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Alison Boyle

Alison is Keeper of Science Collections at the Science Museum.

Magnified bee from George Adams’ Essays on the Microscope, 1787 (Science Museum).

The European Space Agency has just released the first all-sky map from the Planck satellite. The centre of the map is dominated by purple swirls from the dust around our Galaxy, but Planck’s main business is to look closely at the blobby structures visible in the map’s outer regions. These ‘blobs’ show temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. Irregularities in the CMB became the seeds of today’s galaxies. The fluctuations in the background radiation were first mapped by […]

Recently, my colleague David mentioned that we’re planning a major history of science gallery as part of our master plan. It’s got us thinking about some of our favourite objects in the collections. Here’s one of my all-time tops: Yes, it’s a toy duck. But not just any old toy duck. It’s part of a consignment of plastic toys lost from a container ship in the North Pacific during high storms on January 10, 1992. Around 29,000 toys spilled from the […]

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the mighty Victoria Falls. As I stood at the falls’ edge drenched in spray, I spotted double rainbows formed by sunlight being refracted through the water droplets. One of the first people to explain how rainbows form was the Persian mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, who was born around 1260. Using a glass sphere filled with water to represent a raindrop, he showed that sunlight is bent as it enters the drop, reflects off […]

Fifty years ago yesterday, Theodore Maiman demonstrated the first working laser. At the time, there didn’t seem an obvious use for the technology (although several newspapers ran fanciful stories about ‘death rays’) and it was dubbed ‘a solution looking for a problem‘. Five decades on, lasers are so widespread that we barely notice our everyday encounters with them at the office printer, the supermarket barcode scanner, or the DVD player at home. The basic principle of a laser is pumping […]

The Shroud of Turin is on public display for the first time in a decade. The Pope paid a visit  on Sunday and over two million people are expected to queue up to see the shroud during a six-week showing in Turin Cathedral. Some people will be there because they believe the shroud is the burial cloth of Christ, others will be sceptics wanting a closer look at what has widely been dismissed as a medieval forgery. A strong case against the […]

Walk into any museum curator’s office and you’ll encounter a mass of books and papers. It’s not that we’re messy – well okay, I am – but a lot of the material we use can’t always be found on the web. Even on Stories from the Stores. One of my favourite books on my shelves is Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles by James Ferguson, who was born 300 years ago last Sunday. Published in 1785 (the first edition […]

On Tuesday I attended our annual ‘Fellows of the Science Museum’ reception, in which we recognise the contributions of leading scientists and educators. This year we were particularly celebrating female scientists, with a speech from new Fellow Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  In 1967, Jocelyn was a PhD student at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge. Her job was to analyse data from one of the telescopes for the characteristic twinkling of quasars. One day she noticed a ‘bit of scruff’ on the telescope’s […]

Caroline Herschel was the first professional female astronomer. We explore more about her immense contributions to astronomy.

Science Museum curators seem to have a curious affinity for tunnels. Stewart’s been down a sewer, David ventured under the Thames, and I’ve just been to one of the biggest tunnels in the world, a 27km ring under Switzerland and France. Yes, it’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Unlike my colleagues I didn’t get to enter this tunnel – that would be a bit inconvenient right now, as on Tuesday the LHC commenced physics operations, colliding beams of protons […]

Lots of talk about the budget this week – and science funding is still uncertain. But as these examples from our Cosmos & Culture exhibition show, astronomers have always had to rely on a combination of persuasion, impressive results and skilled PR to keep their work funded. Tycho Brahe’s observations of the ‘new star’ of 1572 (a supernova explosion) impressed the Danish King Frederick II. He subsidised Tycho’s research by building the finest astronomical observatory of the times. The next King stopped the subsidy, so […]