Tag Archives: museum collections

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

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

Talk Science Seminar

The Talk Science Seminar is something we are all excited about, have been busily preparing for, and happens on Wednesday!  It’s the first in a series of seminars exploring the potential of museum collections to support the teaching of science. 

As we who work in museums know, collections and the stories they tell are wonderful sources of inspiration, stimulating awe (‘that’s REALLY been to the Moon!’) and creativity; objects can open up discussion around science today and in the context of history, making links between technology and its implications on society. 

Would you have bought a ticket to fly on the first passenger plane?

How can we use our collections to support science teaching at all levels? Can we bring the museum learning philosophy to the classroom? What can we gain by doing so, and what are the challenges?

We’d like the seminars to be an opportunity to address these questions from different angles, as well as a forum for ideas- so they are open to anyone who has an interest in this.

So whether you are a museum or a science centre professional, a teacher or educator, a scientist, or undertaking a museum studies degree- we welcome you to come explore and discuss how we can use our collections to engage young people (and others) with science.

 We are excited to see where this takes us- the findings from this Wednesday will be disseminated online (watch this space), and if you would like to register your interest for future seminars, drop us an email at Learningresources@sciencemuseum.ac.uk

Hope to see you here soon!