Category Archives: powerful questions

Wonderful Things: Argo float

The Argo program was set up by a collaborative of research groups at the turn of the century in response to growing concerns about global climate change.

Named after Jason’s “Argo”, a ship in Greek Mythology that undertook the treacherous voyage to capture the Golden Fleece, this ambitious program involves the deployment of data-collecting floats in oceans across the world. They sink to depths of 1500m and only rise to transmit information in real time via a satellite which allows sea temperatures, salt levels (salinity) and ocean velocity to be monitored. There are currently over 3000 floats in circulation.

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

All Alone: Every year new floats are deployed building an ever more dynamic picture of our oceans

One of the most significant features about Argo data is that it is freely available to anyone (www.argo.net). The speed with which the information is recorded and published allows oceanographers to quickly draw seemingly conclusive analytical reports about trends and changes in our oceans.

However, the accessibility of the survey network can lead to problems. Information published has not always been accurate and science writers are quick to use Argo data to shape and support their theories, rather than allowing the data to collate over time to form more conclusive readings.

It is expected that in the not too distant future, the Argo global dataset will provide crucial indications that global warming is happening. Some feel that there is already enough evidence to support this theory and that we should take immediate action to combat its effects.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the people of the world have put their absolute faith in your hands. How would you use Argo data findings? Consider:

Can we really suggest global warming is occurring based on monitoring the oceans alone?

To get a truly conclusive indication that climate change is happening might take many more years of Argo data observation. Would you wait or take action now, potentially making decisions that will affect the lives of millions?

Would it be better if the data collected was less readily available, or do you feel that everyone has the right to such information?

The Argo float is in the Atmosphere Gallery, great for all age groups to explore the many issues concerning climate change in a balanced and engaging way.

-John Inch

Wonderful Things: Trephination set

When suffering from a headache or migraine most of us reach for paracetamol, or aspirin. But, would you consider removing a piece of your skull to reduce the pain?

Trephination – or trepanning- involves making a small incision, by drilling or scraping, in the skull to expose the dura mater (the outermost, and toughest, of the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord), to treat problems related to intracranial diseases.  Whilst it sounds unusual – and very uncomfortable – this is believed to be one of the oldest medical procedures, with skulls as far back as the Neolithic period showing signs of trephination.

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

The right tools for the job! Trephination set circa 1770-1830

In Ancient Egypt, skull scrapings were used to create potions. Both Hippocrates and Galen mentioned the procedure, and it would continue throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with many people surviving, as seen in archaeological excavations where trepanned skulls show signs of healing around the edge of the hole.

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

3500-years ago, this patient survived the trephination

There are several possible explanations for this procedure:

  • The collection of rondelles, or skull discs (small discs used as charms or amulets to expel demons).  
  • By cutting the bone away, practitioners believed it would cure convulsions, headaches, infections and even fractures by ridding pressure, or removing spirits

Although disregarded by many, the practice still exists in contemporary medicine, but is used mostly for the treatment of epidural and subdural haematoma (a ruptured blood vessel between the skull and the brain.)

Some people today still have the procedure carried out, with many purporting its benefits in increased levels of consciousness or intellectual capacity. 

  • Would you give trephination a go if it made you extra clever?
  • How do cultural or religious issues affect the treatment of pain and illness?

  • In the future, what contemporary medical procedures will seem unusual?

An example of a trephination set can be seen in The Science and Art of Medicine, 5th floor, Wellcome Wing.

 -Christopher Whitby

 

Hello bug-burger!

How will we feed ourselves in the future?

With more and more people on the planet demanding meat, whilst climate change threatens our environment and the price of food goes up, shouldn’t we be worried about where we will get our next meals?

Yes. And lucky for us, there are teams across the world working on how we are going to sustain our exploding population in the decades ahead. 

In the West, many of us are used to eating meat every day. But what if it became a luxury food again, and we had to resort to other sources of protein instead of our beloved burgers?

Insects – or mini livestock- are one interesting idea; many people in the world already eat them, spicy fried locusts, crunchy dried larvae… they are a good source of protein and easy to farm. They’d just need a bit of an image revamp to suit our squeamish sensibilities!

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do...

Dig into an insect feast! Many others already do...

A worm kebab not doing it for you? What about algae bread? A lab-grown steak? Or making that Kit Kat taste sweeter by listening to bells as you devour it.  All these ideas are being researched now, some will catch on, and some definitely won’t.

One thing is for sure though- food and eating are the very basis of human survival and culture, so anything that impacts that will also affect us very deeply. I wonder what will our meals be like in 20 years time? (Here’s hoping I can still whip up a mean spaghetti al pomodoro without resorting to a can of spider eyeballs!)

Wonderful Things: Crime light

Looking back over the centuries, how many crimes committed back then would have reached a different conclusion if they occurred today with the use of modern science and technology?

 Advances in Forensic Science means that crime-scene evidence can be accurately gathered and examined, from collecting DNA and fingerprints to gunpowder residue from armed robbery, kidnap and murder.

 DNA profiling is a powerful tool in identifying a killer. Present in every cell, it identifies you and only you and it is what’s usually left behind at a crime scene.

 The Metropolitan Police estimate that they examine over 11,000 crime scenes each month and here in Who Am I? gallery, you will be able to take a look at a display of a real-life case that they needed to solve. The equipment that you will see was used by a team of forensic scientists who worked with the Metropolitan Police to solve the crime, using the latest DNA profiling technology and forensic science techniques, in particular a light source examination of the scene and objects.

 One of the items on display in this case is a crime light which was used at the scene and in the lab to detect body fluids. This LED forensic light source called Crime-lite uses filters of different colours along with viewing goggles to reveal blood splatters and fingerprint evidence otherwise difficult to detect just by looking. Providing intense, even and shadow free illumination for locating evidence, Crime-lite uses a white light for general search and seven narrow band wavelengths in UV, violet, blue, blue-green, green, orange, and red.

Crime-Lite- A Forensic's handiest tool?

Take a look at how a real forensic scientist from the Metropolitan Police North-West fingerprint lab uses this technology to detect and enhance hidden marks on a knife from a GBH incident.

  • Can you think of any infamous crimes that would’ve benefitted from a ‘Crime-lite’ or DNA profiling to solve the case?
  • Can we rely on evidence collected in this way? Is it always 100% accurate?
  • What could contaminate evidence? What preventative causes do you think police officers on the scene of a crime take to make sure they don’t disturb any evidence?

 Fancy letting your students having a go to see if they can solve a crime? Our KS3 Crime Lab kit contains three activities that covers scientific techniques related to identity and can also be used to solve our crime story about an attempted robbery at the ScienceMuseum.

To learn more about how DNA evidence can help us solve crimes, visit the Who am I? gallery on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing.

-Denise Cook

Sceptics, change your tune

No, this isn’t about the Olympics… I’m sure you’ve all heard so much about Olympic fever (you may even be deep in the grips of it), so we’re going to give you a break from it for a minute.

This is about climate change (and we’ve heard so much about that too!). That the climate has been changing is almost universally accepted inside and outside scientific circles- but that the fluctuation is actually due to human activity has been a matter of debate for some scientists.  Now a groundbreaking study has given powerful indications that the 1.5C rise in temperature over the past 250 years is due to our busy work on the planet- and has even turned some sceptics!

So what is different about this study compared to all the others? First of all, it analysed data as far back as 1753 (previous datasets only collected from mid-1800s), and instead of having a human organize the data, it was done entirely by a computer (eliminating the criticism that scientists would apply their own bias to the data). The research plotted the upward temperature curve against suspected ‘forcings’ to analyse their warming impact- for example solar activity, or volcanoes. It turned out the best match was for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels- which as we all know have been on the rise, linked to our use of fossil fuels and the ice caps melting.

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Interestingly, the results of the data analysis were all released before this paper was even published- another move aimed at appeasing the climate sceptics! So whilst some continue to be vocal about their dissent, others including Prof Richard Muller (who started the whole project!) have changed their tune: “We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds.”

That’s really powerful, because we don’t always think of scientists having an agenda, but they do- just like any other people they have beliefs and theories about the way the world works. But if we are to get closer to understanding the way it really does work, we must be open to changing or refining those ideas if new evidence arises.

Luckily we aren’t the only ones who say this! Einstein said ” The important thing is not to stop questioning…” and that is one of the most important skills for your students to pick up, not just scientifically but applicable to all walks of life.

We like to model this for teachers and students using Mystery Boxes - try it out as an icebreaker, and to teach How Science Works in a fun, hands-on way.

Wonderful Things: Henry Molaison’s brain

When you think of the world’s most famous brain, whose comes to mind?

 Freud’s? Einstein’s? Marie Curie’s perhaps?

True, all these had quite a lot to offer in the grey matter department, but when it comes to offering the world a clearer picture of the human brain and providing vital insights into the formation and storage of memories, the prize goes to a man by the name of Henry Molaison.

In 1935, 9 year old Henry got in an accident with a cyclist in his home town of Hartford, Connecticut; he hit his head and later developed intractable epilepsy. In 1953 at the age of 27, in an attempt to correct his seizures, he was referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, for treatment. At that time, neuroscience was quite rudimentary and the procedure carried out on Henry was unprecedented. Scoville removed both temporal lobes of his cerebral cortex and a sea-horse shaped structure called the hippocampus. That’s quite a lot of brain tissue gone.

Brain model- green sections indicate the Temporal lobes removed by Scoville

The operation succeed in dissipating his seizures, but unfortunately he emerged unable to form new memories. They had removed a part of his brain that was responsible for storing short term memories! Neurologists refer to this state as profound amnesia.

He lived the rest of his life this way, remembering events that occurred before his operation and unable to form new ones after it. He knew  his mother was Irish and also about World War 2, recalling almost nothing after that. Luckily for the world of neuroscience, Henry wanted to help people and gave himself to neurological research for the rest of his life until his death in 2008.

Before Henry Molaison (or Patient HM as he is often known to psychology and neuroscience students), memory was an abstract idea, now, thanks to Henry and his brain, we can see where long and short term memory areas are formed in the brain.

Section of HM's brain indicating where tissue was removed

Had Henry not being so willing to help science to better understand the human brain, many people may not have received the treatment they needed to help with their conditions.

How do you feel about donating your body to Science?

Can you think of any reason that would prevent people from doing so?

 Would you donate your pet’s body to science?

If you would like to see and hear elements of this fascinating story, visit the Who Am I gallery on the first floor in the Wellcome wing of the museum.

-James Carmody

Wonderful Things: Water testing kit

The leading UK charity Oxfam is currently running its biggest ever emergency appeal for Africa. The failure of the late 2010 rains has meant that more than 10 million people from the Horn and East Africa are in desperate need of food and clean water. Since the late 19th Century, we have been all too aware of the risks of consuming dirty water, but for these people in the affected areas of Africa, contaminated water is sometimes the only option. Unfortunately, a dreadful consequence of this is that many people are now suffering from water-borne diseases such as Cholera.

Cholera is caused by the ingestion of bacterium Vibrio cholerae present in faecally contaminated water and is characterised by the onset of acute watery-diarrhoea; leading to death by de-hydration. However, Oxfam is working to stop the spread of water-borne diseases by treating the water that is used for drinking, cooking and washing.

However, how do we know what’s in the water before we learn that it’s contaminated? Take a look at this piece of kit below:

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This is water testing apparatus; used between 1865 and 1900. During this period, many cities including London were in the grasp of deadly water-borne diseases, including cholera. This object tested for the presence of organic matter and chemical pollutants in water; thereby being a useful tool in the prevention of disease.

This kit came less than a decade after John Snow first argued that cholera was a water-borne disease. Before this time, the medical profession preferred the idea of germ theory, championed by Louis Pasteur who argued that diseases were spread by noxious ‘bad air’.  Fortunately, we now know differently and this knowledge is going some way to educate people and purify drinking water. In fact, Robert Reed at the University of Northumbria and Isaac Bright Singh at Cochin University in Kerala, India, are collaborating on a research project exploring the possibility of using sunlight to decontaminate water. Could this be a cheap and limitless way of protecting people from water-borne diseases?

If access to clean drinking water is a human right, should everyone be responsible for helping people in developing nations get ahold of it? 

Get your students to work out how much water they use on an average day. How could they cut down?

Visit the Water Wars feature in the Antenna gallery to find out about the water footprint of our food.

-Denise Cook

Wonderful Things: Sailing chart of the Marshall Islands

Since modern man began to leave the continent of Africa nearly 70,000 years ago, practically every inch of the inhabitable earth has been reached by human settlers. Today, we base so much of our identity on our nationality; where we think we come from, and where our ancestors originated.

The far-flung islands of Polynesia were the last places to be populated and current inhabitants are thought to have come from South East Asia. On their long-stretching trade voyages, Malaysian seafarers judged the distance they had travelled using charts, creating early forms of maps such as this one from the Marshall Islands.

Sailing chart of the Marshall Islands

Sailing chart of the Marshall Islands

The sticks recorded ocean swells and the sea shells represent islands strung throughout the North Pacific. The skilled seamen used ‘way-finding’ navigation based on their observations of the sea, sky and monsoon winds.

According to the International Organization for Migration, “No universally accepted definition for ‘migrant’ exists.” However, the term is generally applied to groups of people moving from one area to another in order to settle and improve their way of life.

In man’s earlier days this meant conquering unknown lands and seas that had never been seen before, but in present society, asking ‘How did you get here?’ may be ever more relevant as populations become more and more ethnically diverse for so many reasons.

Imagine your local area experiences a natural disaster like a flood.  Where would you go? Nowadays it is easy for some of us to travel around, but for people in developing countries and indeed for many of our predecessors, it wasn’t as simple as getting into a vehicle or following a map.

Ask someone where they’re from and most will answer without hesitation, with the country of their birth, their upbringing or their parents’ home country. Science can now tell us, using techniques such as DNA testing, how our genes decide who we are but also from whom exactly we have come.

Should the National DNA Database be used to help people find out about their personal ancestry?

What does your nationality mean to you?

 The Sailing chart of the Marshall islands is in the Who Am I gallery, on the first floor in the Wellcome Wing

-Ruby O’ Shea

Phew!

Wow, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind the last few weeks, culminating with the first Talk Science Seminar yesterday. We had a brilliant time, hopefully everyone in attendance did too!

We welcomed about 60 museum professsionals from far and wide,  and it was a real pleasure to see, hear & participate in the discussions around ideas from ‘ghost’ objects and QR codes, to handling collections and extension objects.

 

Call a taxi! Objects great and small can inspire us...

We tried to give participants a forum to explore why and how we should use our collections to support the teaching of science- and with so much food for thought coming from the day, it looks like we will have plenty more to tackle in future seminars. 

The lovely Rebecca Mileham was our keen reporter during the day, gathering ideas and unpicking trends in the conversations- her findings will be published in the next couple weeks, along with some great cartoons (thanks to the fabulous artists!) that captured the breaking thoughts of the day. We loved seeing those on the wall in the afternoon, eliciting the emotions all over again.

Rebecca Mileham pulled together the findings of the day

Rebecca Mileham pulled together the findings of the seminar

If you were there, thank you for participating. And drop us a line at learningresources@sciencemuseum.ac.uk if you are interested in attending or speaking at future events!

For now, I will leave you with some thoughts that came out of yesterday… Do you agree with them, disagree wholeheartedly, do they intrigue you?

“barriers faced by teachers in museums: too many objects,  poor interpretation, and students’ expectations”

“learning is tied to curriculum stipulations. But what about curiosity?”

“museum objects are inherently interesting. Do we  really need complex technology to interpret them?”

“museum learning is about enquiry skills more than about the content”

 Open for discussion :)

 

 

 

Wonderful Things: Phrenology head

Psychics, psychologists and even friends attempt to read our minds; navigating what we do and how we say it to predict our actions. German-born Franz Joseph Gall took this one step further by suggesting an individual’s actions and disposition could be seen by literally examining the physical construction of their head. Sound like a wild idea?

How bumpy is your brain? Phrenological head, 1825.

Phrenology, from the Greek phren: ‘mind’ and logos: study/discourse’ (a fact for you all), was a complex method which examined the bumps of the skull to attempt to determine an individuals psychological attributes. Practitioners ran their fingertips and palms over the patient’s skull noting any enlargements or indentation, and used callipers to measure the overall size of the head.

So, the theory: Gall believed that the mind possessed a number of different faculties, discrete departments, each specialized and corresponding to a particular task or tendency, and that the cranium responded accordingly to accommodate these differences in size and shape within the brain. Gall had previously examined skulls of pickpockets noting many exhibited bumps slightly above the ear and suggested that these characteristics of stealing or deceiving could be linked to a formation in the brain.

Logically for Gall, these differences across the cranium could be linked to areas of the brain (or mind) which corresponded to particular characteristics and therefore could be used to predict the temperament of the patient. This was similar to Hippocrates’ ideas in Ancient Greece that excessive amounts of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm caused certain moods, behaviours and emotions.  

Whilst some of Gall’s ideas regarding the brain have been influential in 19th century psychiatry and modern neuroscience, the practice of Phrenology is considered a pseudoscience by many. Gall was unwilling to respect or acknowledge data suggesting the inaccuracy of his technique whilst any anecdote or evidence seeming to confirm his ideas was met with enthusiasm.

Gall’s method of analysis show how new scientific developments require rigorous questioning and interrogation through peer reviews and honest data. However, it also demonstrates that whilst an idea may not be sound overall it can help in new developments.

The Phrenology head can be found in Who Am I? on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby