The Sun: Living With Our Star

exhibition entrance

I managed to make it to the Science Museum‘s exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star before it closed. The exhibition looks at the history of humanity’s knowledge and beliefs surrounding the Sun and the part it plays in our actual and our imaginative lives.

Early humanity’s belief in sun gods searched for explanations as to why the Sun appeared to rise and set every day; we see statues of sun gods from various cultures, including one of the Sun being pulled across the sky by a chariot. In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus challenged the idea that the Sun went round the Earth, supported by Newton 200 years later. From the earliest times, sundials were used to tell the time: there are examples from the Anglo-Saxon era on display. Later, the development of clocks made the Sun less important for telling the time, and nowadays standard time is taken from a network of atomic clocks.

From the earliest times the Sun has been associated with good health. Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun, light, truth and healing, while apothecary shops often had the Sun as their symbol. In the 1880s, scientists learned that ultraviolet light can kill TB bacteria: sunbathing was encouraged, and sanatoriums were opened, often in places like the Swiss Alps, emphasising fresh air, sunlight and good food. Later, suntans became fashionable, as holidays in the UK and abroad were seen as a sign of wealth.

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On the other hand, sun exposure has risks, many of which have always been known about. In recent times there have been campaigns to reduce sun exposure and lower levels of skin cancer. Inuit people have been using snow goggles to protect their eyes from the glare of the Sun for thousands of years; the first sunglasses as we know them were used by Venetian gondoliers in the 1700s. Sunglasses became fashionable in the 1950s but rarely offered ultraviolet protection; modern ones are usually UV-resistant.

The exhibition explored how we have taken power from the Sun, using it for heat and electricity. The Olympic torch from the 2012 Olympics was on display: each time the ceremony is held the torch is initially ignited by sunlight, with a curved mirror used to focus the flame. The Sun was responsible for one of our biggest energy sources, coal, which is made of plants and vegetation buried and transformed over millions of years. Interestingly, even in the nineteenth century some people were aware that resources such as coal were finite: a book from 1867 warns that coal will not last forever. More recently, solar power has been used as an energy source, and there have been attempts to recreate the Sun on earth with nuclear fusion: a project called ZETA aimed to do just that in the 1950s, though the claim of success in 1958 was later proved false.

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The final section of the exhibition looked at how we have observed the Sun over the years and discovered more about it. The Sun is made of hydrogen and helium, discovered by splitting light into a rainbow structure through the use of a prism; this conclusion was first put forward by astronomy student Cecilia Payne in 1925. More recently, the European Space Agency Solar Orbiter is one of the most ambitious solar missions ever attempted, aiming to fly closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury. It is hoped that the mission will help us understand the origins of the solar wind.

Jewellery of the exhibition

To this exhibition I wore my Eclectic Eccentricity Helios Vintage Sun Necklace, along with a pair of brass star earrings from the same store and a sterling silver sunstone ring from now-defunct jewellery store Cheap Frills.

jewellery I wore to the exhibition

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution – Science Museum

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The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free exhibition at the Science Museum, looking at the life and death of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution. It explores their family life in the years running up to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the family’s murder in Ekaterinburg in 1917, and the eventual identification of their remains using DNA technology.

The science used to identify the remains of the Romanov family is the main point of the exhibition, but there is plenty of filler leading up to that, much of which I already knew having read up on Russian history and visited the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg where the family are now buried. However, there was a very interesting display showing how Queen Victoria passed on hemophilia to many of her children and grandchildren. The DNA section was also fascinating, showing how DNA from living royals including Prince Philip was used as a comparison to enable scientists to identify the remains.

In any case, it’s a free exhibition and well worth a visit.

Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph – Science Museum

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I visited the exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph, held at the Science Museum. Often called the “father of the photograph”, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the negative-positive process, a technique that formed the basis of photography around the world for over 150 years. The exhibition contains many photographs taken by him, as well as by those whom he inspired. Many of Talbot’s photos feature his home, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire. Though the subjects are often mundane: a door, a tree, a broom leaning against the wall – they are exciting because they are among the first photographic representations of such things.

The exhibition did take a fairly scientific slant (unsurprisingly, it’s the Science Museum after all), which went over my head at times. However, there were snippets of fascinating information, too. In France, another photographic pioneer, Hippolyte Bayard, was so annoyed that his contemporary Louis Daguerre seemed to be getting all the credit that he created a photograph of himself as a drowned man with a suicide note on the back. Pretty dramatic. Ultimately, it was the pictures that were the fascinating things for me.

The exhibition runs until 11 September, so there’s still time to catch it.

Ada Lovelace – Science Museum

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Ada Lovelace is having a bit of a moment right now. The daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, she was brought up by her mother Annabella Milbanke to focus firmly on science and mathematics. However, it would be a combination of mathematical ability and the ability to make profound imaginative leaps that would ensure her place in scientific history.

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This small free exhibition at the Science Museum marks the bicentenary of Lovelace’s birth. It contains portraits, letters and notes as well as some of the calculating machines that she worked with. The exhibition demonstrates how her collaboration with Charles Babbage (who called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”), creator of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, led her to explore the potential of these machines, suggesting that in the future they would be able to manipulate symbols, not just numbers. Her work, which anticipated modern computing a century before Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, has led her to be labelled the first computer programmer.

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I admit that the science of these machines goes right over my head, but I am definitely an admirer of Lovelace and her incredible achievements, particularly in an age when women were hardly ever able to study scientific subjects. She definitely deserves to be better known, and hopefully this exhibition will go some way to ensuring this.

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Clockmakers’ Museum

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Originally assembled by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, the Clockmakers’ Museum is the world’s oldest clock and watch collection. Once located at the Guildhall, it can now be seen on the second floor of the Science Museum in South Kensington. It looks good in its new home, with chronological (naturally) displays of the history of clock and watch-making in London.

The Clockmakers’ Company (a Guild) was founded in London in 1620, with a Royal Charter granted in 1631. The museum contains many beautiful clocks and watches, demonstrating the fine workmanship and beautiful design that helped to make London the centre of the timepiece-making world for several centuries, until it lost out to the cheaper countries of continental Europe.

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One of the museum’s stunning clocks

I liked looking at the beautiful watches and clocks, still working after hundreds of years, and was impressed with the earliest examples of the clockmaker’s craft. There were even sundials! I was particularly fond of the eighteenth and nineteenth century ladies’ pocket watches, beautifully decorated, and was also very interested to see a clock which belonged to the Discovery and was taken to Antarctica.

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One of the earliest examples of clockmaking

It was interesting to see how timepieces developed over time, starting out as rather large objects but gradually becoming smaller and smaller, eventually leading to the wristwatch that we know today, although larger clocks have not yet gone out of fashion. The museum ended with a look at current cutting-edge watch technology and design – despite the proliferation of smartphones it doesn’t look as though more traditional timepieces are going to die out any time soon.

FACTS

Address: Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD

Website: sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/clockmakers-museum

Opening Hours: 10-6 Mon-Sat

Prices: Free

Gathered Leaves: The Photographs of Alec Soth – Science Museum

I had some time left at the weekend so popped into the Science Museum to visit the exhibition Gathered Leaves: The Photographs of Alec Soth. The exhibition, which takes place in the Museum’s Media Space, showcases works by one of the world’s most famous documentary photographers, including pictures from four collections: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014).

I’m no photography expert but I admired the poignant, intimate pictures, capturing the personalities of characters across America and the different, often vast landscapes. The collection of Mississippi images was my favourite, with its echoes of great American literature such as the work of Mark Twain. Definitely worth seeing.

Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy – Science Museum

The Science Museum‘s Media Space is currently home to two exhibitions, one of which focuses on one of my favourite Victorian photographers. Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, which is free to visit, contains pictures from the National Photography Collection, taken largely from the Herschel Album (1864), 94 images which Cameron compiled into a book, feeling that they were her finest. Originally a gift to the scientist Sir John Herschel, Cameron’s friend and mentor, the works still have a great deal of power even after all these years.

I first came across Julia Margaret Cameron’s work during a holiday on the Isle of Wight. She took up photography relatively late in life, when she was living in Dimbola Lodge on the island. I was fascinated by her work, and this exhibition, which also includes her camera lens – the only surviving piece of her photographic equipment – and handwritten autobiographical notes, reminded me why. The photographs from the Herschel Album, and those Cameron took later in life in Sri Lanka, are beautiful, artistic and imaginative, taking inspiration from fairytales and Biblical stories.

Open until 28 March next year, this is the first of two exhibitions in South Kensington mounted to mark the 200th anniversary of Cameron’s birth. The second opens at the V&A on 28 November.

 

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age – Science Museum

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One of my most anticipated exhibitions of the year was the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. When we think of space travel, we often think of the USA’s feat of landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s status as the first human to step on to the moon. However, it was the Russians that led the way in terms of space exploration.

After the Russian Revolution, many Russians dreamed about space travel and I enjoyed looking at the pictures and models from the early 20th century. For instance, Georgy Krutikov’s drawings of capsules and space cities date from 1928, well before space travel became a reality. The exhibition charts how the dream became a reality: the first satellite in space (1957), the first animal in orbit (1957), the first man in space (1961), the first spacewalk (1965), and the first on Mars and Venus (1970s).

Models and diagrams help to bring home the enormous complexity of the task, and souvenirs, statues and posters emphasise how individuals such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova became lauded as national – and international – heroes. Even in the context of the Cold War, Gagarin’s visit to London in 1961 was a huge success. My favourite aspects of the exhibition were the inclusion of personal items such as cosmonauts’ space suits and the tiny capsules that transported these pioneers around the earth, now charred and blackened after shooting through the atmosphere. It was sobering to look at these compact capsules, which now seem almost retro, and to think that they were responsible for successfully keeping their inhabitants safe as they orbited.

Later in the exhibition, the technology of space travel at the time is explored, with items on display including different clothes for different situations, food sachets, and even a shower. As space travel was such a new concept, the designers made use of feedback from the cosmonauts as to what worked and what didn’t. The shower was not particularly popular.

I loved this exhibition – it was absolutely fascinating. It runs until 13 March next year, so don’t miss your chance to visit.

Time Travelling Operating Theatre – Science Museum

Described as an “immersive live theatre performance”, I was immediately attracted to an event at the Science Museum called Time Travelling Operating Theatre, which purported to offer insight into what operating theatres were like in 1884, 1984 and 2014. I do love immersive theatre, and despite my inherent squeamishness I have an interest in the history of science and medicine, so I really wanted to attend this free event.

The event was organised by Imperial College Centre for Engagement and Simulation Science. When I got there I began to wonder if it was in fact aimed at medical professionals and students – attendees had to fill in a questionnaire and from the conversation around me I gathered that many other people there had a vested interest in the subject matter. Having said that, I later discovered that there were plenty “ordinary” members of the public present, though the “immersive theatre” aspect was not what I expected. Nevertheless, I did find it incredibly interesting and worthwhile.

We watched three surgical re-enactments, each using genuine medical professionals along with authentic sets and costumes. The Victorian-era operation, set in 1884, was perhaps the most interesting to me, as it’s a time I am especially interested in. During this period, internal operations were in their infancy, owing to the relatively recent introduction of anaesthetics; administering pain relief was still a far from exact science and the anaesthetist, usually an assistant rather than a specialist, would have to keep careful watch on the patient to establish how much to give. Anaesthetics were given via a cloth placed over the patient’s mouth. Operations would usually take place in the patient’s house; the set was an ornate room lined with bookcases, and to modern eyes looked both oddly homely and appallingly unhygienic. After visiting the Old Operating Theatre Museum near London Bridge a few weeks ago, this fitted in nicely, exploring the post-anaesthetic stage of surgical history.

By 1984 things had moved on considerably, and operations took place in hospital, with surgeons gowned and equipment sterilised. The kind of operation we were watching – the removal of a gall bladder – was still performed via open surgery, which involved one large incision. However, conditions were much more hygienic and this sort of operation was relatively straightforward with a high success rate.

Interestingly, the professionals performing this re-enactment were those responsible for advances in keyhole surgery, the technique demonstrated in the 2014 scenario. Keyhole surgery is much less invasive and means a much faster recovery time. Here, computer screens helped the surgeon complete the operation via much smaller incisions, using long instruments which did not require first-hand viewing of the area to be operated on. Masks were no longer worn, most instruments were single-use, and robes were blue instead of green (they don’t look so bad when covered in blood, apparently). The patient’s vital signs were monitored via a computer, and the job of the anaesthetist was much more specialised, measuring the correct dose of drug for each patient. I was surprised by how noisy this particular room was, with chatter from the professionals present, music, and mobile phones all in evidence.

One of the interesting aspects which came out of watching all three re-enactments was the roles of the various medical personnel involved. In the Victorian era, the roles were distinctly hierarchical with the nurse and assistant following the orders of the head surgeon. There were still elements of this by 1984, but by 2014 the structure was much more democratic, and the atmosphere of the operating room much more relaxed. Music was allowed, talking was more common, and staff kept in touch with the outer world via modern technology such as mobile phones.

Surprisingly, although, as I have mentioned, I am incredibly squeamish, I didn’t have any problems observing any of the surgeries, even though they were very realistic. Perhaps I was just interested, or perhaps the scenarios were so clean and “ordered” that I found it hard to relate them to the things that normally make me feel queasy.

After observing all three scenarios, there was a discussion with clinicians, historians, medical ethicists and policy-makers that included attendees at the event. It examined surgical ethics – such as the element of patient choice – and I found it really enlightening. To date, I’ve been lucky enough not to need surgery in my life (unless having several teeth taken out of my tiny mouth via general anaesthetic as a pre-teen counts…) but after attending this event I feel much better-informed, and if I were to need surgery in the future I think I would be much less apprehensive about it.

This event wasn’t really what I was expecting, but I still felt that I got a great deal from it. I would recommend it to anyone with any interest in the history and future of surgery, whether you have professional medical knowledge or are a lay person with no relevant experience at all.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography – Science Museum

Revelations: Experiments in Photography is an exhibition at the Science Museum which looks at photography with a science theme over the last two centuries. Scientific photography influenced art, but was also valuable in its own right, as it was able to capture images and phenomena invisible to the naked eye.

My favourite work was Ori Gersht’s Blow Up (2007), which captured a still life in the act of exploding, a magnificent and beautiful work. However, the one with the best title was undoubtedly Chickens, scared by a torpedo (c. 1878), a picture by the photography of movement pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. Early images by photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot were shown, alongside works by modern artists such as Harold Edgerton and Hiroshi Sugimoto; I particularly liked the former’s dynamic Bullet Through Lemon (c. 1955). However, overall I preferred the older photographs, and was sorry to see that most of the pictures in the exhibition were comparatively modern. Admittedly this is a personal preference, and the exhibition is certainly worth seeing if you have an interest in the subject matter.