Tag Archives: technology

Energy “futures”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

Sociologists like to talk about the sociology of expectations, the manufacture of futures. You can’t just say “it’s the future, take it” (or at least you can’t and not just sound like a bit of a tool). But futures are made, not least by imagining what we might expect, and those expectations can be managed. Or, as the sociologists put it, ‘the future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential’ (UCL has a good overview, if you want to read more).

A nice study of making the future in action can be found in Megan Prelinger’s book ‘Advertising the Space Race: Another Science Fiction’. We’re all quite used to the idea that science fiction may interact with actual science and technology (nice report on this from NESTA or just go have a nostalgia over Jetson’s videophones). What Prelinger’s book does is show how science fictional ideas and images were really reflected in 1950s and 1960s adverts for space technologies. Amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century, Prelinger shows how some of the most fascinating discourses of hope for the future weren’t in the pages of pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. As such, they actually worked to construct this future too.

What has this got to do with energy?

Much of this Dialogue on energy was about offering us imagined futures from which to make decisions about today. Because so much of the energy debate comes down to ideas of economic growth and climate change, it is deeply futuristic; obsessed with forecasts. Technological forecasts. Economic forecasts. Climate forecasts. All uncertain – indeed, we saw several of the Dialogue speakers joke about having forecasted incorrect oil prices – but all powerful too. Just the very idea of what the future could be can provoke a particular response, used as tools to both close down and unlock policy ideas. Forecasts frame futures, they are part of the materials we make tomorrow from, even if they can’t predict or determine what is going to happen, or we act in spite of them rather than with them.

The futuristic aspects of the energy debate were played out quite reflexively at the end of the Dialogue with the concluding discussion ‘mapping scenarios for our energy future’. The panel – Fatih Birol, Steven Chu, Karin Markides, Johan Rockström and Semida Silveira – reflected in a reasonably dramatic way where they might imagine being at some date in the future. Or at least it was more dramatic than the usual abstracted graphs of the business (which we’d all seen many examples of during the day) though less dramatic than traditional science fiction, rooted in their expert ideas of what they feel to be real and likely rather than simply what would make a good story. Day After Tomorrow this wasn’t.

Earlier in the day saw some interesting debate around the role of technology in building the various environmental and economic models. Rajendra Pachauri in particular argued that we were not baring in mind technology enough in terms of forecasting. We need to consider technology prospects and work out how to better fold them into our energy projections. We need to think about disruptive technologies (e.g. that shale gas revolution we’re always being told about). Such arguments have a long history. The Limits to Growth report in the 1970s was criticised at the time by people such as Chris Freeman, arguing that, for all that yes, the Earth only contained so many resources, their particular projections had failed to give enough attention to technology. One might argue, however, that we already work too much influence of technology into our forecasts as we fold in still under-developed technologies such as CCS into our forecasts (Kevin Anderson is interesting on this, even if you don’t agree with him). Or as Greenpeace’s Isadora Wronski tweeted in response to one of the Dialogue’s talks, ‘every year @IEA projections gets closer and closer to ours, but they overestimate the role of nuclear and CCS in the decarbonisation.’ Maybe the IEA are right. Or maybe Greenpeace are. I don’t know. My point is simply that it is contested. And that you may have to expect the unexpected, but you can’t count on it.

Above all, I think we need to think more about how we might involve a larger number people in this sort of imagining. As my colleagues at the STEPS Centre might say, too often it’s narrations of the future built by powerful actors and institutions which become ‘the motorways channeling policy, governance and interventions’ overrunning a host of often valuable and more diverse pathways which stem from and respond to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Because nice as the scenarios session at the end of the Dialogue was, it was a line up of the great and the good giving us stories. It wasn’t an exercise in collaborative story-making. And we need to take more time to do that. Otherwise I doubt the futures we make will be nearly robust or fair enough. And the policy-makers, scientists and engineers need to get better at devoting large chunks of time to talking with a diverse set of people about what they are doing, in a very routine way. Relying on technologies such as CCS or geoengineering into the various forecasts we use for energy policy before they are even built is one thing we might fight about, but doing so without first explaining what these are to the public and inviting them to be part of decisions around them is another.

Science Museum: The best bits

This was first published in the November edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including a column from me on science comedy.

Science Museum electric cab

Science museums are fascinating bits of the world, full of the artefacts of old ideas of what the future might bring. A hodgepodge of moments in human discovery and invention. Some of these moments are long gone. Some are still with us. Some float back and forth into fashion or utility. Here are my top fifteen exhibits in the London Science Museum. Use them as a guide for your next visit, or as a virtual tour.

1. The Watson and Crick Double Helix

In some ways, the very idea of a science museum is a bit silly. How do you display the worlds of the very small, the very big, the very fast, the very slow or plain invisible which science manages to perceive through application of maths, theories, specialist equipment and years of measurement? You can put a law of motion a case. You can’t hang a theory on a wall.

So science museums get devious and, for example, the London museum wanted to display the great British discovery of DNA, and came up with the ingenious idea of using the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. The problem was that the people in the lab had, quite sensibly, taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was taken. So the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them off and rebuilt it. So it is a mockup, albeit an official one. It’s also very beautiful, displayed almost as abstract art, perhaps with too little explanatory text.

2. 1926 Kelvinator Gas Fridge

The technology side to science museums – which arguably dominates – can be as hard to display as the science. Often, the same thing that makes a technology iconic is also why it’d be a bit weird to expect someone to visit it in a museum. You don’t need to go to Exhibition Road to see a mass-produced product like a biro or an iPhone or a Yale key. It’s in your pocket, or at least someone else’s near by.

One option is to display technological routes not taken. Which is the case of the ‘Kelvinator’ gas fridge, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery. The battle of gas versus electric fridges is a classic tale in the history of technology, one that helps explain why fridges hum, but also reflects the ways in which hype and the alignment of particular business interests can move us in one path over another.

3. Apollo 10

Another option for displaying technology is to go with firsts, and there are many in the museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery. It’s maybe not very patriotic to pick one of the American icons in a gallery full of the stars of British industry, but really how can any of them compete with a spaceship?

People got inside of this object and went on a trip around the moon. All the way back in 1969. It’s not futuristic, it isn’t fiction. It doesn’t even look very modern. If anything, it’s a bashed-in old idea of the future.

It will simultaneously make you feel powerful to be part of the human race, and incredibly humble. As all the best science museum exhibits should.

4. Hiroshima Bowl

Another problem with displaying technology is the sheer size of it. The museum has purpose-built galleries for fitting large objects, but even it struggles with planes and ships (largely going for bits of them or just models). Moreover, it’s not always the technology itself that’s of interest or importance, but the broader social context/ environmental impact around it.

With both of these issues in mind, how do you display an atomic bomb? There are many ways museums around the world have found to answer this problem but I really love the decision here, of a humble bowl found in Hiroshima after bombing in August 1945. You can see the sand fused to the sides of the porcelain.

A small exhibit, especially as it’s surrounded by the large machines of Making the Modern World, but possibly one of the more affecting.

5. Turbine blade

Hiding up against the side of a wall on the Wellcome Wing, a cynic might say it’s hard to spot because it’s part of a Shell-sponsored climate exhibition, and fossil fuel companies would rather we avoided talking about renewables. But equally we might argue there is something very pro-wind about how unobtrusive it is, considering turbines are often criticised as a blight.

It’s also interesting to see a turbine on display on a national gallery, considering the politics surrounding climate activists’ attempt to “gift” one to the Tate last year.

6. Handcuffs

These are easy to miss amongst the trains, trucks and spaceships, a rather anonymous pair of handcuffs makes up part of the “technology in everyday life” section of the Making the Modern World Gallery. Next to rollerskates, some bits of cutlery, a typewriter for the blind and a few bikes.

The handcuffs are noteworthy as an example of a technology of control; something the museum could make more of. I remember reading about an exhibition on plastic bullets put on in Brixton in the mid 1980s by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It would be interesting to know why the Science Museum itself didn’t at the time, and if they would think of something similar today.

It’s also worth considering the particular take on the history of technology which keeps bikes on the side in a gallery where cars are given pride of place in the central thoroughfare. The last few times I’ve visited the museum, friends have remarked “why isn’t there a massive gallery filled with bikes?”

7. Iron baby

One of the many pieces of art dotted around the museum is a small statue of a newborn baby by Antony Gormley. You can found it snuggled away at the side of a case on first floor of the Wellcome Wing. According to museum mythology, when staff researched visitors’ reactions to it, girls would bend down and stroke the baby whereas boys kicked it. I don’t really care if that story is true, I just like it (I also find the exhibit very kickable).

8. Advertising on the stars

Hidden at the back of the George III gallery of 18th century science is a globe displaying charts of the stars mapped more earthly spaces. Above the Northern hemisphere you can see familiar characters of Greek astronomy; animals and heroes and the like. But bend down to the Southern hemisphere and you can see the makers of the globe were more puzzled as to what to put. So they used this map of the skies to chart pictures of the other products their company made; lab benches and other chemists’ equipment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and more modern science, and also an early example of the connections between science and advertising.

9. A smile machine

The cases in the Who Am I Gallery are a treasure trove of ephemera and other interestingness relating to the broad and diverse science and technologies of being humans. See if you can find the Swearing Association Challenge Cup, a penis packer used during gender realignment, the freeze-dried mouse, the knitted telomeres, the white peacock and a smile machine.

The ‘smile machine’ is a slight misnomer, it’s actually an electrotherapy machine, but as the museum label points out, in the 1860s, physiologist Guillaume Duchenne used pulses from such devices to provoke twitches in patients’ faces to explore how we formed expressions, concluding truly happy smiles use the eyes as well as mouth.

10. Snuff boxes

Running alongside the big steam machines in the main front to the museum, and just before you get to Watt’s workshop are some of the more domestic sides to the Industrial Revolution. This includes a ‘Power, Products and Prosperity’ display which reflects, quite plainly, how much of this period was about the rise of shopping. A slightly uncritical display of consumer culture, arguably, but the cases are a real treasure trove of 19th century stuff and, as the museum label notes, this reflects new the power of the emerging middle classes: “Some saw it as a new democratisation of taste.” There’s a great collection of snuffboxes, including one shaped like a harp, as well as buttons, toys and a urinal next to a custard cup.

11. The building itself

Like many old purpose-built museums, the building itself is an exhibit, reflecting some history of how we have thought about science and technology.

It’s roughly split into three parts. The first from 1928, delayed because of WW1 but finally finding a permanent home for galleries which had been in and out of various prefabs since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The central galleries are an extension dating back to the 1950s, partly linked to the Festival of Britain. Finally there’s the Wellcome Wing, part of a swathe of science museum and galleries (or rebuilds of old ones) for the millennium.

It’s worth having a look around the outside of the museum too and exploring some of the history of South Kensington. What is now the Science Museum used to share space with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is still the odd marker to this in the V&A building. Look out for scientists’ names on the door of the garden, and the Science and Art corridor near the silver gallery.

When I take people to the museum, I also get them to look at the sponsors sign at the front too. A thanks to supporters but also a declaration of conflict of interest of sorts, and reflection of the groups who have an interest in the way we display science and technology (or at least those groups with money to spare).

12. A Victorian electric taxi cab

We might think of electric cars as futuristic, but the Science Museum has one from 1897. In some ways it is like the gas fridge, a route of technology we didn’t take, but it’s also a steampunkish reflection of how hopes for the future can return in new and different contexts, even seem a bit retro.

It’s currently on temporary display in the entrance to the Wellcome Wing. I sometimes wonder where they’ll put it when that exhibition ends. I’d like to see it moved into the Making the Modern World, disrupting that gallery’s chief narrative of linear progress. Because the history of technology isn’t linear, the Science Museum should know this better than most, but somehow still often perpetuate the myth.

13. Antarctic ice core

This is one of the few objects from the natural world in the Science Museum (their definition of science has always been “stuff that’s not in the Natural History Museum next door”). Hidden at the back of the climate gallery, it shows evidence of the scar on the planet made by those machines of the industrial revolution so proudly presented at the front of the museum. Beautifully – albeit depressingly – haunting.

14. Rotation Station

The hands-on Launch Pad takes a play-based approach to science education. This approach – and many of the blueprints for the gallery’s exhibitions – stems from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, although this itself drew inspiration from the London museum’s Children’s Galleries, first developed in the 1930s.

My favourite exhibit here is the Rotation Station. An attempt to explain the conservation of angular momentum, the visitor is invited to climb on, hang on and spin. If you stick your bum out as you spin you make a larger circle which it takes more energy to travel along: stand up straight and you go much faster.

It is an approach to explaining science which takes the idea very far out of any social context, and often criticised as such. But such decontextualization is both clear and reflects an approach to science. Also, the bum-controlled spinning is lots of fun. Best avoided when hungover though.

15. 1933 Electric door

Currently tucked in the middle of the Secret Life of the Home gallery is an electric door you press a button to open. Initially displayed to show off the wonder of new technology, the museum’s archives contain some great old black and white photos of school children playing with it with wide-eyed delight on their faces. For the last few decades, however, kids just stand there waiting for it to open, bemused that you have to press a button for a door to open. The exhibit itself hasn’t changed in any material sense, but changes in the world around it transforms it entirely. There is something incredibly beautiful about that, and it reflects the way the museum itself is part of the same history of science and technology it aims to collect.

Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).


The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

The Science Museum is pants

Last night I gave a short talk at Museums Showoff. This is a slightly more coherent text version of my set. But first, here’s a picture of the world’s biggest tyre (ground floor of the Wellcome Wing).

For several years in the mid-naughties, I was on the cover of the Science Museum guidebook. It was a blurry photo, but it’s me. I worked there aged 18 to 24. When I left, I realised I’d been there a quarter of my life, I’d spent way too many of my Saturday nights sleeping on the floor of the Shipping Gallery, and the very idea of a Science Museum is a big old pile of pants.

And that’s what this is about: The Science Museum is a big old pile of pants. Sorry if you were coming here looking for analysis, this is really just therapy for a misspent youth. I suppose it is also a form of manifesto for science museums too though.

First problem: Museums tend to be about stuff that stays still, science doesn’t. There’s a great line in an old book about science museums where Graham Farmelo quotes Catcher in Rye saying a museum’s a great place to visit because it always stays the same, so you can judge differences in yourself. Farmelo uses this to challenge museum workers to think about how they might make their institutions more dynamic and foster more collective debate about the future. Much as the Wellcome Wing tries to engage audiences with debates around emerging technologies, I’m unconvinced it’s ever really managed to escape the constrains of a museum. Solution: Just stick to the history.

walking into the atmosphere gallery
The Wellcome Wing. It tries.

Second problem: What’s interesting about science and technology is also, often, what makes it either hard or simply boring to put in a case. My favourite example of this is the Science Museum’s Watson and Crick DNA model. It’s hard to put DNA in a case, so the museum hit on the idea of asking Watson and Crick’s old lab for the model of it they’re standing next to in the iconic photo of them in 1953. Except the lab had, understandably, taken the model apart to reuse, so the museum just rebuilt the model out of old bits and got Watson to open it to sort of make it official. At one point, they had two of them (because there were lots of bits left over). The Oxford Museum of History of Science similarly has a preserved blackboard left after Einstein gave a lecture: it’s the closest they can get to putting relativity in an exhibition case.

When it comes to technology, you have stuff, granted, but often what makes it worth displaying makes it a bit mundane. An old Director of the Science Museum, Lindsey Sharp, used to try to argue that the Science Museum was better than the National Gallery because people don’t sit on the bus talking about Monet, they sit on the bus playing with their phone. Nice spin, Lindsey, but we’ll just stay on the bus, thanks, playing with our phone. There’s all sorts of interesting chemistry and history involved in biros, but really most amazing thing about them is that we all use them. Which also means I don’t need to go to the Science Museum to experience them, I have one in my bag. Science can suffer from this issue too. What’s exciting about Newton’s laws of motion is that they’re so applicable. I don’t have to go to a museum to experience it; I just need to move something. Solution: Stick to the technology, but not the big-name stuff we all know.


This fridge runs on gas. Or ran. It’s old.

The Making of the Modern World gallery is wonderful, a parade of icons of modernity. Stephenson‘s Rocket. That DNA Model. A spaceship! But it’s also a winner’s map of science and technology. I’d much rather museums of science and technology should show us roads not travelled, the paths of technological development not taken. It’s exciting to see THE actual Stephenson’s rocket but it’s also a bit of an anti-climax because we already know about it. The gas fridge in the basement, however, is a whole bit of technology many people didn’t know existed (see how the refrigerator got it’s hum for more). Or my current favourite: The 1897 electric cab. This sits at the front of the Wellcome Wing and there is something beautiful about the positioning that reflects the display of the Rocket in the gallery just ahead of it (I hope it’s deliberate). We could have chosen electrified transport, and if we had we’d have had a lot more choice about how we made this electricity. If you look at UK energy budget maps, you’ll see that most of our oil goes into transport, and most transport is powered by oil. Breaking that link is a key step in a more sustainable energy future. Indeed, National Rail recently announced they are electrifying more of the system (not everyone might like their exclusive contract with EDF, but that’s another issue).

1897 electric cab


The electric cab at front of the Wellcome Wing and Stephenson’s Rocket at the start of Making the Modern World.

As well as the roads not travelled, I’d like to see more of the cultural responses to science and technology; the way people have imagined, loved, hated, worried and hoped through it. I want to see robot toys, and anti-GMO protest signs, some transport geek’s collection of bus tickets. When I worked at the museum, one of my colleagues had a small private collection of visitors’ drawings of spaceships which also looked like penises. That’s totally the sort of stuff the museum should be collecting and sharing with the world: People’s sometimes weird rendering of technology.

And I’d like to see more of the objects which show the scars left by technology. My favourite exhibit for years was a small bowl from Hiroshima, with earth fused to the side of it after the blast. You can’t put an A-bomb in a case, so they have this leftover instead. Or there’s the ice core in the climate gallery. It’s framed more as a celebration of scientific discovery and the human ability to know (well done humans), however, not as a mark of what we’ve done to our planet (must try harder humans). Maybe it’s because the gallery’s sponsored by Shell.

Ice core at Science Museum

The Science Museum’s ice core.

Maybe the sponsor had nothing to do with that framing, but I do worry that the way the museum is uniquely able to theme its sponsors to the topic on display is a problem. Materials gallery brought to you by the Steel Industry, the BP Energy Gallery, Virgin’s Media… Stick to that model and you end up only presenting the technology that makes money, and that’s a limited view of technology. The Science Museum is in danger of turning into a bit of a trade show, which admittedly it has long roots in (with the Great Exhibition) but doesn’t have to maintain.

Let me end with something that was told to me on my first at the Science Museum: the design of the building is based on Selfridges, as they bought a cut-price design from the same architect. But we need more than the technology of consumer culture. Plus we have Selfridges for that. The winners of industry can pay to show off for themselves. As a public institution, the Science Museum should offer us something else, so might be better served modelling itself on a junk yard. Because you can tell stories in celebration of the world as it is, or you can use stories to help us think about making the world differently. If a science museum really is supposed to be about engaging the public with the future, isn’t that what it should be doing?

Climate Stories at the Science Museum

Coal at the Science Museum

Pots of coal, Changing Climate Stories, Science Museum

The Science Museum has a new art/ history of tech exhibition exploring issues of energy and climate change: Climate Changing Stories.

It mixes a few re-interpretations of old exhibits with some dazzling new installations. It weaves through the museum as a whole, plotting new narratives, connecting previously separate spaces. It plays with ideas of pasts, futures and futures past. It left me with a big grin and a head full of ideas. It comes highly recommended.

It’s also sponsored by Shell. Ignore that for a moment though, I don’t want it to get in the way of the many good aspects of the exhibition. Park it at the back of your mind – just as you might on a visit to the museum – and I’ll return to it later.

The trail starts at the front of the museum, in the history of energy hall, inviting you to think of the immediate impact of the Industrial Revolution on the 18th century countryside. This look back to past environmental change is echoed a couple of floors up, in a room next to the energy futures gallery, with a film about a flood in a seaside resort in the early 1950s which juxtaposes the optimism of growth of the town due to holiday-makers in the 1930s with this flood, explicitly playing with our sense of flooding as a future narrative of climate change in the process. There is a similar display near the Agriculture Gallery, this time on air pollution. Its 1952 news reels describe smog as the “greatest mass murderer of recent years”, calling for cleaner fuels. It’s futuristic in a way, abeit an old future, long gone now. It is also current, echoing 21st century debates about slightly less visible air pollution.

The Making of the Modern World gallery has some of the best pieces. I loved artist Yao Lu’s beautiful series of photos; made to look like traditional Chinese landscapes but actually mounds of rubbish covered in green netting. There’s also the incredible toaster project and their resident spaceship now comes with added note on Stewart Brand and the blue marble. The highlight, however, has to the electric London taxi cab from 1897, in the centre of the Wellcome Wing. We might think of electric cars as something futuristic but, again, the museum is keen to stress they’ve been the future for quite a long time now (nice Wired post on this).

One might be wary of the museum’s steampunkish play with narratives of climate change. The line on the BBC preview that the gallery explores how “humans have adapted to keep pace with our changing world” is the sort that can set some environmentalists’ hair on end, as if climate change is just business as usual. I don’t think the museum frames it that way, personally, though other eyes might read it differently. It’s probably worth noting that the end point of the piece on coal was a move to greater regulation, not a techno-fix (although there is also an exhibit on fictional world-saving GM crops).

Moreover, for me, exhibits like the electric cab help show that technology is the consequence of choices, that the world might have been different and, if we let it, provoke us to make better choices today. That cab reminded me of a great bit in Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech, Powering the Dream, about how a betting man at the end of the 19th century would have expected transport in the US to have gone in the direction of electrically powered public transport, not fossil-fuelled private vehicles. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of the book: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”.

electric london taxi cab, 1897

An electric London cab, from 1897! 1897!

Brilliant as many aspects of this exhibition are, I left the museum feeling something was missing. I realised later it was the topic of oil. Which is a shame considering their lead sponsor is such an expert on the topic.

My mother accused me of being snide with that comment, which is not my intention. I genuinely think it’s a shame. That’s in earnest, not sarcasm. I actually want to see more about the oil industry in museums, or at least more than logos.

Shell have a fascinating history (official version). Did you know they are called Shell because they started off as shop that sold seashells? An antique dealer in the 1830s realised there was a fashion for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil. An exhibit based on that could be ace. You could even, like the electric car, use stories of how the world wasn’t always how it is now to consider how it might be in the future; have an interactive asking visitors what different products Shell could trade instead, for example.

So great as this new Science Museum trail is, you might want to stop by Tate Britain too and catch the Patrick Keiller Robinson Institute exhibition which has a bit on the history of BP (till October 14th, free, sponsored by Sotheby’s).

Postscript: A new campaign Science, Unstained aims to ask questions about the sponsorship of science communication. I’m happy to say I’m part of the group behind it. I wouldn’t have registered the URL in my name otherwise. There are several other people involved though, and it’s up to them to decide for themselves if they want to be open about this. It’s just a few 100 words on a blog at the moment and we’re not sure how it’ll develop yet. You can follow it, or even get involved, if you’re interested. Or not, if you’re not.

Not Drowning London

Thames Barrier park, North Bank.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Thames Barrier Park. It’s one of my favourite parts of London, even if there is something spooky about it. Perhaps because there is something spooky about it. Nestled in a rather bleak bit of East London, it’s a very still place. There’s a cafe in the park and often some children playing. The Docklands Light Railway rattles behind it, in its slightly old fashioned futuristic way. There’s the Tate and Lyle factory – complete with giant tin of golden syrup stuck to the side – just to the West. But the overall feeling of the place is quite peaceful.

And yet, there are few places which, for me, sum up the power of both nature and technology. Or, to put it another way, the power of the Earth, and our ability as humans to do stuff with and to that Earth. It’s a calm spot to consider the violent destruction a flood might cause and how we may have made such floods more likely in the future. It’s also an invitation to feel grateful for our ability to protect at least some parts of our world from such hazards, at least for the time being. The river, trees, a park, a cement factory on the opposite bank and, of course, those silver triangles of the Barrier itself. The space is cultivated to consider that symbolism, with paths and gardens placed quite strategically juxtaposing and showing the complex blurs between nature and technology, security and danger. See, for example, the way the trees have been planted to echo the Barrier in the photo above. I think it showcases the shiny power of the Barrier, but in a rather humble way, one that seems open to questions.

I was maybe especially spooked by the Barrier as, the day before, I’d been to the Drowning Earth exhibition at Somerset House, a chilling photography project about the human consequences of flooding. I should probably note that the Thames Barrier dates back from the 1950s and is designed to protect central London from floods based on the best data available in the 1970s. It’s not a response to more modern worries about global warming. There’s the Thames Estuary 2100 project for larger and more long term flood defenses.

According to the Independent, the photographer behind Drowning World, Gideon Mendel, said wanted to show there was more to the iconography of climate change than polar bears. Much as I like a good polar bear photo, I know what he means. Another photography exhibition which presents a slightly different view of issues surrounding climate change, albeit causes rather than consequences, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s chronicle of our relationship with oil (at Photographer’s Gallery till July 1st, Free).

The blurb when you enter the exhibition says Burtynsky’s interested in the subcultures of oil, but it’s hard to leave without thinking how intimately linked we are even to the more alien looking landscapes he captures. It’s also quite striking the way he plays with shape, colour and light to represent spaces reminiscent of an abstract painting but, precisely because they are not abstract, with an added pathos. There’s the regularity of a car park in Houston or motorcycling parking at a Kiss concert in North Dakota. Curls of the road by the slightly futuristic Nanpu bridge exchange, China, show the movement of the cars as well sharp lines of the roads. Similarly, there’s a delicacy as well as a smoggy growl to the interlacing grey curves of a highway in LA. Long lines of pipes of Canadian oil refineries or the gold, brown, yellow and silvery-grey of oil fields Belridge in California and Socar Fields in Baku, Azerbaijan. The latter show tall, slightly skeletal machines at work: robot alien monsters about to charge, they made me think of Star Wars. A haunting series in a breaker’s yard in Chittagong, Bangkadesh shows a glorious, hopeful sunrise over huge slabs of old ships. I also enjoyed the patterns provided by detritus of mass production: crushed oil filters and a pile of wheels. The highlight for me, however, had to be the maple-leaf gold and reds pulled out in a shot of Alberta oil sands. There was a similarly clever use of colours in an image of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which brought out greens to make the oil look like landmasses on a longer shot from a satellite. The Alberta image was something extra though, projecting a sense of national identity along with nature over multinational industry.

I posted a link to a Guardian gallery of the Burtynsky exhibition on twitter, highlighting a line in their commentary that suggests the works offer a reframing of the notion of the sublime. In reply, climate campaigner Lawrence Carter suggested that with Burtynsky’s photos we’re awed at our capacity to destroy the finite, rather than comprehend infinite. I don’t have an answer to this but I think it’s an interesting point which Carter puts neatly. As I’ve argued before, there are ambiguities in a technological reframing of the sublime. I think science and technology of the last few hundred years offer new ways of thinking about long stretches of time and space, seemingly infinite or actually so; in particular our ability as humans to comprehend nature and have forms of control over it. Whether any such comprehension and control is something all humans can share, or is only for a privileged few, is something we should all keep an eye on. Or maybe we’re all collectively heading for the finite.

Drowning World closes today, but some of the images are at the Guardian or see Mendel’s website for more. You can visit Thames Barrier Park by Pontoon Dock DLR, or pop over to the other side of the river for the Barrier’s information centre. The Burtynsky Oil exhibition is on at the Photographer’s Gallery, near Oxford Circus for the next month (free). I can also recommend visiting Nick Cobbing’s website, especially the glacial stories and piece on the brown coal of Konin.

Air craft

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have boy band posters on my bedroom wall. I had a tea tray decorated with an oil painting of a giant air craft carrier parked outside St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

There is some history to this rather strange object. Back in the early 50s, my Granny had been looking at paintings of Venice and, using a photo of my Granddad’s old wartime ship when it was stationed there, made one for herself. Then, on New Years Eve 1956/7, the family were told he had been drafted to another carrier and would be at sea for yet another three years, and she smashed the painting in anger (sometimes when my Mum tells this story Granny smashed it over her knee, sometimes she had an axe). She later painted it again, and it was set into a tray of inlaid wood that Granddad picked up in Rio during his travels on the Albion. The object said a lot about the sometimes fiery compromises of their relationship as well as the juxtaposition of the delicate beauty of Venice with a blundering big warship in the middle of it (let alone the odd glamour of either image mixed with the domesticity of a tea tray). I’m not sure why I ended up with the thing. I guess no one else wanted it and I just thought it was bit weird and kind of cool. I’m not sure where it is now.

I remembered my old Granny’s bit of aircraft handicraft when I was in Greenwich this weekend and spotted A BLOODY ENORMOUS WARSHIP parked there at the moment.

Yes, the caps lock was warranted. Seriously, it’s one of those huge objects it’s hard not to sound stoned describing. It’s, like, really, really big. And the smoke! There’s smoke coming out of the top. And grey, very smoothly grey. It’s HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s largest ship. There are some good images in the press especially after it had a near miss getting through the Thames Barrier (e.g. report from Channel Four and gallery on the Telegraph). According to the Mirror, this time last year the ship was anchored off the Libyan coast but it’s currently in London for a pre-Olympics “anti-terror exercise”. Apparently they focused on air security at the weekend, with river operations taking place between Tuesday and Thursday. As the Telegraph dryly put it, defence secretary Phillip Hammond dismissed suggestions he was going “over the top” as the Royal Navy’s largest warship sailed up the River Thames.

If you’re around town at the moment and have a free moment, do try to see HMS Ocean for yourself. Whether you think the UK should be spending money on ships like this or not, let alone whether you think it should be part of Olympic security, it’s a rare chance to see such advanced military technology up front. I kind of think the Imperial War Museum outreach team should be running workshops on the river banks. As my mother joked, that’s a proper live, modern warship, none of this “heritage” stuff they have further up West. If you look carefully at the picture of the bottom of this post, you can see the masts of the newly refurbished Cutty Sark in the background. They make for quite the comparison.

Go see it. Have a think about whether you want it in your city. Or anyone else’s. Go, have a good stare at the thing. Have a good think about our deployment of this great human power we have that is advanced technology.

How the refrigerator got its hum

A few years ago, a friend of mine was living in a small flat which contained a fridge that hummed very loudly. Very loudly indeed. She found it a bit annoying. Also annoying: the power supply for the room was through a meter she had to keep feeding with coins to maintain a regular supply of electricity, which was prone to running out with little warning. However, she noticed that the fridge’s hum would change slightly when the meter needed feeding. What had started off as an annoying side effect of the fridge’s ability to keep her food cool became a useful guide for the maintenance of her home. She went on to do a whole PhD reflecting on the domestic soundscape: the importance of sounds like toast popping up, the chug of the washing machine, a kettle boiling, taps dripping.

I love this story about my friend’s fridge because it demonstrates something we all do: the sometimes unintended re-use of the various bits and pieces of technology that surround us. How many of you, for example, have magnets on your fridge?

I also love this story because it gives me an excuse to tell the story of how the refrigerator got its hum in the first place.  This story is a classic in the social history of technology. If you have any familiarity with this field you’ll know it. If not, let me introduce you to it because it’s a good story, and one with a neat moral. Because there could have been other fridges, other – quieter – fridges.

In her classic essay ‘How the Refrigerator got its Hum‘ (chapter 15 in this book, or download a PDF here), Ruth Schwartz Cowan traces the early history of domestic fridges. In 1920s USA, there were two types of fridges on the market; electrically powered ones which used a (humming) motorised compressor to work their refrigerants, and gas ones. All mechanical fridges work by controlling the vaporisation and condensation of a liquid called a refrigerant. Most fridges today do this control with a special electric-power pump called a compressor, but there’s also the technique of absorption, which is kicked off by a gas-fulled flame. The fridge’s hum wasn’t inevitable. Once upon a time, that particular bit of our domestic soundscape could have been very different.

Various refrigeration machines were patented throughout the 19th century, and manufactured ice became available throughout the southeaster US by 1890 (natural ice was easier to come by further north, so there was less of a market). Most breweries had large scale refrigeration machines, as did meat packers and Cowan talks of ‘icemen’ carrying manufactured ice for sale through the major cities. Such commercial fridges were big objects though, few were under 5 tones and many weighed anything between 100-200 tons. So it wasn’t until 1914 that the first domestic fridges were developed. This was an electric compressor model, complete with very noisy hum and the wonderful name of ‘Kelvinator’ (Cowan, 1985: 204-6). Throughout the 1920s, more and more domestic fridges were developed, although they remained very much a luxury item, with gas companies going into production of their models from the mid 1920s (Cowan, 1985: 212).

Although the gas fridges were arguably more efficient and without motorised parts did not break down so often – they were even known as ‘the common sense machine’ - the electric ones became the norm. Cowan argues that this was largely down the social and economic power of the electrical companies, especially General Electric, who not only had a lot of weight with domestic appliance salespeople but, as Cowan puts it, could employ ‘outlandish advertising and public relations techniques’. These do really did sound like quite the PR carnival: swashbuckling pirates in storerooms, exhibition trains travelling the country and jazz bands riding floats across small town America. One was presented to Henry Ford in a special radio broadcast in 1931. In 1928, another was send on a submarine voyage to the North Pole with Robert Ripley (as in the ‘Believe it or Not’ Ripley). In 1935, fridges were the star of the first ever commercial Technicolour film. This ran for nearly and hour with Hollywood stars and a romantic comedy script rooted in the need for a complete electric kitchen (Cowan, 1985: 209-10). It’s also worth noting that the various electric companies cooperated here in selling the idea of electric refrigeration, even if they competed on named products (Cowan, 1985: 211). With gas vs. electric fridge, it wasn’t a technical decision as to which won; it was largely social-political-economic. It wasn’t the first tale in the history of technology to be so, and it wasn’t the last either.

In many respects, the history of technology is a history of failed machines; of routes we didn’t take, not the ones we did. There have never been a shortage of new inventions, what ‘shapes us’ is what we choose to pick up on. David Edgerton (2006) puts this very well in his book ‘The Shock of the Old‘ which calls for a focus on thinking about technology we use, rather than new technology:

The history of invention is not the history of a necessary future to which we must adapt or die, but rather of failed futures, and of futures firmly fixed in the past. We do not have a history of invention, but instead histories of the invention of only some of the technologies which were later successful (Edgerton, 2006: 184. Emphasis as original).

Cowan would ascribe to this sort of view on the history of technology too, and as a way of prefacing her tale of the fridge’s hum, refers to the sorts of innovations advertised in 19th and 20th century women’s magazines: technologies we might look back on now as quaint and funny, but were often very good ideas:

What resident of a drought-prone area today would not be grateful for a toilet that does not use water? [...] Why do we have popcorn makers and electric can openers but not gas refrigerators or inexpensive central vacuum cleaners? If we can put a man on the moon, why have we been unable to pipe out garbage disposals into our compost heaps? (Cowan, 1985: 202)

And there’s the moral of the story: the possibilities around technology are multiple. They are not limitless, but they aren’t singular either, and they certainly are not linear. There are choices when it comes to the technologies we choose to take on, and choices about how we make use of them, when and if.

Technology is done by people, and can be redone and undone by people too. Stories of how we have made choices in the past (unwittingly or otherwise) about technology help uncover this, as well as point us towards old routes we could return to. This is the great liberating lesson from the social history of technology movement, one that, whether we are thinking about fridges, synbio, geo-engineering, bicycles, a cotton jumper, the internet or anything else, we would all do well to remember.

Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

Gawping at Milan Central Station

I visited Milan Central Station recently, and there is only one word for it: awesome (see my ‘a brief history of awesome‘ post if you think I use that word loosely). But more than that, it was designed to be awesome.

scary ceiling

I arrived there from Zurich. The train had wound through the Swiss mountains; providing me plenty of opportunity to play compare-and-contrast with traditional ideas of the natural sublime and those of the built environment. This was two weeks ago, and I was haunted by news from Japan too, in particular a radio interview with Japanese ambassador to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi, saying his nation had been ‘humbled and awed’ by the power of nature. I was also thinking about the many people keen to point out how incredible the stories of engineering coming out from Japan were too. As a friend posted on his facebook wall:

the Fukishima plant is four decades old. It’s just been hit by an earthquake ten times the size of the one that hit new zealand… then a massive tsunaumi… and now a series of hydrogen explosions. And the reactor cores are still intact. I’m wowed.

A sense of the power of technology to control nature, or of science to understand it, is different from an idea of the power of nature itself. Technological and scientific sublimes reflect connections (or disconnections) to people. Although we may feel in awe and at so at some distance from those great people who have done such amazing feats of genius, they are still people, so we may also feel some sense of connection and control too (entirely depending on context).

But onto the awesomeness of Milan Central Station. The first thing I noticed was the large expansive arch of the platforms. I don’t know if it’s the shape, or the size, or the promise of adventures on the trains going in and out, but it’s hard not to be moved by such spaces. York’s got a grand one too, and I’m a big fan of Paddington’s.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Walk off the platform, and you enter a huge hall. And another. And another. Milan Station is huge. I mean really, really huge. It’s hard not to sound stoned here, but it’s like, really, REALLY huge. It probably doesn’t take up that much more space than Edinburgh Waverly or the Gare de Lyon, it might even be smaller, but it is high and spacious is a way that clearly aims to accentuate size. It’s built to make you go wow in the same way you might gawp at the size of a mountain.

It reminded me of a church I once saw across in Manhattan. From a distance, it looked like any church you might find in the UK, but as I got closer I realized it was built on a completely different scale; each brick was at least 10% bigger. The station also reminded me of iconic religious buildings like the Hagia Sophia, the Neasden Temple or St Paul’s cathedral, especially the way the light comes in from the ceiling to flood the various large halls.


The building it most reminded me of, however, was London’s Natural History Museum.  Just as the NHM is often dubbed a cathedral to nature, Milan station is in many ways a cathedral to technology. You might not be able to see, but in those circles just above the columns and gargoyles in the photo are representations of a car, and a train and a ship (slightly closer shot, but hard to capture in a photo). Also, look, it’s Roberto Fvlton and Georgio Stephenson, and what about this:

ladies, ladies
I should add that the building also reminded me of the Soviet monuments in the Szoborpark just outside of Budapest. These, although relatively small, are positioned at clever angles so you cannot help but feel slightly threatened. Milan Station, like statues, museums, churches and a host of municipal buildings all over the world, is designed to make the visitor feel small in comparison. This is awe to make you feel humbled, and as a form of the technological sublime, to feel humble with respect to other people.

ticket office

I’m ambivalent about this. On the one side you might see such a feeling of being humble compared to others as a celebration of the skill of people. But on the other side is a sense that you are not as good as those other people. If the sublime in science writing comes from a transference of the power of God to Nature, I’m not sure about transferring this power to people. Or at least I’m not sure about it if such majesty is unequally distributed. Or at least I think we need to be aware that we are ascribing such power and consider whether it’s appropriate or not, and whether (and how) it might be changed/ transferred/ redistributed.

Basically this is just all a long way of pointing out that breathlessly going ‘OMG isn’t it a-maz-ing…?’ isn’t the end of a political conversation, it’s the start. But I think that’s important.