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Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!) I suppose the same can now be said of […]

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 […]

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 […]

It’s been an astronomical few days: The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society appeared on the radio to talk about all the big scientific truths that, apparently, ‘we’ll never know’, we celebrated the Summer Solstice, we saw Dr Who at Stonehenge, and – last Thursday – the Director of the Taipei Astronomical Museum came to the Science Museum. As a parting gift he presented me with a tie depicting the Sun and planets. I had come to work in suit and open collar shirt so […]

The other day I caught part of a short play on the radio. Prospero, Ariel, Reith and Gill told the story – partly imagined – of sculptor Eric Gill’s contretemps with BBC Director General John Reith in 1932. The occasion was the unveiling of Gill’s Ariel and Prospero on the edifice of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s newly built headquarters. Prospero and Ariel are leading characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but their names were also used for two of Britain’s earliest […]

A few days ago I drove past the ‘umbilical’ tower for NASA’s new (but now postponed) Ares rocket programme. Although smaller it is reminiscent of the far taller structures of project Apollo. Both Ares and Saturn were ‘mated’ to their respective towers inside the vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and then rolled out on a ‘crawler’ to launch pad 39 A or B at the stately rate of 1 mph. The towers for the soon to be terminated Shuttle programme, […]

Office move time again: sorting, listing, boxing, chucking… all a bit of a chore. But then you come across something a little out of the ordinary – like a Destination Mars Regenerative Life Support Challenge. This is a school kit put together by the Museum of Science in Boston, Lockheed Martin and NASA back in 1998. It contains all sorts of goodies to teach youngsters about how people might survive on Mars. It even includes a pack of seeds flown […]

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch… Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites. Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance […]

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, […]

London is the space insurance capital of the world. If you have a £150m satellite to cover then you’ll probably end up talking to an underwriter based at Lloyd’s in the City. I was mulling this over as I gazed up at Nelson on top of his column in Trafalgar Square the other day – I’d been taking a small detour to see what was going on in Downing Street – it was the morning after the general election. As I […]

If ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’, as the publicity for the film Alien says, then certainly no one can hear Country music. Except, that is, if they are in a spaceship. Outer space is a vacuum and – like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew – you can travel through it in a private capsule of sound. Each of the astronauts was allowed to take one tape on the mission, and Country music was […]

Recently I received an email alerting me to the launch of the United States Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, a winged, unmanned mini-shuttle capable of reaching orbit and then returning autonomously to Earth. Earlier that day I had been looking at 1960s military wave rider wind-tunnel models at the Science Museum’s main store. A wave rider is a particular design of aerodynamic wing – for planes and missiles travelling at hypersonic speeds (at least five times the speed of sound) – in which […]

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