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

Science of the sprint

Whether you loved or hated it, sport has been on everyone’s minds over the past few weeks.

How did the athletes do it- what’s the science at work behind their incredible feats? Genetics certainly comes into play, but many other factors influence an athlete’s performance, from footwear, to diet and sleep.

So let’s give a little love to the worlds fastest man, Usain Bolt!

There are plenty of videos online about the secret of his sprint- here’s a good one. In brief, it comes down to his stride (longer than the other athletes’ – genetically gifted I guess) and his strength (near-superhuman, probably- but he had to train for that one).

Where does footwear come in? Well, we recently had a team of scientists down from Loughborough University running (no pun intended) a live event in the Antenna gallery- they work on biomechanics and high performance footwear- and it is really quite incredible how much engineering actually goes into a pair of running shoes!


So that’s it guys- get yourself some amazing high-performance trainers, and see you on the starting block in 2016! ;)


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