A walk down the time tunnel

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark glimpses the future when she steps into the Science Tunnel at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry.

Zoom into the future when Science Tunnel opens at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry on November 17. The frontiers of research, from the most minute sub-atomic particles to the far reaches of the cosmos, come alive in a groundbreaking presentation from Germany's Max Planck Institute.

First seen at Expo 2000, the "world's longest classroom" is a flexible 17m long tunnel in which 12 large spaces (12m x 10m) are devoted to explaining scientific breakthroughs of the last decade. Within this dramatic structure, wide-screen videos, photographs and text panels aim to plunge the visitor not just into an understanding, but into an imaginative experiencing of the new directions in which science is moving. Visitors will need a sound grasp of basic science, but for Year 11s wondering which A-levels to choose and for sixth-formers pondering choice of university course and their career beyond, a class trip to the show is likely to prove an inspiration. Science teachers themselves, however, will find this "wonderful" for rekindling their original interest in science, says Julia Hey, the museum's education officer.

As you walk, the exhibition builds, and you find yourself looking over scientists' shoulders into the huge, dynamic images as the camera searches for the tiniest components of matter, on through the sources of diseases, the function of the human brain and the problems of human societies, and finally into the vast future of the universe. Throughout, 12 different pieces of specially commissioned "sounds of science" (mood musicsound effects) hiss, whirr, boom and tinkle to create a feeling of science not just as a cerebral activity, but as the key to our lives.

Each section is constructed as an answer to a question. They are big questions and the answers are stimulating and complex.

To begin with, "What holds the world together?" looks at how particle physicists are studying the fundamental building blocks of matter and their interactions. Increasingly, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology are linked in laboratory research, which simulates the extreme conditions which held sway immediately after the Big Bang. This section leads on to "How do we create new materials?". New understandings of the basic (very basic - sub-atomic and molecular) anatomy, formation, and transformation of materials, shown by amazing time-resolution-photography, lead to materials tailor-made, atomic layer by atomic layer, producing extraordinary new textiles, plastics and metals. The language of science is maths. Talking about the world, scientists ask "What goes on in complex systems?"

Beginning with chaos theory, maths now analyses not just complex, changing systems like weather, but also models transportation and economic activity, computers and communications. Such complex analytic methods will be used in biology and medicine, too, building on the human genome structure, for instance, to help with tumour diagnostics through image analysis.

"How does life function?" asks the fourth section, along with those working in living cell research, unravelling how imbalances in cellular processes can cause a wide range of diseases. "According to what blueprints are life forms constructed?" follows molecular biologists who have developed techniques to understand how a plant seed can become a wonderful flower, or a fertilised egg cell a human being. How do the one hundred trillion cells of the human body grow into you or me, our hearts and lungs and toenails, at the right place and the right time? Within a wider setting, "How do ecosystems develop?" Around us, an unimaginably large number of bacteria, yeasts, fungi and other tiny beings live in the soil, in the sediments of our waterways, or on and in multicellular organisms, like us. On them all life rests. Each year, infectious diseases claim some 17 million lives. By analysing the reciprocal effects between pathogen and host right down to the molecular level, we may learn to fight such dangerous diseases.

All this research is electrical activity within our brains. We now know something of the signals which nerve cells use to communicate with each other but still ask, "How does the brain work?" New technologies enable us to image and track the timings and methods of the signals, and point us towards new drugs and therapies.

As a particular feedback loop, altered by our own perceptions, our brains and minds themselves are also studied - as the eighth section, "How do we perceive the world in our mind?" reveals. When we think, smell, feel, make plans or learn, processes are activated in our brains. If we could find out how different information is integrated in the brain and dovetailed into a complete image of the world, we could, scientists hope, counter depression, schizophrenia, dementia and behavioural disturbances.

Yet human beings live in society, so "How does culture develop?" How universal are the laws and structures which underpin human thoughts and actions? Nature or nurture? How does technology and information alter our beliefs of right and wrong? Stretching the net wider, "What makes life on earth possible?" Cycles of water, carbon, nitrogen and other elements interact with changes in greenhouse gases and human land use; but just how strongly are human beings intervening in climatic processes?

And further still, "What is the future of our solar system?" Beyond the earth's magnetosphere interplanetary space is imbued with wave and particle radiation from the sun and electrical and magnetic fields. New, high-performance space probes help researchers to enter space. Finally, the grandest perspective asks, "What is our place in the universe?" Astronomers and astrophysicists delve into the birth and death of stars, the development of galaxies, and the structure of "dark matter" and their observations are fed into numerical simulations. Telescopes on earth and in space use special sensory apparatuses and cameras, to gaze beyond planets and stars to divine the unimaginably large-scale structures of the universe.

Back on earth, The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, admission free (includes sample Space Tunnel module in foyer) but charges for exhibition pound;3 adults, pound;2 concessions. Science Tunnel is on from 17 November until 26 January 2003www.msim.org.uk.


Science Year may have metamorphosised into Planet Science, but the initiative originally launched last year to promote science and technology just keeps on giving. The Royal Society is behind the latest Planet Science scheme to provide free resources for secondary schools in the UK. The equipment, worth pound;600,000, comprises a desktop manufacturing centre for improving students' manual dexterity skills from the Technology Enhancement Programme, a radioactivity kit from the Science Enhancement Programme and a DNA extraction kit from Science and Plants for Schools and the National Centre for Biotechnology Education. Together, these resources would cost schools more than pound;450.

This isn't the first time that the Royal Society has backed the cause. Last year the Society donated pound;1 million for free or heavily subsided resources for schools that included digital microscopes, electronic whiteboards, dataloggers, CD-Roms and biotechnology kits.

Information on how to get hold of the latest set of free resources will be arriving in schools any day now. Heads of the relevant departments can then register for equipment which will be sent out at the beginning of the spring term.

Science Year was launched in September 2001 to make science and technology subjects and careers more accessible to students. It has now become Planet Science and is administered by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Planet Science will continue to provide resources and teaching tips and run special events and competitions until July 2003. Teachers can be kept informed on the latest developments by registering via the website with the Planet Science mailing list. For further details on the scheme and general information about Planet Science, visit the websitewww.planet-science.com.

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