Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Michael Faraday Museum

The Royal Institution
21 Albemarle Street

Friday 3 December 2015
Everyone knows about the Royal Institution, cradle of British science through the centuries since its foundation in 1799. You can walk up the fine staircase and visit the Lecture Theatre, as seen on TV for the Christmas 'bangs and smells' lectures.

And you can see the library, where lectures and demonstrations were held before the lecture hall was built. It's full of actual books, rather than simply leather bound display volumes of the kind no-one ever opens, so we could imagine scientists actually working here.

In the basement is the Michael Faraday Museum, and Linda and I have felt we should visit it, ever since we realised that the brutalist metal object in the middle of Elephant and Castle was a Faraday memorial. I have to say that we found the Museum a disappointment. The captions may well be very informative, but they are set well back in glass cases, and are white on orange, and so reading them was a real struggle.

The scientists were depicted in pale drawings or photographs at the back of the case, also rather hard to see. We began with Humphry Davy and were told of the 10 new elements he discovered or helped to discover. It would have been interesting to be reminded that in those days you could be both a chemist and a physicist, something that is rather difficult to do nowadays. Examples of his lamps were there, with an explanation that the gauze absorbs enough of the heat to prevent mine gas igniting and exploding. 
Explosions in the lab, and the resultant damage to eye and fingers, is one reason why Davy hired Faraday as a co-worker. We also saw Voltameters for measuring electricity, and coils for making electricity, including some made by Faraday himself. A case shows some of his laboratory note books.

Then there were several cases about John Tyndall, though it was hard to find from the display whether he was a contemporary of Faraday's, or earlier, or later. He it was who explained that the sky appears blue because blue light is scattered more by air molecules (or particles, as Tyndall called them) than red light.  Tyndall also demonstrated that food left in the air rots and food enclosed does not, thus heading us towards a germ theory of sorts.

A case devoted to Faraday's glass ingots and lenses reminded us that blown glass cannot be completely flat, and we saw the cards into which he fitted his lenses to control the amount of light he was studying.

We came to Lawrence Bragg and the x-ray spectrometer, though the Nobel Prize website does not mention much of a link with the RI. But there were useful models of molecules including lysozyme:  Linda and I have had nasty colds, so to see the key ingredient of mucus was rather interesting) Also research by Count Rumford into draughts and heat and how to make chimneys draw better;  and the development of the thermos flask, a perpetual demonstration that a vacuum is a better insulator than a blanket or some hay.  Tyndall reappeared, showing that glaciers move by constant thawing and refreezing.  And there was a case about Frankenstein and his monster, an example of early use of electricity.  We also noted a wall poster about attaching nano-magnets to cancer cells and then using heat to kill the cancer cells, but we were not sure whether this is a treatment already in use or still experimental or theoretical.

Perhaps strangest of all was an Exhibition modern lab, but with no labels:  as Linda said, was that a coffee machine or an electron microscope? We shall never know.  And there was a mock-up of Faraday's Lab, derived from a Harriet Moore watercolour, since it was dismantled and used as a storeroom for some years after Faraday's death.  We were told that the large piece of iron underneath the lab bench was part of an anchor, but the rest of the lab was left to our guesswork.

On the way upstairs, we passed the periodic table, an interactive screen on which you were supposed to note the elements as listed in the Tom Lehrer and Arthur Sullivan song.  We could not make it work, though we both know the elements in Lehrer's random order, since we both know the song:  so nul points for us.

Amongst the display cases upstairs was one devoted to Christopher Zeeman, who researched aerodynamics, making use of boomerangs of various kinds. 
If I sound less than enthusiastic about this museum, it is because it is clearly not aimed at people like me: scientists and science students will probably find it riveting.  But I should have appreciated legible captioning. And some context:  what else was going on while these people were doing their thing; when did electricity actually move from the lab to the home and the street;  how much was Faraday paid, compared to the average shop keeper or farm labourer; was there any science education for the mass of the 19th century population (actually I know the answer to this one, but not from this Museum) 

A museum about these remarkable pioneers of British science could be fascinating for all, not just people who already understand the science.

No comments:

Post a Comment