveying messages via wires running alongside the tracks. A slightly lesser-known use of this pioneering system was to convey messages and reports across London, from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to clubs in St James’s.

The Electric Telegraph Company was formed in 1846 and this instrument was installed at the Houses of Parliament in 1851. As a ‘black box’ of purely functional appearance, it would have jarred badly against the Gothic Revival style adopted in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. So, the telegraph was fitted with its admirable Gothic casing, complete with pointed arch, finial, and delicately-realised columns. It must surely have lent a feeling of permanence and robustness to the room that it graced, reflecting the standing of Parliament – and also pre-empting one of the major pillars of steampunk.

Model of the side-lever engines of the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’, 1832. Inv 1900-41

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

The problem with modern technology is that so much of it is intangible, digital, virtual, ephemeral. This point of view certainly underpins many Steampunk projects.

It wasn’t always like this, of course: introducing steam power to ships during the nineteenth was the cutting edge of serious heavy metal technology, and was a highly demanding field to design machines for: engines couldn’t be too heavy, they had to have a low centre of gravity, they couldn’t take up too much space.

These prerequisites offered valuable motivation to innovate in engineering design styles. Rather than big, heavy, monolithic construction and great slab-sided machines, engineers evolved lighter cast-iron structures, with lots of space, openings, and details which could be embellished without adding too much weight. Gothic engines? Check.

This model was built in 1832 for the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’ by the London company Maudslay, Sons and Field. Maudslay was a prolific model-maker, trying out new ideas before committing to them full-size, and this model is one of the finest surviving. The delicate cast iron Gothic tracery of its framing would not look out of place in a cathedral – a very tangible record of the creative impulses afforded to engineering, and perhaps inspiration for those Steampunkers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Take a look at our own Steampunk set Science Museum Live: The Energy Show which runs until 31 August. Book tickets and find more information here.