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Cross-curricular resources: Manchester Science Festival

Yes, it was Manchester. Its history can show pupils how science can transform a town, says Jeff Forshaw

Yes, it was Manchester. Its history can show pupils how science can transform a town, says Jeff Forshaw

  • Manchester Science Festival, 22-30 October
    • "A Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses. Yet, rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens." So wrote Benjamin Disraeli, better known as prime minister than as a novelist, in his 1844 tale Coningsby. Out of a frenzy of wealth, poverty and squalor was born an independence, a willingness to challenge dogma and a pragmatic desire to capitalise on opportunity. In the words of pre-eminent British-American physicist Freeman Dyson, it was the "anti-academic, anti-establishment brashness of Manchester (that) made a fertile ground for the growth of science." In his words, "Manchester brought science out of the academies and gave it to the people."

      At the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester faced new challenges - a burgeoning population, new social, economical and political problems, and technical challenges associated with improving industrial processes. They posed problems that demanded new solutions and, crucially, new ways of thinking.

      In their desire to establish a cultural heart within the new Manchester, it was medics and Protestant non-conformists who, in 1781, formed the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and who advanced schemes to help educate the industrialists. They too, in 1793, brought a 26-year-old schoolteacher named John Dalton from the Lake District to Manchester.

      Dalton established himself first as a tutor in maths and natural philosophy, then as the father of modern chemistry with his appreciation that all substances are made out of immutable atoms. He was also the private tutor to James Prescott Joule, the son of a wealthy brewer who, in 1847, discovered that work and heat are interchangeable. That was the "E=mc2" of its time and underpinned the new science of thermodynamics, which was to play a vital role in Victorian science and engineering. So it is fitting that statues of Dalton and Joule now stand opposite each other in the entrance to Manchester's town hall.

      The "Lit amp; Phil" catalysed the pursuit of scientific knowledge in Manchester which, in 1851, saw the formation of Owens College, precursor to the present-day university. Under the stewardship of Henry Roscoe the college rapidly became a world centre in chemistry, with Roscoe developing in the UK the system of training previously pioneered in the German technical institutes (Roscoe himself had been a student in Heidelberg).

      But it was a student of Roscoe's, Arthur Schuster, who, in 1900, set up one of the world's largest physics labs (his family had emigrated from Frankfurt in 1869 and made their fortune in cotton). Schuster's parting gift to the University was to hire a brash New Zealander called Ernest Rutherford - already a high-flying professor at McGill University in Canada - who arrived in Manchester in 1907 and won the Nobel Prize in chemistry a year later. But his best work was to come. Schuster probably managed to tempt Rutherford to Manchester with a huge salary and the promise of a large research team. Certainly, Rutherford wasted no time in establishing the Manchester physics department as one of the best in the world, and in 1911 he figured out that an atom is mostly empty space with most of its mass in a nucleus at its centre. This work triggered the new quantum theory of the atom developed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who spent time in 1912 working in Manchester.

      Rutherford was a down-to-earth experimental physicist with a can-do attitude in the best Manchester tradition. His quote "we don't have the money so we have to think" captures his spirit. And the quip "don't let me catch anyone talking about the universe in my department" reflects his grounding in laboratory experiments. In 1917, he "split the atom" in an act of alchemy that turned nitrogen into oxygen. It is fitting that Manchester, the birthplace of modern atomic theory, and the idea that atoms are immutable, should be the place for the first splitting of the atom.

      But Manchester's ambition is nowhere better illustrated than through Sir Bernard Lovell, who arrived in the city in 1936 and started to research radar reflections off meteor showers - under his hero Patrick Blackett (who would win the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics). Lovell later established himself as the father of radio astronomy. His vision led to the building of the magnificent telescope at Jodrell Bank - a 76m dish able to detect faint radio waves from distant sources. The project was ambitious, its funding perilous, but the telescope's ability to track the Soviet Sputnik rocket in 1957 propelled Lovell and Jodrell Bank to fame. The telescope remains a world leader, and in the study of pulsars it has delivered the world's most precise test of Einstein's theory of gravity (general relativity).

      While Lovell was opening a new window on the universe, Freddie Williams was busy as professor of electro-technics, building the world's first stored-program digital computer; with PhD student Tom Kilburn, Williams built the "small-scale experimental machine" or "Baby" in 1948. Like Lovell, Williams and Kilburn had worked on radar during the war. They developed the equipment they had been using to display the location of aircraft into a device capable of storing data. After that came the Ferranti Mark 1 which, in 1951, was the world's first commercially available computer.

      Today, Manchester is a very different place. But the sense of possibility and the iconoclastic attitude remain, perhaps as firmly rooted as ever. In 2010, the Nobel Prize in physics once again returned to Manchester. It went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their discovery of a one- atom-thick "miracle material" called graphene, using little more than sticky tape and pencil-lead. This month, Chancellor George Osborne announced plans for a Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub, part of a pound;200m investment into science, suggesting Manchester research will once again change the world.

      Jeff Forshaw is professor of particle physics at Manchester University and, with Brian Cox, co-author of `The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen', published by Allen Lane in hardback on 20 November (pound;20)

      What else?

      To find out much more about science in Manchester, visit the Museum of Science and Industry and explore its web pages at

      2011 marks 100 years since Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus and the exhibition "Ernest Rutherford: Father of Nuclear Physics" runs until 30 October.


      thinktank (Birmingham Science Museum)

      From steam engines to intestines, this dynamic museum has over 200 hands- on displays on science and technology, including a state-of-the-art planetarium and IMAX cinema.

      Centre for Life (Newcastle)

      The centre has interactive displays on topics including evolution, climate change, recycling, medicine and health.

      Techniquest (Cardiff)

      An interactive science centre in Cardiff Bay where children discover an appetite for science.

      Glasgow Science Centre

      The centre offers a wide range of workshops, IMAX films and live science shows.

      For more information on these locations and ideas for inspiring field trips, try the educational visits collection at

      Original headline: In which city was the atom first split?

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