Sky

20160315 90

Theme Convener: Arthur Garratt ◦ Display Designer: Ronald Sandiford

Here, on this gallery of the Dome, we follow the story of exploration upward off the earth, first of all into the atmosphere which causes our weather.

Forecasting

Weather records were kept at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the first daily weather map ever produced was sold to the public there. In the “Sky” section of the Dome a modern Weather Forecasting Unit is working. It produces forecasts for the next twenty-four hours, illustrating at the same time how the meteorologist goes to work.

Modern forecasting depends on the collection of weather data all over the world, and the passing of the information quickly to the central points where the forecasts are made. Our present system is essentially an international one, operating through a world-wide network of radio, telephone and teleprinter services which are in constant use for weather messages only.

Developments in physical appliances have been a great help to meteorologists because they can provide data from places out of man’s reach. Balloons, for instance, are now sent far up into the sky with special equipment that can radio back information about conditions in the upper atmosphere. Meanwhile, their course is plotted by radar to show how the wind is blowing, say, ten miles up.

This is just one example of the sort of equipment that is now being developed so that we can forecast weather more accurately and for longer periods ahead than is possible at present.

20160315 89

Ionospheric research

From the weather-zone, the story of exploration tends upward to about 250 miles above the earth’s surface. British scientists were among the first to discover that the sun’s radiation forms layers at about this height by electrically charging (or ionising) the particles of the atmosphere. This region is now called the ionosphere, and it has three main layers – one 70 miles up, another at 140 miles and a third 250 miles above the earth.

These layers are the reason why we can transmit radio signals for great distances. But they are not hard and fast in their behaviour, so there are a lot of variations that have to be understood before our long-distance signalling can be perfect.

In this work of improving radio transmission and reception, British scientists and technicians are playing a leading part – just as they did in discovering the ionosphere and exploring it.

The Physical World

20160315 98

Theme Conveners: Arthur Garratt and Jan Read ◦ Display Designers: Ronald Ingles and Clifford Hatts

In this section is the story of those who have explored inside nature to discover how matter – the substance of all things – is made, and what natural laws govern its behaviour. The desire to know these things has long burned in this country and in pursuing it we have done much to found and develop the sciences of chemistry and physics – the names by which we call these provinces of enquiry.

Pure science – discovery for its own sake – has huge rewards to offer the human mind: whole new territories of beauty and order, fantastic in their intricacy. This you can see in the Exhibition of Science in South Kensington. But these explorations have produced something else of vast importance – the basis for most, if not all, of the great material achievements of the modern world. It is these discoveries that form most of the displays in the Physical World.

As you come into the section, you can make the same choice as the earlier scientists did – whether to find out first how matter is built up (chemistry) or why it behaves as it does (physics). Whichever of these sequences you take first you can follow out the second later; both, however, come together again (as the sciences do) in the subject of the atom and its nucleus which is displayed on the upper gallery.

20160315 97

Chemical discovery

The chemical sequence shows how much men like Boyle, Black, Cavendish, Priestley and Dalton added to our knowledge of the structure of matter and how the conception of atoms, molecules and elements arose. The story then passes on to the ways in which various substances can combine together to produce materials quite unlike any of their constituents. Such knowledge enables chemists not only to produce such combinations at will, but nowadays to make substances that do not occur in nature. This synthesis, as it is called, is the highlight of modem chemistry. Already it has produced sulpha drugs, paludrine and vitamins for preserving the health of mankind, rayon, nylon and terylene for clothing and plastics for all manner of purposes.

Physical discovery

The fundamental discoveries of British physicists have had very many applications. One example of Boyle’s law, for instance, is the modern mechanism for closing the doors of underground trains; one of the outcomes of Newton’s genius has ultimately been the jet engine; Faraday’s classical experiments with a magnet and some coils of wire made electric power possible. Kelvin’s mathematical insight helped to create refrigerators; Maxwell laid the foundations of radio before a message had ever been transmitted; J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron resulted, among many other things, in the cathode ray tube of a television set. It was Rutherford who provided the means for releasing nuclear energy.

20160315 100

Applications

The results of the physicists and chemists have led also to many technical advances in other subjects. Motor cars, for example, are more efficient as a result of the instruments physicists have evolved for testing every new design. Medicine, biology, metallurgy owe them a great debt for the provision of research tools. It was mathematics that offered the principal tool to physicists; now physicists have provided calculating machines which take minutes to solve problems that would take mathematicians many months.

Nuclear research

The pioneer work in nuclear physics was done in Britain, though the development of the atomic pile, as such, was largely an international achievement. The displays of this subject, which form the conclusion of the Physical World section, do not embark on speculation about future marvels; they do show, however, some of the applications that are being developed at the present time. Important among them are the by-products of research which have given medicine the very important new technique of radioactive tracers. With these an atom can, as it were, be labelled and observed in its movements through the human body.

This great field of exploration, then, has affected the lives of all of us. It has given us machines that lighten our labours, drugs that have altered the relationship between man and disease and altogether new means of communication. More than this, it continues to provide new tools and devices by which exploration in all other fields can be intensified, so that the horizons for human endeavour will continue to expand.