UK Trip 2012, Day 4: The Science Museum and the Natural History Museum in London

Today we checked out the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum – being the science people we are, these museums were a must for us. You can see the picture gallery here, or read on for all the sciency details.

After a tasty free breakfast at the hotel, we took the tube to the Science Museum and got in right when it opened. The main exhibit when you first enter the museum is on steam engines, since they’re basically a British invention. There were exhibits with real, huge steam engines, which were first used to pump water out of coal mines (it was a big problem when the mines were drilled deep enough). There were even real steam engines used for trains in the exhibit. Within the same exhibit was a room where they had recreated James Watt’s workshop.

The next large exhibit was on space travel, past and future. They had a life-size replica of the lunar lander!

The next large room had a bit of a mix of different inventions (mostly from the 1800s and 1900s), from the first lawn mower, to a loom that used punch cards, Babbage’s Difference Engine (an amazing mechanical “computer” from the 1830s), old cars, Watson and Crick’s 1953 model of DNA, and lots, lots more. (The Watson and Crick model on display used parts of the original model.) They even had an old DNA gel electrophoresis kit on display!

We headed upstairs from there to a half of a floor devoted to clocks, from the beginning of mechanical clocks to the most recent types of clocks. So many clocks! The oldest one was built in 1392 (for a cathedral) and had been in almost continuous use since then – it’s the second oldest surviving clock in England, with the first being in Salisbury (which we got to see a few days later!). The 1392 clock was still ticking. There was also a water clock, which I was excited to see because I’d learned about them recently, and a “lamp timekeeper,” which kept time by measuring the amount of oil burned over time.

We then sought out any biology-related area they had, which turned out to be an area on the history of medicine. It was not a very large exhibit (it reminded me of the science museum we’d been to in Munich, Germany, which was mostly engineering with hardly any biology). I thought it was cute that they had some old fruitfly (Drosophila) bottles and talked about genetics experiments done with fruitflies, and some flasks used for the culture of human cells (it was labeled “Laboratory-Grown Human Skin”).

Probably the most exciting part of the museum for us adult kids was the hands-on area that we found next. (It reminded me a lot of a small version of the Exploratorium in San Francisco.) There were small hands-on exhibits that helped demonstrate all sorts of scientific principles, from hydrolysis of water in to oxygen and hydrogen, to magnetizing non-magnetic metal discs by running them through two magnetic poles (the principle of eddies), building an electronic circuit, investigating how sound travels in a tube, looking at oscilloscopic visualizations of different sounds, building a weight-supporting arch, making bubbles, and lots more. I had fun in the gift shop, which had lots of hands-on science kits (and a neat ecosystem kit, for biologists of all ages!). There was even a great chemistry kit with real chemicals that could actually cause neat reactions and possible damage! (We’ve often lamented how pathetic chemistry kits in the U.S. have become because of fears that kids might hurt themselves.)

After getting some tasty crepes for lunch at a nearby restaurant, we headed to the Natural History Museum (right next to the Science Museum). At the front of the museum was an exhibit basically on showing how science has disproved mythologies (including Roman-Greek-Judeo-Islamic-Christian-and-more mythologies) – it discussed how we now know the Earth is 4,560 million years old, found out that the Earth is not the center of the universe, realized that the myth of the Cyclops was probably based on the skulls of mastodons, and more.

After this was a huge exhibit on volcanoes, including what causes them and resulting disasters. It was a big, in-depth exhibit. After that was a huge geological exhibit with lots of specimens of different types of rocks. I find geology interesting, but I honestly have trouble remembering all the names of the different types of rocks, even though I’ve been going to rock shows and exploring caves off dirt roads since I was a little kid (my father and sister are really into rocks). I’d love a geological exhibit more focused on how the different rocks are created over time (the conditions needed to create the rocks) or their chemical properties instead of an exhibit just showing specimens of each type of rock. We wandered through some other exhibits after this, but were feeling a bit museumed-out – a nearby exhibit on ecosystems was OK, and explained key concepts, but I think they could have done it in a more enthralling manner (there weren’t many people at this exhibit).

Also in the Natural History Museum is an 8-foot tall statue of Darwin, near an exhibit on evolution. We didn’t go through the evolution exhibit, but we did have to have our pictures taken with Darwin. All in all, we probably only made it through about one third of the exhibits at this museum, at best. Definitely worth the visit, even if we saw only a little bit of the museum.

We relaxed at the hotel a bit and then headed out to tasty Indian food for dinner. It was similar to Indian food you’d get in the U.S., but less spicy.

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