Curious questions answered at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Curious questions answered at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

‘Curiouser and curiouser...’

The responses of the six members of the Sixth Form STEMM group who recently enjoyed a guided tour of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science bring to mind the words of Alice in Wonderland.

Fascinated, amused, aghast, amazed, they not only investigated the splendid eighteenth century Grand Orrory (model of the solar system), but were confronted by a caseful of grinning horses’ teeth created as a buyers' guide to the age and condition of the horse, stunning nineteenth century papier mâché anatomical models of the human body, frogs and even a jelly fish, delicate glass models of microscopic disease-causing fungi and Stephen Hawking’s gravitational models to name but a few of the curios on display.

In the presence of one of William Herschel’s telescopes, they were made aware of scientific contributions by women who have until recently, been overshadowed by male associates. Caroline, sister of the famous William, herself discovered several comets, was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, and was awarded a Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal.

In the spell-binding Globe Room, students were shown representations of the constellations that were quite often arbitrary Western concepts  but are still in use today because of the authority invested in male-dominated Western science. They were also introduced to Ingeborg Brun’s beautiful 1913 Mars globe, with ‘canals’ crisscrossing it that were even then still believed to have been made by Martians – an idea that persisted until the NASA space probes of the 1960s.

“At first I was shocked when our guide said all scientific models were wrong and wondered how this could be true’, wrote one student, Eloise S. ‘But as she explained, I started to understand: science is dynamic and continually changing, as new things are discovered which prove old theories wrong or incomplete."

Our students were challenged to date a series of molecular models which exemplified such changes, and how scientific modelling is affected by, among many other things, the materials available. They were astounded to hear that some of the museum’s plastic exhibits (unlike the papier mâché ones) have already disintegrated, and to appreciate that the plastic used to produce most modern 3D printed models may well make these, too, ephemeral.

They also tackled the calculation of the times taken by different planets to circle the sun, using a simple orrery. It was emphasised that what mattered was finding ways of engaging with these questions, rather than a single right answer.

Find out more about The Youth STEMM award, part of the enrichment programme at St Mary's to further the passion, knowledge and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering Mathematics and Medicine.