Science and Technology

stiff-flop-100pxDr Helge Wurdemann, Project Manager for STIFF-FLOP from The Centre for Robotics Research (CoRe) (Department of Informatics, King’s College London) will exhibit the STIFF-FLOP project at Robots Live! on 15 June 2014. Here he explains what STIFF-FLOP is and what visitors to Robots Live! can expect.

Robots Live! is on Father’s Day, this Sunday 15 June 2014 at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune. See sparks fly as competitors from Robot Wars battle it out in the arena, discover new innovations in robotics and solder your own electronic device and meet the engineers shaping our future.

STIFF-FLOP aims to create a robotic arm inspired by octopus tentacles and focuses on the development of soft and flexible surgical robots that can adjust their stiffness as required for a wide range of surgical procedures. These new tools are expected to be inherently safe and as such represent an important step forward in minimally invasive surgery. Up to now this type of surgery has been dominated by rigid, surgical tools that have great limitations when required to bend in order to reach targets behind other organs and are even known to damage healthy organs at times.


STIFF-FLOP robotic surgical system will be demonstrated at Robots Live! on Sunday 15 June at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

Professor Kaspar Althoefer, Director of the Centre for Robotics Research in the Department of Informatics, King’s College London and coordinator of the STIFF-FLOP project says:

With the long term aim of making use of multiple surgical tools modelled after octopus tentacles, we will at some point need to address the issue of multi-structure navigation and coordination.


STIFF-FLOP robotic surgical system will be demonstrated at Robots Live! on Sunday 15 June at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

STIFF-FLOP robotic surgical system will be demonstrated at Robots Live! on Sunday 15 June at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

We are very excited by these developments and hope to model the found reflex mechanisms using computer algorithms and to apply those to multiple soft robots working conjointly to avoid entanglement. We believe that this technology can be developed alongside our work on creating soft, stiffness-controllable robot devices and will find application in the field of robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery.

STIFF-FLOP robotic surgical system will be demonstrated at Robots Live! on Sunday 15 June at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

STIFF-FLOP robotic surgical system will be demonstrated at Robots Live! on Sunday 15 June at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

The demonstration at Robots Live! will show the entire robotic surgical system consisting of a SCHUNK Powerball Lightweight Arm equipped with the novel STIFF-FLOP manipulator. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore the structure of the manipulator and to navigate the bio-inspired arm inside a phantom torso.

A guest post by Anastasia Pipi, student placement at the Department of Science & Technology

Before starting my placement at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, I had visited two or three times. One day was never enough, considering that it houses five different sections, each able to stand as a museum on its own. This is something I really enjoy about it, as a visitor and as an intern, since it offers a holistic approach with connections springing out between topics that might seem unrelated at first glance. Even sharing the morning coffee with staff from World Cultures is a great way to avoid focusing too much on your topic and forgetting about everything else!

I came here as part of my Masters in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Edinburgh. With a degree in biology and most of my work experience coming from research labs, I have to confess the museum environment seemed quite daunting, but an interesting challenge anyway. Most of my placement took place at the Department of Science and Technology (Keeper Alexander Hayward). My main supervisor was Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator of Technology and co-supervisor Alison Taubman, Principal Curator of Communications.

On my first day, I was introduced to the Science and Technology Department and also to Learning and Programmes, who gave me an overview of what they do, which was very relevant to my studies. I was taken for a tour around the current Science and Technology galleries and got familiar with some plans for refurbishment and new galleries. My first task was to do some research on 3D printing leading up to an event for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

My core task was to do research on a currently developing gallery about communications, and specifically about recent advances in computing and processing capacity. Here, my background in the life sciences came in handy, since many cutting edge applications (such as the Human Genome Project and the Human Brain Project) depend on supercomputers. I was also encouraged to develop an interactive for this gallery. Walking around the museum and observing to what extent visitors engaged with the interactives was an extremely useful exercise in the process of developing my own.

Klaus and Elsa Davidson (Curator of Technology) were kind enough to take me along to a trip to ARTEMIS Intelligent Power, a University of Edinburgh spin-off engineering company developing hydraulic power technologies. There, a possible collaboration was discussed, and we had the chance to look around, meet many employees and learn about the history and objectives of the organization. I was impressed by how many young inspired people worked there and I believe it should be an example for many workplaces. However, I was surprised by the lack of female employees. Are women so uninterested in engineering? Or are there other factors still keeping this profession male-dominated?

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

An unforgettable experience was visiting the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton. The amount of objects collected as well as the time span that is covered is truly astonishing. Additionally, seeing objects in storage gives you a good idea of the value of exhibiting and interpreting. Without labels telling stories, the objects appear naked and almost meaningless. Realising the cultural wealth ‘hidden’ in storage and how objects on exhibit are only the surface of this treasure was something unexpected.

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton.

During my placement, I also had the chance to meet the Communications team and had a chat with Communications Officer Bruce Blacklaw about various roles in the interface between the Museum and the ‘outside’ world (marketing, PR, media and press relations). We also discussed what makes a topic newsworthy and how an interesting and informing press release should look. I wrote my own press release about the Mammoth Poo Detectives workshop planned for the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was glad to know it would actually be used by the Department. I also attended a photo shoot for a newspaper feature on the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was exciting not least because of the privilege of seeing an exhibition before it was officially launched.

Finally, I had a brief discussion with Development Manager Charlotte di Corpo about fundraising and met Rose Watban, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design in the Art and Design Department, to find out about the history of some of the collections, the challenges of bringing a gallery together and the infinite possibilities for inter-departmental collaborations.

Overall, my experience as an intern at the Museum was very interesting and rewarding. Klaus and Alison ensured I had great guidance and used my time productively, but also Maureen Kerr, Departmental Administrator, made sure my placement ran smoothly. Everyone at the Department of Science and Technology was very friendly and helpful, and people from other departments were happy to give me an idea of the work they do. I have to say I enjoyed my time here, met some lovely people, and enriched my own set of skills. Last but not least, I got familiar with a workplace I knew very little about and will consider further volunteering and maybe even work experience in the museums sector.

ATLAS supercomputer

My ATLAS impression

Becky MumfordBy Becky Mumford, work placement student with the Science and Technology department

If I were to summarise my time at the National Museum of Scotland with one phrase, and I make no attempt to avoid clichés, there is much much more than meets the eye. The Science and Technology department was my base for a five week work placement, where I was hoping to achieve a general feel for what the day to day working life of a curator involved. Alison Taubman, Principle Curator of Communications and my main contact at the museum, as well as the rest of the department, quickly made me feel at home – particularly over the morning coffee/gossip!

My first week was spent generally getting a feel for the place by meeting other members of staff and departments and trying not to get lost in the rabbit warren of stairs, offices and corridors behind the scenes. I was primarily assisting the curators on plans for new Science and Technology galleries due to open in 2016 and it has been fascinating, if not slightly daunting, to see the amount of work and issues that arise when attempting such a huge project.

Moving an 18th century block instrument

Moving an 18th century block instrument.

Every Monday afternoon was spent with Dorothy Kidd at the department of Scottish History and Archaeology. Here I sorted through and archived a huge selection of photos linked to Lochee Nursery and Ancrum Road School, Dundee. Many of the photos and documents appeared to be donated by a particular family in the area – it was amazing seeing the whole family history laid out in front of me marked by births, weddings and deaths as well as a number of family holidays. They were all dated from the early 1910s to 1940s so were a fascinating insight into a way of life now very different from my own.

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee.

Over the course of my time at the museum I made several trips to the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, a treasure trove of objects often bizarre and mysterious. The rooms filled with huge machinery, another with bones and another with rows and rows of bicycles were a joy just to wander around. Here I assisted by measuring and taking objects to the Photography and Conservation departments, a process much more time-consuming than I ever expected. The sheer size of not just the whole collections but some of the objects meant a lot of time was just spent moving or searching for items somewhere in the series of shelves and rooms that make up the museum stores. At one point we unearthed a beautiful original drawing of a beam engine by Boulton and Watt from 1786 not seen for years! Another day was spent assisting a crew filming an object created by the art collective Found for Durer’s whiskey – it seems the draw of the museum stores is universal.

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography.

One particular highlight was a departmental trip to Stanley Mills, an 18th century textile mill in Perthshire. I drove up to Stanley Mills with Alex Hayward, Klaus Staubermann and Emma Webb from Learning and Programmes to look at their impressive array of interactive exhibits for inspiration with regards to future displays. The museum did indeed have a great number and variety of interactive displays. This included a series of games to give children a feel for the concentration, quick reflexes and the tedium involved in working at the mill and interactives to divert water flows to manipulate different styles of waterwheels, ideas that we would hope to draw on as the plans for the new galleries develop. The day was topped off by a visit to Stewart Tower dairy for lunch and giant ice creams all round – if only this could happen every week!

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills.

To get as broad an overview of the different work involved in running the museum as possible I spent some of my time among other departments. On one afternoon I helped carry out visitor consultations for Scotinform to gather data and opinions on the plans for the new galleries. This was an excellent reminder that a museum is as much for public engagement as it is about collecting and preserving and research. More time was also spent in the Development and Marketing and Communications departments, helping with museum events – yet another aspect of backstage museum life I had failed to consider.

Over the past five weeks I definitely feel I’ve started to grasp the complexities of museum life and the work involved for the curators here. I thank Alison and the team for making me feel so welcome and my time so enjoyable. I now can’t wait to come and visit the museum once the new galleries are up and running!

By John Hutchinson, volunteer with the Science and Technology department

I have been a volunteer at National Museums Scotland for about five years now and work within the Science and Technology department; not at the Museum on Chambers Street but in the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton. This in itself gives a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the museum and its collections.

National Museums Collection Centre

The National Museums Collection Centre in Granton.

I thoroughly enjoy my time there and although the work, if described to an outsider, might be considered as repetitive and never ending as we are recording 19th and 20th century engineering drawings, it is far from that possible impression.

The drawings in themselves are the working ‘patterns’ that were used to create many intricate machines, some very large machines (such as a machine for putting the pattern onto lino) and to see the detail to which all were drafted is incredible. Precision, clarity and attention to detail are viewed by us on each drawing we are dealing with. I find great enjoyment and honour to be one of a very few who can see these now and understand how they came about. I think I must have had some encouragement from my father, who was an architect and created plans almost free-hand to design houses using a beautiful set of drafting pens with ink on a large drawing board.

But other than this main thrust of my current work and the S & T project to ensure the future safety and cataloguing of all drawings, I often do other things. This includes finding machines within Granton, identifying parts of machines and then locating the actual machine that they belong to in the stores, taking and returning items that need to be photographed and seeing and handling (carefully and with gloves on!) the first sewing machine to be made.

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias  Howe of the United States of America

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias Howe of the United States of America.

Life is not boring or repetitive and when you come across an item that is the same as one that you also owned (as I have done), then perhaps that is the time that you realise that you are also a trainee fossil! It is fun and I love it, long may it continue.

Sam FairbairnBy Sam Fairbairn, Scotland Creates volunteer

On Thursday 28 November 2013, our Scotland Creates volunteers launched three animated films presenting objects from our Science and Technology collection in a new and exciting light. The launch formed part of Museum Takeover Day, a national initiative to celebrate the contribution made by children and young people to museums. Special events at National Museum included performances of science show Alex’s Amazing Adventures by Holy Rood High School and a song-writing workshop with Scottish rock band Miniature Dinosaurs. The animated films, devised and directed by the volunteers, can be seen in the Connect and Shaping Our World galleries until 21 April 2014. The Scotland Creates project is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Creative Scotland.

My summary

How do I sum up the exhibition? It was an amazing sight, seeing all the ideas that we started with come together to create something awesome. It was hard work but it paid off seeing the people who came along to see the animations.

How the day went

The day started off with a lot of last minute preparations while waiting for people to arrive. Then at two o’clock the guests started arriving and we were in charge of seeing that the guests were all in the room so that the introductions and the animations could be screened. Once the guests were all seated there was an introduction by the Community Engagement Manager, Christine McLean, who introduced what we had been doing and then the lights were dimmed, signalling the start of an introduction to what we had been doing in the build-up weeks leading to the opening. And then the animations started!

The first animation shown was Dolly the Sheep, then Bionic Arm vs iPad and finally it was the film about Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell. You can see the opening to Bionic Arm vs iPad here.

Once the previews had finished we then watched a flash mob dance by pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy. Then to finish of the day there was a live performance by Miniature Dinosaurs, which finished the official opening for the exhibition.

Pupils gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery

Pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery.

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery.

My final thoughts

The day went well, no problems came up and it all ran smoothly which was good, and the guests had good feedback on the animations. The exhibition runs in the Science and Technology galleries at National Museum of Scotland from 28 November to 21 April 2014 if you’re interested. I would certainly go see it.

A guest post by Kirke Kook, National Museums Scotland Collections Volunteer and Community Collector for the Science Museum telegram project

In February this year I was offered a unique opportunity to be involved in an exciting project initiated by the Science Museum in London, which aims to narrate British history through telegram messages.

Whilst museums, when displaying the history of communication, usually concentrate on the thrilling machinery used to send telegrams, the stories that telegrams tell have remained largely unexplored.

Constructing their new Information Age gallery, London Science Museum has decided to display not only the machines, but also the spectrum of messages that were sent through them. During the past few months, I have been involved in preparations to record telegrams not only for the benefit of the Science Museum’s collection, but also for the National Museum of Scotland.

I am currently contacting local museums, societies and associations in Scotland which could help spread the word about the project in their communities. After establishing my contacts, I will invite people to bring in their telegrams, which I will then scan. People have an option to either donate the original telegram to either of the museums or to allow me to add a digital copy to their preferred museum’s collections.

Telegram sent to the Royal Scottish Museum

Doing business: telegram announcing the dispatch of a new addition to the museum’s collection in 1924.

Telegram drama

Telegram drama: a message delaying a museum visit to the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Company due to an accident in their mining shaft, also in 1924.

Although the official collecting campaign is taking place in July, I have already scanned some great telegrams brought in by the staff and volunteers of National Museums Scotland. I have got a flavour of British India in the 1890s, and experienced life in the roaring ‘70s via telegrams sent by a staff member’s father (a member of a rock band) to her mother (a Lionel Blair girl), both touring the country with their troupes.

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973.

Some other telegrams, however, have more intimate stories to tell, for example, a grandmother announcing her arrival from France to help to care for a grandchild gravely ill with meningitis.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Earlier in May I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to Aultbea in the Scottish Highlands to introduce the project to the veterans of the Russian Arctic Convoys. Anna McKessock, daughter of one of the men serving in the Arctic Convoys in the 1940s, holds the train ticket and telegram sent to her father, Stanley, to inform him of the death of his mother. However, the return trip from Aberdeen turned into an adventure of its own:

“His mother died when he was based in the South of England and he had gone home to Aberdeen for her funeral. He was sitting on the train from Aberdeen back down south and… a group of lassies got on the train somewhere outside Newcastle and started talking to him. The next thing he knew, they pulled him off the train and he ended up spending the day at their work – a Newcastle brewery! They were brilliant lassies… he got free beer all day. He made it back to his ship but he cannae remember how…” tells Anna.

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013.

Talking to the veterans and local villagers in Aultbea showed me how unique the riches can be that so many people hide at home! I am very happy that I can be part of unveiling Scotland’s telegram stories and I hope that people will continue to help me share their experiences, whether personal or wrapped in local or national history.

Get involved!

National Museums Scotland telegram collecting day is taking place on 20 July, 10.00 – 17.00.

To have your telegram scanned and recorded on any other day, please contact Kirke Kook at for more information.

Other museums involved in the project:

The Riverside Museum event is being held on 27 July. Please contact Elena Trimarchi at for more information.

The National Railway Museum event is taking place on 28 July. Please contact for more information.

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum event is taking place on 31 July. Please contact John Wallis at for more information.

The Cardiff Story event is taking place on 13 July. Please contact for more information.

Mike Loftus, Assistant Aircraft & Technology Conservator at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Mike Loftus is responsible for conserving aircraft and other technology objects ranging from complete aircraft to small objects like medals from the collection at National Museums Scotland. Here he describes an unusual conservation solution for the Comet 4C airliner using a retro activity toy! See it on display at the National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

In the conservation of large engineering objects we use many processes and materials,  many of which remain invisible to the viewer. Some of these processes and materials are vigorously tested in the field of conservation to ensure suitability, durability and reversibility and some will come from industry as engineering standards with decades of case studies and data outlining their suitability for application to objects.

de Havilland Comet 4c, National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Boy jumping from blast shelter in front of de Havilland Comet 4C, National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

One such project that requires the application of conservation and industrial processes is the Comet 4C commercial airliner at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune. The main scope of the current work is the prevention of water ingress.

Windows on the Comet 4c at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Windows on the Comet 4C at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

To facilitate this we are reconditioning the window seals, which requires the windows to be removed from the aircraft. This leaves us with the problem of how to block the holes to prevent the weather getting in whilst the windows are in the workshop.

Inserting Space Hoppers to the windows on the Comet 4c at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Inserting Space Hoppers to the windows on the Comet 4C at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

Fortunately one of our volunteers, John Thomson, who is a former employee at Torness Power Station, had faced similar problems during his career in nuclear power generation. During the first major power shut down at the power plant in 1989 they had to devise a way of blocking pipe ends whilst work was carried out.

A tight squeeze - Space Hoppers in the Comet, National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

A tight squeeze – Space Hoppers in the Comet, National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

One of the engineers present suggested using one of his grandchildren’s Space Hoppers to plug the hole, denying the child leisure time fun but providing a perfect solution to the engineering problem. As you can see the solution is far from invisible but it is a most effective temporary solution.

Emergency exit window from the Comet undergoing conservation at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Emergency exit window from the Comet undergoing conservation at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

I will miss the pleasant orange glow mood lighting when they are eventually removed but I’m sure our conservation grade space hoppers will come in handy for future projects.

Space Hoppers on view outside the Comet 4c at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

Space Hoppers on view outside the Comet 4C at National Museum of Flight, East Fortune.

A guest post by Chella Quint

Jupiter is OWNING the night sky right now. Seriously – check it out – it’s like you can reach out and touch it. On a clear night, look up. That big thing you think is Jupiter? It’s totally Jupiter. You can watch it cross the sky as it moves through the ecliptic (that plane the planets appear to spin round on like a hula hoop) and marvel at the awesomeness of space. I’m a big fan of space. Can you tell?

If you love space too, and the clouds are cramping your style, you can do what I do whenever I’m in Edinburgh – visit the Sendtner Orrery.

You know the orrery? It’s in the Earth in Space gallery at National Museum of Scotland. An orrery is a model of the solar system and it’s named after the 4th Earl of Orrery. (I always wonder if some kind of etymological hat trick could be achieved by eating a sandwich while wearing wellies and looking at the orrery.)

The Sendtner Orrery is always my first stop at the museum. It was made by Mr. Michael Sendtner of Munich, Germany, and has just finished its run as Object of the Month to mark its centenary.

The orrery in the Earth in Space gallery

The orrery in the Earth in Space gallery. Photo by Jenni Sophia Fuchs.

I was first drawn to this awesome little planetarium when I noticed the description on the front of the object:

“Made in 1912-13, the orrery does not include Pluto, which was not discovered until 1930. However, since Pluto was demoted to the status of ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006, the orrery is up-to-date again.”

When I started doing research for my 1913 project, I remembered the orrery and wanted to find out more about it. It was such a cool thing with a quirky sign. How did it work? Why did the museum want to commission it specially? Did they congratulate themselves when they installed it?

“Great orrery, folks! Good work! Well, that’s all the planets done. Let’s get ourselves a T.rex, shall we?”

How annoyed were they when Pluto was discovered in 1930?

(It was on my mind, because my research told me that the Woolworth Building was the tallest and most opulent skyscraper in the world when it was completed in 1913, but it was usurped by the Chrysler building just a mile or two up Manhattan Island, also in 1930.)

For all of the National Museums Scotland curators over the past century, what must it have felt like to be in charge of an expensive, specially commissioned, permanent exhibition that was MISSING A PLANET?

How professionally smug could one allow oneself to feel in 2006, when Pluto was officially demoted?

When I read the sign, I remember thinking, Now THAT’S a curator who likes accuracy!

I vowed to meet the current curator and see if I could find out more.

Okay, so it turned out that I didn’t need to do anything as dramatic as vow to meet the curator – I just had to email her and arrange a visit.

A few weeks later I found myself talking to Tacye Phillipson, Curator of Science, and she was signing me into the bit of the museum that is not normally meant for the public. Before I found out that ‘behind the scenes’ consisted of offices, archives and a fairly typical looking break room, I pretended I was Nicholas Cage in National Treasure (the bit where he’s going on about the importance of preserving historical artefacts – not the bit where he’s wanted for treason).

We were about to look at the museum’s acquisition archives. These were big old books of letters. Now I was imagining I was June Brown in Who Do You Think You Are. (I had to wash my hands, but unfortunately I didn’t get to wear little white cotton gloves and I was kind of disappointed.)

As we started to look through all the correspondence and documentation related to the orrery, I began to discover something about the character traits of people who enjoy working in museums.

It turns out all curators like accuracy. It’s a pretty major component of what they do.

Take the curator who did the acquisition in the first place – Dr. Alexander Galt. He thought it would be pretty straightforward, but it took two long years and a series of politely irate correspondence before the orrery was finally entered into the acquisition book.

What happened? According to the letters, there were delays, corrections, edits, malfunctions, and a particularly galling accusation from Mr Sendtner that the museum staff had failed to pack the orrery away for safe travel!

Dr. Galt’s reply to that particular missive retains a thin veneer of civility, but the subtext, clearly, is We are archivists! Packing things away safely is one of the two main things we DO! The other, by the way, is displaying them accurately, so could you perhaps proofread your planets and try again, because we have some very excited children and adults here waiting for the word ‘nerd’ to be invented and for the ORRERY to arrive! (I may be taking liberties with the subtext here. But read the letters yourself. They’re fascinating, and the museum has scanned and uploaded them. You can find them at the link above.)

He just about contains his near-apoplexy later in the year when most of the stars are painted onto the surface of the orrery in the wrong order. He resorts to tersely worded diagrams.

One of Galt's despairing letters to Sendtner.

‘This one is correct!’ One of Galt’s despairing letters to Sendtner. Photo courtesy of Chella Quint.

The final product is a gorgeous piece of mechanical engineering in a beautiful glass and metalwork sphere. It’s so steampunk it hurts. It’s humbling to see the solar system in miniature, and to know how much effort went into getting it here. Was it worth all that trouble to get it right? Yeah. If it’s going on display in a museum, it’s got to be. We can’t have everyone thinking space is the wrong way round. How would you ever find Jupiter?

Chella looking through the orrery

Chella looking through the orrery. Photo courtesy of Chella Quint.

If you think Dr. Galt is hardcore, though, consider the curators who demand precision outside their jurisdiction. Take Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and astrophysics superstar. He appreciates the importance of sub-editing space, and is a stickler for astronomical accuracy. Good on him.

In one of his recent podcasts, he recommended that visitors to his city take a tour of all the ‘cosmic iconography’ in New York. Give it a listen – it’s a great episode. Here’s the science bit:

“…you go into Grand Central Terminal and look up. There is the night sky as imagined by people at the time, who put the sky on the dome. Except the stars are BACKWARDS. That… just… yeah… just DON’T get me started. Okay? Backwards, and Orion the Hunter, is facing forwards. In this field of backwards stars.”

The ceiling at Grand Central Station

The ceiling at Grand Central Station. Photo courtesy of Chella Quint.

He’s right. I’m from New York, and since the ceiling was restored in 1998 I’ve had the opportunity to pass through Grand Central many times. Whenever I’m there, I always look up at the painted ceiling. It is really beautiful, but, other than Orion, the stars are on backwards. A lot of theories were put forward and contradictory explanations abound, but none of the designers, financiers or painters from back then could get their stories straight as to how or why it happened.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal. Photo courtesy of Chella Quint.

Just as I was finishing up this blog post, Tacye herself emailed me to explain early astronomical artistic licence.

“Most celestial globes (western ones, that is) follow the convention that the stars are painted as imagining the Earth (and the observer) in the centre of the globe – so you get the back of Orion’s head and everyone else’s too, often looking over their shoulders. I have attached an image of Perseus from a most glorious globe (it’s by Coronelli and in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nationale).

“Of course this convention does sometimes get broken for artistic effect (as with Medusa’s head). Interestingly the Islamic tradition had figures on globes face outwards – just reversing the face, so sometimes this results in them brandishing their swords in their left hands. If someone copied most of the constellations off a globe they would be backwards compared to the sky. Oh dear. Accuracy, eh?”

I’ve read up on it, and Tacye’s got a point. Some of the arguments at the time involved things like, ‘But this is how God sees us, and you can’t argue with God!’ and ‘This is how the constellations would look from space!’

Except that the constellations only look like that from our perspective on Earth. They look totally different from space. Cubism and Modernism weren’t introduced to New York until March of that year at the Armory Show (another 1913 first), or I bet they could’ve called it Modernist and called it a day.

Sounds like Grand Central needed somebody like Dr. Galt to get to the bottom of things, demand the decorating be redone if need be, and ensure the people of New York did not get their constellations in a twist.

But Dr. Galt was a little busy at the time. The newly restored Grand Central Terminal opened on 2 February 1913 – one hundred years ago last Saturday.

Chella will be tracking the orrery’s progress all year long. You can follow along at The 1913 Exhibition.

You can visit the Sendtner Orrery and Grand Central Terminal, but not at the same time.

The first example of the word ‘nerd’ appearing in print was in a Dr Seuss picture book in 1950.

Elaine MacintyreBy Elaine Macintyre, Digital Media Content Manager

On Wednesday 19 September 2012, museums across the globe took part in an online initiative designed to bring the techno-savvy folk of the Twitterverse into direct cyber-contact with that mysterious, dusty, holder of arcane lore, the Curator. Yes, for one day only, the curators emerge from their stores and labs and offices to share their incredible breadth of knowledge with the rest of the world.

Of course this is a ridiculous stereotype, but one that does tend to persist (particularly in prime time crime drama) so the more opportunities museums and galleries have to dispel these caricatures the better. And what better opportunity than Ask A Curator day?

Now in its third year, Ask A Curator day encourages anyone on Twitter with even a passing interest in museums and galleries to ask a curator a question. Tweeters can direct their questions to a specific participating museum (and this year there were over 500 institutions from 29 different countries taking part) or simply throw their inquiry out there using the #askacurator hashtag and see who responds.

Some ask lighthearted questions: ‘What’s your favourite smell in your museum?’ ‘What object in your collection makes you laugh?’ ‘Couldn’t you animate the Tyrannosaurus so that it bites random visitors?’ (At least I hope that was a lighthearted question…) Others pose more serious queries concerning funding, sponsorship and ethics.

This is the first year National Museums Scotland has taken part in Ask A Curator day and we had five willing volunteers on board, each with an allocated hourly slot.  First in the hot seat was Peter Davidson, Curator of Minerals and Meteorites. I can’t think of a much better way of kicking off the day than with a discussion of space debris, the Scottish gold rush (who knew?), the smell of meteorites (oily, apparently) and life on Mars (or, more likely, the moons of Jupiter).

The Martian meteorite, Peter’s favourite object in the collection

The Martian meteorite, Peter’s favourite object in the collection.

In the afternoon, our Principal Curator of Vertebrate Biology Dr Andrew Kitchener took over, answering questions about our bird, mammal and taxidermy collections. His observation that the best thing about being a curator is ‘research & rediscovering old specimens you thought were lost in the collections’ was the most retweeted comment of the day – an example of such a found treasure being a Malayan tapir skull given by Sir Stanford Raffles (of the Singapore Raffles Hotel fame) to the Marchioness of Hastings, who donated it to the Museum in 1921.

This Aye-aye is one of Andrew’s favourite objects, but also the one that gave him the biggest headache when creating the new Natural World galleries

This Aye-aye is one of Andrew’s favourite specimens, but also the one that gave him the biggest headache when creating the new Natural World galleries, as there were no reference photos available to get the position of its body correct. Thankfully, our friends at London Zoo came to the rescue!

Four o’clock was Science Hour, with Dr Tacye Phillipson, Curator of Science, Julie Orford, Assistant Curator of Science and @julieorford on Twitter and Ian Brown, Curator of Aviation, aka @radararchive. Here we again tackled the thorny problems of favourite smells (possibly the odour of aircraft tyres in the rubber room at the National Museum of Flight), least favourite objects (Julie’s is the Wylam Dilly, on open display in the Connect gallery: very large and incredibly fiddly to dust) and coveted objects (Tacye’s is the Festo SmartBird, a unique flight model based on the herring gull).

Aircraft tyres in the 'rubber room' at National Museum of Flight

Aircraft tyres in the ‘rubber room’ at National Museum of Flight – mm!

The Wylam Dilly in the Connect gallery: bane of Julie's life!

The Wylam Dilly in the Connect gallery: bane of Julie’s life!

Oh, and a few museum secrets were revealed too: Harry Potter fans, did you know we have a Star of the Order of the Phoenix on display? Or that, lurking in the stores, is an instrument for communicating with the dead? Now you do…

Grand Cross Breast Star of the Order of the Phoenix, one of a group of orders, medals and badges awarded to Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin.

So all in all, a fun-filled, knowledge-filled (and cake-fuelled) day – but what did all this online engagement look like in cold hard stats? Here’s the science bit:

We acquired 37 new followers on Ask A Curator day, more than double our usual daily increase. We sent out a whopping 118 tweets (including replies and retweets) – way over our usual average of eight! – and all together our messages were retweeted 60 times (for comparison, the day before we had 15 retweets).

But the value of events like Ask A Curator doesn’t simply lie in numbers. ‘Do you think the way visitors are interacting with your collection has changed over the past 10 years?’ we were asked. Ask A Curator – in which hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people across the world shared questions, answers, opinions and jokes in 12,000+ tweets – surely shows how much things have moved on, how expertise and research is no longer the preserve of the academic few, but can be accessed by anyone with an interest, and digested alongside the latest updates from Stephen Fry and Rhianna.

And just in case you’re still wondering whether curators are really up for this new-fangled interaction, I’ll leave you with a tweet from Julie:

‘Had a gr8 #askacurator hour wi @RadarArchive @elainemacintyre + Tacye @NtlMuseumsScot lots o laughs when can we do it again? :-)

The cakes that fuelled Ask A Curator day at National Museums Scotland!

The cakes that fuelled Ask A Curator day at National Museums Scotland!

A guest post by Ken Thomas, Rocket Maker

My daughter Rachel and I have been building and flying model rockets for almost 15 years – all thanks to National Museums Scotland. In the late 1990s they ran ‘Rockets to Go’ workshops at the National Museum of Flight. It was amazing! You built a model rocket – mainly from cardboard and paper – learning about aerodynamics, stability and rocket propulsion. Then, in the afternoon, you flew the model using a supplied solid rocket motor. Ours achieved a very stable flight approaching 1,000 feet in altitude.  We were hooked! We are now members of the United Kingdom Rocketry Association (UKRA) and the Scottish Aeronautics and Rocketry Association (SARA).

We’ve just returned from the 2012 International Rocket Week run by John Bonsor, our good friend and mentor, who ran those original workshops. There were 54 participants with a total of 139 flights and a maximum altitude of 9,000 feet. It was a truly international event with visitors from Australia, Turkey and Libya, as well as from all over the UK. It is also very much a family event, with 11 junior flyers this year. They are a great crowd – very friendly, enthusiastic and with a wealth of experience and novel ideas.

From the basics of 15 years ago I’ve progressed to, among other things, scale modelling. I won this year’s scale contest with a 1/16th scale model of the Museum’s Black Knight rocket.

The Black Knight rocket BK02 in the Connect gallery at National Museum of Scotland

The Black Knight rocket BK02 in the Connect gallery at National Museum of Scotland.

I was very taken with the rocket when the new Connect gallery first opened. Over the past two years I’ve been planning a flying scale replica of the Black Knight. After taking many photos – I do appreciate the Museum’s open policy on photography – I started working on the scaling. There are scant dimensional details available and, following a request to the Museum, curator Julie Orford very kindly supplied dimensions of the fins – one of the most complex areas of the rocket.

I then spent some time learning a computer aided design program to help with the scale design. I also modelled the rocket in SpaceCad, which allows you to check centre of gravity, centre of pressure and the resulting stability of your design.

Designing the rocket using SpaceCad

Designing the rocket using SpaceCad.

A 1/36th scale prototype followed to check dimensions, choice of finish and to see whether or not it would fly! The real Black Knight had gimballing rocket motors with hydraulic swivels controlled by an autopilot system with gyros to achieve stability and directional control. This is the reason the fins are relatively small – they only needed to be effective at low speed as the rocket left the launch pad, after which the vectored thrust would take over. Such control is very difficult to achieve in a model, so I was reliant on fins only, but the prototype flew well.

I decided to use Flair Aluclad as the covering material. This is real aluminium, 70 micron, adhesive-backed foil and would produce a realistic finish to the model. Then there was another visit to the Museum to compare the model with the real thing and fine tune the dimensions and fine detail.

I decided to use 56mm diameter tube, giving a scale of 1:16.25 with a total length of 714mm.

Trial motor section

Building the trial motor section.

I made a trial motor / fin section to check the finish and decide where the panel lines and base bleed holes should be. On the real Black Knight, these holes were cut in the skirt to reduce base drag. They built a 5′ test vehicle (about twice as big as my model) which was flown on solid motors to test the theory. Eight 6″ holes produced a significant improvement in performance.

The tail section as a work in progress

The tail section as a work in progress.

Then work started on the final model.  The ‘rivets’ were applied individually by hand using a home-made tool.

Rivets and tool

Rivets and tool.

The nose section was quite difficult to produce.  I used a modified balsa transition with a piece of standard 25mm tube topped off by a handmade nose cone.

Nose, fin and pod

Nose, fin and pod.

Foil transition

The transitions required a bit of maths to get the right shape!

The nose and pods were airbrushed before the aluminium parts were added. These last bits were applied on the Sunday morning – the last day of International Rocket Week – and the rocket had its maiden flight that afternoon.

Airbrushing the nose and pods

Airbrushing the nose and pods.

The completed rocket on the launch pad...

The completed rocket on the launch pad…

Lift off!

Lift off!

The model was powered by an Estes ‘D’ solid rocket motor, producing a total impulse of 20Ns and an altitude of around 150 metres.

Recovery was by parachute – an expulsion charge in the motor blows off the nose section and deploys the parachute, allowing for a safe, low-speed landing with no damage to the model.

Parachute recovery

Parachute recovery.

The Museum’s BK02 never flew – it was used for structural tests – which is probably a good thing as we are able to see and appreciate such a well preserved example of this important British rocket. My model may not be perfect – there’s always a trade-off of time versus quality. However, the main intention was to produce a model which actually flew. So, finally, after more than 50 years, the Black Knight BK02 has taken to the skies.

Film courtesy of Mitch Hamilton.

Photos by Ken and Rachel Thomas.

Black Knight details from A Vertical Empire: The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme, 1950-1971 by C.N. Hill.

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