Dimmed lights cast distorted shadows over ancient bones, strange people in lab suits, tables covered in microscopes, insects, fossils and meteorites… the Natural History Museum was unrecognisable as it staged its 4th late night Science Uncovered festival last Friday. Between 4pm and midnight, over 9,500 visitors filed into the museum’s great entrance hall, past Dippy the 150 million year-old Diplodocus, and onto the hundreds of behind-the-scenes exhibits dotted around the museum’s galleries and studios.
Every year, the event sees hundreds of scientists from the museum and other research centres such as the London Zoo and Imperial College London, come together to present their work, discuss their favourite samples and share their passion with museum visitors. Here are some of my favourite moments of the night:
Meteorite Imaging: Dissecting virtual Martian rocks
The main hall of the museum’s Earth gallery was filled with giant computer screens displaying some very strange looking rocks.
Planetary scientist and Mars specialist Nat Stephen was standing in front of a huge screen, twisting and turning a virtual rock. “It’s the Tissint meteorite and it’s one of our most prized possessions here at the museum,” she explains. The meteorite was actually spotted falling onto a Morocco desert in July 2011.
She virtually slices open the orb with a graceful finger movement and further explains what makes this meteorite so special: “Within two months of having seen the shooting star, [scientists] actually managed to find the meteorite, which meant that there wasn’t a lot of contamination from the terrestrial environment. It’s a really pristine example, the most pristine example we have of anything from Mars”.
Contamination is a big problem with samples from space, as any ‘Earth-signal’ can mask the properties of the meteorite and make it difficult to determine its original composition. But the Tissint meteorite is almost untouched, which has allowed museum scientists to gain invaluable information on its mother planet Mars.
“Because it’s so special, we didn’t want to cut it open so we decided to CT scan it,” she adds. “It’s a completely non-destructive technique”. A little bit like an X-ray, this technique allows scientists to peek inside the meteorite and find clues of its origin. “We’ve found some great things in there that we wouldn’t have been able to using traditional techniques. Things like gas bubbles from the original volcano, which would have erupted the lava from which the meteorite crystallised”.
Curious visitors can examine the surface, zoom in and out of the rock’s interior and search clues to the Martian environment. Nat explained the idea behind the giant screens: “visitors can see the meteorite and actually dissect it themselves. It’s a virtual autopsy!”
The blood splattered crime scene: Forensics in action
Down the West wing of the museum, yellow tape was strapped along the wall, rows of microscopes covered tables and people in white full body suits were looking at samples. I felt like I’d walked into a CSI laboratory.
This is where the museum’s forensic scientists explained how biology, physics and chemistry can be used to solve intricate crime problems: “The patterns can show you how someone got murdered,” one visitor explained to me after chatting to the forensics team, “you can find out where the bullet was actually shot from”.
“We had a look at some fingerprinting techniques,” another visitor said. “I got my fingerprints processed. My hand was put on a sheet of paper for 5 seconds then the scientist rubbed it with a mix of carbon and iron filings and the prints emerged.” When asked what they found out, one revealed: “Apparently, I have very distinctive fingerprints and they’re very recognisable so I shouldn’t commit any kind of crime”. Well, that’s definitely good to know!
Soapbox Science: Where science progress meets ethics
One of the most exciting, and valuable, aspects of Science Uncovered was that the visitor could interact directly with scientists and discuss pressing issues of concern in our world today.
In the Soapbox Science activity over 20 scientists took it in turns to stand on small stages and discuss particular scientific questions with inquisitive visitors.
The discussions touched subjects where science meets society and included questions such as: “Are scientists always right?”, “Would you go to Mars if you knew you wouldn’t come back?” and “Should Science ever be censored?”
Matt Loader, a PhD student at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum, was one of the Soapbox Scientists taking the stage: “We stand on the Soapbox and ask visitors what they think about particular issues in science,” he said. “Some really interesting questions come up about the morality of science and science communication.”
As a geologist working on gold deposits in volcanoes, Matt chose to discuss whether mining is necessary in our world: “I’m talking about mining and the morality and ethics of mining, whether it’s a good thing or not.
“You could argue that [science] has brought some bad things, but it has also brought a lot of very good things. The only way I can see us improving our society is through science, scientific inventions and discoveries, but also scientific thinking.
“It’s important to try and encourage people to think in a scientific manner, to be critical, and to look at evidence. Always ask the question: How do you know that? Why do you think that?”
A spirit of scientific discussion
The true success of the event lay in the opportunity to ask questions and talk about science in a discussion-friendly environment. The number of scientists and volunteers on the floor was impressive, and one always had the opportunity to ask questions, chat to scientists, discuss issues and learn a hell of a lot about the breadth of science that takes place within an institution like the Natural History Museum.
“Wherever we’ve gone people have talked to us immediately, and that’s what has made it work,” one visitor said. “Even in the queue to get drinks, people are coming up to us and talking to us. It means that you are never away from the exhibits or the information.”
Another added: “I got great advice from many of the academics here and, in general, the activities are fun and great to take part in.” When asked what he thought made the event work, he said: “I think it must have been the academics. That’s mainly what I came for.”
But it wasn’t just visitors learning about science. Scientists themselves got to see what was being done outside of their field and learn from their colleagues.
“If you’re a scientist, you’re working at the very cutting edge of one tiny little bit of science, but science is broad and it’s impossible to stay at the very edge of every science,” Matt Loader explained. “Here, we get to see the cutting-edge research of our colleagues who work in areas that we don’t necessarily work in.
“And I think it’s important the public realises that real, important research is being done by really normal people.”
“Visitors get to meet real scientists and realise that they’re not all old men in lab coats with crazy mad inventions that are going to change or ruin the world,” Loader continued. “They’re normal people who enjoy having a drink after work and are personable and enjoy talking about what they do.”
And you could tell that the scientists present were truly enjoying themselves, making their passion for their subject infectious. When asked whether they would come back next year, scientists and visitors alike were unanimous: “Definitely!”