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chemistry

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 […]

In my last post I showed you a section of gun barrel flattened cold by a steam hammer. Spectacular demonstrations of engineering muscle have often yielded cool Science Museum exhibits, and I thought you might like to see another one on show in our Making the Modern World gallery: This is a knot, tied cold, formed by a pair of inch-diameter rods of steel. It was made in 1885 at the Steel Company of Scotland, Glasgow, and comes from a collection […]

My attention was drawn last week to an incredible set of photographs taken recently in Notting Hill Gate underground station, during refurbishment. They show a deserted passageway sealed up in 1959, with advertising posters surviving untouched to this day: The full set, by London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage, Mike Ashworth, are on Flickr. One of them advertises the Science Museum’s then-new Iron and Steel gallery, depicting a Bessemer steel converter in mid-pour: I’ve spoken before (in posts about Barrow-in-Furness and Bessemer) about our […]

I stumbled across an old Monty Python sketch the other day that plays with words pleasing to the ear (‘woody’) or displeasing (‘tinny’). I chortled (nice woody word) but then started thinking about wood and science – we don’t often associate the two and we’re culturally conditioned to associate wood with words like ‘old’: and ‘amateur’; But appearances can be deceptive as the Mosquito aircraft demonstrated. It may have resembled its alloy contemporaries of World War 2 but its sleek exterior cloaked a strong, […]

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