Category Archives: Museums

Leicester’s Famous Bones

Model of Richard III's Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)
Model of Richard III’s Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)

Spending time in my original home town of Leicester last week was a chance to get better acquainted with the city’s recently recovered celebrity, King Richard III no less, at an exhibition in the ancient Guildhall.  I also got to visit another of my favourite Leicester museums, The New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, which has its own bones to shout about.

Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard III

The search for Richard started in August last year, when the University of Leicester working with the King Richard III Society discovered and recovered a skeleton – everything but its feet – from a central Leicester car park: a car park that overlays the site of the former Greyfriars Priory.

Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Greyfriars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Grey Friars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

With a barrage of forensic tests and historical interpretation brought to bear over several months, including a DNA match with a living descendant, the remains were finally declared the real deal in February this year.

An unlikely prospect made good for historians and archaeologists, I’m guessing I’m not the only one raised in the city for whom the find has a special fascination.  I lived close to the King Richard’s Road; and as kids we visited nearby Bosworth Field, where Richard fell in 1485; and I can remember some rivalry with the local ‘King Dick’s’ school.   The science labs where I studied for A-Levels were literally a stone’s throw from the burial site.  I’m not suggesting Leicester folk spend all their time sat round thinking about history, but there’s always been a general awareness in the air.

Leicester are proud of their find (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester are proud of their find. There are several posters like this around the town (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard’s character in life, unambiguously portrayed by Shakespeare as one of murderous villainy, is disputed – not least by the splendidly motivated Richard III Society.  But there’s no doubting his popularity in death – not if the queues to the exhibition are anything to go by; I gave up on my first attempt and came back early the next day.

Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)
Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)

Rather than the real skeleton being on display, there’s a model of the skull and a light-table graphic representation of the bones.  The side-on curved spine characteristic of scoliosis is clearly visible: doubtless the origin of historical reports/myths/exaggerations on Richard’s appearance and gait.

 Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
 Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

The suite of scientific tests used to characterise the remains included DNA Sequencing for identification, Radiocarbon Dating for age at death (1450-1538), Stable Isotope Analysis (tooth enamel) and Calculus Analysis (tooth plaque) for diet, health and lifestyle.  The Leicester University team successfully matched mitochondrial DNA from Richard’s teeth with that from his living descendant Michael Ibsen.  For more on the science, see Leicester University’s Richard III website.

New Walk Museum

Passing on Richard’s queue that first day gave me plenty of time to explore Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

 New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)

New Walk Museum & Art Gallery

I’m spoilt for museums in London, but still have a soft spot for Leicester’s New Walk.  It was the first museum I visited as a child: with an indoor goldfish pond and scary Egyptian mummies standing at the top of the stairs as you went in.  The fish have gone, but the mummies are still there, better contextualised now in a special ancient Egypt exhibit.  And overall they’ve done a great job of keeping up with the times.

On this occasion, supporting a special exhibition on DNA,  I caught a lunchtime lecture on the human genome, by Dr Ed Hollox, a Leicester University geneticist whose talk focused on the genetic basis and geographical distribution of milk (lactose) intolerance.

Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Leicester group have also printed a 130 volume hard copy of the entire human genome – as a communication exercise in getting over the sheer size of the thing.  The volumes, printed in tiny 4 point font, are on display at New Walk.

 Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)

The Rutland Dinosaur

Back to the bones, and this c.168 million year old Ceteosaurus Oxoniensis , known as The Rutland Dinosaur.

The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The long-necked herbivore’s fossilised remains, recovered in 1968 from Great Casterton, Rutland – the county just East of Leicestershire – have a special claim as the most complete (about 40%)  Sauropod found in the United Kingdom.


I’m not alone in my childhood memories of New Walk Museum.  In this video, Sir David Attenborough, who hails from Leicester and stays close to the museum, recalls his early impressions.  Incidentally, the chair he mentions, belonging to the giant Daniel Lambert, is now in Leicester’s Newarke Houses Museum – but that’s a different story.

Let’s not forget too that one of the oldest fossils in the world is kept at New Walk: the pre-Cambrian Charnia fossil, as featured in Attenborough’s First Life series (for more on that, see Return to the Land of Charnia).

All of which lets me finish on a nice obscure link, almost as unlikely as finding Richard III in a car park.  Which is to realise the roof tiles from the Greyfriars Priory, recovered from the excavation and featured in the Guildhall exhibition, come from the very same Swithland slate quarry where Charnia was found.

Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)
Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)

Puzzling over Tyrannosaurs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Thomas and friends illustrate three stages of tyranosaur development (Photo:Tim Jones)
Thomas and friends illustrate three stages of development (Photo:Tim Jones)

How when we dig up a dinosaur bone do we know it comes from a young animal or a smaller example of a different species?  That’s a question the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles collection of T.rex helps answer.

Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History ©Tim Jones
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Yesterday, Erin and I visited the new Dinosaur Hall, where for the first time fossilised skeletons of three complete Tyrannosaurs are brought together to illustrate the different stages in the animal’s development.

 Thomas today: looking good
Thomas today: looking good

Above you see the three who died at 17 yrs, 14 yrs, and 2 yrs.

Here’s the largest, Thomas, as he looked a couple of years back when we last visited the museum: encrusted in rock, but the star all the same of his own very public extraction in the Dino Lab:

 in 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Thomas being uncovered in the Dino Lab (Photo: Tim Jones)
Dino Lab in 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)
In the Dino Lab visitors can watch the professionals at work

Dino Lab at Museum of Natural History Los Angeles

Dino Lab at Museum of Natural History Los AngelesComparing the three, we see that Tyrannosaurs don’t just scale up uniformly as they grow.  The eye sockets, for example, are more rounded in babies, changing to a keyhole shape in the adult.  The accompanying texts to the display explain how the relative length of the foot bone to the leg decreases from 70% to 50% from 2 to 17 yrs.

At 14 yrs. Adolescent, but dangerous.
2 yr old toddler Tyrannosaur

On a lighter note.  Ever wondered what a Tyrannosaurus rex looks like with (most of) its bones missing?  Probably not I guess, but here it is:


This was a bit of fun we got roped into: a Tyrannosaur puzzle no less.   The bones of the T.rex are taken off the frame, and it’s up to us non-experts to put them back in the right place.   It’s harder than you might think – and it makes you think! (Shh – that’s the point).

Where to start…..

I got off to an easy start with those deceptively unimpressive fore-limbs we all know and love from Jurassic Park, but soon came to grief when it came to the ribs. Best leave things to the experts:

The tail bone’s connected to the ……..?

Assembling a Tyrannosaur is just like working on your car: there’s always an extra piece left over when you put it back together……

A tyrannosaur also guards the gate... (photo:Tim Jones)
A tyrannosaur also guards the gate…

Great exhibition and well recommended.   Thanks to NHMLA for an enjoyable afternoon.


A Century of Southern California Aerospace

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

One of my favourite NASA clips shows the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar module blasting off, bringing home astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt – the last humans to set foot on the moon.

The film is presently looping, next to an R-18 rocket engine like the one used in the ascent, at the Huntington Library’s  Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition –  chronicaling a hundred years of Southern Californian aerospace.

RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display
RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display (Photo:Huntington Library Flickr)

There wouldn’t be much of an economy in the region if it wasn’t for aerospace  – that, and the entertainment industry.

From the first fly-ins and air-meets of Wright Brothers’ style aeroplanes in 1910, to the birth of commercial aviation in the 1920s, to World War II fighter production and surveilance aircraft for the Cold War, to a still evolving space programme; this single-room display is an impressive distillation of the events, people, and motivations behind it all.

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

Documented photographs dominate the display.  I liked this shot of a flight hostess in 1929, framed serving tea in the doorway of a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) passenger aircraft – something of a contrast to pilot Amelia Earhart leaning against the hanger doors of an aircraft factory.

TAT Hostess, 1929 (Photo: Huntington press release)
Amelia Earhart at Lockheed, 1930s (Photo: Huntington press release)









Politics might not be the most noble motivation for the conquest of space, but the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in 1957 sure pushed the pace.   In 1958, under Eisenhower and with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA was formed.  Later that year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer 1 satellite (the horizonal object in the glass case above) shot into orbit in response to the Sputnik challenge.

The accompanying social commentary is also fascinating, and with family connections (on my wife’s side), we found the photographs of 50’s/60’s laboratory life – like JPL’s all-women ‘platoon’ of mechanical calculator operators lined up at their desks – especially interesting.

(A recent scholarly analysis of NASA history can be had for free in NASA 50th Anniversary Proceedings, NASA’s first 50 Years:Historical Perspectives.  For cultural insights on the era, see my posts Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science and Buck Rogers – a Copper Clad Lesson from History) )

The exhibition isn’t just about NASA though.  For more info, check out the website or visit till the 9th January 2012.


The Moon Hoaxing Scandal of 1835

Herschell pictured on a papier mache box lid at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford (Photo: Tim Jones)

The fantastic weather in Oxford yesterday meant museum visits took a back seat to a good punting session on the Cherwell (a violation of physics in its own right with me at the helm).

Oxford (Photo:Tim Jones)

But we did get a half hour in the Museum of the History of Science , where I snapped this papier mache box lid, a great early example of newspapers not letting facts get in the way of a good story.  For what they lacked in hacking scandals in 1835, they made up for in hoaxing, in stories like the one to which this exhibit relates: The Great Moon Hoax.

The picture is a satirical sketch of the astronomer Sir John Herschel, in a scene based on a series of reports by Richard Adams Locke for the New York Sun in 1835, supposedly describing observations made by Herschel at his South Africa observatory.

From the New York Sun 1835 (Wikicommons)

You can read up on the detail at the museum of hoaxes), but in this rendition, which is new to me, I particularly like the weird equipment combo Herschel’s minions are wielding around him: some sort of camera obscura / microscope mash-up by the looks of things.  Maybe those instruments were more familiar than telescopes?   Or, more likely, the  journo just let his imagination get the better of him.  Either way, I guess it’s still the little winged moon-men that steal the show.

The exhibit put me in mind of two lectures on a similar tack I enjoyed in the Royal Society’s History of Science series.   You might like to check them out:

‘Fleas, lice, and an elephant on the moon’  by Dr Felicity Henderson (Sept 24 2010)

‘The Telescope at 400: a Satirical Journey’ by Richard Dunn (April 24 2009)

(both can be found by tracking down to the correct dates at the Royal Society podcast/vidcast page here).




Thomas Huxley and the Return of the Rattlesnake Bones

The Guardian this week reported on the UK Natural History Museum’s efforts to repatriate a collection of  human bones, acquired by explorers in bygone years, to their original home with islanders in the Torres Straits.

Outrigger sailing canoe alongside "The Rattlesnake" (Fronticepiece to T.H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyagfe of H.M.S.Rattlesnake)
Outrigger sailing canoe alongside "The Rattlesnake" in the Louisiade Archipelago (Fronticepiece to T.H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S.Rattlesnake)

It’s not a piece I’d linger over save for the mention of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a 19th century survey ship involved in, among other duties, the collection of anthropological specimens.   Moreover, the Assistant-Surgeon on the 1846-50 voyage was the young Thomas Henry Huxley, very much cutting his teeth in hands-on nature study and ethnography.

Self-Portrait, Thomas Huxley on H.M.S. Rattlesnake (Huxley's Rattlesnake diary)
Self-Portrait, Thomas Huxley on H.M.S. Rattlesnake (Huxley's Rattlesnake diary)

Regular readers will know I’m quite a fan of the man later known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, so any association with what we now recognise as unsavoury cultural violations demands a look-see.

Huxley worked alongside ship’s Surgeon Dr Thompson and Naturalist John MacGillivray, under the overall command of Captain Owen Stanley.

His Rattlesnake Diary, only published in 1935 by grandson Julian, captures thoughts and details of the voyage with a candour absent from more official reports.

The two diary entries that mention human artifacts, in this case a jaw bone bracelet, give some feel for the circumstances in which such pieces were obtained and the way Huxley spoke  about the indigenous peoples.

And as we have Julian Huxley’s thoughts on his grandfather’s behaviour (via his editorial commentary), there’s an opportunity to compare the ethics and cultural norms in anthropology not only between the mid-nineteenth century (when the bones were collected) and the present day (manifest in the Natural History Museum’s repatriation efforts), but also with the norms prevailing in 1935.

Human Jaw Bracelet (MacGillivray, Narrative of the Voyage of the Rattlesnake)
Human Jaw Bracelet (MacGillivray, Narrative of the Voyage of the Rattlesnake)

On to the diary entries.  In June 1849, with the Rattlesnake anchored among the islands of the Louisade Archipelago, Huxley describes an apparent overnight change in the local people’s willingness to barter a jaw bone ornament:

24th. Sunday [June 1849]

Huxley: “We had four or five canoes off to barter with us this morning – such squealing and shouting and laughing and yelling was never heard!  One of the niggers had a human jaw by way of a bracelet.  There was one tooth in the jaw and the circlet was completed by a smal bone apparently of some animal lashed to the coronoid process.

The old fellow would not part from it for love or money.  Hatchets, looking-glasses, handkerchiefs, all were spurned and he seemed to think our attempts to get it rather absurd, turning to his fellows and jabbering, whereupon they all set up a great clamour, and laughed.  Another jaw was seen soon in one of the canoes, so that it is possibly the custom there to ornament themselves with the memorials of friends or trophies of vanquished foes.” [Entry continues.]

Things have changed by the next day.  Huxley doesn’t mention any additional enticements that might have been used to achieve this, although it’s clear from other parts of the diary that iron and tools were particularly valued:

25th. [Monday, June 1849]

Huxley: “Several canoes came off this morning; one of them brought the figure-head which was so much wanted yesterday, and bartered it immediately.  In one of the canoes was a man with a jaw bracelet.  The jaw was in fine preservation and evidently belonged to a young person, every tooth being entire.  They seemed to have no scruple in selling it.  A jade hatchet was procured from them also.” [Entry continues.]

H.M.S. Rattlesnake

The jaw is also mentioned in a more formal report by MacGillivray in his Narrative of The Voyage of H.M.S.Rattlesnake (2) (And from which the drawing of the jaw bone above is taken.)

MacGillivray: “…But the most curious bracelet, and by no means an uncommon one, is that made of a lower human jaw with one or more collar bones closing the upper side crossing from one angle to another.  Whether these are the jaws of former friends or enemies we had no means of ascertaining; no great value appeared to be attached to them; and it was observed, as a curious circumstance, that none of these jaws had the teeth discoloured by the practice of betel chewing.”

First off, Huxley’s vernacular is alarming to modern ears – and this from a bastion of 19th century intellectual enlightenment.  Likewise, we wouldn’t by present standards in these circumstances take a willingness to hand over cultural artifacts as ethical licence to receive them.

Moving to Julian Huxley’s editorial.  Introducing a chapter titled “Huxley and the Savages”,  J.H. appears to be at pains to rationalise, if not apologise for, certain of T.H.’s behaviours, in doing so revealing his own predudices:

“He had none of the trained anthropologist’s insight into the black man’s mind, little conception of the alien ways of thought and feeling in which a primitive savage is enmeshed.  His reactions were those of a generous-minded young man with plenty of common sense but a strong feeling for justice.  He felt that there was some absolute standard of moral behaviour by which both the explorers and the natives could and should be judged.  On the whole, he censured his white companions more hardly than  the Papuans and Australian blacks.”

Although his views changed radically in later life, there’s a consistency here with Julian Huxley’s advocacy for Eugenic principles, a belief in the genetic basis for differences between human groups, and the concept of genetic inferiority.  I read the passage as an oblique approval of T.H.’s egalitarian sense of justice, but with the suggestion he’s applied it through ignorance and an incorrect assumption that blacks and whites are fundamentally the same.  One wonders what T.H. would say, had he the benefit of a time machine, in 1935?  Would he ask his grandson, politely, to stay off his team?

Thomas Huxley
Julian Huxley

From this example, it does start to look in some important respects like cultural attitudes in 1935 hadn’t progressed as much as one might think from those of Victorian times.  And were museums still accepting human artifacts in 1935? (I suspect they were, but please speak up if you know).  I doubt there was much repatriation of bones going on.

Well, that turned into something of a Huxley-bashing session afterall.   In fairness, isolated diary extracts don’t  give the most rounded impression of a person and, as I actually think the Rattlesnake diary does a particulary good job of that for Huxley, I’ll close by encouraging you to make a full reading (it’s not too long, very readable, and not at all boring).

Update 13.3.11Natural History Museum news release on the Torres Strait repatriation (10.3.11)

Update 6.5.11 Torres Strait Island Community ancestral remains return begins and video

Update 23.11.11 Museum Returns 19 Ancestral Remains to Torres Straits Islanders (Natural History Museum)



(1) T.H.Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake. Ed. Julian Huxley, Chatto and Windus, London 1935

(2) Narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, commanded by the late Captain Owen Stanley during the years 1846-50

John MacGillivray, George Busk, Robert Gordon Latham, Edward Forbes, Adam White – 1852

(3) The Huxley File, Guide 2, Voyage of the Rattlesnake. Charles Blinderman, Clark University.

(4)  Natural History Museum returns bones of 138 Torres Strait Islanders. Guardian newspaper, 10th March, 2011


Also of interest: Julian Huxley and the Invention of the Public Scientist (BBC Radio 4)


Photographs are taken from the author’s copy of T.H.Huxley’s Rattlesnake Diary and public domain sources.

Echoes of Muybridge – Photographic Pioneer

Do the four jackdaws taking off across the left-right diagonal here remind you of anything?

Jackdaws taking off
Was Muybridge inspired by their ancestors?  Click for larger image.  (Photo: Tim Jones,
Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge (Photo: WikiCommons)

For me, the regular spacing and apparent connected motion of the birds is reminiscent of  the work of nineteenth century photography pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge.

Born in 1830, Muybridge photographed many sequences of birds in flight like the one below.  But he’s probably better known for his animations of galloping horses, revealing for the first time that, at certain points, horses literally fly.

Eadweard Muybridge's Bird in Flight
Eadweard Muybridge’s Bird in Flight

Muybridge’s techniques revealed an animal’s true motion, knowledge that until his arrival had been lost in a blur of busy limbs.

Before photography, the motion of horses in motion was often mis-represented. Baronet with Sam Chifney Up, by George Stubbs.  (Photo: Tim Jones of a painting at Huntington Library)
Before photography, the motion of horses in motion was often mis-represented. Baronet with Sam Chifney Up, by George Stubbs. (Photo: Tim Jones of a painting at Huntington Library)

I should explain that Muybridge made sequenced compilations of stills taken of a single animal, while my picture is a happenstance capture of several birds taking off in close proximity and in apparent sequence: reminiscent of an airfield scramble or ducks flying up a wall.  So I’ve got an illusion evocative of Muybridge, not a simulation, and the motions of different birds cannot be linked. (Or can they? Formation take-off?  I’m reminded never to under-estimate the Corvidae family!)

By another happenstance, it turns out Muybridge was born and raised in the town where I now live: Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey.  And while he spent most of his working life in America, Muybridge left the materials of his important photographic legacy to his home town, where they reside in the Kingston Museum and Archive, five minutes walk from where I’m sitting.

A good selection of Muybridge material is normally on display in the museum, representative of his animal and human figure work, but also featuring his definitive 1878 panorama of San Francisco (link to America Hurrah website).

Muybridge’s San Francisco Panorama (Photo credit: America Hurrah)

And if you’d like to find out more about Muybridge and his legacy, there couldn’t be a better time.  Beginning this week, Wednesday 8th September, the Tate Britain will launch a Muybridge retrospective, and our own Kingston Museum will, from September 18th, host the Muybridge Revolutions exhibition, featuring unseen exhibits like Muybridge’s collection of Zoöpraxiscope discs.  The Kingston exhibition is part of a broader range of Muybridge related activities being coordinated by Kingston University with Kingston Council.

Fallow deer.  (Photo:Tim Jones,

But returning to my jackdaws in a more romantic frame.  I like to ponder Muybridge walking the same routes I take  today as I photograph the wildlife of Home Park; his meeting the ancestors of present-day jackdaws, deer and rabbits; and with his frustration at the unfathomable rapidity of their movements, the seed of motion photography being sown….

Update 12 October 2010

The powers that be are projecting Muybridge animations onto the side of Kingston on Thames police station. Very nice.

Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station
Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station (Photo:Tim Jones)
Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station
Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station (Photo: Tim Jones)
Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station
Muybridge on Kingston upon Thames police station (Photo: Tim Jones)

Accidental Pepper’s Ghost

This picture of a rare bakelite coffin in the London Science Museum’s plasticity exhibition is also an accidental recreation of the Victorian optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost.

Pepper's Ghost effect in a bakelite coffin at science museum
Bakelite coffin at the Plasticity exhibition, London Science Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

In one version of the illusion, an audience member stands in the coffin on a stage, and the rest of the audience watch as he gradually decays into a dancing skeleton before their eyes.  In that case, the image of a brightly lit skeleton placed in a pit in front of the stage is reflected by an angled sheet of glass placed between the audience and coffin.

On similar lines, a less elaborate experiment you can try yourself with a sheet of plane glass and two tea-lights is described in this piece from the Naked Scientists.

I’ve had this picture for a while, and only noticed the Pepper’s Ghost effect when I pushed the shadow enhance slider on iPhoto.  Quite scary seeing oneself encoffined.  Good job I’m not superstitious….

Let’s Make A Comet

Having unaccountably failed to spot comet McNaught on its recent visit, I was compensated last week by a meeting with this artificial comet created at the Griffith Observatory .

Demonstrator Grace holds the artificial comet (Photo:Tim Jones)

Demonstrator Grace is holding the tangible product of last Friday’s  ‘Let’s Make A Comet’ event, held in the Griffith’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre.   And I have to say, it was one of the best half hour’s worth of science communication I’ve seen.

I think the shear fun value had a lot to do with it.  And although the show was geared to a young audience, there was no dumbing down of the science or talking down to the kids.  Presentation style and jokes were witty rather than silly, patronising, or childish; and references to popular culture, like Harry Potter and the Transformers movie, were entertaining but topic-related.  The professionalism of the two demonstrators / presenters really made the show, and it’s taking nothing away from the scientific knowledge and skills these guys have, to say they were genuine entertainers.

The comet was made by mixing together common substances containing the elements found in real comets.  So that meant shaking up water, sand, carbon, and cleaning fluid (ammonia) together with dry-ice, or frozen CO2, in a plastic bag; the details are here on Griffith’s Teacher Resources page.

Griffith Observatory (Photo:Tim Jones)

I liked the hidden plan to pull an audience in on the promise of seeing a comet being made, then to educate them on broader themes and related topics; the practical demonstration happening only at the end of the session.   There was nothing sinister in that though, and it all went down well with the bulk of the show taken up with a mix of talk, slides, videos and Q&A breaks.  A lot of ground was covered, ranging from the chemical and physical requirements for life, to how the solar system is thought to have formed, and a pretty good introduction to astrobiology – including a discussion of extremophile life-forms.

Lecture theatre events are inevitably going to be a little one-way, but there was good engagement through the Q&As and frequent questions back to the audience. And it’s not like this was a public consultation on the risks of nanotechnology, the material being relatively uncontroversial.

Having the finished item available for inspection after the show was a big plus, and I’m sure the memory of it will for many people be a lasting anchor for the science they picked up.

A Bone to Pick with Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Before heading back to LA from Santa Barbara last week, Erin and I made a final stop at the local natural history museum.  I’ve blogged before about how great this place is. Not the largest of museums, but somehow managing to cover all the traditional departments through locally themed exhibits – and all in the most beautiful location.

whale skull at santa barbara museum of natural history
Whale skull at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, June 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)

In the 18 months since our last visit, two new exhibitions have appeared, and the bird gallery has reopened following renovation.  But to our surprise, all that is left of the museum’s flagship exhibit – a 72ft Blue Whale skeleton – is it’s head.

The complete whale skeleton in 2008 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Nice spot..... (Photo:Tim Jones)

For the 20 year old skeleton, one of only five on display in the USA, is in need of a major overhaul.  The skull will be completely replaced, and the remaining bones will be refurbished or replaced.

The $500,000 needed to complete the work is being raised by inviting donors to sponsor individual bones and sections of the skeleton through the ‘Buy-A-Bone’ scheme (links to the Museum’s website).

The right to name this particular Balaenoptera musculus has already gone – for a cool $100k.  But the skull and vertebral column are still up for grabs at $75k and $137k respectively; most of the ribs are available at $25k each, the left flipper at $13k, or one of twelve carpal bones can be yours for the pocket money sum of $500.

So go ahead – pick your bone!

They don’t build them like this anymore: The Gamble House

I’ve just taken a tour of the Gamble House – probably THE icon of American Arts & Crafts architecture.


The Gamble House, Pasadena (Photo:Tim Jones)

Designed and built as David Gamble’s (of Proctor & Gamble fame) winter retreat, this 1908 Charles and Henry Greene designed house in Pasadena is well worth a visit, for both it’s artistic and technological appeal.  No interior photography allowed, but here are some pics of the elegant joinery and fastening methods.

Construction is almost entirely in wood, with beautifully simple woodworking joints: lots of scarfs, laps, mortis and tenon (fingers), and pegs.

Our guide, however, put paid to the popular myth that the house is entirely without nails or screws.  Brass screws are used in the staircase for example, but cleverly hidden behind mahogany plugs (the tasteful predecessor of those cheap plastic caps that come with IKEA self-assemble furniture).

Scarf joint in the Gamble House (Photo:Tim Jones)

You’d also never guess that inside the supporting pillars are steel inserts that extend into the foundations; one of the first implementations of anti-earthquake measures.

Mortise and tenon joint, with pegs; in Gamble House (Photo:Tim Jones)


gamble house window

Gamble House window. Photo by Tim Jones

In 1908, the house cost $80,000 – roughly ten times the norm for a similar sized property – and took 20 people about a year to build.  It looks it.


Gamble House
Gamble House


Photos: Tim Jones and Erin Conel Jones