Tag Archives: science

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.

Wonder in science: Infinite Monkey Cage at the Science Museum

Will Stanley writes about the recent recording of BBC Radio 4′s Infinite Monkey Cage  in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre.

In their favourite episode of the current series, Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince used the awe and wonder of science as their inspiration, discussing why all children have it and the reasons many adults don’t. And the venue for this recording? Well, it had to be the home of human ingenuity, the Science Museum.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage

Brian Cox and Robin Ince, presenters of Radio 4′s The Infinite Monkey Cage

Guests on this special edition of BBC Radio 4’s witty, irreverent take on the scientific world included author and historian Richard Holmes, comedian Josie Long, American astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the Museum’s Director Ian Blatchford.

Ian explained that one reason that children love the Science Museum is because it is brimming with stories and old things; a refreshingly different thing to hear in the digital age. “We’re working on a project to show the history of communications, and when you show young people a telephone exchange or even a dial telephone, they are amazed by that.”

Comedian Josie Long “took it out on chemistry”, burning her notes after finishing exams in protest at not being able to study her favourite art subjects. After historian Richard Holmes described building a “magnesium bomb” in chemistry classes, Brian Cox exclaimed, “They are dangerous these arts people, because they were prevented from being scientists at a young age.”

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum

The Infinite Monkey Cage panel at the Science Museum. From left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Josie Long, Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ian Blatchford and Richard Holmes.

Venturing safely back to the eighteenth century, Richard Holmes, author of the Age of Wonder, described his re-discovery of science when researching how Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Humphry Davy, a poet and a scientist, had worked together on Nitrous oxide experiments.

Questioned about whether we are losing our childlike wonder in the twenty first century, Neil deGrasse Tyson – a modern day Carl Sagan, known for his answer to the most astounding fact about the Universe – said that “a scientist is simply a child who never grew up, because they still wonder.”

The extended version of the show, featuring the wooden balls of pioneering chemist John Dalton, a coil of wire demonstrating how Michael Faraday tamed electrons and other remarkable objects from the Science Museum collection, can be downloaded here as a podcast.

Asked about their ultimate museum objects, the panel’s choices ranged from objects that are bigger than you are, to a working time machine and the Holy Grail.

Finally, comedian and rap artist Doc Brown closed Infinite Monkey Cage with this special tribute to his – in fact almost everyone’s - childhood hero, Sir David Attenborough.

When Science and Musicals meet…

Tracey Morgan, Outreach Team Leader, looks back at London’s West End Live event.

On Saturday the 22nd and Sunday the 23rd of June, the Science Museum joined Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, London Film Museum, Forbidden Planet, the Theatres Trust, Banqueting House and Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop along with all of the West End Theatres to celebrate the hugely popular London event West End Live at Trafalgar Square.

The Science Museum was glad to be invited back for a 9th year running, giving visitors the chance to dabble in a bit of science in between catching excerpts from West End musicals on the main stage. In our marquee we ran our action packed Science Museum Game Card Challenge.

Mastering the Stupid Egg Trick

Trying out puzzle challenges

Visitors were challenged to test their skills in our 3 science zones, taking on a challenge from each zone and collecting stamps to get their hands on a prize at the end. Solving puzzles, investigating the Bernoulli effect, learning the ‘Stupid Egg Trick’ getting gooey in a bucket of cornflour slime and many more activities were on offer.

If you didn’t make it to our marquee this year, or if you did and you’ve caught the science bug, why not download our free Kitchen Science booklet and try out our experiments at home or in the classroom.

Introducing Enterprising Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuelling Prosperity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, (Science) Minister

By Robert Bud, Keeper of Science and Medicine

The science ministers may change, but problems endure. The single issue that most preoccupies thinking about science research policy has remained constant for more than two decades: what policies will best support translation of laboratory brainwaves into commercial success for UK PLC.

The perennial problems of turning scientific excellence into commercial success without damaging the research base was the central issue discussed at a remarkable gathering of the individuals who have been in charge of British science since the early 1990s, held at the Science Museum and cosponsored by the Mile End Group of Queen Mary University of London, and the Royal Society.

The Minister responsible for science, David Willetts MP, was joined by Lord Waldegrave, Science Minister from 1992-1994 (and former Chair of Trustees of the Science Museum) and Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science 1998-2006 in an event chaired by the historian Lord Hennessy.

Before them was a who’s who of the British scientific establishment, including the current Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington and his predecessors, Sir Bill Stewart, and Lord May. There were former vice-chancellors too, Sir John Ashworth (Salford and LSE), Sir Alan Wilson (Leeds), Sir Roger Williams (Reading) and the current VC of Queen Mary University of London, Simon Gaskell. Others guests included Sir Walter Bodmer who chaired the first committee to explore Public Understanding of Science and Sir Geoffrey Allen, founding Secretary of the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1981.

The problems of managing science have not fundamentally changed in half a century, and David Willetts emphasised continuity between Lord Waldegrave’s White Paper “Realising our Potential” (1993), Lord Sainsbury’s “Race to the Top” (2007) and Willetts’ current concerns with helping British industry avoid the ‘Valley of Death, where projects are considered too embryonic for industry to fund and too commercial to be backed by the research councils.

David Willetts emphasised his belief that greater American success in taking university innovations to market was the result of better American government support measures than any cultural differences. Innovations by American scientists receive support at an earlier stage from American government measures than their British counterparts, which enables the US industry to take lower risks when delivering a novel technology to a market. But a note of warning and wise advice based on hard experience was given by Lord Waldegrave, who commented that put scientists and politicians too close together nearly always ends in catastrophe. Lord Sainsbury pointed out that offering to contribute to solving the problems that bedevil the Treasury is a better approach to the extraction of resources than demanding support.

Lord Sainsbury questioned the assumption that public knowledge of science would lead to the public boosting its appetite for science. However, Sir Walter Bodmer pointed out that his committee never believed that widespread knowledge of science would equal public understanding of it, but was rather a prerequisite. This distinction had got lost subsequently. Regulation also has a role, with Sir John Ashworth pointing out the role of research-supported standards and regulation was one way to ensure the best quality in industry.

The speakers vigorously agreed that it was in the interest of British industry to have strong government funded research institutes in a landmark meeting that distilled some of the basic truths to emerge from science policy over the past few decades.

A number of tweets from the night have been storified and a transcript of the entire meeting will be mounted in a blog to follow soon.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

What *should* we be worried about?

By Pippa Murray and Will Stanley

Ask most people what is worrying them and their answer is often personal. Ask leading thinkers and you could end up worried yourself.  The latter was put to the biggest science minds for this year’s annual question – What should we be worried about? – from the good people at Edge.

Each year, this online literary salon poses a new question – previous examples include ‘What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ and ‘What will change everything?’ – and requests that each contributor responds with a scientifically informed argument. The aim is to step away from the pressing news of the day, and share something new and thought provoking.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950.

Portrait of a woman looking thoughtful, c 1950
Credit © Photography Advertising Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

With this in mind it seems right to start with Larry Sanger’s essay, the co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, which looks at the rise of internet silos. In Sager’s opinion, these online websites for news or opinion breed hostility and single mindedness by hosting ‘objectively unsupportable views that stroke the egos of their members,’ that make us ‘overconfident and uncritical’ about the world around us.

Continuing on the theme of modern technologies, Nicholas HumphreyEmeritus School Professor at the London School of Economics, raises his concerns on fast knowledge. While many view today’s easy access to smartphones, search engines and the information that they provide us at the click of a button as a good thing, Humphrey argues the opposite. He states that nowadays, ‘everyone finds themselves going to the same places, when it’s the arrival and not the journey that matters, when nothing whatever memorable happens along on the way, I worry that we end up, despite our extraordinary range of experience, with less to say.’

In contrast to Sanger and Humphrey, Simon Baron-Cohen dissects an age old debate, that of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ from 1969. In his essay, Baron-Cohen recognizes the efforts of literary agents and publishers to make science more accessible, particularly to non-scientists, but states that in other fields of science, such as sex differences in the brain, these two cultures remain separated by a deep chasm.

Among these 140 contributors is one from our own Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, who argues the need for more science heroes to step forward, stating that ‘When it comes to selling the magic of science we need to accept that the most powerful way is through heroic stories.’ Highfield worries about the decline of scientific heroes, because their function as ‘viral transmitters of science in the crowded realm of ideas’ is of vital importance. He concludes that scientific literacy is vital for a modern democracy to function.

Other contributors, such as Steven Pinker, take an alternative approach, eliminating some of the problems that people fixate on. In Pinker’s case he looks at the causes of war, suggesting new and more relevant approaches to these worries. Kevin Kelly chose to turn the focus of a well known topic on its head, sharing the lesser-known worry of under-population.

And while reading all these essays may lead you to worry about many more things than you usually do, a common theme of these essays is the importance of sharing knowledge and challenging the status quo in today’s society, which is not such a bad idea after all.

Read more of what you should be worying about here

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

Inventing the Future of Christmas

By Mark Champkins

As Inventor in Residence, I was given the task of coming up with some inventions that we might see in the future at Christmas time.

A good starting point was to think about all the problems and minor annoyances about Christmas, then to try to think of solutions. It turns out there are plenty of Christmas gripes, from pine needles dropping all over the carpet, to eating Brussel sprouts and wrapping countless presents!

On the first weekend of December, I bought and installed a Christmas tree in my living room. I have been making a range of products for the Science Museum called “Beauty in the Making” that describe how and where products have been manufactured, before they make it into our homes.

Beauty in the Making

Beauty in the Making: Telling the story of how materials are manufactured

I started to wonder about where all the other things around me had come from including my new Christmas tree. Where had the tree been growing before it had been chopped down? Could it ever be replaced? I then struck upon the idea of the Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree, complete with soil and fertiliser that could be planted to grow a new Christmas tree.

Bio-Bauble – a biodegradable transparent bauble containing a seedling Christmas tree

The next problem I thought about solving was wrapping up presents. My solution came when I was thinking about a more robust alternative to wrapping paper that could be reused. Initially, I wondered whether Christmas wrapping cloth might catch on. Then I remembered using some vacuum pack bags to store away a duvet. It occurred to me that if these were produced in opaque with Christmas patterns, they would make a great way of wrapping things quickly and could be reused again. The result was Vac-Pac-Wrapping. I’ve tested the idea and it works really well!

Vac-Pac-Wrapping: The future of Christmas Wrapping?

Another invention idea was inspired by the feeling of excitement I used to feel as a child as the presents began to build up underneath the Christmas tree. Before opening them, my brothers and I would subject our presents to some rigorous scientific tests to figure out what was inside. Heaviness was usually a good sign!

Guess the Gift kit: Tools to investigate what a present might be

So I came up with the Guess the Gift kit. It comprises a range of tools that can be used to interrogate what a present might be, and after Christmas can be used to explore other mysteries! These include a magnet, a set of scales, a torch, a magnifying glass and dental mirror.

It’s hard to predict whether these inventions will catch on in the future, but I’m already thinking about the inventions next year might bring.

Mark Champkins is the Inventor in Residence at the Science Museum

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Codebreaker wins Great Exhibition award

By Roger Highfield

The Science Museum’s critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, has been awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science.

First prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition went to Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy which commemorates the centenary of Turing’s birth by telling the story of how he helped lay the foundations of modern computing and broke the codes of the Nazis, nature and society too.

The exhibition traces the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12 to his final research on pattern formation in biology.

First demonstrated in 1950, Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

The standard of the submissions to the competition’s large display category was ‘extremely high’, said the BSHS, with entrants from North America, Europe and Britain, covering various subjects, from alchemy and acoustics to anatomy and computing.

James Stark, Chair of the Society’s Outreach and Education Committee commented that Codebreaker goes beyond basic biography:

This helps to move the public understanding of Turing beyond that of a solo genius. The objects used in the display are foregrounded well, especially the beautifully-presented Hodgkin B12 model, and interestingly juxtaposed: the theatrical set-like pieces worked well to conjure up different historical moments such as Turing’s work in Cambridge and Manchester. Overall, it presented a clear, coherent narrative, and showcased a wealth of content, illustrated with original objects.

The exhibition, designed by Nissen Richards studio and made possible with the generous support of Google, covers how Turing’s team cracked U boat codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War and features three examples of the German enciphering machine, Enigma, including one lent to the museum by Sir Mick Jagger.

Among the other items in the exhibition are a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at that time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he had accepted the hormone treatment.

The most poignant item on display is a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of Turing death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough of the poison to fill a wine glass.

The award for the exhibition comes as leading figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy was launched at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 with an event that featured, among others, David Rooney, Curator; Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies & Engineering, Emily Scott-Dearing, now Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, David Harper of Google  and Sir John Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing. Codebreaker will run until 31 July 2013.

The Second prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition was won by the Berlin Museum of Medical History at Charité for their exhibition Tracing Life.

The small exhibition category was won by the Royal College of Physicians, London, for ‘Curious Anatomys’, while joint second place was taken by the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, for Reconstructing Lives, and The Museum of Art at the University of Virginia for Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott.

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

Behind the ‘i.am+ foto.sosho’, launched by Will.i.am yesterday, lies his commitment to become a role model to help inspire young people to pursue science, engineering, mathematics and technology. Photo credit: Matt Writtle

Will.i.am’s quest to discover the next Bill Gates

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

The musician and entrepreneur will.i.am gave a classic demonstration of the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique yesterday as part of his quest to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

He announced that he has led a global consortium of technologists to develop what he called a ‘social camera’, a turbocharged version of the iPhone.

Behind the ‘i.am+ foto.sosho’, launched by Will.i.am yesterday, lies his commitment to become a role model to help inspire young people to pursue science, engineering, mathematics and technology. Photo credit: Matt Writtle

At a press conference held at the Fashion Retail Academy in London, The Black Eyed Peas frontman referred to his donation of £500,000, via his i.am angel Foundation, to The Prince’s Trust to fund education, training and enterprise schemes in the UK with a focus on technology and computer skills development.

The Trust is working with Toby Parkin of the Science Museum to enable it to engage young people with science. The museum currently reaches over half a million students per year through school visits and outreach. With the Trust, the museum will focus on inner city schools where children feel socially excluded and standards have been in decline.

Will.i.am says he wants his initiative to ‘help transform the lives of disadvantaged young people living in under-privileged neighbourhoods.’ He added that he was going to learn coding next year, though he stressed ‘I want to be in the classroom as well as the club.’

When I asked him if he wanted to come to the Science Museum to pass on his skills to the hundreds of thousands of children who visit each year, he joked it would probably take him eight years to get up to speed, or become what he calls ‘the rocking-est coder.’

Will.i.am is not alone in embracing geek chic. Earlier this year, the Hollywood actor and rapper Will Smith told children in the Science Museum that he had a hankering to become a computer engineer.

Will Smith meets a group of school children and Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford beside the Apollo 10 command module on a visit to the Science Museum, London.

Will.i.am grew up in East Los Angeles, one of the roughest neighbourhoods in the United States, where his life could have turned out quite differently without the support of his family and a good education.

Because he feels London is his second home (‘it broke the Peas’), and because the city is at the forefront of fashion and culture, will.i.am decided to combine these passions with the launch of his device.

Called the i.am+ foto.sosho, it will turn an iPhone4/4s smartphone into a fashion accessory and a point-and-shoot digital camera with on-board editing, filters and social media connectivity that will be distributed by Selfridges.

After he came up with the idea in February of this year, during a meal in  the fashionable restaurant Nobu, he founded and self-funded the development and manufacture with experts located in China, Denmark, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.

He also said that, by the end of next year, he wants to launch an X-Factor style spin-off show to give young people the chance to express themselves in science and maths so he can identify another technology entrepreneur of the stature of a Gates or Jobs.