Science Trumps Fiction


Let’s just sneak past everyone!

A certain Gem was a guest over Christmas, and expressed a desire to visit an exhibition at the Science Museum. As she’s a maths student Heather and I agreed to go with her. The exhibition wasn’t all that, but at least it was the Science Museum.

We arrived down the seemingly never ending tunnel from the tube station to a lack of queue (it was still quite early) and were able to wander straight in (the security arrangements at the Science Museum always seem to vary wildly—this was pretty much none). Almost immediately we were greeted by a Dalek (luckily trapped in a glass cage), a foretaste of things to come. Our exhibition entry time wasn’t for a while though so we headed upstairs in search of the Mathematics gallery to keep the student happy.


Showing the motion of planets and moons

That did give the opportunity to pass through the Science City gallery along the way though, which is always one of my highlights. Here is a telescope crafted by Newton. Here is the orrery for the Earl of Orrery which means it’s called an orrery. A “philosophical table” made for a King, to demonstrate scientific principles. It’s a fascinating insight into the development of science, and the craftsmanship that went into the instruments that enabled it.

Babbage Calculating

Remember watching this being built years ago

Just outside the mathematics gallery stands something that takes me back several decades in my mind. I remember watching the construction of the Difference Engine No. 2, to designs by Charles Babbage himself. It’s remarkable to think that these days, here it is, complete and operational (and capable in just the way Babbage envisioned but never got to realise).

Servival Indicator

You want the needle to swing the right way

The mathematical gallery always seems a bit strange to me, partly I suppose because maths isn’t exactly the sort of thing to leave a physical trace—it is more a tool of other science and so manifests in the instruments and traces of other areas. I suppose the most direct mathematical items are the wall of mechanical calculating machines, the quickest, and often only possible, way to get an answer before electronics. But there are also things like a machine to indicate survival chances of a hospital patient, a rather morbid application of probability. Or in more public and fun life one of the original machines from the launch of the Uk’s National Lottery.

Keeper Of The Elements

Mondoshawan from fifth element

We left maths and reality behind to go to the exhibition we were actually there for: Science Fiction: Voyage To The Edge Of Imagination. Billed as an “immersive experience” we were made to wait a little while in a “departure lounge” before admittance. The immersive part, beyond that, consisted basically of then standing in a room while watching a video of our “shuttle launch” before wandering around the exhibition (they missed a trick by not substantially changing the outside of the room during the video to at least give the feeling of having going somewhere). I think the rest of the wandering was supposed to give a sense of interaction with an “alien” studying Earth, but frankly none of it worked. There were quite a lot of empty corridors later on though, so perhaps we were supposed to run down them as if in a classic science fiction show?


One of the first mechanical film icons

The exhibition itself contained a collection of props and other items from TV and film science fiction—the literary world was, perhaps understandably, barely represented. And while there was a fairly decent range, the items were sparsely scattered (and inevitably weirdly lit—when will curators actually just give us a bright room) and closer inspection of the accompanying information revealed the same word over and over: “Replica”. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a replica prop but, for a paying exhibition, one did feel that one would be entitled that at least the majority of the items would be, well, the real deal. Darth Vader’s helmet isn’t really his helmet if it hasn’t appeared on screen. It’s not a spacesuit from Alien if it’s never been in the movie. Having paid, I’d expect a bit more than the sort of thing that can be seen (or even purchased) from geeky comic shops and the like up and down the land.


The most famous starship registration

Even the replica props dropped off in quantity after the first room or two. There were some haphazard and not very successful attempts to link the fiction to real scientific progress. And, down those long empty corridors, what I suppose were meant to be more immersive spaces, with something that felt like a chill out room and an “observation deck” showing a space view of Earth.

Emerging lead to a small shop which seemed to have just stuck in anything they could find SF related, with little to no attempt to link any of the items to what we’d just seen. It rather bizarrely also contained a small food outlet, though there was no where to sit with anything purchased. All in all a disappointing experience for the normally field leading museum.

Rocket Engine

Look at the nozzles on that

One thing the museum still does do well though is a food offering that makes it easy to find a simple sandwich option. The cafe is also easy to find, and so we did for some lunch before going for a further wander in the afternoon. The space gallery remains a big draw, the overwhelming size of the rockets and ingenuity to leave the planet all on display. There was also a nice little area on the life and work of Hawking. And making the modern world still remains one of my favourite areas, stretching from the on display early steam locos to the prototype AFM.

Alcock And Brown's Plane

Fresh from crossing the Atlantic

Flight, appropriately at the top of the building, remains much as I remember from last time I was there. It’s still in need of a bit of a facelift, and really does require better placed information panels so that it’s easier to identify some of the things hanging from the ceiling (it took us an age to discover that one plane was the Alcock and Brown Atlantic crossing plane for instance).

By the time we’d flown around that gallery even the maths student was beginning to clamour for a chance of scene (I could probably happily wander round the museum from opening to closing). So we decamped to the Hoop & Toy for a rest and couple of drinks, before making our way back to Charing Cross. There we crossed the river for a stroll through the Christmas markets on the South Bank before heading home.

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