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physics

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 […]

The Science Museum is formally over 100 years old. Over the century since 1909, it has had to compete with more and more media getting-in on the business of popular science. A hundred years ago, popular science publishing was already a big scene, as Peter Bowler shows in his enlightening new book, Science for All. Radio came along in the 1930s, and soon featured science. But our biggest competitor really got into its stride in the 1950s, when television began to […]

I set out to the National Physical Laboratory the other day and on my way down Exhibition Road passed an elephant. Some 250 of these colourful models are being positioned across London to raise awareness and funds for the plight of their living cousins. A little later something niggled at the back of my mind – as though that elephant was trying to tell me something – but I thought no more of it and caught a train for Teddington and […]

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 […]

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 […]

My favourite part of curatorial work is adding new objects to the collections. Aside from the warm fuzzy glow of knowing that something I’ve acquired will be stumbled upon by future generations of curators, visitors and researchers, it’s always an opportunity to find out something new and meet interesting people.  Recently, I visited the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for a whistle-stop tour. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a project to bring our physics collections up to date, and RAL is […]

If you’re planning to attend Monday’s Centenary talk on the Large Hadron Collider, you can spot a few of its distant ancestors as you pass through the Making the Modern World gallery en route to hear Brian Cox speak. Looming large on the left of the central walkway is the cascade generator from John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton’s million-volt accelerator. This generated 1.25 million volts to accelerate protons and smash them into atomic nuclei, breaking the nuclei apart. During the Second World War this apparatus was […]

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 […]

After over a year of delays, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has smashed its first particles together. The accelerator is due to commence full operation in the next few weeks (assuming it doesn’t get sabotaged from the future … or baffled by a baguette). Particles in the LHC travel at almost light speed, guided by superconducting magnets. They travel inside a beam screen, kept at a temperature of 5 degrees Kelvin (-268 Celsius), which shield the magnets from the intense particle […]

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