Category Archives: powerful questions

A Futurecade Review

My name is Essence H. and I am 14 years old. Today I am writing a review on Futurecade digital games as part of my work experience at the Science Museum.

After playing all 4 games, I concluded that the one I enjoyed the most was ‘Robo Lobster’ which is about robots destroying sea mines so humans don’t have to. I enjoyed this game the most because I found it quite easy to get into and a fun game to play. I also find the idea of robots taking over the jobs of humans quite interesting as these games are based on real scientific research happening today. Although I enjoyed ‘Robo lobster’ the most, if you actually link all these games to real life and consider the idea of them being actual scientific research, then they are all interesting in their own way.

Robo-Lobster is about using robots to destroy sea mines

Robo-Lobster is about using robots to destroy sea mines

In my opinion, starting a lesson off by playing Futurecade could be a good idea because it can act as an icebreaker or introduction into the topic, as it would be something new. Or it would be a good idea to have Futurecade at the end to conclude the lesson- because students would already have prior knowledge of the topic which they would have learnt that lesson, to link in with the games so the understanding and interest level may be higher.

Another point is, especially reaching KS4 like I have in year 10, learning can become slightly stagnant and it’s quite easy to lose interest and focus in a lesson. The idea of learning through games is something different and more fun than a whole lesson of your teacher explaining something verbally.

To any teachers interested in using Futurecade to help teach a topic, I would definitely say go with it! I think it’s a good idea particularly with KS3 students to help them examine the ethical and moral implications of using and applying science.  I would say a reasonable timescale to let the children spend on Futurecade would be about 10-15 minutes and include it in maybe 2 lessons (not more than that because once you’ve played them a few times the interest level of the games drops slightly). If they wish to play the games for longer, they can always access it for themselves at home which can lead to further independent study.

In conclusion I approve of Futurecade and definitely think we should include lots more games to help link in across the school’s curriculum!

Thanks for your time Essence – hopefully you’ll fly the Futurecade banner back in school! Futurecade has been shortlisted for a BETT award in the ‘secondary digital content’ category, which we’re thrilled about. If you’re using Futurecade in the classroom make sure you check out our support notes which are packed with background science, lesson ideas and facilitation questions for discussion.

Let us know how you use them!

Molecular… storage?

Once upon a time we stored books, papers, vinyl records, and photograph albums. We put them on shelves, in boxes, in cramped attics. Now we store all of that treasured information as digital files on hard drives, or online somewhere far far away… But if this news is anything to go by, we could soon be storing our life’s most precious memories in flasks of DNA!

Yes, scientists have managed to create strands of DNA that encode Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a photo, and even a snippet of audio from Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. The info was then translated back out with perfect accuracy.

What’s so great about DNA storage? How about the fact that DNA lasts for thousands and thousands of years? And takes up just the teeniest amount of space? Both rather important when it comes to storing loads and loads of information!

Of course, DNA-based storage isn’t about to happen tomorrow- it’s still incredibly expensive, and it would take a long time to retrieve data from its molecular encoding.

I asked a couple of tech-savvy friends for their opinion:

“Test-tube computing, once they sort out the speed (2 weeks to read an MP3!) and cost (their method costs about $12,400 per megabyte stored). Love the idea of being able to store all the world’s information in a unit the size of a shipping container.”


Well, this is just saying that DNA can be decoded and understood. Therefore electronic information can be encoded in a similar way DNA is encoded, and then decoded and read. Doesn’t mean it’s the best encoding/compression method. There are probably more optimized compression algorithms. Also the more technology advances, the less you want to use archiving/compression/encoding. It’s just an excuse to write an article!”

What do you and your students think about molecular storage? Would you trust your most precious memories to DNA?

Wonderful Things: Chimpanzee brain

Meet the brain of your closest living relative in the Animal Kingdom…

Look human?

Look human? This brain belonged to a close relative…

It is easy to make the assumption that this is a human brain… the visual similarities are plain to see! But this is in fact the brain of a pan troglodytes, or as we know them, the chimpanzee.

We share a stunning 94% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and we can see the incredible closeness we have with them by looking at this brain. To the untrained eye the only difference we can see is in size – the human brain is a whopping three times larger than that of our hairy little cousin!

The similarities are not just on the surface but in the development of the brain itself. Humans and chimpanzees are perhaps the only species in which the brain continues developing after birth. When we are born, the part of our brain that controls our most complex cognitive functions, such as self-awareness and creativity, is not fully formed yet. It then starts developing very quickly…and much the same happens with chimpanzees.

So why do both humans and chimps share this commonality? The answer, it seems, is that this delay allows human and chimp brains to learn things they otherwise would not be able to. The delay gives their brains far greater plasticity, which, as Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University explains, leaves “their neural network and brain function more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experience.” Basically, the time spent waiting for the forebrain to grow is spent learning complex social interactions and establishing basic skills that will serve humans and chimpanzees well over the course of their lives.

 Of course, there comes a point where the human brain develops and moves far beyond that of the chimpanzee, but by that stage the chimp has gained the ability to do many things that continue to astound scientists. They have their own complex method of communication, but research has shown they can also understand basic human language and comprehend numbers and counting. They also use tools to help themselves on a day-to-day basis and have good memory skills. Incredible!

Chimpanzees are so smart that in 1961 the American Space Program sent a young chimp called Ham into space! He operated levers in a basic space capsule which paved the way for a human manned capsule several months later. Ham returned safely to Earth and lived the rest of his life as a national hero.

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

  • What does it take to man a solo mission into space like Ham? Do you think you could do it?
  • After seeing how similar our brains are, do you think Chimpanzees can ‘think’ like humans?
  • How would you feel about donating your brain to science?

For more about animals in space, check out the Laika the Spacedog Opera for KS2…

The Chimpanzee brain can be found in Who Am I?, on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing

-Shaun Aitcheson


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’?

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

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.

Wonderful Things: Human Genome books

From Keith Richards to Jordan, books about people’s lives fly off the shelves. But what if they looked like this….?

Dense bedtime reading in the Human Genome books

Created from the Human Genome Project, these replica books (a printed version can be seen at the Wellcome Collection) show the sequence of 3 billion bases of DNA contained within a human cell.

Who did this?

 Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome project, coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the national institutes of health, intended to identify human genes, develop understanding of genetic diseases and highlight key developmental processes of the human body.  Whilst initial analysis was released in 2001, the final sequence was completed in 2003.

 What exactly were they looking at?

They were looking at the biological data which makes us unique; the things which make us, us.

 Sounds simple. What about the Science?

Ok. To start with, a genome is all in the DNA in an organism, including its genes which carry information for making proteins.

DNA is composed of four letters carrying instructions for making an organism – A, C G AND T.  Three of these letters together create an Amino Acid. These combinations make up 20 different amino acids and come in a vast number of different orders to create proteins from keratin to haemoglobin.

 Got it.

The human genome is made up of 3 billion bases of DNA, split into 24 chromosomes. Each chromosomes contains a selection of genes – the human genome contains about 20,000 – 25,000 genes.

 Ah, so that’s all the letters?

Exactly. This information can be used to develop new ways to diagnose, treat and someday prevent diseases. Scientists also studied the genetic makeup of non-human organisms including e.coli, the fruit fly and a laboratory mouse.

 Sounds useful, if not a bit sci-fi.

 Yes and, as with much boundary-pushing scientific research, this can lead to opposition and criticism. This was the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues around data.  You might want to think about:

  1. Who should have access to this information?
  2. How much should people intervene with genetics material?
  3. How could this information be used?
  4. Could it be used for financial benefits?

 After all that, fancy some beach reading? 

 The Human Genome book is in the Who Am I? Gallery:  first floor, Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: Babbage’s brain

Would you expect to find human body parts in the Maths and Computing gallery?

Bizarrely, you can find one half of Charles Babbage’s brain which was donated to the Hunterian Museum by his son Henry (the other half is still with the Hunterian). Many brains of ‘great men’ were kept in the 19th Century to try and discover the nature of the link between the brain and consciousness.

Babbage was a computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, scientist, philosopher and political economist!

Babbage, who was seen as a brilliant thinker is regarded as the first computer pioneer. He used his genius-like brains well, excelling in many scientific subjects and after graduating from Cambridge University, he returned in 1828 as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. What a boffin!

During the 1820’s, brain box Babbage devised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured £1500 from the government and hired the engineer Joseph Clement. However, the project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over £17,000 to build the machine – equivalent to the price of two warships!

It’s widely accepted that the reason for the collapse was because Victorian mechanical engineering was not developed enough to produce such accurate parts. However, some have suggested that it was more to do with issues of economics, politics and Babbage’s temperament and style of directing the enterprise. Not such a genius then….

The Science Museum has a special relationship with Babbage and in 1985 the Museum used its own brain power and launched a project to build Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. It was completed and working in November 1991, one month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. This proves that had it been built during his life, it would’ve worked.

The figure wheels of Babbage's Difference Engine No 2. Not exactly a Casio calculator is it?

What computer gadget can you not live without?

Can you tell anything of a person’s abilities from bits of their brain?

How do you feel about museums displaying human remains?

Babbage also worked in the field of codebreaking.

With this in mind, why not create a trail for your students to visit our Alan Turing: Codebreaker exhibition, the Maths and Computing galleries to see Babbage’s brain and Making the Modern World to see the trial portion of his Difference Engine and the first Apple I Mac computer!

Babbage’s brain is in the Maths and Computing gallery on the 2nd floor of the Museum.

-Denise Cook