Author Archives: micol

‘Facts’ aren’t always facts

Good morning everyone and happy post-halfterm Monday.

Doing a little reading over the weekend, I was amazed at this article on How Stuff Works. There were several items in there that really surprised me! Like how everyone says the Great Wall of China is visible from space- well, it’s NOT. And how old windowpanes look so uneven because glass behaves like a slow-moving liquid over hundreds of years. Apparently nonsense.

The Great Wall of China

It's Great, but it's not visible from space... image

I thought it was interesting because it points out a misconceptions that a lot of people share, and spread, confident that the information is genuine and interesting. It’s exactly the same with your students: they may have heard, read or been told something inaccurate and have it stored away as ‘fact’. Classroom discussions around scientific issues can sometimes bring these inaccuracies to the surface, and this gives you a chance to correct them, sensitively.

If your students are piping up about an issue, you definitely want to encourage their contribution, but perhaps if the ‘facts’ arent straight you can start with ‘a lot of people think this too’ and find out where they got the information, because chances are, their peers might also share that same idea (especially if the info comes from somewhere on the internet!). This then gives you the chance to provide the correct information, and point out that some sources are just more reliable than others, so your students should use a critical eye when evaluating where their ‘facts’ come from!

Good luck :)


Wonderful Things: The Mill Engine

“Is it a time machine?” replied a very excited student when I asked him what he thought the Mill Engine was. In a way, I suppose it is a sort of time machine.

The Mill Engine was constructed in 1903 by the Burnley Ironworks Company for Harle Syke Mill inLancashire. So, how does this contraption work? Well, here’s the science bit:

The mill engine is a cross-compound engine. It uses high-pressure steam first in a high-pressure cylinder and then in a low-pressure cylinder, before expanding it into a vacuum in a condenser. Both cylinders drive the flywheel (the massive red wheel), from which ropes turned shafts on the mill’s different floors. These shafts were connected to the individual looms.

The Mill Engine was at the heart of the factory...

Mill workers’ conditions were bad. The close proximity to moving heavy machinery contributed to many accidents, and inhalation of the cotton dust often developed into fatal illnesses.

 Mill engines were used up until the 1930s before mills were converted to electric power after being faced with increasing overseas competition and more efficient spinning methods.

A young girl in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 1880s

A young girl in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 1880’s

 Steam power caused a revolution in electricity generation. Steam turbines formed the heart of a new electricity-generating network that we still rely on today. Whether the steam is generated using coal, gas, oil or nuclear reaction, steam turbines still deliver 75% of our power needs at home and at work!

Every school walks past this impressively huge object with its complex system of pulleys, shafts and belts on their way into the main Museum. Maybe next time you pass the engine, take a moment to let yourself be taken back to a time of steam and spinning in Lancashire cotton mills…

  • Could you convert this engine to run on renewable sources? What would the best renewable resource be?
  •  Should factories have to monitor and address their environmental impact?
  • If you ran a factory, would you be more concerned with keeping the cost of production to a minimum to maximise profits?

See the Mill Engine on the ground floor in Energy Hall, then take a trip to our interactive Energy – fuelling the future gallery on the second floor to discover how we are going to meet our future energy demands.

-Denise Cook

A message from 1878.

Last week a message was received from 1878… It is the oldest playable American recording. Perhaps back then the people in the message didn’t know that their voices would be heard 134 years later. In fact, back in 1878 Thomas Edison, who created the recording, hadn’t even built a device to play it back!

The audio, of someone playing the cornet and reciting great poetry such as ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ and ‘Mary had a little lamb’ was recorded on a piece of tinfoil, which had become so fragile over the years that it was impossible to actually read it physically with a needle. So scientists at Berkeley created a 3-D picture of the foil, which was then translated into sound using mathematical analysis and modeling to calculate how a needle would actually have played the sound.  That is just so cool… they were able to play back the recording without even touching the foil!

The recording was made on tinfoil

The recording was made on tinfoil

When I listen to the recording, it’s almost spooky. To think that someone’s voice was captured all that time ago, but never heard again until now… Like a paleontologist unearthing a brand new treasure, the wonders of modern science allow us to rediscover untold stories, to reach into our past and bring incredible events out of obscurity, into the light.

What bygone invention would you like to see ‘rediscovered’?

The Felix Effect

We all watched it, didn’t we, Fearless Felix Baumgartner’s amazing drop from space.

Felix takes the plunge

Felix takes the plunge. Hello gravity!

We all felt his nervousness and excitement as he prepared to throw himself out of the capsule, the astonishment as he fell at breakneck speed, flipping over and over wildly, and the exhuberance as he regained control and neatly broke the sound barrier as he fell at 1,342km/h.

What an amazing feat- more so because it plays to our imaginations and pushes the boundaries of what  we know is humanly possible… and anything like that  actually makes a great in-road for getting your students talking about science.

The Guardian has a lovely article about how you can use Fearless Felix’s feat as a hook to studying gravity, and plenty of resources and experiments your students can try in the classroom (including some of ours!)

Call it the Felix Effect… or just a great hook- either way, using a relevant, current or provocative event to link into science topics is a brilliant way to show your students that science does genuinely mean something to them.

See you back on solid ground!



Wonderful Things: Leech jar

Take a look at this jar.

Can you guess what it was used for?

A cozy home for a little family?

How about if I told you it was used in the medical profession, does that help at all?  If you know what it was used for, well done!  If you still don’t know then let me enlighten you.  This object is a leech jar.  Once upon a time, those glass tubes that you see inside the jar would have provided air to a whole family of leeches that lived in it. 

Leeches usually live in freshwater, not jars.  They are essentially segmented worms with suckers at both ends.  There are many different types, but the ones that lived in this jar would have used their suckers to attach themselves to an animal or person, release an anaesthetic into them and then feed on their blood.  Leeches can swell up to 5 times their original size and once they have had their fill they will simply fall off their host’s skin. 

While maybe not as good looking as Robert Pattinson, leeches are the original vampires!  This jar would have belonged to a doctor who would have used the leeches to drain blood from their patients in the hope that this would cure them of a variety of ailments, including headaches, fevers and apoplexy.  This was an ancient practice based on the theory of the four humours , and for over 2000 years it was used as a medical cure.  It really reached its height of popularity during the 18th century, when demand for leeches far outstripped the supply.       

Although the use of leeches in medicine is associated with times gone by, they are actually making a bit of a comeback…  Today they can provide useful treatments for arthritis, and varicose veins and even help in reconstructive surgery!  In 2007 doctors at the Royal London Hospital used leeches to help save a man’s leg after he severely damaged it by falling off a lorry:  David Isitt broke his leg in several places and doctors had to graft new skin onto his leg to cover the bone.  Sadly the new skin wasn’t healing, so the doctors decided to use leeches to remove the blood that had pooled under the graft, and draw fresh blood through the veins to encourage them to work again.  Needless to say it worked and his leg recovered!

So, it seems there is still a place in the world for these little blood suckers… maybe objects like this leech jar shouldn’t be retired quite yet! 

  • What other ancient medical practices might still be useful to us today? Would you try them?


  • At one time it was the fashion to have very pale skin and women would use leeches to drain their blood to make themselves appear pale.  What would you be willing to do for fashion?

 The leech jar is on display in The Science and Art of Medicine gallery on the 5th floor. 

-Kate Davis

I’m a scientist, get me out of here!

Registration is now open for I’m a scientist, get me out of here!

What’s it all about? Well if you’re a teacher who wants to deliver How Science Works and give their students a chance to meet and interact with some real scientists; or you’re a scientist who fancies facing up to a few students, improving your communication skills and making a difference, then this is a competition made for you :)

Thirsty for competition? This might be made for you!

Thirsty for competition? This might be made for you!

A little dash of X-factor flavour means scientists have to fight it out online to win the approval of the student ‘judges’.  Students get to ask the scientists questions about their work, and learn about their careers, so it’s a nice chance for young people to have a meaningful interaction with the ‘people behind the white coats’ (did you know they are real humans just like the rest of us?). There are also events linked to the competition throughout the year, and teaching resources such as lesson plans all ready to go.

The X-factor format is fun and familiar to your students, and because the competition takes place online, it’s pretty much hassle free and teachers won’t need to use any special equipment or materials (unless they want to!).

Why not take a peek?

Wonderful Things: Prosthetic legs

Did you watch the great performances of runners with prosthetic legs in the Paralympics?

Prosthetics are devices used to replace missing body parts.  Their use goes back to the fifth Egyptian Dynasty (2750-2625 B.C.) and they were further developed as amputation of limbs became used as a lifesaving measure in medicine.

Earlier prosthetic legs were made of copper and wood like this one found in The Science and Art of Medicine  gallery in the Science Museum.

A European prosthetic leg, 1880-1908

A European prosthetic leg, 1880-1908

While they were only used for basic functions like standing and walking, the present prosthetic legs have now evolved to make people more mobile, with more sophisticated functions – for example, enabling them to run in Paralympics. Indeed, Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius, the fastest man on no legs, ran the final round in the 2004 Summer Paralympics 200-meter event with the world record of 21.97 seconds!

GeniumTM Bionic Prosthetic System: for professional runners (left) and for everyday use (right)

It is expected that the development of prosthetic legs will go far beyond just running, and continue to improve their users’  quality of life. How far we have come, not only in the development of prosthetics, but also in our perception of disability. Oscar also competed in the Olympics, and folks even debated whether his ‘blades’ gave him an unfair advantage!

  • Do you think the boundary between Olympics and Paralympics will disappear by the development of the technology for prosthetic body parts?
  • Would you like prosthetic body parts, if they allowed you to swim faster, climb higher, or even fly with them?

The Genium Bionic legs are temporarily on display in Antenna gallery, Wellcome Wing ground floor. The European wooden leg is in The Science and Art of Medicine, on the fifth floor.

-Anita, Bancha, Sunkyung, Atsushi, & Daizo

By the way, a couple weeks ago we hit up the Wellcome Collection’s awesome Superhuman exhibition, all about the ways we have enhanced and adapted our bodies through history- and it’s really worth checking out.

Money-saving drones?

Robot drones, similar to the ones used in war zones in the Middle East, could  be used for crime fighting in the UK.

At least that’s what the police is calling for, as they launch the National Police Air Service today. Senior officer Alex Marshall thinks they are much cheaper than helicopters, can stay up longer and do things that you couldnt have people doing in the air!  “But is it acceptable to the citizens of Britain to have them in the air? The public needs to find it acceptable and it needs to be within the law.”

Police use remote-controlled drones to control anti-social behaviour

Police use remote-controlled drones to control anti-social behaviour

Indeed. This is an important debate; if we are happy to have military robots fighting our wars abroad, does that mean we want them to police our cities here? What are the benefits to us as citizens, and what is at stake? Will it make us safer, or just save a few (million) quid on the costs of running police air support? And of course, what about the humans behind the remote controlled robots- are they more likely to put people in danger because they are are detached from the ‘action’, are they to be held responsible if their robot accidentally hurts someone?

Lesson idea- to get your students talking about these questions, start them off playing the Robo-lobster game in Futurecade, & in small groups, have them discuss the questions they are shown in their results screen. Use our teacher notes for a little background science and further stimulus questions. Then why not hold a marketplace debate that includes different angles, eg the police force, regular citizens, civil rights activists and an aerospace engineering company. Finish up with a human barometer to guage your students’ personal feelings about seeing unmanned security drones in our skies, and get them to explain where they stand!

If you try this out, why not tell us about it? We’d love to hear from you :)

How cool is this?

Hi everyone and welcome back to a new school year!

Yes I know I’m a little delayed in this greeting, but better late than never…

So how cool is this: between August 17-31st, our digital game Futurecade was featured on the British Council stand at the National Science and Technology Fair in Thailand! We absolutely love it when folks across the world use our resources and help spread the word that science can mean something to everyone.

Why was the British Council exhibiting in Thailand? Well, they work over there to foster partnerships between science and tech organizations in Thailand and the UK, and through these partnerships they hope to develop public understanding and appreciation of science, especially amongst young people. Much of this is done through dialogue and discussion, so we were delighted and proud that Futurecade was chosen as an activity to engage the many young people (and adults!) that attended the fair during its 2 weeks.


Students playing Futurecade on the British Council exhibit

The stand also featured cutting-edge research projects for example Healthy Ageing from University College London, where visitors could explore the ageing process by trying out specs that worsen vision and gloves that made their hands shake (Hey! This fab team had a stand at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in London- we worked with them as well earlier this year!)

Students explored our games and cutting edge research on the British Council stand

Over a million visitors made their way through the Fair, an impressive number. Here’s hoping they were inspired by and enjoyed all the wonderful exhibits, and left there feeling excited about science, and about all the amazing technology we have in our world because of our unending curiousity. Dialogue about science and how it impacts our lives is so important if we want people to make informed choices and feel like they can have their say - and we are thrilled that Futurecade could be a part of that!

Btw, also check out the British Council’s science e-zine , a Science and Society resource that nicely links cutting edge research to the world that we experience. 

Thanks all you folks in Thailand :)