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By Alison Boyle on

This blog has gravity

Picture the scene. Two men are lurking at a London station, waiting for the Glasgow train. The train arrives and a third man disembarks, wheeling a suitcase. The three exchange some quick words of identification, the Londoners give the man from Glasgow an envelope of papers and he hands over the suitcase. The Londoners jump into a taxi with the suitcase … which contains a 23kg sapphire.

No, it’s not a scene from the latest Bond movie. The man on the Glasgow train was astronomer Martin Hendry and the others were my colleagues Doug and Chris. Martin’s department loaned us the sapphire for display, and rather than send our van the whole way to Glasgow and back we kept our carbon footprint down by arranging to  meet when Martin had to be in London anyway. Martin was back in London last weekend, and here he is with the sapphire in the Cosmos & Culture gallery.

‘What sapphire?’ you might ask. If you were expecting something blue and multifaceted, look again. It’s the round clear object on the front shelf. It’s pure synthetic sapphire and it’s a test mass for an experiment called GEO600, which is using laser beams to try and detect gravitational waves, tiny ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein. To find out more about these types of experiment work, check out this video on our YouTube channel.

Martin joined us to give a talk as part of our Cosmic Explorers Day event, which was supported by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrations.  The day looked at how we make sense of space (or try to) and the enduring influence of Albert Einstein. But Einstein’s influence has spread far beyond astronomy – here’s a fun example from our collections.

Why use an image of a German-Swiss-American theoretical physicist to sell an Australian shoe spray?  Well, Einstein did have sweaty feet (which, along with varicose veins, got him out of doing Swiss national service) and famously never wore socks, but the packaging makes no reference to this. The famous image of the white-haired scientist seems to have been used to reinforce the makers’ claim that the spray is ‘scientifically proven’ to eliminate shoe odours, showing how Einstein has become the face of science for many. Martin evidently approves – look at his Tshirt – although we are sure he has very fragrant feet!