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By Alison Boyle on

Wonder Wall: Cosmic Collections launch

Alison Boyle, Keeper of Science Collections, talks more about the Cosmic Collections launch.

At first glance, a replica of Isaac Newton’s telescope might not have much in common with a dark matter detector. And what could the first astronomical instrument with built-in photography possibly have to do with a tea towel?

Following the threads on the activity wall at the launch event for our Cosmic Collections competition, it all became clear. For the competition, we’re releasing data about more than 100 objects from our astronomy collection for people to incorporate into their own websites. We asked the event guests to build their own linking stories through a selection of the objects. The final result looked a bit like Jackson Pollock had gone crazy, but there were some great stories.

As to those links: the photographic instrument, which rejoices in the grandiose title of The Kew Photoheliograph, was taken to Spain to photograph the 1860 solar eclipse, proving for the first time that prominences are part of the Sun’s surface. And the tea towel is one of many delightful (or delightfully tacky, depending on your point of view) souvenirs of the 1999 eclipse. Throw in a photograph from the 1919 eclipse expedition to Brazil that backed up Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and you’ve got a story about eclipse-chasing and the science we’ve learned from expeditions.

Another string connected Newton’s telescope, the dark matter detector, gravitational waves and that 1919 eclipse photograph again. They’re all steps in the story of our understanding of gravity.

Other threads picked up on the tension between religion and science, homemade tools, extraterrestrial life, and the Herschel family as the ‘Linked In’ of astronomy – the last was presumably inspired by a fantastic performance from our very own ‘Caroline Herschel’.

If people can find that many different stories from the 20 or so objects we’d shown on the wall, imagine what they can do with the 100+ in the whole Cosmos & Culture exhibition. We’re looking forward to seeing the competition entries (reminder: they’re due in by midnight GMT on 28 November). If you’re interested in taking part you can find out more, check out resources, and sign up some teammates here.