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New Science in the Museum

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

I mentioned in my original blog post was that I’ve had one or two ideas about how the Museum could better communicate modern Polar science. Well, here’s one of them: revamping the interactive science displays. The Museum currently has three touchscreens explaining modern Polar science, entitled, respectively, Ice, Climate and Science. These were first installed when the museum was redeveloped in 2010 and are now a little out of date as technology and science have moved on a lot in the last few years. There’s plenty of good information, but the whole thing could do with being rethought and revamped to make it clearer and more representative of the current foci of Polar science.

The Museum's current interactive screen setup

The Museum’s current interactive screen setup

This would be a good way of improving the Museum’s modern science offering – the screens are simply html pages, so there’s very little back end to manage – without having to spend a lot of time or money. I’ve come up with a few suggestions for how things could be improved, such as dedicating one screen to providing the background to Polar science, one to remote sensing (satellites and all that jazz) and one to computer modelling (I may be slightly biased there). These last two are essential tools across all aspects of modern science, so it seems sensible to focus on them. This redesign will also give the Museum the opportunity to link in with the scientific research work many of the staff are involved in, which would also greatly help it to better represent recent scientific developments.

Perhaps you can think of some things that you’d really like to see in the museum. If so, drop the team a line at museum@spri.cam.ac.uk or find them on Twitter or Facebook!

Samuel

Old Science in the Museum

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

I promised in my last blog post to give some details about some of the more unusual or interesting objects I’ve found whilst poring over the Museum’s scientific collection. I mentioned Andrée’s stuffed carrier pigeon previously, but here are four more objects that I think give a good sense of the Museum’s holdings.

First up is an early pocket sun compass used by Captain Sir James Clark Ross on his voyages in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Ross’s work was crucial in fixing the position of both Magnetic Poles, which allowed great improvements in Polar navigation. Until the shape and contours of Earth’s magnetic field were known, navigation near the Poles had to be carried out using non-magnetic instruments, such as a sun compass, because the difference between true north/south and magnetic north/south was very large at these high latitudes, but of unknown magnitude. Therefore, other solutions were devised, making this compass not only an item of immense historical significance, but also a good demonstration of practical navigation and the difficulties inherent in early Polar exploration.

Ross's sun compass

Ross’s sun compass

Of possibly even greater historical significance is the second item: Amundsen’s reckoning of his position at the South Pole. Scott and his men found this tied to a flag when they arrived five weeks later and thus knew they had been beaten. The text reads:

‘The Norwegian Home Polheim // is situated in 89° 58′ S Lat // SE by E (comp.) 8 miles // 15 Decbr. 1911 // Roald Amundsen’

Amundsen went to a great deal of effort to verify his position and make sure he had actually reached the Pole, sending men out in several directions for several miles, just to be certain they hadn’t got it wrong. This piece of paper is therefore the outcome of some quite precise navigational and cartographic science as well as marking one of humanity’s major exploratory achievements.

Amundsen’s reckoning of his position

Amundsen’s reckoning of his position

The third object symbolises what is perhaps a lesser-known facet of Polar science: geology. Geology was an important element of many early Polar expeditions, with Antarctic fossils and rocks used to support the emerging theory of continental drift and plate tectonics, and remains of interest to this day. Indeed, this particular piece of rock is a specimen of basaltic lava from the 1967 eruption of Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands (just off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula). Antarctica might be seen as a frozen continent, but this piece of lava goes to show that it’s alive and kicking!

Deception Island lava

Deception Island lava

The fourth and final object brings us bang up to date. It’s a digital optical module (DOM) from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. The observatory was completed in 2010 and sits more than a kilometre under the ice sheet at the South Pole, with thousands of DOMs spread over a cubic kilometre of ice. The observatory detects the flashes of light emitted by neutrinos as they interact with normal matter, allowing information about their origin and energy to be extracted. It’s also unexpectedly turned out to be a surprisingly-useful glaciological tool, as it’s allowed scientists to map the movement of deep layers of the ice, which would otherwise be virtually impossible. This particular DOM developed a fault in testing, so wasn’t used, but this remains probably the Museum’s best current example of modern Polar science and of so-called ‘Big Science’.

Digital Optical Module from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Digital Optical Module from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Samuel Cook, work placement student

Toby Booth’s Epic Kayak Adventure

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

kayak 1

Age 11, Toby Booth has recently completed an epic kayak expedition to London from Harlow, 25 miles and 20 locks. Inspired by the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and a recent visit to The Polar Museum where he learned more about the men of the heroic age, Toby decided to embark on his own adventure and to raise money for the Scott Negative Appeal.

Toby began his journey in June of this year, starting from Harlow Outdoor Centre but due to a number of setbacks he had to postpone the final leg until September.

kayak 2

Four older lads and two adults, both keen kayakers with coaching experience, took part in the initial paddle along with him.   Toby used a sea kayak, as this type of boat is ideal for comfort, but it proved to be quite heavy and was difficult to portage at many of the locks.  Some of the locks had extremely high banks and he needed help to climb down into his boat.

His intention was to complete the trip in a single day starting at 8am, but two of the group became very tired as were in smaller ‘play’ boats (which were unsuitable for the long journey) and another participant fell in when portaging. Heavy showers along the route also hampered his efforts. Initially disappointed, Toby still enjoyed the day and vowed to complete his plans.

kayak 15

On Saturday 20 September, Toby reached his final destination, Limehouse Basin at the edge of the River Thames in London. Using his own boat, which is a reliable and lightweight racing kayak called a ‘Couger’, Toby and Ant Wright, an adult volunteer who took part in the initial paddle, completed the journey.

The journey was at times difficult, but his experience and perseverance enabled him to reach his final destination. He was sponsored by friends and family and believes he may have raised up to £300.

kayak 9

A pupil at St Andrew’s C of E Primary School in Much Hadham, Toby is a member of Bishop’s Stortford Canoe Club and most recently won gold in the under-12 category last Sunday (June 22) representing the club in Leighton Buzzard.

Bridget Cusack, Museum Development Coordinator said

“We are delighted that Toby completed his journey to London. We are all impressed by his determination and achievement. Toby’s extraordinary generous response to the appeal proves how important Captain Scott remains in the national imagination.”

After hearing of the journey, Toby’s Grandfather recalled a piece of family history telling him that his own father had completed the same journey as a young man as a swimmer. At the turn of the 20th century, Harlow used to hold river swimming races, and it transpires that Toby’s great grandfather had completed a swim from Harlow to London, not in a race but simply because he enjoyed a challenge.