Monday, 9 January 2017

Science Museum (Part 2)

Science Museum
Exhibition Road
London SW7 2DD

Thursday January 4th 2017

This was our second outing to the three storey Science Museum, and we chose to visit the newly opened Mathematics Gallery, with time left over for one of the other general sections – or so we thought – not realising how absorbing this presentation was. I am sure most of the exhibits have been in the Museum’s collection for years but are newly showcased and captioned to make them both understandable and relevant to everyday life. Having said that I found myself with several photos of things I can’t remember so this may turn into a ‘Guess the Object’ quiz. I am not clear why the Gallery is also named the Winton Gallery as the money was donated by other names and the setting designed by Zaha Hadid where at least she was spared from having to provide a roof. The curvy shape  – her trademark – is to suggest the airflow round a plane in motion and means you can meander up one side and down the other. There is also a film of the equations ‘flowing’ round the wings and body on a screen suspended under the real plane, which they obviously wanted hung as a prime exhibit even though in many ways it is much less interesting than other less beautiful objects.

 The Gallery aims to demonstrate that counting/ calculation/ documentation/ statistics and maths are part of our daily lives and have been since man walked upright.

Counting is represented by a range of objects from the simple abacus through to several early models of comptometers (not a misprint). Industry, commerce and of course government all need to count – mainly money as it goes in and out. At its simplest level you count with beads, then small at first hand cranked machines , which calculate small sums leading to the first ‘pocket calculator’ in 1973. These were slightly larger than today’s mobile phone, which of course has the same functions tucked away as a very minor ‘app’. There is a substantial (made to last?) cash register – this looked tempting (I would have quite liked the opportunity to push down a few ‘keys’ and hear the  satisfying chink as the drawer opened) – you needed to be good at mental arithmetic as the operator not the machine worked out what change was needed.
Governments need (slightly) more sophisticated calculators to look at how money flows through the economy – we were rather taken with Bill Phillip's model, where a simple ‘dam’ system showed the beads ‘flowing’ either into savings or spending. 
The one here runs on ‘beads’ rather than water as presumably it was felt to be less risky.

A surprisingly   large chunk of the Maths display is given over to gambling (I suppose it is a big Industry, and it is certainly part of the High Street) as of course the point of much gambling is looking at ‘odds’. Apart from dealing with bookmakers there are also intricate Tote machines that calculate how much winnings, if any, you are owed. Betting on a horse or dog ‘with form’ or even on a Book Prize winner is one thing but many folk just bet on random numbers coming up – hence the display of dice and Guinevere , who was one of the early National Lottery number selectors.

If some of life’s natural mathematicians drift into the betting industry others surely head for Insurance, which of course also runs (very profitably) on risk, most of which has been calculated in advance. Nowadays in medical/life insurance very little is left to chance as endless questions and tests are examined before insurance is available. In order to arrive at a point where insurance is offered in any particular case there will have been statistics analysed to calculate the risks.

Scientists have been collecting medical statistics for longer than you might think. We hovered in front of a leather bound volume entitled ’ Degrees of Mortality’ by one Edmond Halley debating whether it was the same man who tracked the comet, and indeed it is. I for one find medical statistics rather more fascinating that occasional comet appearances but most websites stop short of giving him all round credit for his other scientific observations.

Another name we had met in a different context (and museum) was that of Florence Nightingale who introduced very novel ways of presenting the statistics of death amongst the sick and wounded of the Crimea using pioneering diagrams to demonstrate that far more men were dying of sickness rather than wounds or war. This to me seemed a far more significant achievement – the ability to demonstrate significant statistical facts in a pictorial manner – than walking the wards with a lamp!! The fact she went on to harangue those in power to get things improved completes the picture.

Nightingale and Halley were of course not the first people to describe medical conditions and doctors must always have guessed that certain things cause illness or death but it needs a good statistical presentation to convert a hypothesis into accepted facts. ‘Measuring People’ in Victorian times invested a lot of energy into Phrenology – the study of skull shapes was thought to predict personality and potential, but when looked at statistically this ‘science’ proved to be unreliable, to say the least. Tests of course were also produced to look at people’s intelligence, which have long been mired in controversy, and more recently tests tried to establish emotional intelligence and stability.

Turning away from mankind we have long tried to measure both the earth and the universe. We have yet to visit the Observatory at Greenwich but here there is a succinct if complex explanation of how early man managed to navigate – yes, using the sun, moon stars and some complex tables but the margins for error seem so enormous (cloudy skies, rocking ship disturbs your astrolabe, let alone human error) that it is amazing that any ship ever managed to arrive anywhere safely. If you add in the additional factor of tides which are seemingly random but do follow a pattern there is even more calculation to be done.      Recognising patterns as man did so long ago, is apparently the first sign of a complex machine’s ability.  Whilst on navigation there is a section on ship hulls and what shapes might do better. All those centuries of work on hull efficacy must have paid off when it came to aircraft design and as noted earlier the screen shows airflow (and the equations required to work it out) round a plane fuselage.

Getting back to earth, maths was needed to work out weights and measures and there are good displays of the evolution of ‘standard weights’ which of course we take for granted. Early scales and weights are one thing but the display which shows how standard measurements varied throughout the UK and the world (how do you do ‘fair trade’ without generally accepted measurements?) are astounding. Elizabeth I managed to standardize weights for England but it took till 1825 till Imperial (non metric) weights and measures were enshrined in law not just for trading purposes.    I think beer must have been regulated earlier or there would have been riots every night in drinking joints? Once of course you have legally set measurements you need an inspection process to maintain and enforce it.       

Just as fundamental to our daily lives as what we buy in the shops are the principles of architecture and engineering which underpin (literally) the whole built environment. My friend who was an engineer always said that architects would be nowhere without the engineers to calculate the stresses put on structures by both their foundations their heights and the materials used. We in the UK do not have to factor in making a building earthquake proof as some do. When you take into account all the variables and calculations needed it sometimes seems a miracle that anything above a metre stays upright! Let alone the added complexity of bridge building.  There is a brief nod to Vitruvius and the fact that symmetry and perspective are also required in order to make the finished edifice aesthetically pleasing – the example used here is the erstwhile Nat West Tower now Tower 42 which may or may not fulfil that part of the brief?

Today most calculations are done by a machine pretty quickly, but this exhibition really underlines and demonstrates that there were some really clever people who worked it all out in their heads and on paper log ago. We also take so much for granted and without maths we could not go about our daily lives of travel, commerce, health and leisure without the pioneers who made it possible

Some mystery exhibits.....


  1. Explanation of the name Winton here:

    Also, a rather appropriate typo: "worked it all out in their heads and on paper log ago."

    I think that the two mystery exhibits at the end are very early computers. The first looks like a mechanical computer, I think.