Category Archives: education

Birmingham’s New Library is Virtually There


22/7/11: I’ve added an update to this post at the end.

25/9/13: Daden’s slideshow on the finished project added

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Birmingham.   I visited the museums when I was a kid, and particularly liked the Museum of Science and Industry.  Then I spent six years studying engineering and researching at the University during the 1980s: many happy memories there too.  But I don’t think in all that time I visited the main public library; at the University we seemed to have everything we needed on campus.

Anyhow, I’m making up for it now with a visit to Birmingham’s NEW library – all from the comfort of my armchair, and at six o’clock in the morning no less.

While construction of the actual building is ongoing, this virtual world simulation in Second Life has been built to help the designers test out the design and make some fine tunings based on public reaction.

Regular readers might know I’m quite sympathetic to virtual worlds, although I’ve often felt I’m ahead of the curve in my enthusiasm.  This simulation by virtual world consultants and builders Daden Ltd reminded me of a similar pilot the London Strategic Health Authority built in association with Dave Taylor‘s team at Imperial College, to test out peoples reactions to getting around a building delivering centralised medical services.  I found out about the Library project from a post on Hypergrid Business Magazine; so hats off to them.

Anyhow, I think one of the points of these exercises is to judge first reactions and impressions, so this post is just my unedited walk-through, stopping now and again to take virtual photographs, with a few of my thoughts along the way.  For the avoidance of doubt, I’m the guy with the NASA 50 tee-shirt and angry ant buried in my shoulder – don’t ask.   I’ll remind you how to make your own visit at the end of the post.

Birmingham sure has changed since I lived here.  You appear in the simulation next to an explanatory board outside the library in a large piazza.  Real photographs on easels are scattered around the simulation showing how real-life construction of that particular bit of the library is progressing.

I thought I’d get cute and do what I’d do in real life, arriving at, say, the British Library in London: get my priorities right and suss out the coffee, toilets and restaurant.  The other important resource is a place to plug in my computer and recharge my phone.  And w-fi of course.  And a place to sit.  And on-line catalogues.  And books.

Anyhow, they were way ahead of me.  The first little bit of interaction that hits you is a survey of how you like to take coffee: with friends, with  a good book, place to meet up with folk etc.  There’s instant feedback on the poll in the form of coloured pillars proportional in size to the response.  I could have ticked several boxes, but plumped for coffee with a good book.

As it turned out, there are quite a lot of toilets.

On to a cafe / restaurant area.  This all has a great feel to it by the way, with a good sense of space and scale.  On the eating front though, I wasn’t clear quite what will be on offer; i.e. will there be various grades of bar, cafe, restaurant, fine-dining etc.  Maybe they don’t know yet.

More loos.

Looks like a theatre, although I didn’t manage to get into the auditorium itself.  I think I’ll pop back later in the day and see if any of these desks are manned by virtual people.  I did bump into one other visitor on this crack of dawn visit, but no project people.

This is cute: kiddies area with kiddy-size furniture and cuddly penguins and stuff lying around.  Middle-age man with ant on shoulder hanging around.  There was also some attractive Spanish Steps-style cushioned seating in this zone; think my camera jammed on that one.


Here’s a bunch of those wind-open walk-in book cabinets you find in libraries.

This is the Youth Zone again, with practice booths on the left.  Not sure what’s being practiced  – languages maybe?

Working up the building, here’s a suitably dark-tomed business area.

Interesting to see if this artwork makes it to real thing.  Again, this sort of thing in the simulation conveys the tone and attitude of the place.  More loos, notice.

Some empty spaces still to be developed: meeting rooms maybe?   Incidentally, I like the way this simulation lets you walk through the occasional unopened door, or even wall.  Interaction adds realism, but fiddly interaction for no purpose  – like aligning yourself with a revolving door to get through it – is just irritating.   They  got the balance here right I think.

This was quite something.  Towering walls covered in books.  Guess we’re in a library.

Near the top of the building is a roof garden.  Some nice views over the piazza.  Reminded me of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank – only better.

Top floors are staff only: explains why I couldn’t get up there.

The only weird techno-hiccup I found.  Sit down to play the piano and you fall into the floor.

Free of the Carbonite, taking in the cultural vibe.  Looks like some Friday evening entertainment, drink in hand, can be had.

Speaking of which.  The whole consumption thing in virtual worlds is a little weird by the way; but you can imagine what this area will be like with folk milling around after work.

And off I go.

In conclusion, it’s fair to say I got a pretty good overall impression of how the building is likely to feel and the facilities on offer.  If you want to know how the actual library activities will work: how to access databases and such like, that’s not what this is about.

I just whisked round quickly today, but I’ll go back later and leave some feedback.  The Hypergrid piece talks about various feedback mechanisms – virtual Post-Its and such like, although I can’t say they jumped out at me.  I’m also guessing the library may add more interactive tools, videos and such like explaining more detail on the facilities, as time goes on.

It will also be interesting to see if the simulation is kept alive after the library-proper is built; I’m thinking simultaneous broadcasts of events from the lecture theatre for example.  Very handy for us London-dwellers.

As promised: if you want to visit, you’ll need a Second Life account (free), and then teleport to the Library of Birmingham region.  You can find me in Second Life as Erasmus Magic.

Overall, looks like a great library in the making; and a friendly, intuitive job on the simulation by the library staff and Daden.


UPDATE 22/7/2011

Information point

That was one fast whistle stop tour.   So fast, as Soulla Stylianou from Daden kindly pointed out, that I completely missed the Library Guide I should have picked up on the way in: a sort of Heads-Up-Display that lets you take a self-guided tour and draw on extra info from the various giant turquoise i’s floating around.

So I’ve just made a return visit to virtual Birmingham – suitably equipped this time – also taking in the aptly named ‘Book Tour’, an annotated ride taken magic carpet fashion on a giant book.  And why not?

I now know amongst other things about the close integration on the project with Birmingham Reperatory Theatre (REP) and, for example, that the practice rooms are for musical instruments, not, as previously suspected, languages.

I also found that for more background to the project, the best starting point is this briefing area, where there’s also DIY training on offer for the Second Life novice.

Lastly, I checked out the interactive control and feedback tools; the simulation lets visitors:

– in ‘annotated spaces’, make comments in the form of smiley-ball graphics that other visitors can in turn comment on , voting an idea up (agree=green) or down (disagree=red).  Active votes range from an appeal to ensure desks are made user-friendly for disabled people, to someone who doesn’t like the yellow carpet.

– with a click change the furnishings / decor / mood of an area, i.e. gallery, music, seating :

 – vote on multiple choice answers to questions posed by the organisers.

Second time around, I’m still of the view simulations like this, while not perfect, bring an angle to communications – and in this case I guess a consultation – that can’t be achieved any other way.  I like the comment/voting system; it will be interesting to see how many green and red smileys appear over the coming months.

Update September 2013

Slide presentation on the project by Daden on Slideshare

Of related interest on Zoonomian

Getting Real about our Virtual Future


Of Physics, Firearms, and Fireworks

Physics, Firearms, and Fireworks
(photo: Tim Jones,

I learnt only recently, while researching the early use of computers in schools, that my physics teacher from the late seventies, John Page, had died during 2009. Better known with implicit consent by his nickname ‘Bumble’ (possibly after the Dickens character, I was never sure), he was certainly a character himself.  He was also a teacher who encouraged me to think.

Reproduced from the Gateway Magazine

For sure, Bumble covered the official syllabus – wheeling out totally worthy but ultimately plain vanilla air pucks, weights, springs and the like.  But the most interesting discussions – the ones that have stuck with me –  followed some of his more wacky off-the-wall demonstrations.

On one memorable occasion, as an introduction to Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Gas Laws, Bumble kicked off the lesson by discharging a black powder pistol at the front of the classroom.

Lesson protocol started in the usual way.  The class in silence, with Bumble making his ponderous walk up to the front bench of the teaching laboratory.  He tended to always look downwards, his eyelids giving the impression of one who is asleep.  Just normal procedure so far then.

Except today there was a revolver in his hand, one chamber of which he proceeded to load: methodically inserting pieces of cloth, then gunpowder, then cloth again (no actual slug thank goodness), before compressing the package with a small ram rod.  We all remained silent, and nobody moved.

Gateway Grammar School Leicester
Gateway Grammar School, Leicester (Photo: Tim Jones)

This was before the time, in the UK at least, that any crazies had run amok in schools massacering innocent children with firearms; so I guess we felt intrigue rather than fear.  This was Bumble anyhow – he did weird stuff.   With the last addition of a copper percussion cap, the gun was pointed in the general direction of the laboratory wall, and fired.

Seconds after the most enormous bang echoed through the now smoke-filled laboratory, the Head of Physics, Mr Gill, closely followed by the Head of Chemistry, Mr Scottow, tumbled into the lab looking suitably alarmed.  They’d clearly not been pre-briefed on this one, and were expectant of some terrible fate having befallen us.  I remember their expressions changing from shock to relief, with an after-smirk of resignation, as the gunman stepped out of the smoke.

Stunts like Bumble’s Colt Navy demo got our attention, but were also the intro for quite stretching discussions in the more formal lesson that followed.  In this case, when we’d all settled down, Bumble got us thinking about how long a gun barrel would have to be before the bullet changed direction and went back the other way.

Imagine the thought processes needed for that.  First off, there’s the non-intuitive realisation that a projectile in a tube can change direction if the pressure behind it falls sufficiently relative to the pressure in front of it – which theoretically can happen in a long enough gun barrel.   Then there’s the skill of mentally extrapolating the familiar (short barrel) to unfamiliar extremes (hugely long barrel).  Thinking in abstraction and at scales beyond normal experience is useful, for scientists and non-scientists alike, in appreciating the scales relevant to fields as diverse as evolutionary biology and cosmology (and presumably also super-gun design).

Sections of Big Babylon at Fort Nelson, Portsmouth
Sections of the 'Big Babylon' Iraqi super-gun at the Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson, Portsmouth (Photo: Tim Jones,

Then comes the actual physics and chemistry of the deal: mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetics, friction, shock-wave propagation – not to mention the maths needed to sort the thing out (I don’t remember if we came up with an actual quantitative answer, and suspect an analytical solution is only possible with major simplification.  I’ll have a think and report in a future post.)   So, all sorts of good stuff.  And of course the follow-on lesson can cover ballistics, catching up with the bullet when it leaves the gun.

In a similar vein, my introduction to fluid flow through constrictions and Bernoulli’s principle took the form of the largest firework rocket I’ve ever seen being launched from the school playground.  In the follow-on lesson, we talked about rocket nozzle design.   No one was surprised to learn Bumble, as well as being a physics teacher, was a licensed firework maker who designed and cast his own nozzles.  I still marvel that the thing came down ‘safely’ in the confines of the school yard.

So that’s how I remember Bumble.  I guess we might at times have got distracted into non-syllabus material; but that’s a danger with all real-life problems if they’re studied with sufficient rigor.  And as Bumble’s teaching style was pretty much the antithesis of spoon-fed exam practice, it wouldn’t have suited all-comers.  On a practical note too, with the security position being what it’s become, even since the late seventies, it’s probably unwise for teachers to be firing pistols and launching rockets in quite the way I experienced.

In principle though, I love the attitude and approach to education Bumble represented, and hope kids are still enjoying equivalent spectacles – albeit in a tamed down form.

For all our sakes, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the Bumbles.

Out of the Archives – Calculators, Computers….and Stuff

sinclair scientific calculator
Sinclair Scientific Calculator (Photo:Tim Jones)

I know, I know.  Blog title of death!

Anyone, like…over 12 years old, can waffle on about the various computational gadgets they’ve owned.   But bear with me.

This picture of a Sinclair Scientific is the latest recovered image from the 30yr  archive of negatives I’m dutifully working through.

That, and this recent post on Andrew Maynard’s blog, (2020science), describing the sophisticated graphing calculator his children are required to have for school, prompt this reflection.

A pass-me-down from my brother, the Sinclair Scientific was my first electronic calculator.   Built from a kit in 1975, I used it to prep for the UK O-Levels when I was 14 or 15; in the O-Level exams themselves we only had log tables :-P.  By the A-Levels (16-18), I’d upgraded to a Casio fx-39.

John Napier, father of logarithms (Image: Wikicommons)

As it turns out, the calculator my nephews require for today’s GCSE syllabus is a Casio; but  costing around £5, against the £75 or so for Andrew’s Texas Instruments machine.

An interesting feature of the Sinclair Scientific was its use of Reverse Polish Notation (RPN): an unusual but logical way to express calculations. Under RPN, the operator (+,- x, / etc) comes after the operands (the numbers); so the more well known Infix representation of 7+8 , in RPN becomes 7 8 +.  RPN is more memory efficient for computers – a bigger deal once than it is now.  Today, modern computers just translate into RPN without us seeing it.

You might think getting to grips with RPN was an awkward distraction for a 15 year old, but it proved handy background when it came to writing programs for this:

Stantec Zebra
Stantec Zebra (Photo from the Stantec Zebra manual)

I guess this was our graphing calculator.  Not exactly pocket size.

If memory serves, the school acquired the 1958 Stantec Zebra from the local university; before that it was with the Post Office.

punch card
Punch card

A small team of students operated and maintained the machine which, filled with hot valves, would frequently catch fire and give the occasional electric shock.   This could never happen today of course, on safety grounds alone.  But at the time, the teachers and students took it all in their stride, seizing the opportunity to build a short extra-curricular programming course into the timetable.

Programming lessons involved: writing code on cards with pencil and paper, encryption onto punched cards that the Stantec Zebra could read optically, then receiving line-printer output of the results.  Looking back, it’s amazing any of this happened – a great opportunistic use of a rare resource.

Powertran Comp 80 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Pupils who later built their own computers, like the Science of Cambridge MK14, a basic kit machine launched in 1977 with about 2k of memory, or the Sinclair ZX-80, were doubtless inspired by the presence on site of their valve-driven (but still significantly more powerful) ancestor.

An interest in computers in this era meant just that: an interest in the information structure, solution algorithms, programming and hardware.  High level programming languages, like BASIC even, were too memory inefficient to exist, and ‘games’ typically comprised simple models around the laws of motion; moon lander simulations were popular.

Our household variously hosted a home-built Powertran Comp 80, a Sharp MZ-80A (including some early green dot graphical capability), a Sinclair Spectrum and Sinclair QL.  I’ve put pics of these and various other devices I’ve owned in the gallery at the end of the post – minus the obvious PCs that started with a Viglen P90 in 1995.  Also our Creed 75 teleprinter – the only one I’ve seen outside the London Science Museum, this true electro-mechanical wonder was brought to good working order save for the chassis occasionally running live with mains voltage.

Creed 75
The Science Museum's Creed 75

Are there any world-changing messages to be drawn from all this nostalgia?  Possibly not.  But I’m reminded how very hands on we were in just about everything.   And that’s relevant given the buzz today about how kids might not be getting enough practical science and engineering experience in schools (I’m thinking of comments most recently made by Martin Rees in the Reith Lectures).

No one is arguing kids need a nuts and bolts knowledge of all modern gadgetry, but I do think off-syllabus projects like the Stantec Zebra (but perhaps less dangerous) are a good thing in schools.  They show how diverse academic subjects come together in an application, making the theory real.  This is pretty much my mantra in this earlier post about the Young Scientists of the Year competition.   I would have thought such projects give a school a sense of identity and foster a bit of team spirit?

But it’s really an area I’m out of touch with.  Does this type of stuff happen in lunchtime science clubs?  Is there time in the curriculum?  Do teachers have the time and/or skills?  Or has our health & safety culture, however worthy, killed off anything interesting?


Also of interest

Kids Today Need a License to Tinker (Guardian 28/8/2011)

Unlikely Ink?

oak galls
Oak Galls, Andricus kollari (I believe this particular tree is a Californian coastal scrub oak, Quercus dumosa.)(photo:Tim Jones)

A good few Zoonomian posts are based on things or events I just happen to stumble onto.  And that’s certainly the case with these oak galls I snapped on a trail walk this week.

These hard woody growths, about 1.5 inches across, are induced by insects interfering with the oak plant’s bio-chemistry.

Typically a wasp, like Neuroterus albipes in the photo, lays an egg on an oak twig, along with chemicals that react with the plant’s hormones to trigger growth of the gall, making both a home and ready meal for the wasp grub.   On occasion, secondary parasites of other species may join the ‘host’ grub after the gall has formed.  It looks from the multiple holes like that’s what’s happened here.

Gall Wasp (Wikicommons)

Historically, oak galls have been useful to humans as a main ingredient of Iron Gall Ink, in common use from before the middle ages to Victorian times.   I made iron gall ink as a kid, which probably explains why I got so excited when I saw these.  And while I’ll concede the skill is probably not a 21st century essential, making the stuff is quite satisfying.

So if you’re up for a little kitchen science, you will need: a handful of oak galls, some ferrous sulphate and, optionally if you want the ink to have a good consistency, some Gum Arabic.

The chemistry begins when the crushed galls are mixed with water, causing the tannin, or gallo-tannic acid COOH.C6H2(OH)2O.COC6H2(OH)3 in them to form gallic acid C6(COOH)H(OH)3H.  Adding hydrated ferrous sulphate FeSO4, 7 H2O  to this forms the ink, a soluble ferrous tannate complex.

As regards procedure, you should get a workable product by smashing up 5 or 6 oak galls and boiling them down to about a 1/4 pint in water and filtering the liquid through a cloth or handkerchief; then dissolve about a teaspoon of ferrous sulphate in a shot-glass sized measure, and mix the two together.  Instant medieval ink.   For a much more thorough and professional approach, see this article from the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress.  BTW – ferrous sulphate can be bought in art shops, garden supply stores, and some health stores – you want iron(II)sulphate, FeSO4 – not anything else.

Ferrous Sulphate (Wikicommons)

The advantage iron gall ink brought over previous inks was its permanence. Because ferrous tannate is water soluble, the ink soaks into the paper, where the ferrous tannate oxidises to insoluble – and darker – ferric tannate, which is now trapped in the fabric of the paper.  Various refinements are seen in recipes, such as the addition of extra acid, maybe as vinegar, to keep the ink from oxidising in the pot, as it were.  A drawback of iron gall inks is their corrosive action, sometimes only apparent over a long period, and in extreme cases resulting in writing literally dropping out of the paper.

Despite the corrosion issues, many famous documents were written in iron gall ink, including the dead sea scrolls (the black ink that is; the red ink is cinnabar, or mercuric sulphide HgS), and the Constitution of the United States.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are written in iron gall ink (Wikicommons)

Science and Art at the Getty

It’s turning into quite an artsy fortnight.  On Thursday, I went to see Getty CEO Jim Wood interviewed at Caltech, then a visit with dinner at the Getty Center itself on Saturday night, before on Monday taking my chances with the holiday crowds at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  Between times I’ve been viewing some wonderful examples of Arts & Crafts era houses in Pasadena, and learning about the origins of Californian en plein air outdoor painting.  A few notes on the Caltech event…..

Getty Museum
The Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo:Tim Jones)

‘Science and Art’ featured J.Paul Getty Trust President and CEO Jim Wood talking with broadcaster Madeleine Brand.

Despite the wide-open title, the conversation focused on the Getty’s expertise in artifact conservation, and an upcoming series of region-wide exhibitions intended to show how post-WWII Californian art was influenced by the science and technology of the period.

Wood began by describing the full extent of the Getty’s capabilities beyond the public face of the Museum, and how its scientists have developed conservation techniques that are deployed on  conservation projects around the world. These range from the restoration of flood-damaged panels in Florence to the recovery of poorly preserved mosaics in Damascus.

The upcoming exhibition series will feature artists from Los Angeles, and cover the 1945-1980 period of rapid industrial development and space exploration.   Californian artists in particular stayed close to technological developments at this time, and incorporated emerging new materials and techniques into their art.  The period is coincident with the Cold War, so it will be interesting to watch for any cultural references in that direction (I’m thinking of the type of arts exhibits from the USA featured in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Cold War Modern exhibition last year).

The Q&A kicked off refreshingly backwards with Jim Wood suggesting it’s important to understand the differences between art and science.  He takes the view that science deals with progress – it moves towards a goal; but art – while evolving, doesn’t do that; it’s less about facts than ideas.  All in all though, despite Wood’s best efforts, these forays into more philosophical territory didn’t really get picked up on by the interviewer or the audience; something of a missed opportunity I felt.

Getty Center Restaurant
Getty Center Restaurant (Photo:Tim Jones)

There was an interesting question to Wood on the role of art as a tool to explain difficult scientific concepts; had such art been produced, and should it be preserved?  Making a distinction between illustrative and creative art, Wood suggested scientifically illustrative works were likely to be valued; but more for their documentary than artistic qualities.  For me, the role of illustrative art is undeniable – look at the depictions of cosmological concepts in popular physics books.  The role for creative art in science communication is more ambiguous.  It can tell us about prevailing cultural attitudes towards science and technology – back to the Cold War again, consider those swirling atoms and mushroom cloud depictions of atomic power.   But it’s less obvious – to me at least – how an abstract artistic aesthetic might translate into, or inform, science.

Getty Center
Getty Center (Photo:Tim Jones)

Wood was asked how we decide when it is right to return an artifact fully to it’s original state – as the conservator’s toolkit gets ever more impressive?  It seems there are some difficult calls, but it’s more usual to conserve than restore.

That brought to mind a whole area of science-art interaction that the evening hadn’t touched upon: the use of technology for artifact simulation and display, whereby an original piece is presented next to a simulation of how the item would have originally appeared.  I’m thinking here of Roman and Greek statues in their original livery, the brightly painted interiors of Catholic cathedrals, and projection techniques that bring faded tapestries – however temporarily – back to life.  I digress; but for more on the topic, here’s a nice piece on statuary,  ‘Gods in Color’, from the Boston Globe.

Anyway, that was a very brief update on my brush with science and art at Caltech and the Getty.

Incidentally, one important feature of the Getty Center that Wood didn’t mention is its restaurant, commendable as much for its location as the food. Perched high overlooking the Los Angeles  basin towards the ocean, the views are an inspiration to artist and scientist alike.

The Perfect Mathematician

Think I’ve stumbled upon what is fundamentally wrong with UK STEM policy, at least for the Maths bit.  We’re not raising mathematicians correctly.

In ‘The First Men in the Moon‘, H.G. Wells shares with us how the Selenite moon people got it right – over a century ago:

“If, for example, a Selenite is destined to be a mathematician, his teachers and trainers set out at once to that end. They check any incipient disposition to other pursuits, they encourage his mathematical bias with a perfect psychological skill.  His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grow, and the rest of him only so much as is necessary to sustain this essential part of him. At last, save for rest and food, his one delight lies in the exercise and display of his faculty, his one interest in its application, his sole society with other specialists in his own line. His brain grows continually larger, at least so far as the portions engaging in mathematics are concerned; they bulge ever larger and seem to suck all life and vigour from the rest of his frame. His limbs shrivel, his heart and digestive organs diminish, his insect face is hidden under its bulging contours. His voice becomes a mere stridulation for the stating of formula; he seems deaf to all but properly enunciated problems. The faculty of laughter, save for the sudden discovery of some paradox, is lost to him; his deepest emotion is the evolution of a novel computation.  And so he attains his end.”

Buck Rogers – A Copper Clad Lesson from History

In this piece for the Washington Post, movie director James Cameron gives his analysis of the NASA budget, reminds us of the inspirational importance of space exploration and, that when it comes to winning popular support for space, “rockets really do run on dreams”.

Rocket ship by Jim Conel, Photo:Tim Jones

The inspirational power of space and rocket ships is nothing new, and we can learn from history in properly valuing the less tangible motivating, emotional, and  cultural impacts of future programs.

In the 1950s and 60s – a ‘Golden Age of American Science ‘ – folk thrilled at the prospect of great wheel-shaped space stations in orbit, and conquering the cosmos through atomic power.  2001 a space odysseySputnik energised the US rocket program that led to Apollo and the space shuttle.  And the space station has arrived – even if it does fall short of Clarke and Kubrick’s vision for ‘2001’.

Perhaps blinded by the blistering activity that characterised the period leading up to Apollo, it’s easy to forget that rocket ship vocabularly was a part of the popular psyche long before the space race of the cold war years.

Buck Rogers first appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1928, and as a newspaper comic strip in 1929.

buck rogers comic
Buck Rogers comic from the 1940s (picture credit:

The outer space exploits of Buck and his futuristic companion Wilma captivated and fired the scientific and technological imagination of a generation of young people.  Some became the scientists and engineers of the Golden Age, and some, like my father-in-law, who as a schoolboy in 1940s Glendale made the copper artwork above, found themselves working at an embryonic NASA.

Exquisite Corpse of Science – Week 1

Latest News: The video of Exquisite Corpse of Science won Imagine Science Films‘ ‘Film of the Week’ Competition.  Cool huh?

For latest status of the project and instructions for taking part, CLICK HERE

It’s just over a week since I invited the world to take part in the Exquisite Corpse of Science project. It’s very simple: you send me a picture that represents what you think is important about science, and as an option you can add a short audio file describing what you’ve drawn.

One way to launch your artistic views.....
One way to launch your artistic views..... (Mosaic software credit AndreasMosaic)

I’ll then combine these into a single artwork in the manner of the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse – and further present the project in ‘fly-around’ 3D in Second Life.  A couple of high profile events have shown interest in relaying this project – so no promises – but watch this space.

So how’s it going?  Well the original post has had over a thousand hits, and the enthusiasm for the idea from individuals and organisations involved in science and science communication is encouraging.

Twitter seems to be the main vehicle by which word is getting around. Many thanks to those who have blogged on the project, and Twitter friends who are promoting it via the infamous ‘Re-Tweet’; especially: Andrew Maynard & family @2020science, @frogst, @imperialspark,@garethm (BBC Digital Planet),@vye, and the organisations @seedmag (SEED Magazine), @naturenews (via Matt Brown/@maxine_clarke), @sciandthecity (NY Academy of Sciences), and @the_leonardo in Utah.  Also, thanks to Dave Taylor (@nanodave) at Imperial College – who is working with me on the Second Life virtual incarnation of Exquisite Corpse.

I want to doubly stress that the Exquisite Corpse Of Science is most definitely not just for scientists and engineers; it’s for literally everybody.  And it’s absolutely not about producing a Leonardo or Rembrandt……So get your Gran’ma on the case.

I’ve so far received 11pictures (+ 7 more I know are in the pipeline), and 4 audio accompaniments.  So keep the pics coming in to make the definitive ‘WALL OF SCIENCE’ big and beautiful.  Come on guys, how can I inspire you !  I know, the pictures so far….

Clare Dudman
Clare Dudman
Joerg Heber
Joerg Heber
Andrew Maynard
Andrew Maynard
Evren Kiefer
Evren Kiefer
Bill Weedmark
Bill Weedmark
Alex Maynard
Alex Maynard
Andreia soares Azevedo
Andreia Azevedo Soares
Andrew Maynard (abstract)
Andrew Maynard (abstract)
Edmund Harriss
Edmund Harriss
Richard Lanzara
Richard Lanzara
Exquisite Corpse in Second Life (building the 3D 'fly around' wall)
Exquisite Corpse in Second Life (building the 3D 'fly around' wall)

For latest status of the project and instructions for taking part, CLICK HERE

Earth Hour – Consciousness Raised? (a bit?)

Well that’s the World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Earth Hour’ over and done with for another year.

(Artwork - Gareth)

At least that’s the cynic’s (realists?) view of this annual attempt to get the world’s lights switched off for an hour, on a rolling cycle from 8.30 – 9.30 pm, across the globe.   It’s just happened in the UK.

I’ve heard the arguments for and against what some see as a ‘stunt’.   I support it all the same.

Whatever else the organisers intended, events like this raise consciousness in those they touch – even if that excludes the worst offenders.

Against that is the view that one-off gestures make people feel good at the time, but that real benefit is lost in ‘business as usual’ during the year.  I’ve not seen any statistics, so won’t comment; maybe the WWF have done the research?

But I can’t get excited about criticism that people might actually use more power during the ‘lights out’ hour.   On balance, I hope there’s a reduction, but don’t see it as a huge deal if not.   I feel guiltier when I’m using power.

Events like Earth Hour raise consciousness; an essential ingredient in any discussion on global warming, religion, famine, conservation, or any number of contentious science-related issues.    The Earth Hour critics are right that you can’t force people to act, but you can nudge them in the right direction.   This is a preparing of the ground, warming people up gently so they don’t melt when faced with the full real cost of energy.   And rather than giving the impression that turning out lights will save the planet, Earth Hour might just spur some to follow up on the detail of the broader picture.

Next year maybe we need the ‘leave the X5 in the garage for a month stunt’, or the ‘cancel one of the two long-haul hols. stunt’?   A sustainable planet will require fundamental life-style changes –  to paraphrase Sir David King (again, sorry) at this year’s Darwin Day lecture: things won’t really sort themselves out until girls stop fancying blokes in Ferraris…… (go figure).

I did hugely exciting stuff in my dark hour.  First, I checked out the appartment building and found the lighting pattern pretty much as I remember it from any other Saturday night (no control – my not being scientific, sad, or both, enough to photograph the place over the two previous weeks).   Then to the supermarket with my re-useable plastic bag (by now I’m visibly radiating good-citizenship with my raised consciousness before me), arriving home 20 minutes early and requiring the PC be prematurely re-activated as a light source.

In that 20 minutes, I did the back-of-fag-packet calculation that a billion people (the WWF target) turning off a 100W  bulb = 100,000 MW or 200 power-stations at 500MW  or 100 at 1000MW.   My personal saving was much less than 100W, at  22W  for the 2 x 11W  fluorescent lamps we run in the lounge which, as a fraction of the power used by the 300W  TV  and 150W PC  found in most homes, supports the critics numerical case.   But if you think that’s what it’s about,  you’re missing the point.

Anyhow, off to phone my other half who’s in the USA at the mo’ – need to get those double Earth Hour Brownie Points.

Zoonomian Launches in Second Life

It was inevitable.   The indefinable, yet almost tangible buzz of excitement that has for weeks held cyberspace in a grip of nervous anticipation: it all  makes sense now.  For yesterday evening, to tumultuous public acclaim, the Zoonomian Science Centre opened its doors to residents of Second Life.

Zoonomian Science Centre in SL
Zoonomian Science Centre in SL

O.K. – if my brother hadn’t monopolised model railway construction when we were kids, maybe I’d have gotten this sort of thing out of my system earlier.  But all the same, putting this creation together has been a lot of fun and there is a serious side to it all.

A visitor on the Conference Floor on opening night
A visitor explores the Conference Floor on opening night

Virtual worlds have been with us for a while, as has their use for promoting interaction in science and technology; and indeed, for science communication.

There are many real world businesses, universities, museums, and even embassies represented in Second Life; most of which you can just turn up to and walk right in.  I particularly like NASA’a site, despite their copy restrictions preventing my placing the Saturn V launch vehicle as sentinel to the ZSC.   The NASA site is part of what is probably the major nexus for science and technology in Second Life: the  SciLands Virtual Continent.   The Nature Publishing Group and Macmillan Publishing also have a substantial SL presence at the Elucian IslandsSecond Nature – which hosts events such as the recent Virtual Conference on Climate Change and CO2 Storage, held in association with my own Imperial College.

Second Life is the best known virtual world, but there are dozens of others – some, like OpenSim, snapping at its heels.

Entrance lobby
Entrance lobby (I'm most comfortable constructing as a meerkat)

I’ve previously discussed Second Life here, in the context of societies with boundless resource; and most recently here, when I first bought land and installed a giant gibbon on it.  (If anybody is missing the gibbon, don’t worry, she and others are likely to return with a vengeance.)   In the former post, I referred to owner Linden’s claim that 70,000 thousand residents were  ‘in-world’ at any one time; I’ve seen  between 45,000 and 75,000, so that seems realistic.

Entrance lobby and conference level
Entrance lobby and conference level

So, much more importantly – what am I going to do with this space?

As a conventional museum with exhibits, there are no limits –  save those dictated by the bounds of copyright and creative ingenuity; but mainly cost – of time and money.   Media: such as web pages, music, and movies, can be streamed into the Centre via two media panels.  The default is set to this blog, with which you can interact from within SL.

There is also the potential for groups to meet up at the centre to  share media materials, films, podcasts etc, and to hold mini-conferences to which a broader public might be invited.

Conference Level
Conference Level

And I guess this brings us to the big difference bewteen a straight web page interaction and an interaction in Second Life.  SL and its ilk are spaces where people who are geographically far apart in the real world can meet to share content and have discussions.   You might say you could do that sitting at your PC?  But then of course that’s exactly where you would be.  The claim is that a virtual world gives you more degrees of freedom for expression.  For sure, if during an SL discussion at the conference table, a guest gets up and orders a drink from the bar (did I not mention the bar?), then spends the rest of the meeting pacing around, that would send a certain kind of message.

If you want to visit the Zoonomian Science Centre, you will need to register for free at Second Life and get yourself a name.  Then come to this location in the Haddath Region.   Haddath has ‘mature’ status – so adults only please.   The Centre is normally open to all, but just come back later if not; it just means I’m working on the place and don’t want to jump out of my skin when someone walks up behind me and starts chatting.

Of course, the main pupose of the Zoonomian Science Centre has been as a learning exercise for me; Second Nature can relax after all.  That said:  “from small acorns……”

Oh yes – if you are reading this at the Centre…..Welcome !   Enjoy!