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chemistry

Continuing our Women’s History Month theme, today we’re celebrating International Women’s Day. As the theme for 2011 is ‘equal access to education, training and science and technology’, it seems like a good day to celebrate Kathleen Lonsdale, who in 1945 became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, along with microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (only 285 years after the men). Lonsdale was a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography, in which scientists fire X-rays at […]

March is National Women’s History Month. To coincide with the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, it seems an ideal time to look at the achievements of Marie Curie (1897-1934). Marie Curie was the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes – one in 1903 with her husband Pierre and the another in 1911 for Chemistry for her work on radioactivity. Like many of the objects Marie Curie used in her work, this flask has slight traces of radioactivity and needs to be […]

Many objects in our collections weren’t really meant to survive the long-term. Food stuffs are such an example. While food packaging is commonly found in museum collections, food itself is rarer. And if uneaten during their pre-museum life, these objects remain vulnerable. Destructive pests like the Biscuit beetle are so named for a reason. Within our stores are a number of foody objects, collected for a variety of reasons and which have so far eluded the appetites of both the […]

February 4th marks World Cancer Day. Alongside surgery, chemotherapy and hormone treatment, radiotherapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment for well over 100 years. Just weeks after Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895, student doctors began experimenting with the mysterious rays to treat cancer, and other conditions such as ringworm. By the 1920s, x-ray generators weren’t capable of making the intense beams of radiation needed to treat certain tumours. Hospitals turned to experimenting with radioactive materials such as radium. […]

How many uses can you think of for red cabbage? Not as many as James Watt I’ll bet… His friend William Nicholson wrote a Dictionary of Chemistry in 1795. The entry for red cabbage reads: BRASSICA RUBRA – Mr Watt finds that red cabbage affords a very excellent test, both for acids and alkalis; in which it is superior to litmus, being naturally blue, turning green with alkalis, and red with acids. The description of how he prepared the cabbage […]

Hope everyone enjoyed the holidays. If you got a bit bored of watching re-runs of the soaps while chewing on leftover turkey, you could have entertained yourself by tuning in to the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures. This year, materials scientist Mark Miodownik talked about everything from chocolate to elephants and you can still catch the lectures on  BBC i-Player. The RI’s Christmas Lectures began in 1825 and have continued ever since, pausing only during World War II. The roll of past […]

It’s that time of year when leaves cover the ground, there’s a chill in the air, and household pets look distinctly nervous. Hallowe’en has just passed and this weekend will see fireworks displays throughout Britain as the bonfires are lit for Guy Fawkes Night. But even the most spectacular pyrotechnics would be hard-pressed to beat these 17th-century creations. This engraving is from the Science Museum Library‘s copy of Pyrotechnia or, A discourse of artificial fire-works, written by John Babington and published in […]

Would you like to take a test to see what you’ll be like in the future? Well, if so an Oddy test could be what you’re looking for – although unfortunately it’s not suitable for human testing. An Oddy test is an accelerated aging procedure that we carry out on materials to see how they’ll react over time. It was first introduced by Mr Andrew Oddy in the 1970s and materials are enclosed in a test tube with metal coupons and heated […]

What’s the one gadget you couldn’t live without? Your mobile phone, PDA, music player, game console – or all those things combined in a sleek smartphone? No matter which device you choose, the one thing that all these gadgets couldn’t exist without is their rechargeable battery – the beating heart of the modern world. The first rechargeable battery was the Lead-Acid battery, invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté, but it was the Nickel Cadmium battery invented in 1899 by Waldemar Jungar that […]

Before my first visit to the Science Museum’s stores, I’d imagined having to search for my mysterious magnetic instruments in the midst of much dust and cobwebs in the warehouse from the closing scenes of Citizen Kane. In the rather more ordered and hermetically sealed rooms of Blythe House, the spider threads I found were of a much cosier sort. Encased in their own tiny frame, they rather reminded me of my great-grandparents in their wedding portrait. The two cocoons […]

This box contains a flight spare set of experimental surfaces for the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971. They were designed to tell scientists more about how different satellite materials and finishes – matt, shiny etc, would behave in the temperature extremes of space. It has always reminded me of a much larger experiment flown by NASA (LDEF – which stands for Long Duration Exposure Facility) that was covered with all sorts of equivalent surfaces. The LDEF was brought […]

What have Humphry Davy, Mike Melvill and my dentist got in common? Answer: They’ve all exploited the chemistry of nitrous oxide, popularly known as ‘laughing gas’. Davy experimented with euphoria-inducing properties of the gas with his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and James Watt. Davy was working at the Pneumatic Institution, set up by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical properties of inhaled or ‘factitous airs’. Davy pursued his experiments – part scientific, part recreational – with his normal con brio and was […]

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