The Best Science Events and Museums of 2015


The steamboat Turbinia can be seen at Newcastle’s Discovery museum

For anyone interested in taking a break from the books for a bit and taking a field trip to a Science Museum, or wishing to take part in an event on any part of the subject, the following may be of interest…


British Science Week 2015 will take place 13 – 22 March. This is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, and engineering and features, entertaining and engaging events across the UK for people of all ages. You can find more information, including activity packs for different age groups,  through their website at  . Anyone can organise an event or activity, and the British Science Association helps organisers plan by providing what are free support resources.

The Big Bang Fair UK: Young Scientists and Engineers Fair
This fantastic event is coming back to the NEC this month from 11 – 14 March 2015. Visitors can meet engineers and scientists from large multinational corporations and a range of diverse and unique UK companies.

The Summer Science Exhibition at the Royal Society London
The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition is their main public event of the year and showcases the most exciting cutting-edge science and technology research and provides a unique opportunity for the public to interact with scientists.
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015 runs from 30 June – 5 July at the Royal Society, London.

There are a great many science museums in the UK. Here are some of the best.

1) Science Museum, Birmingham includes a science garden, planetarium and an interactive show which lets children explore the human body by seeing what it’s like to shrink to the size of a living cell.

2) National Space Centre, Leicester. Here you can explore the wonders of the Universe and discover the science behind the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, plus take a tour of the 42m high rocket tower. There is also the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium.

3) Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, has an unrivalled collection of early scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving museum building.

4) Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), Manchester is currently showing a 3D printing exhibition.

5) The Science Museum, London contains a new nanotechnology exhibition, and the space travel exhibition is outstanding. I found the history of medical science exhibition very good.

6) Techniquest, Cardiff is currently showing an exhibition of colourful chemistry over the weekends 28 February – 22 March.

7) MAGNA, Rotherham has a fantastic electric arc furnace exhibition, including pyrotechnics.

8) Discovery Museum Newcastle
This museum houses the finest collections of scientific material outside London and has important collections of maritime history.
The museum contains Charles Parsons’ ship, Turbinia, and Joseph Swan’s historic lightbulbs.
The Turbinia is my favourite museum exhibit which I saw on a school trip in 1967. She was designed by the Tyneside engineer Sir Charles Parsons in 1894 and was the world’s first ship to be powered by steam turbines. Until 1899, Turbinia was the fastest ship in the world, reaching speeds of up to 34.5 knots.

512px-thumbnailThere is currently a demand from various organisations for more pupils to be offered Triple Science in Secondary Schools. The Open Public Services Network, OPSN, has noted that the ‘curriculum taught in poorer parts of England is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.’ Geography and wealth have a significant determining factor on opportunity to study Triple Science. They also noted that ‘more than a third of schools do not enter any pupils for Triple Science.’

The CBI is calling for all children who achieve good grades in science at age 14 to be automatically enrolled onto Triple Science GCSEs. The CBI says that Triple Science gives pupils the confidence to go on and study A Level Sciences followed by science courses at University.

The Department for Education, meanwhile, says that ‘75% of Triple Science pupils achieving the highest grades progress to A Level Science subjects whereas 59% achieving these highest grades in Double Science progress to A Level Science subjects.’ They do not seem to analyse the reasons behind this. You wonder, is it simply confidence?

It is interesting to note that the Department for Education has recently removed the IGCSE Sciences from league tables, these being a greater equivalent to the old O Levels and more in depth.

So, what should we make of all this? The problems in poorer areas are invariably related to poor pupil and family attitudes, and so attempting to teach Triple Science to all in poorer areas has a certain futility to it until attitudes change.
One of the limiting factors in what is taught in schools is curriculum time. The legal requirement for science was 12%, but for pupils to have a fighting chance of doing well enough in science GCSEs they needed about 20%. My old school taught Double Science with 20% curriculum time. They started offering Triple Science to the top set with 24% curriculum time, the extra time coming from one lesson per week after school! They are now compelling all pupils to take Triple Science with 24% curriculum time built into the main timetable. Other subjects will have suffered as a result.

There is a notion that Triple Science is necessary for a good base to allow a pupil to go on and do A Level Sciences. I would say it is beneficial but it is by no means necessary. I took numerous pupils through A Level Chemistry with great success on the basis of doing Double Science alone long before any Triple Science was on offer in my school. This was also mostly before the modular system was introduced. If the Triple Science is so vital to promoting the uptake of A Levels why did students do A Levels on the basis of Double Science? And how did they manage? But they did if they were able enough.

It is not that Triple Science is vital for A Levels, but rather it is about pupils ability and suitability for A Levels. A Levels can be followed from any of Double, Triple and IGCSE Science. The courses chosen need to be on the basis of what is best for individual pupils in individual schools.
What is needless and unacceptable in my view is compelling all pupils to do Triple Sciences. Those who are not going on to A Level Sciences do not need 3 science GCSEs, with a quarter of their curriculum time being taken up in this way. This is not in their interests. The Double Science does a good enough job if we want the future general public to have a decent grounding in scientific knowledge. The other big issue with all pupils studying Triple Science is that it is not suitable to the ability of many pupils. We overestimate the ability of average pupils and we overestimate the long term memories of these pupils, so the extra material of Triple Science creates an unreasonable extra burden for no good result. Triple Science should be thought of as top sets subjects.
In conclusion the needs of the individual pupils are more important than the needs of the school, the education system, the league tables, industry and the latest political demands.


Fox Talbot, with camera.

We have always learned a great deal from the use of texts, and of course from traditional word of mouth down the years. Where, however, would we be, without the picture? Or more specifically, the photograph? A drawing can tell us a lot, but a real image can provide us with even more – a real, genuine feel for the subject we are studying. For this reason, William Henry Fox Talbot, should be worth of a mention.

Fox Talbot was born on 11 February 1800 in Melbury, Dorset. He went to Cambridge University at the age of 17 in 1817, and in 1832 he was elected as an MP for Chippenham in Wiltshire, where he lived with his wife, Constance Mundy.

On a visit to Lake Como in Italy in 1833, Talbot was trying to draw the view before him, but his lack of success at capturing the beauty of the scenery prompted him to think about how he might create a machine that could capture the scene for him.

Once back at his home in Lacock in Wiltshire, Talbot began work on this project, using light-sensitive paper that he hoped would make sketches automatically.

Talbot was not the first inventor to have this idea. Thomas Wedgwood had already made photograms, which had successfully left lasting silhouettes of objects on paper, but these faded quickly. Then in 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the ‘daguerreotype.’ This was a system by which pictures could be captured onto silver plates.

Only three weeks after Daguerre revealed his invention, Fox Talbot reported his ‘art of photogenic drawing’ to the Royal Society. This process showed how to capture prints on thin pieces of paper that had been made light sensitive. This invention was to become the first step in the development of modern photography.

In 1841 Talbot went on to develop his photographic ideas further, when he invented the ‘calotype’ process. This involved discovering the three most essential elements required to develop pictures: developing, fixing, and printing photographs.

Talbot found that although exposing photographic paper to light produced an image, he believed it required extremely long exposure times to achieve success. Then, by accident, Talbot discovered that an image could actually be achieved after a very short exposure time, and could then be chemically fixed into a negative. This negative removed the light-sensitive nature of the print, and enabled the finished picture to be viewed in bright light.

With these new negative images, Fox Talbot could repeat the process of printing from the negative as many times as he liked. This was a major advance from the French daguerreotypes, which could only be used once.

In 1842 Talbot was awarded a medal from the Royal Society for his work in the progression of photography.

The work William Henry Fox Talbot had done on the calotype process, led to future inventors advancing the photographic process even further in the 19th and 20th centuries.


A TV from 1936

On the 2nd November 1936 the very first high-definition public television transmission took place in Alexandra Palace, in the north of London, by the BBC. It was only eleven years since John Logie Baird had given the first public demonstration of low-definition television.

The first television sets cost about £100, the same price as a small car at the time, so only a few households could afford to own one. It took until 1932 for the first experiments in better quality transmissions to begin, from a studio in Broadcasting House. At first only the 20,000 homes with a television within a 35-mile range of Alexandra Palace could pick up the “flickering” rays of these first higher standard programmes on their 10-inch televisions.

Prior to the inauguration of BBC television’s high-definition service, many landmark moments had been featured on the television, including the announcement of the death of HM King George V on 20th January 1936, and the appearance of Elizabeth Cowell, the first female television announcer on 31st August. Then, on the 26th October, the first experimental high-definition television transmission – to Radio Olympia – was made.

The experiment was a success and meant that, on 2nd November, the inauguration of the world’s first regular high-definition service could take place. This broadcasting breakthrough saw the start of a period of rapid development and growth in broadcasting. Outside broadcasts began, and in 1937 television owners were able to watch
King George VI’s Coronation Procession, Wimbledon was recorded, and by 1938, the FA Cup Final and the Boat Race were televised. On 30th September 1938 Richard Dimbleby reported from Heston Airport, where he witnessed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s return after his historic Munich meeting with Hitler.

Although at first outside broadcasts were only possible from places near London where there were sufficient resources, high-definition television had proved itself a major success and set the course for a revolution in broadcasting that continues to the present day.

Photosynthesis, especially in tropical rainforests, is hugely beneficial to us.

Photosynthesis, especially in tropical rainforests, is hugely beneficial to us.

The term photosynthesis comes from the Greek words φῶς or phōs, which means “light”, and σύνθεσις, or synthesis, which means “putting together.”

Photosynthesis takes place within plants; particularly within the delicate mesophyll tissue, that makes up part of the leaves of green plants (Leaves are made up of mesophyll tissue, epidermal tissue, which covers the whole plant, and xylem and phloem which transport water, minerals and sucrose around the plant).

During the photosynthesis chemical reaction, carbon dioxide and water are converted into glucose (the plant’s food) and oxygen. The reaction requires light energy, which is absorbed by a green substance within leaf cells, called chlorophyll. These tiny leaf cells contain chloroplasts, which in turn, hold the chlorophyll.

Plants absorb water through their roots, and carbon dioxide through their leaves. Some glucose is used for respiration, while some is converted into insoluble starch for storage. The stored starch can later be turned back into glucose and used in respiration. Oxygen is released as a by-product of photosynthesis.

Three factors can limit the speed of photosynthesis – the sunlight’s strength, carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. Without enough light, even if there is plenty of water and carbon dioxide, a plant cannot photosynthesise fast enough. The higher the sunlight levels and intensity, the faster the speed of photosynthesis will be. Sometimes photosynthesis is limited by the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. Even if there is plenty of light, a plant cannot photosynthesise if there is insufficient carbon dioxide. If it gets too cold, the rate of photosynthesis will decrease. Conversely, plants cannot photosynthesise if it gets too hot.

In summary- photosynthesis happens within leaves of all green plants, and occurs to varying degrees of intensity according to four factors-:
1. Sunlight (beating down on the leaves, it provides the energy required for photosynthesis)
2. Chlorophyll (which is contained in the leave’s chloroplasts)
3. Water (which reaches the cells through the xylem)
4. Carbon Dioxide (which diffuses into the leaf)

Photosynthesis is the process which maintains atmospheric oxygen levels, and it supplies all of the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for all life on Earth. This makes it one of nature’s most important chemical reactions.

500px-Periodic_table.svgThe Periodic Table was first introduced by the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. Originally from Siberia, Mendeleev studied science at St Petersburg University, where he graduated as a chemist in 1856. By 1863 he was a Professor of Chemistry. Mendeleev first revealed his arrangement of 63 elements into his Periodic Table in his book, Principles of Chemistry, which was published in 1869.

Mendeleev’s Periodic Table was compiled on the basis of arranging the elements in ascending order of atomic weight, and grouping them by similarity of properties. Not only did he arrange these elements, but he also forward thinking enough to predict that other elements would be discovered in the future, and left spaces in the table where he believed they might fit into the chemical framework.

Dmitri Mendeleev wasn’t the first scientist to try and organise chemical elements into order. Beguyer de Chancourtois, Newlands and Lothar Meyer had all also worked on arranging the elements, but Mendeleev’s work surpassed all their individual attempts at classification.

It wasn’t until British chemist Henry Moseley (1887-1915), began work on developing the application of X-ray spectra to study atomic structure that a more accurate positioning of elements could be attained. He was also able to include the Nobel Gases, which had yet to be discovered in Mendeleev’s time.

When Moseley discovered that atoms should be arranged according to atomic number rather than weight, as Mendeleev had believed, The Periodic Table began to take on the appearance we recognise today.

The Periodic Table has been adapted and improved many times since Mendeleev’s initial design, but it remains one of the most important discoveries in Science, and one of the most recognisable tools in Chemistry.



On December 21st at 6.30 a.m. the Sun will rise exactly between two specific pillars at the Temple at Karnak, North Luxor, Egypt. It has done this once every year for the last 3000 years, ever since the temple was built by the ancient Pharaohs’ to the God Amun – Re.

Amun – Re was the King of Gods. He was a fusion between Amun the God of Thebes and Re, or Ra the Sun God. The temple stands on the east Earth-lighting-winter-solstice_LAbank of the River Nile facing towards the Theban Hills and is lined up at the correct angle for the sunrise known as the Winter Solstice.

This event occurs because the Sun rises at different points on the horizon throughout the year as a result of the Earth rotating on a tilted axis relative to its orbit of the Sun. This tilt of 23.5⁰ also gives rise to the seasons. On December 21st the northern hemisphere is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun, receiving its minimum amount of sunlight for the year and putting the north polar region into complete darkness. On this date, all places above the latitude of 66.5⁰ north (the Arctic Polar Circle) are in darkness. The opposite situation applies for the southern hemisphere at this time.

During this time of year the intensity of solar radiation is at its lowest in the northern hemisphere partly because that area of the Earth’s surface is slightly further away from the Sun, but also because the Sun’s rays impinge at an oblique angle. This causes the Sun’s rays to pass through a greater thickness of atmosphere and also spreads them over a wider area of ground, weakening their impact.

Another noticeable feature of this oblique angle of the Sun is longer and more spectacular sunsets.

The Winter Solstice occurs annually between Dec 20th and Dec 23rd in the Gregorian calendar, in which Dec 21st and Dec 22nd are more frequent dates. The next solstice on Dec 23rd will be in 2303, the last having occurred in 1903. A Dec 20th solstice is very rare, and the next one is in 2080. This is mainly due to the calendar system. The Gregorian calendar has 365 days in a year and 366 days in a leap year. However, the tropical year is different to the calendar year. The tropical year is the length of time the Sun takes to return to the same position in the seasons’ cycle (as seen from Earth). In other words the time from one winter solstice to the next winter solstice is different to the calendar year. The tropical year is approximately 365.242199 days but additionally varies from year to year because of the influence of other planets. The exact orbital and daily rotational motion of the Earth, such as the “wobble” in the Earth’s axis (called precession), also contributes to the changing solstice dates.

What initial conclusions about the future of GCSE exams can we draw from the mountain of documents which Michael Gove and the Department for Education released last week? And who will the winners and losers be if these proposals come to pass in their current form?

There is no doubt that the new exams will be harder and more “academic”. If not a return to the degree of difficulty posed by the old O-level exams, these new outline specifications match the difficulty and depth of the current IGCSE (International GCSE) specifications set by Edexcel and the Cambridge board. The message seems to have been: take the best of the current IGCSE specs and call it a GCSE instead.

The subject advisers seem to have taken this brief quite literally in most of the core subjects. It is perhaps most clearly seen in Mathematics, a subject in which the IGCSE specifications already require a number of skills that have been beyond the scope of the GCSE Maths syllabuses for 25 years but which are fundamental to AS level Maths. These include function notation, kinematic problems, set notation, rates of change and Venn diagrams, to name but a small sample of topics. There they are in the new drafts in bold print. This is IGCSE Maths by another name.

Most topics are not in bold print, implying that the boundary between what is now the GCSE Foundation and the current GCSE Higher levels is set to shift. Vectors, formerly to be found in the GCSE Higher level requirements, appear in plain text here, including the multiplication of vectors by a scalar. Some maths teachers may need to go on a refresher course to master the required skills!

Similar principles underlie the Science draft. Not only will the individual specifications require considerably more depth of study, as they do in today’s IGCSEs, but the Combined Science qualification will be the equivalent of two GCSEs, not one, just as it is today with IGCSE Science but not GCSE Science. The simple principle behind GCSE Science is to take one-third of the Biology specification, one-third of the Chemistry and one-third of the Physics, while IGCSE takes two-thirds of each of the respective individual subject specifications. The new proposals unashamedly mimic the IGCSE formula.

If this means that all candidates will now face a choice between tackling the new Double Science GCSE or leaving school without any formal recognition of their achievements in the sciences, there will be huge numbers of schoolchildren who fall in the latter category. While the old “everybody passes” philosophy of GCSE had its disadvantages, do we really want to stigmatise a whole generation as incapable of taking and passing the “simplest” of the new science specifications?


Children who are educated at home are unfairly denied access to examinations, according to a report in today’s Daily Telegraph.

This is not really a new story. Some home-schooled candidates have always found it time-consuming and awkward to locate suitable exam centres to take their exams for GCSE or A-level. But the Commons Education Committee has now said that it is “not reasonable” that some young people are struggling to sit national tests. It calls for a duty to be placed on councils to provide access to examination centres.  It also asks for examinaton fees to be met from public funds. We are happy to endorse all those proposals!

As Graham Stuart, the Committee’s Chairman, says: “Everyone else gets to take GCSEs and home-educated children should do so [for free] as well.”

These are welcome sentiments and time will tell whether they lead to genuine change. But they ignore the more fundamental problems of GCSE examination entry for the home-schooled, namely the need for all candidates to produce controlled assessments (coursework) in most of the main subjects, including English, History, Geography, languages and all the science subjects. Controlled assessment (as the government has defined it) is not possible for home-learners on distance learning programmes like the ones we offer, so, whether the costs are met or not, our students simply cannot take GCSE exams in these subjects.

Four years ago, Oxford Home Schooling fought hard to preserve GCSEs which were genuinely accessible to home learners, but the government rejected all our pleas. As a result, most of our students now take International GCSEs (IGCSEs) rather than GCSEs, an equally valid alternative but confusing for many families. And now those IGCSEs must call themselves “certificates”, not GCSEs, which also leads to marginalisation and confusion.

There are moves afoot to re-introduce exams (at age 16) which do not require controlled assessment, possibly based on the current IGCSEs, and such a development would be welcome news to thousands of home learners and their families.

The government, via OfQual, has invited all interested parties to make comments on the proposed changes to the GCSE system. I think it is in all of our interests to make our views known, even if those views are completely ignored as they were last time around!

While the move away from modular exams is a positive development for anyone involved in home schooling there are problems afoot which will affect future students, if not those who are thinking of embarking on GCSE courses at the moment.

In my view, the proposed changes fail to address the single biggest problem with qualifications at this level – the difficulty of taking the exams for anyone outside the mainstream school system.

The rules for controlled assessment make it difficult or impossible for “irregular” students (including adult learners and the home-schooled) to enter for exams at all. Such students cannot satisfy the requirements for supervision and other aspects of “control”. In English (and other key subjects like Science, History and Geography), there are no GCSE specifications at all which dispense with the need for controlled assessment, because exam boards are not allowed to set such specifications in those subjects – I am sure they would like to!

The result is that home-schooled students are currently obliged to take IGCSE courses in those subjects, but that option will become  fraught with problems after 2014. Meanwhile, IGCSE is a title that will no longer be used in the UK where IGCSEs are being replaced with “Certificates” (as set by Edexcel and others) and in order for the Certificates to be accredited, a number of Certificate specifications, notably in English, must include coursework which itself is subject to stringent controls. In practical terms, this may well mean that examination centres will eventually be unable to allow entry to private candidates.

To take a typical example … any home-schooled child, between the ages of about 14 and 16, will expect to be able to take a GCSE-level qualification in English, Science and various other “core” subjects.  At the moment, it is possible to take an IGCSE instead, with no coursework, and so gain an equally prestigous and useful qualification.

In future, there may be no options available at all, or the ones that are left will be so fraught with controlled assessment and other logistical problems to the point where it is impossible for the private candidate to take the exams anywhere.  Do we really want to close down such options for a generation of home-schooled kids?

Several thousand home learners a year fall into this category and would be effectively excluded from the examination system.  This diverse group lacks a voice or effective representation but it is hugely unfair that it should be, in effect, excluded by this unfair one-size-fits-all policy.

There are a number of possible solutions, including the following:

  1. The government allows non-coursework GCSE specifications in subjects like English and History (just as they already do in such subjects as Maths and Psychology).
  2. The government allows non-coursework options within GCSE specifications, open to certain categories of candidate for whom controlled assessment is impossible or inappropriate.
  3. The government relaxes the controlled assessment rules so that coursework is once again practicable for home learners.
  4. The government accredits Certificates (or IGCSEs) that do not require coursework and ensures that success in such qualifications carries the same weight as success in the “regular” GCSEs, e.g. it secures access to 6th form courses and the like.

Option 4 is only a partial solution to the problem but a lot better than nothing. It is vital that one of these solutions is adopted now before the interests of many different categories of student are irreparably damaged.

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