Evocative Endeavour – Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

Space Transportation System (Shuttle) at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Transportation System STS-47 (Endeavour Space Shuttle) at the California Science Center.

Evocative Endeavour

I did kind of wish for a second or two today, staring up at the big, black, underbelly of Space Shuttle Endeavour – boxed away at the California Science Center in Los Angeles – that I’d made more of an effort to see  she or her sisters performing live.

Am I getting all mushy and romantic about a spacecraft now?   Well, maybe just a bit.  My wife Erin said she felt unexpectedly moved after our visit.  I’d set myself to appreciative-engineer-mode before I went in, but still felt like I was standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time; you’ve seen all the postcards  and  videos, and can’t  imagine the real deal adding anything new – but  it does.  That’s  twice I’ve been emotionally sucked in by an iconic cliché.  Shocking.

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center.

Objects are evocative.  At one point I found myself back in my lab as a research student in Birmingham in 1986, hearing about the Challenger accident.  Then I’m back imagining all those tiles, engines, doors, and windows flying apart.

And there on Endeavour is that area of wing leading-edge, damaged on Columbia by falling debris during launch, causing her demise on re-entry in 2003 (more on that in this earlier post).

Rescue Hatch ©Tim Jones
Main Hatch
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center



First Impressions

There is of course plenty of engineering to appreciate, and science behind it to ponder.  But my gut reaction is how big she is, the length of the cargo bay, and how….dirty .  It looks like she’s been treated like some science fiction fan might treat an Airfix model of the Millennium Falcon: roughed up, artificially distressed – so it looks like the real thing.  Except the distress, evidently manageable, is real.

Size perception is odd too.  I’ve seen video of the shuttle during ascent (in fact you can see it in Matt Mellis’s movie/iPad App called ‘Ascent’), where the ‘body flap’ – that piece below the engine in the picture below – is vibrating violently; it’s positively oscillating.  The flap looks small and flimsy on the film, but it’s a huge construction; the forces must be tremendous.

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center
Flap ©Tim Jones


Cargo Door Hinges ©Tim Jones
Cargo Door Hinges



RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME)
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) and port Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), Gimbal area. ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), Gimbal area
Gimbal area close-up ©Tim Jones
Gimbal area close-up
Main Engine ©Tim Jones
Main Engine



Nose Thrusters (Reaction Control System) ©Tim Jones
Nose Thrusters (Reaction Control System)
Nose Thrusters Close-up ©Tim Jones
Nose Thrusters Close-up
Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) Pods with thrusters ©Tim Jones
Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) Pods with thrusters


The famous tiles, part of the Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS), are unmistakable.  Designed not to ablate like the heat shields on the Apollo capsules, tiles do suffer wear and damage, and some had clearly been replaced with new ones for display.

The complexity and variation of tile design is striking.  If you think tiling round the bathroom wash-basin is tricky, take a look at the area round the main engine gimbals and thrusters of the Shuttle.  No wonder maintenance costs were high.

Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) Close-up ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) Close-up


Earthquake Protection

Several sliding bearings, or seismic isolators, sit between the Shuttle and its supporting pillars, insulating Endeavour from the perils of Los Angeles’ earthquakes.  The idea is the Shuttle rocks around harmlessly until the shaking ground settles down.

Endeavour is mounted on Seismic Isolators to protect it from earthquake damage. ©Tim Jones
Endeavour is mounted on Seismic Isolators to protect it from earthquake damage.
Seismic Isolator Bearing Surfaces. ©Tim Jones
Seismic Isolator Bearing Surfaces


We saw Endeavour in temporary accommodation; it’s destined to be mounted vertically in a custom-designed building.  That said, the exhibition as it stands doesn’t feel temporary, and the associated display areas and accompanying audio-visuals describing California’s particular role in the Shuttle story and showing off various artifacts from the program – including, importantly, the Shuttle’s WC or ‘space potty’, are excellent.

Entry to the California Science Center is free, but there’s a very reasonable $2 entry charge or ticket booking fee to see Endeavour.

Entrance to Endeavour Area ©Tim Jones
Entrance to Endeavour Display Area
Simulated Mission Control ©Tim Jones
Simulated Mission Control
Space Shuttle Wheels ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Wheels
Display Area ©Tim Jones
California and artifacts display area
Space Potty ©Tim Jones
Space Potty


Parting Impressions

I need a Tee-shirt, right?
I need a Tee-shirt, right?

Even as we celebrate, the Space Shuttle program is criticised, particularly around issues of cost and safety, but also the scope of its achievements.  As always, it’s easy to find fault in hindsight, and judge historical decisions by the political and economic expedients of the present day.  Personally, I reckon we’d be in a much sorrier state had the program not gone ahead.  The Shuttle was the workhorse behind the International Space Station, the full learning from which I suspect has yet to be converted.  And Endeavour personally, so to speak, enabled the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope can see clearly now thanks to Endeavour. (Model at Cal.Science.Center) ©Tim Jones
The Hubble Space Telescope can see clearly now thanks to Endeavour. (Model at Cal.Science.Center)

NASA is at a turning point, collaborating more closely with private partners and, most recently, other nations on its manned space program.  While the arrival of new entrants, working methods, and relationships are culturally refreshing, surely much of the knowledge and expertise behind them has its roots in the Shuttle and related programs.

Hopefully this note’s been short and sweet.  There’s no point my repeating loads of technical and historical information you can get from many sources: not least the NASA and California Science Center websites, which, like Endeavour, are both worth a visit.




Of Related Interest on Zoonomian

Matt Mellis Shares 30 Years of the Space Shuttle at the London Science Festival

Profiling the Victorian Door Knob

Victorian profiled door knob

Those crazy Victorian inventors. What can you do with them?  Whenever I research a history project, some totally unconnected but wonderful distraction like this shows up and wants sharing.

Maybe that’s how inventor James Wilcox thought about his ‘profile likeness’ doorknob keepsake idea from the Victorian era, reported in an 1838 edition of  (take a deep breath) the Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal and Gazette: one of the many popular journals at the time disseminating a veritable gush of 19th century science and engineering.

At first glance I thought this was about profiling a door knob and sticking it back on the door; but that wouldn’t really work – would it.  No, Wilcox’s breakthrough technology involves filing the profile of your head into a steel tool, and using it to turn a likeness into an old wooden doorknob.  Cutting the thus-profiled piece into slices gives you a whole bunch of keepsakes for handing out to friends and acquaintances.  Inspired!

Okay, I’m taking the Mickey a bit because it’s such an off-the-wall thing, not to say off-the-door thing, to spend your time on.  But in all seriousness, there seem to have been a lot of  men (at least mainly men were visible) like Wilcox around, who, variously tucked away in workshops, cottages, and garden sheds, had the will and wherewithal to have a go at the various engineering challenges of the day.  And even if some ideas were silly and others came to nought, ordinary folk still felt they had the right and ability to contribute – although with increasing complexity and specialisation that was becoming ever harder; it’s almost impossible today.

Hey, I like Wilcox’s idea – a kind of wooden business card or Carte de Visite as the Victorians would have it.  It’s not like you’d forget a guy who slipped you a slice of his door knob.

I also like Wilcox’s self-effacing humility, where after he says “If this has ever been done before, by any other person, I am not aware of it” he goes on to concede there’s still room for improvement –  if only that messy screwed piece at the back was done away with.  Ah, the compromises one has to make for rapid prototyping, or as Wilcox explains in value-added detail right to the end “My mandrill having a female screw, I am obliged to screw the piece into it; but with a male screw, the operation can be done much neater.

There you go.  A little whiff of the Great in Great Britain :-P.






Matt Melis Shares 30 Years of the Space Shuttle at the London Science Festival

There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip.  But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s  Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.

Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival 2011
Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan.  The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission).  Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).

Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival Photo:Tim Jones
Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.

The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch.  Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios.  So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.

Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be.  Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating.  Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:

The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.

Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)
Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)

Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life.  Melis showed  a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch.   Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people.  Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.

All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here.  Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:


Bonus Clips from Ascent:

Recipes, Formulas And Processes

Readers interested in early twentieth century chemistry, processes, and tricks of the trade used by industry and in the home, might like to check out the online edition of Henley’s Twentieth Century book of Recipes, Formulas and Processes, Edited by Gardner D.Hiscox – a pdf of Cornell University’s 1909 copy at the Internet Archive.

hiscox recipes formulas and processes by G.D. Hiscox
Recipes Formulas and Processes by G.D. Hiscox (1907 edition)

I’m lucky enough to own a 1907 first edition of Hiscox’s classic work, and love the way my copy is dis-colored and bleached by chemical splashes.  Not by me, I hasten to add.  But this book has for sure been used for its intended purpose!  Whether the former owner, a James McQueen Jr. according to the bookplate, lived long and prospered because of its secrets, or in spite of them, is a different matter.

Secrets intended for all; the preface:

In compiling this book of formulas, recipes and processes, the Editor has endeavoured to meet primarily the practical requirements of the mechanic, the manufacturer, the artisan, and the housewife.

Some of the information is innocuous enough.  You can learn how your great grandmother made blackberry jam.  And Celery Clam Punch or Cherry Phosphate (with real phosphoric acid, maybe the origin of cherry coke?) sound refreshing for a summer evening.

But some of the medical cures are distinctly dodgy.  We worry enough today about tanning products, but Hiscox’s cure for a tan, made from bichloride of mercury, sounds lethal.  Helpfully, he shares with us that:

This is not strong enough to blister and skin the face in average cases.

Phew, good job most folk are average.  Responsibly, he adds:

Do not forget that this last ingredient [the mercury compound] is a powerful poison and should be kept out of the reach of children and ignorant persons.

Folk would have taken Hiscox’s Cannabis indica based cure for corns in their stride (ouch!).  And concern over the pinch of cinnabar in his nail polish would be just another case of health and safety gone mad.

But surely, even by the standards of the time, Hiscox’s idea of a light-hearted party trick must have raised some eyebrows (or literally blown them off): like ‘To take boiling lead in the mouth’, ‘Biting off red hot iron’, ‘Sparks from the finger tips’.  And ‘The burning banana’ doesn’t bear thinking about.

hiscox recipes formulas and processes
Recipes, Formulas and Processes (1907 edition)

Some recipes were probably safe, but just sound a little icky.  Like a nice pomade for sir’s hair, made from vaseline oil and beef marrow.   Blue hosiery dye called for some ingredients I’ve never heard of: like 4 pounds of Guatamala and 3 pounds of Beugal Indigo; and others I have heard of: like 1 pail of urine.  Hiscox also contains lots of paint and ink recipes but, disappointingly, there’s no mention of the infamous Mummy Brown.

‘Solid Alcohol’ sounds quite useful, maybe as a firelighter.  I made something similar as a schoolboy, by dissolving soap in methylated spirit.

There’s nothing in Hiscox to separate the domestic from the industrial.  Content is alphabetically indexed, but otherwise all mixed up.   The section on glass includes industrial formulas for making different glass types and colourings in the furnace, but also includes instructions for a home-made glass grinding device.

Interestingly, Recipes, Formulas And Processes was republished through many revisions and editions into at least the 1930s.  But I’m sure today there is nothing quite like it – unless we include the internet as a whole.

On another tack, it’s worth remembering that when Hiscox was published, the welfare and commercial infrastructure we take for granted today (some of us) was much less developed or non-existent.  No popping down to the mall for a ready-made solution to every task.   Folk just did more of their own stuff.

And should you decide to do more of your own stuff, don’t do it from Hiscox!   He’s academically interesting to browse, but clearly some of his recipes and ideas are best left well alone.

Out Of The Archives – Telescope Tales

I’ve been amusing myself this evening scanning old black & white negatives and colour slides into the computer: strips of film that have languished in negative files on top of cupboards for years.  It’s a boring process, but punctuated with the reward of finding something I thought was lost, or a negative that was never printed.

developing tank developer fixer darkroom
Home developing. This is how we did it….
developing trays darkroom
when I were a  lad…..

Some of the pictures go back to 1973, and are an unwelcome reminder of my antediluvian origins.  But they’re also revealing of the state of technology at the time, and what I was doing with it.  All the black and white pictures in this post are from the archive.

zenith enlarger
This is not a telescope

The photographic process itself is a prime example: the relative time  and cost of developing and printing my own films being one reason many pictures haven’t been properly seen until now.

Things sure have moved on.  I asked my 15 year old nephew if he’d ever used film, and after clarifying I didn’t mean video tape, he confirmed he’d never touched the stuff.  Silly of me to ask really.

Regrettably, some of the more fun, not to say embarrassing, pictures from the archive are not suitable for public display.  But I’m happy to inflict the sci-tech oriented discoveries – starting today with these pics of my first serious astronomical telescope.

fullerscopes six inch reflecting telescope
Same paint job as the 200″ on Mount Palomar

The main components were bought in 1977, and this photo of the telescope in its observatory is probably from 1979.  The instrument is a classic Newtonian reflector of a design that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  It has a 6″ primary mirror, and was built by Fullerscopes of London, the same company that made Patrick Moore’s fork-mounted 15″.  The mount is a Fullerscopes Mk III German Type equatorial.  The ancillaries: motor drives, plinth, finder, camera attachments, and the observatory itself are home built.

fullerscopes six inch reflecting telescope

To be accurate, this was my second telescope, the first being an entirely home-built open-tube reflector in an altazimuth type cradle.  Constructed almost entirely from sturdy aluminium bar stock – largely because that’s what I had – it all proved a little unwieldy.  No photos survive – probably for the best.

Reflecting telescope made by Isaac Newton (Photo:Tim Jones, taken at the Royal Society)
Made by Newton (Photo:Tim Jones, taken at Royal Society)

The 6″ was mainly used for visual observations.  I later added an improved synchronous motor drive to the Right Ascension (RA) axis to make the instrument more suited to astrophotography, but as that happened in 1980, just before I left home for university and ever on, that feature was little used.

Warning – Telescope building aficionados, engineers, (and all other interested readers….!) only

Assembling, augmenting,  or building a telescope from scratch is an excellent engineering, as well as scientific, training.  To save money, I purchased only the RA axis worm drive from Fullerscopes, with a view to reverse engineering it and building a copy for the declination axis. Operations to do that included aluminium casting, worm screw cutting, and making my own integrated roller ball-bearings on the worm shaft (to remove any trace of play, and hence instrument movement).   Thankfully, my brother was building a model steam engine at the time, so a good selection of machine tools were available around the home.

Myford ML7 lathe. Every home should have one (here operated by my brother).

I realise now that some of these operations were quite sophisticated engineering tasks, particularly for a 15 year old – probably why things didn’t always turn out as planned.  I struggled to reproduce the 4.5″ phosphor bronze worm wheel (although the trick for cutting a worm wheel, by winding a tool-post mounted wheel into a spinning tap mounted between lathe centres, I find fascinating and elegant), and instead adapted an ex-military gun-sight for the declination axis.  That said, the worm unit I’d made was better than the original, and eventually replaced it.

screw-cut worm in ball-races / cradle
Great British engineering….

The RA motor connected to the drive worm via a gearbox, also homemade using mecano gears mounted in a solid block of steel, the centre of which had been milled out on the lathe and fitted with individually turned and reamed phosphor-bronze bushes.  The whole drive assembly was bolted to the plinth and linked to the final worm gear on a universal joint.  This all worked fine, unless the telescope was incorrectly counter-balanced, when teeth would expensively shear off the little mecano gear wheels.


Despite these set-backs, or perhaps because of them, it’s my firm belief that this activity set me up well to tackle life’s later challenges: like building my own research equipment and mending the car.

The telescope’s plinth and observatory have their own stories.  I’d read somewhere that telescopes need a rock-solid mount, and that plinths mounted in concrete are superior to tripods.  In the photo, you can just see the top of a 5ft x 5″ x 1/4″ steel tube, 2 ft of which is buried in a 3ft square cube of concrete.  The base of the observatory is covered in paving stones laid on sand, with a gap around the central concrete block to prevent footstep vibrations reaching the plinth.  The plinth was capped by a 7″ square x 3/8″ thick oxy-acetylene welded plate.  I remember this well, as the welder had to commission an unusually large nozzle for the job.  This was of course total overkill for a 6″ reflector; but I suspect I harbored secret fantasies of some day owning a more substantial instrument.


The observatory was made from resin bonded plywood on a pine frame.  Originally designed as a run-off shed, I switched to the fold-off roof idea when the weight of the structure dictated a need for major railroad-type work adjacent to the observing area – effectively doubling the project’s footprint.  In practice, a south-facing aspect and relatively low observatory walls meant the compromise solution made little impact on sky visibility.  A telescope mounted permanently out of doors is always ready for action – an important consideration with UK weather –  with no need to wait for thermal stabilisation of the optics or to spend time aligning the equatorial mount.   It goes without saying that, like all the world’s great observatories, it was painted white.

I keep saying ‘was’, because Mount Tim was decommissioned in the early nineties, such that you’d never know the paved area had ever  been anything other than a regular garden patio.  Amusingly, the plinth proved immovable, save for the use of explosives, so was instead ceremoniously tipped on its side in a shallow grave.  I sometimes wonder what a future Tony Robinson might make of it.

Coming back to Fullerscopes.  Buying a telescope in 1976 was not like popping down the road to Curry’s and carrying it home under your arm.   When my father and I first visited Telescope House on the Farringdon Road, we were greeted by Dudley Fuller in person.  He’d formed the company a few years earlier by buying out the historic but failing maker of optical instruments – Broadhurst & Clarkson Ltd.

We talked about my telescope-making efforts to date, and what I needed from Fullerscopes.   He was wary of my plans to attach one of his diagonal mirrors to my homemade spider using glue (EvoStick No.2 – if I must!), but we agreed a package – including a Fullerscopes spider – and placed the order.  (The spider sits in the top of the telescope tube and holds a diagonally placed mirror that diverts light into the eye-piece.)  A month later, I returned to man-handle this tribute to Sir Isaac through the streets of London and back to Leicester  – by train.

What I’m using today: Meade ETX-90.

Telescope building was still being done in a traditional way.  Fuller explained that all the brass tube-work on his telescopes was hand made using Broadhurst & Clarkson’s original equipment.  That meant the brass sheet was rolled on an antique mill by hand, then soldered along the seam.  On my telescope, the solder seam is visible on the brass focusing mount and Barlow lens adapter tube.  The economics of this, particularly on parts destined for smaller instruments like my 6″, and at a time when Japan was starting to export mass-produced alternatives, must have been unsupportable.  I’m guessing that’s the reason the Farringdon road shop closed down in 2005 and Telescope House moved out of town.  It looks like they’re still trading though, with Patrick Moore’s endorsement into the bargain. (Telescope House website).  But they don’t seem to be making their own instruments any more – please correct me if you know different.

Meade ETX90
Meade ETX90

There’s a related and slightly surreal twist to the story here, concerning my move to London in 2000.  Needing a more portable telescope for out of city viewing, I visited Fullerscopes, now the UK agent for Meade Instruments Corp. of the USA, makers of the compact Cassegrain-Maksutov telescope I was after.  The odd thing was, when I got chatting to the guy who handed over the box, it turned out he had personally been involved in making the brass-work for my 6 inch reflector 24 years earlier!  It’s a nice story.

Anyhow, I hope that wasn’t completely boring and self-absorbed.   If nothing else, it may have given you an insight into what I was getting up to in my formative years.  You know, when I should have been out doing drugs, smashing up cars, and getting my underage girlfriend pregnant – like a normal teenager 🙂

Don’t forget to check back for the next exciting edition of Out Of The Archives……

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

Getting real about our virtual future

When Nature Materials asked if I would write a Commentary on how I saw virtual worlds impacting our lives and science in particular, I was more than happy to share my thoughts.  You can access the Commentary(1) and accompanying Editorial(2) by Joerg Heber in the December edition of Nature Materials.   The following earlier draft on which the commentary is based, will I hope give Zoonomian readers unfamiliar with virtual worlds a broad introduction to some of their strengths, weaknesses and future potential.

Imagine an online phenomenon that you can engage with today, but which in ten years time will be bigger than the web, run on an infrastructure that makes Google’s hardware look like a pocket calculator, and can already deliver productivity and efficiency gains running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. You would be there for that – right?

Be it ever so humble.  The author's Zoonomian Science Centre
Be it ever so humble. The author’s Zoonomian Science Centre

Well – maybe.  Because despite some futuristic projections and perhaps a little wishful thinking, we are still not seeing full-on mainstream engagement with virtual worlds: the three-dimensional immersive environments where, video game style, you use a mouse and keyboard to walk and talk your personal avatar around a simulated world.

Yet recent numbers coming out of Linden Lab, owners of the dominant simulation Second Life, give pause for thought.  For starters, Linden Lab say the virtual economy based on the in-world exchange of goods and services is now running at the equivalent of $500,000,000 per year.  (Linden’s own income derives from virtual land sales and rentals, and virtual-real currency exchange.)  Then there is the continuing enthusiasm shown for virtual worlds by big name business users like IBM, Sun and Intel – some of whom have developed their own simulations; and the host of educational and cultural institutions busily setting up their virtual shop, of which the University of Texas is the most recent and sizable example.

So what do the 70,000 or so users typically online in Second Life represent – a small entrenched community, or a portent of paradigm change in the nature of online human interaction?   And what are they all doing there anyhow?

Based on my virtual wanderings, I can safely assure you that most Second Life residents are not visualizing scientific data, developing business strategies, or attending conferences and virtual universities.  No – they’re mostly just having fun dressing up and forming a variety of friendships and relationships with real people projected into a fantasy setting.  They’re also creating some magnificent artwork.  I’m all for experiment – so good luck to them.

My own excitement about virtual worlds relates more to serious applications than fancy dress, reflecting perhaps my past life in physical and mathematical fluids modelling, or the sympathy I have as a former private pilot for  flight simulation.  I’m a recent convert, having discovered virtual worlds only last year while scanning for new and unusual science communication tools.  Basic Second Life membership is free but, keen to establish a presence and experiment with building techniques, it wasn’t long before I’d purchased the modest plot of virtual land needed to do that.  My initiation was complete when I met up with a team from Imperial College using virtual worlds for medical training – more of which later.

Visitor at science comics exhibition held in June (Zoonomian Science Centre)
A visitor at a Science Comics exhibition held in June  at the Zoonomian Science Centre

Yet mine is a minority interest.   Even within my real-world community of science communicators, barely a handful of colleagues have avatars, and virtual worlds are only now starting to figure in the curriculum of science communication courses.   Contacts in the UK museums sector likewise give the impression they are in no rush to engage – the argument being that the public are just not equipped or interested.

So what is the perception of users?  Geeky at best.  That the purpose of virtual relationships can be sexual (use your imagination) is a mixed blessing for Linden Lab:  attracting some users and scaring others away.   Recent measures taken to separate adult content should improve the balance.

What might it take then for virtual worlds to really take off?  Can we expect another Facebook or Twitter-style growth event any time soon?  Well, ask yourself why anyone might take the virtual leap?  People engage where they perceive value, and that perception changes with perspective.   The socialite or keen party animal, scientist, manager, and communicator will each focus on, understand, and value different aspects of virtual worlds.

First, there is a fundamental quality to virtual worlds that makes their use so attractive and could be the key driver for mainstream uptake.  This special quality is a sense of space and, strange to say, something akin to a feeling of physical presence.   That experience is enhanced by directional audio, such that you can hear footsteps behind you and voices get louder as avatars approach. Regrettably, this defining quality is also the most difficult to convey – you really have to experience it, which is worth remembering if you ever have to sell the concept.  Significantly, those implementing the University of Texas Systems’s virtual university – covering 16 campuses no less – cite how important it was for part of their pitch to the sponsor Chancellors to be made in Second Life itself.

Talking points

I have been most  impressed by the present and potential role for virtual worlds in education, and more generally as a platform for presentations and even full-blown conferencing.  The many hundreds of educational establishments represented in Second Life, including major universities, attest to a pervasive interest in applying virtual worlds to learning.  The arrival of large scale, well funded, projects like the Texas University System pilot, which has a research program for systematized knowledge capture built in, illustrates just how serious the ‘game’ of Second Life has become.  From pilot studies like this will flow the best practices, methodologies and protocols on which the virtual universities of the not too distant future will operate.

For conferencing, substitution of the many experiences that make up a real-world event is unrealistic, but that still leaves scope for one-off lectures, classroom-less teaching scenarios, and those occasions where the trade-off of a virtual presence outweighs having no representation at all.

xxxx discusses life on other worlds - beamed in from the Adler planetarium
Scott Gaudi discusses life on other worlds – beamed in from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium to an event held by ‘Astronomy 2009’ Island –  the official SL presence of the International Year of Astronomy 2009

A good example is the Solo09 Science Online conference, organised in August this year, that ran simultaneously in real life at the UK’s Royal Institution in London – where I was sitting – and in Second Life for anybody who couldn’t make the venue.  Virtual attendees participated fully in the discussions, and one of the speakers joined from Second Life.   And importantly, the cameras were set so that we could all see each other.

The events I have joined have mostly been technically flawless, although the occasional outright disaster  illustrates the danger of relaxing real world conference planning standards.  Bad planning of virtual world events damages not only the organiser’s reputation but, in these early days, the credibility of the concept.  Third party providers like Second Nature and Rivers Run Red with their Immersive Workspaces Solution are offering services to help clients get it right first time.

In the context of public lectures, there is a unique type of speaker-audience dynamic at work in virtual worlds  that I really like, whereby protocol has somehow evolved such that audience members can comment and question, via a communal text box, during the presentation itself.

It's o.k. to talk in class.....
It’s o.k. to talk in class…..   A popular astronomy lecture at MICA

This would be pretty rude behaviour in the real world, but virtual speakers in the know seem to engage with it well, taking comments as cues to amplify audience points or elaborate on areas of the talk where there is special interest.

On the other hand, I have a real problem with the absence of any meaningful facial expression on avatars. We take expressions for granted in real life, but they deliver a lot of conscious and subconscious information that is simply lost in virtual reality. Next time you are at a real world event, make a mental note of where you are looking – it will not be the guy’s shoes.  And I’m not impressed by the counter argument that expressionless anonymity makes strangers less intimidating to approach.

Good starting points for your first virtual public lecture are Second Nature at the Elucian Islands complex, NASA’s Education Island in the science rich apelago known as the SciLands, and for both public and more specialised professional astronomy talks – the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA).  A list of science-related locations in SL can be found at this Science Center Wiki.

Private individuals and companies can hold their own virtual meetings and mini-conferences, which is a boon for geographically dispersed teams that need to work collaboratively.  The benefits come through as reduced travel time, budget, and carbon footprint – with Intel claiming savings of $265,000 against one real-world meeting.  Yet I suspect many traditional corporate managements are struggling to see the benefit of virtual worlds over good video-conferencing; and I do not envy anyone charged with selling virtual worlds to an unenthusiastic management.

The virtual versions of traditional collaboration aids that exist in Second Life, such as whiteboards and laser pointers, are good for highlighting features on slides and building basic flowcharts,but will disappoint those expecting the spontaneity of a flipchart. Yet workarounds that integrate ‘conventional’ two dimensional collaboration tools are possible, and we should remember that for the display of complex three dimensional objects – that can be walked around and entered – virtual worlds represent an improvement over real life. This kind of functionality is attractive to product designers, scientists, and engineers alike. A civil engineer might share a new bridge concept with a focus group, while an automotive designer might explore a vehicle prototype concept or visualise crash simulations.

In a purely commercial role, I can only envisage the most mechanical and uncontentious negotiations taking place across a virtual table; but that still leaves plenty of scope for collaborative activities including product and supply chain development.  (IBM holds its most sensitive meetings behind a firewall in their own virtual world, and Linden Lab have just released a special ‘Enterprise’ version of Second Life for businesses.)

Scientific visualisations

Data visualisation and simulation are core functionalities in the virtual world where, in the scientific sphere, chemists manipulate complex molecules, climatologists visualise weather systems, and astrophysicists simulate stellar motion.

Interactive molecule at the American Chemical Association
Interactive molecule at the American Chemical Association

Modeling of fundamental physical phenomena in Second Life is constrained by the limitations of the simulation’s HAVOK physics model which, designed to support the games and movie industries, is only partly faithful to the laws of physics. Some tweaking is possible, but complex simulations require that visualisations be tied in to external processing. For example, mass in Second Life is independent of material composition but increases uniformly with object size. Different materials exhibit levels of ’slipperiness’ approximating to friction – yet viscosity and buoyancy are not represented. The delays in processing large amounts of information make accurate real time simulation problematic.

N body simulator at MICA
3 body star simulator at MICA
Yet within limits, some impressive visualisation tools – often open source and customizable – have been produced. As ever, third party solutions specialists such as Green Phosphor are on hand to help you move data between worlds.

To explore the possibilities of data visualization for yourself, you might set up a multi-body star system simulation with the help of MICA, or get up close and personal with some carbon nanotubes at the UK National Physical Laboratories nanoscience and nanotechnology hub in the NanoLands.

Nanotube animation at NPL's NanoLand
Nanotube animation at NPL’s NanoLands

Public engagement


Virtual worlds are opening up new vistas in public engagement, ranging from the use of interactive but primarily educational displays and visualizations, through to immersive virtual consultations that impact real world policy-making.

A good example of the former is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s presence in Second Life, where visitors can select weather systems from the Earth and other planets, and see them displayed on a giant walk-around globe – complete with audio commentary.  While at NASA, the visitor can inspect and be photographed sitting atop a full size reproduction of a Saturn V launch vehicle.

Visualisation of Martian weather at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Visualisation of Martian weather at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Saturn V at NASA Education Island
Saturn V at NASA Education Island

A good example of virtual engagement informing real world policy is the London Strategic Health Authority’s project in association with Imperial College, involving a virtual hospital of the future that members of the public can experience and comment on.

Patient simulation at Imperial College
Patient simulation at Imperial College

My most memorable virtual experience happened on this campus, when I found myself guiding and chatting with some of the 1000 or so visitors who had appeared from all over the world for an open day. Such an assembly of individuals  – with the multitude of interests, professions, and languages they represented – could only happen in virtual reality. I’ve blogged about this aspect of virtual worlds before, and you can listen to the short radio documentary I made at the time here:


That event showcased techniques for the training of medical professionals, but virtual worlds are also used for direct patient treatment. It is thought stress levels in patients facing surgery can be reduced by walking them through procedures ahead of time. And for the psychologically disturbed, virtual worlds can provide a controllable, non-threatening environment in which their condition can be monitored and improved – a technique the US military has used to gain a better understanding of combat stress.

The future

While the limited processing power of users’ computers prevents an immediate Twitter-style boom in avatar births, I firmly believe we will see huge growth in both the application and awareness of virtual worlds over the next two to five years.

As hardware costs fall and broadband becomes ubiquitous, the themes of integration and interface will dominate the technical and cultural horizons of virtual worlds.

Technically, a closer integration with communications and social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google has already started; for example, I can now tweet from inside Second Life.  At Second Earth, a ‘mash-up’ of Google Earth data with Second Life visualization is signposting the way ahead.

Second Earth - A mash-up of GoogleEarth with Second Life
Second Earth – A mash-up of GoogleEarth with Second Life

An inevitable move to more open standards will free avatars and virtual goods to move between different virtual worlds and other media platforms.  The underlying physics models will improve, as will graphics and display technology. We will control our avatars via sensors that attach to, or remotely scan, our body and face; or we might use our brainwaves directly.

Culturally, we may find our daily routine moving seamlessly between the real and virtual worlds, in a future where avatars look and move exactly like their real world counterparts. Throwing off geek status, virtual worlds will become mainstream as more scientists, teachers, engineers, business people – and even some politicians – recognize the possibilities they offer.

All of which makes now a great time to put prejudice aside, get ahead of the game, and start checking out some of the amazing creative content and ideas that await you in the virtual universe.

Update 7/7/20011 –  The Zoonomian Science Centre is no longer active, but you can still contact me in Second Life as Erasmus Magic.  Or or course drop me a real-life email from the blog.

Tim Jones’s name in Second Life is Erasmus Magic


(1) ‘Getting real about our virtual future‘ in Nature Materials 8, 919 – 921 (2009)


(2) Editorial in Nature Materials 8, 917 (2009)


Related Links

Joanna Scott’s retrospective on the SOLO09 conference here at Nature Network

Update / Other Info

The Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Science ‘Jonge Akademie’ invited me to talk about the themes covered in this paper and virtual worlds in general.  Here are the slides from the event.


August 2010 – Linden’s attempt at a business only product just didn’t work for them.  Interesting analysis here at Hypergridbusiness.com, including comments from IBM.

Sprinting is Good for the Heart (but not so good for the planet)

Inevitably, spring cleaning and winnowing of the paper archives throws up blasts from the past – often in the form of faded, pre-digital-age photographs.   They waft the embers of dormant memories.

Triumph Dolomite Sprint - first commercial 16v motor car
Triumph Dolomite Sprint – first production car with a 16v engine

This memory concerns a charity drive I made with my brother 19 years ago in support of the British Heart Foundation.  The Round Britain Reliability Run involved a group of car enthusiasts loyal to the Triumph brand, driving non-stop (save for pit-stop style re-fueling and the occasional sandwich break) around the UK. That’s a distance of about 2000 miles in something like 40 hours, taking a route from London to John O’Groats to Lands End, and back to London.

The Route
The Route

A number of thoughts struck me, looking at the photo of our ride – a 1981 Triumph Dolomite Sprint; but two in particular.

Firstly,  nobody in 1990 had heard of global warming, so all were oblivious to the carbon footprint of the event or any incongruity with the charitable tone of the challenge (not that heart health and global warming are directly related).

Secondly, this was a reliability run; part of the perverse thrill lay in not knowing with any certainty your vehicle would  hack the 2000 miles round trip. Alright, some of these cars were from the 1950’s, but mechanical reliability – even into the ’70s and ’80s – did not compare to today’s standards.  The Sprint in particular was prone to engine overheating – a defect which, when it occurred, could be ameliorated by driving with the heaters full on and the windows open.

Club Triumph Round Britain Beer Mug

And guess what?  They are still running these events – every two years.  What’s more, the Club Triumph Round Britain Reliability Run has from last year been carbon neutral.  The carbon impact in terms of off-setting equivalent has been calculated at £10 per car – which is duly charged to the drivers.  The beneficiary charity  seems to change with each event, but an impressive total of  £270,000 has been generated for various causes since 1990.

I never repeated this sort of stunt.  For starters, all the Triumphs in our family wore out or were sold off (we had six over the years).  And I moved on to more mature transport related pastimes, like throwing bags of flour out of aeroplanes (the science and technology of flour bombing is a post for another day).

Anyhow, a few more of these blast from the past photos were  loosed along with this one from the box file of history so, if you’re really unlucky, there could be further posts in Zoonomian’s nostalgia category :-).

Nanotechnology – Managing the Opportunity

Nanotechnology lets us manipulate materials at the finest scale. ‘Nanotech’ products have become mainstream without us even noticing, and the future promise for the technology is forcing nothing less than a paradigm change in mindset and expectation.


Dr Andrew Maynard discusses nanotechnology (Photos: Fotolia, A.Maynard)
Dr Andrew Maynard discusses nanotechnology (Photos: Fotolia, A.Maynard)

In this interview for radio, I ask Dr Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor on the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, for his views on current applications, far reach potential, and the risk management challenges associated with nanotechnology.

(this is a slightly longer version of the interview first broadcast on ICRadio on 16th June 2009)

Andrew Maynard blogs at 2020Science