As you will have seen from my article Unlocking Lovelock, Maria and I recently had the opportunity to spend a wet Sunday afternoon at the British Science Museum. This was geek heaven for us, and so I thought I would share a few photos of what is currently on display.
On the ground floor I was really interested to see Making the Modern World, a huge showcase of the development of technology from the last 250 years, which along with the major exhibits such as Stephenson’s Rocket, also had an extremely illuminating series of panels divided into nine key areas:
- Enlightenment and Measurement, 1750 – 1820
- Manufacture by Machine, 1800 – 1860
- The Industrial Town, 1820 – 1880
- The Age of the Engineer, 1820 – 1880
- The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870 – 1914
- The Age of the Mass, 1914 – 1938
- Defiant Modernism, 1930 – 1968
- Design Diversity, 1950 – 1965
- The Age of Ambivalence, 1960 – 2000
Each of these ages had it’s own glass display, and this one above for the Age of Measurement caught my eye for it contained a quote from philosopher Karl Achard who in 1782 asserted that:
The philosopher who does not measure only plays, and differs only from a child in the nature of the game.
It was economic development which was driving the desire for ever more accurate measurements, weights and standards, in addition to those requirements of the British navy and military overseas, demanding new mapping techniques for example. And so London became one of the major centres for the development and manufacture of elegant and ever more practical measuring devices.
An interesting bifurcation took place during the Age of the Engineer, since at the start of this ear it was still possible for individual engineers to become superstars, their inventions such as steam trains and viaducts being highly visible to the public, but by the end major projects had grown to a level complexity which was beyond an individual’s ability to grasp.
Whereas the first industrial revolution was based on coal, steam and iron, the second industrial revolution saw a leap in the complexity of technology and materials. Life at home and at work became transformed by the transmission of electricity, and this era also saw the invention of synthetic dyes, chemical fertilisers, plastics, textiles and new drugs such as aspirin.
This whole exhibition was not a pure and unadulterated celebration of modern technology. Indeed the display examining the move into mass production explicitly stated that many people at the time were wondering if the modernising economies were becoming too machine-like. Would science perfect warfare, or would it contribute to the solving of societal problems?
It’s interesting as in the post-war period there was a huge amount of creative design effort to produce low-cost solutions for austere economic conditions. However, it is interesting that this exhibition ends with the idea that towards the end of the twentieth century people had ambivalent feelings towards technology, not knowing if it would be a force for good or for worse, with mentions of advances in biological engineering and the emergence of the surveillance state.
Which is an interesting point to mention the second exhibition currently on show, Information Age, celebrating more than 200 years of innovation in communication and information technologies. I began work in 1992 at BT Laboratories, still one of the centres of the development of the world’s most sophisticated telecoms network technology, and the first two week’s are an induction into how global telecommunications networks are designed, built and deployed. So it was fabulous for me to see such a wide-ranging exhibition with some rare equipment on display, such as these early telegraphs:
I remember learning about Babbages Difference Engine and Analytical Engines at school, and here they were.
I graduated in Psychology, so it was also great to see Charles Babbages’ brain, satiating the amateur phrenologist in me.
Of course the exhibition goes right up to the development of smart phones and tablets, and has a few important milestone innovations from the 1990s such as Simon, IBM’s 1995 smart phone.
Although Making the Modern World mentioned surveillance, Information Age, as far as I could tell, did not. This was a great missed opportunity I feel, although the British Science Museum is about as Establishment as you can get, so nothing too major here to rock any boats. But for those interested in the history of the development of the technology, it really cannot be faulted.
Having spent time in the exhibitions, we also went to see a very amazing film at the IMAX cinema at the museum. IMAX cinemas are basically the largest cinema screens in the world, ones so large they have their own format of films. Pretty much all normal cinema films are never shown in this format, it is one more for specialist ‘edutainment’ short documentaries, and the one we chose to see was Hidden Universe in 3D.
For the first time this film brings together the most spectacular footage from the world’s most powerful telescopes in 3D. It starts with the most incredibly detailed photography from Mars, and then we fly into the deepest regions of space, via the most sophisticated computer modelling and animation yet developed, taking us back to the origins and evolution of the universe. Billions of galaxies all with billions of stars.
When Maria and I arrived back from our trip to London, the following weekend we were back immersed in Holonomics, giving a course with our great friends at Insituto Jatobás in the countryside near the town of Pardinho, a couple of hours drive from São Paulo. (For those of you who are interested, I will be letting you know more about this course in the coming weeks). One of the exercises we did with everyone was to take a walk through deep time, going all the way back to the Big Bang.
We write about the Deep Time Walk in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter and there are instructions on how you can create your own one. The idea is simple but incredibly powerful: when dealing with the vast dimensions of time and space, we are often unable to grasp the magnitude quantitatively, just through studying the numbers. A Deep Time Walk allows us to walk the time line of the history of the Earth and also universe, and thus for example, on a walk of 4.6km, if we start with the birth of Earth, each step of 1m represents 1m years.
For our Deep Time Walk, we started in a deeply atmospheric grotto, which we then emerged out of and along a gloriously beautiful walk through the grounds of Fazenda dos Bambus.
Every so often along the walk we stop to contemplate key events in the history of the evolution of life on earth, such as the start of autopoietic life, the jump from single celled life to multi-cellular life. And then as we reach our endpoint, evolutionary events start to fly at us, just within the last 100 metres or so.
Now here is the thing, and it’s remarkable. All the science I discussed at the start of this article, indeed the entire history of science, starting with Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, on a 4.6km walk, pretty much fits inside the space of a couple of millimetres or so. That is all. The history from the industrial revolution onwards is no longer than the width of a finger nail.
The trip to the British Science Museum was amazing and I can highly recommend a visit if you are able to do so. I am sure we missed a lot and if I was back living in London I am sure I would be going at least a few times each year to be able to take everything in.
But sometimes we need to remember not just to study the history of science intellectually. We need to understand the qualities of life, not just to measure and weigh life, and to do this we need do things like go on a Deep Time Walk, where we learn to experience, connect and understand through feeling and intuition.
And sometimes we just need to find somewhere dark and to look up at the stars again.