Happy New Year to all my readers!


Blogroll: IanVisits

Ian Mansfield, at www.ianvisits.co.uk, blogs many interesting London-related things. He recently posted some very nice cleaned-up versions of axonometric diagrams of all the London Underground stations (the diagrams were originally released by TfL). For example, this is the deepest station (Hampstead), where the platforms are 58.5 metres below ground level:

The Science Museum, London

The Science Museum, London (photo by Christine Matthews)

I have mentioned this museum before, but it deserves its own post. The Science Museum in London is a companion to the Natural History Museum, also located in South Kensington.

Science Museum interior (photo by “Geni”)

The Science Museum has seven floors of galleries and exhibits (see this directory). And it’s free! For those who can’t visit this fantastic museum in person, there is a collection of online stuff and a blog.

One of the highlights of my visit was seeing the reconstructed Babbage difference engine – the machine that inspired the steampunk concept. There were also many other interesting objects on display. The Science Museum is well worth a visit!

Reconstructed “Difference Engine No. 2” (photo by “Geni”)


The Double Helix, 60 years later

This photograph (by “Alkivar”) shows a reconstruction of the double helix model of DNA, constructed by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The metal plates are molecular models of bases (some of these plates are original). The model is located in the Science Museum, London (see also their photograph).

This model not only led to one of the greatest-ever breakthroughs in biology (see the original 1953 paper, as PDF), but also demonstrated that “playing with models” was an effective way of doing chemistry. The discovery built on X-ray crystallography work by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Raymond Gosling (see their papers and the famous X-ray photograph produced by Gosling). Chemical investigations by Erwin Chargaff and others also produced essential information.

The breakthrough by Watson and Crick is commemorated by, among many other things, the Cambridge stained glass window shown below (located in the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College, photo by “Schutz”).


Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey: a book review

Richard Fortey’s Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a book in praise of museums. Specifically, of the Natural History Museum in London, where he worked behind the scenes (sadly, I missed this venerable institution on my various trips to England).

The Natural History Museum, South Kensington (photo by “Valérie75,” 2007)

Founding father Richard Owen’s vision of the museum is described by Fortey as “a kind of paean to the Creator, a magnificent tribute to the glory of His works, a roll call of the splendid species created by His munificence and love for mankind.” A worthy goal, indeed!

Every museum needs a dinosaur – and founding father Richard Owen coined the term (photo by “Drow male,” 2008)

In a short story, Roger Zelazny once wrote that “museums mirror the past, which is dead, the present, which never notices, and transmit the race’s cultural heritage to the future, which is not yet born. In this they are near to being temples of religion.” For that reason, it is good to see that children visit the institution.

Museums “transmit the race’s cultural heritage to the future” (photo by Etan J. Tal, 2012)

However, museums of natural history also have a critical research role in scientific classification, and Fortey provides an inside view of how this works. For example, by 1980 the Natural History Museum had over 22 million specimens – just of insects!

In this behind-the-scenes photo, one can almost smell the formaldehyde (photo by “Loxlie,” 2006)

The book contains several interesting historical anecdotes, such as the story of the man fired for chasing the Loch Ness Monster.

The Museum did not look kindly on staff hunting monsters here at Loch Ness (photo by Sam Fentress, 2005)

One of the Museum’s treasures (described in the book as locked away, but now on show in an exhibit called “The Vault”) is an amethyst donated by Edward Heron-Allen and allegedly carrying an ancient curse – or so Heron-Allen’s letter says.

The Heron-Allen amethyst, “cursed and stained with blood” (photo from the Museum)

Overall, a well-written book, and a really great read (if you love museums, as I do).

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey: 3.5 stars