Shopping, Sightseeing, Science

By cjohnson | May 22, 2006 8:16 pm

So on Sunday, for A Journey Around My People part two (see part one here), I wandered around quite a bit in my old ‘hood in the South West. No, not the South West where I live currently, but in the SW postcode district of London. Wandered the streets looking at the people: Listening to the various tones of voice, ways of speaking, turns of phrase. Looking at the hustle and bustle, the various types of clothing, expressions of face, looks in the eye. Listening to the shouts, yells, laughs, cries, whispers, etc. I love wandering around doing that. This is one of the reasons I like to wander around in public areas and use public transport, in whatever city I happen to be. It is the way you really get to know a city, and then once that city is inside you -through your looking the people in the eye, bumping into them, talking with them, encountering accidental touches, scents, warmth, coldness, as you brush past… in other words, real human to human contact- then you really know it. And you come back years later and drink that all back in, and know that the city is still there – in the people. Some buildings will change, disappear entirely sometimes, but those sounds, sights and sensations of the city, expressed in its people last a long time, passing on through generations. Yes, that essence will last certainly a lot longer than you or any individual will, and so you can be sure that the soul of the city lives on for a long time, when other aspects fade.

…And then you can go shopping!

harrods foodSo I wanted to have a look at some shiny pretty things, and some things less so. I wanted to play around with looking in some of the fancier shops for fun, and because I love seeing how things are displayed. It is sometimes quite beautiful, and sometimes at least as interesting (sometimes more interesting) as visiting a museum. Also, every city and every country has its own character when it comes to how things are laid out in the stores, and it is interesting to see some of a city’s flagships in this regard. Occasionally -but very rarely- I even buy something, if I chance upon the right combination of price, weakness, and desirability…

…so I left Harvey Nichols with exactly the same stuff I arrived with. Maybe less, for I’m sure that there was a little evaporation of the rain from my coat and my umbrella. I’ve never wandered in there at length before and wanted to do so if only to feed the voices in my head from two characters in “Absolutely Fabulous” wittering on vacuously about the Department store “Harvey Nicks”. It’s pricelessly funny, for reasons I can’t explain, to wander around the store and imagine those characters there. Even more priceless when you actually run into them there, as indeed happens.

harrods foodI’d wandered around there and looked around. Entirely on the women’s fashion/style floors, I have to say. It is much easier and much more interesting, in my opinion, to have a good time browsing and chatting in a fancy store in the women’s section than it is in the men’s. Frankly, I don’t buy men’s clothes very often in fancy stores. I tend to get simple, plain things in simpler, plainer stores. I don’t mean heavily discounted junk that will fall apart in no time. (You spend far more money on really rock-bottom cheap stuff since you have to replace it more often.) I get mid-range stuff that is solid and sensible and lasts for years. No, the real fun is in looking at the displays in the women’s sections, as they can be much more lovingly laid out, and often beautifully so. In the really nicely thought-out stores, it is rather like being in a museum or art gallery. Very pleasant. You can talk at length to the staff as well, since they will fall over themselves to help you, if you take the right approach, whereas they might not give you the time of day normally.

At first, once they’ve decided you’re not a weirdo or a shoplifter, they decide that you’re just confused and need telling that the men’s section is elsewhere. Then they decide -often with your help- that you’re a confused male lost in the woman’s world but looking for a gift for your girlfriend/lover/wife/mum/sister/secretary/boss/colleague. Or any subset of those altogether. Then the fun begins as then everybody’s relaxed and they help you find stuff and chat about the stuff on display. Sometimes about the displays themselves. They certainly don’t care if you buy anything, and you don’t have to lie and pretend to be interested in buying stuff for yourself, since you’re in the “wrong” section anyway. You can always pretend to be really confused about “what she’ll actually like” and so need to walk around the store a bit to make up your mind, which is a good way to end a conversation.

And you know what? Sometimes it is true. Sometimes I am on the lookout for something for one or more of the above choices. Either way, it can make for a fun few hours of distraction. I’d like to say that I invented or discovered this aspect of “shopping” myself, but you know what? I learned it by, in the past going shopping with various subsets of the aforementioned categories and now realise that I’m probably enjoying exactly the same rituals that they do. Yeah, I think I sort of understand shopping for hours without actually getting or needing anything….It can be fun, if the shopping environment is pleasant enough, as it often is in such stores.
harrods food Although I can only manage the time and, more importantly, stamina to do it a few times a year (last time was in Taipei 101 in Taiwan). Not every Saturday. That would drive me nuts….. Don’t say it.

So where was I? Ah, yes, having bought nothing in Harvey Nichols, I went to Harrods of course. It’s a block away and an absolute must see if you have not done so. At least go and see the food courts, which are simply splendid. This I’ve done several times before and love doing it.

I love to go and look at all the displays of food (pictures all down the right of this post so far), some good plain old-fashioned theme-park Englishness (both on the part of the store and staff on the one hand, and the customers on the other), and also some of the other displays too.

harrods food

Recall the pictures of the hats from my previous post. Dear Reader (and I’m not just talking to men here), if you don’t go and wander in the women’s “soft accessories” section, where on earth would you ever see such wonderful composition? If anybody thinks less of you for wandering in there, tell them from me they’re an idiot.

harrods hats

After Harrods I had just enough time for a little visit to the Science Museum to close out the day. I had a lot of fun there in that short time, and can share some of the visit with you in pictures. I must say that they do an excellent job of their composition when it comes to displaying the exhibits. Perhaps some of them worked at Harrods. Or the other way around. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

I like the London Science Museum for the older, classic stuff. They don’t really catch my interest so much with exhibits about the more modern things, and that is probably my fault, and not theirs. This is not because I am uninterested in new science, or how it is being presented (remember, one of my long-standing interests and passions is in the presentation of science -old and new- to the public) but for a much simpler reason:

I never get to the new displays, as I’m just having too much fun looking at shiny brassy instruments from the nineteenth century. I can’t get enough of that stuff. I come in and head straight for the splendid old steam engines for a little while. (The one below was used in ships of a certain design. It is the design of Richard Trevithick, 1806.)

steam engine

I normally can pass through the space stuff on my way elsewhere, but this time I stayed, as I think that they’ve done a rather capital job of some of the displays. Look at the collection of rockets that I included with the hats in the previous post, for example.

rockets science museum

The arrangement and how it was lit (well, I helped it a bit by shuttering down a tiny bit in the exposure), is just great. And, oh yes, the rockets themselves were pretty interesting too. I’m still amazed that we, as a species, ever made the Saturn V rocket. It seems so other-worldly now in scale.

science museum tourLook at this (on the left) wonderful wonderful James-Bond-Moonraker-like satellite launcher on display. You can stan underneath it and look up. It is a British craft from the late sixties and early seventies, called the “Black Arrow”, designed by John Scott-Scott (excellent name!) and the top opens up and the satellite pops out like some sort of mechanical baby shyly emerging from its mother for the first time…. it’s so beautiful it almost brings tears to the eyes. And you shake your head and maybe shed another tear when you learn that we (the UK) – as a nation – cancelled the project and never got around to ever doing anything like that again. Sigh. But never mind….

Look what they did with this marvellous rocket (could not find the plaque that said what it was…. one of my JPL buddies can help here no doubt) to display it. It is hugely long and so they suspended it overhead along the main corridor through the space stuff. You can see the door in the distance. Great job.

science museum tour

Toward the end I saw that they had a bit about faster than light travel, with a model of the Starship Enterprise (I’ve no idea which model… the Star Trek fans would no doubt help me here if I put a picture up, but I won’t…sorry) and a picture of Einstein with some words. I came away annoyed by that. Somebody need to talk to the head bloke/bloke-ess about that. I’ll explain why later in a separate post.

On to the place I most often get stuck. Pleasantly. Yes, the shiny brass instruments and the like. Give me a polished old compass, sextant, microscope, telescope, gyroscope, or similar finely made work of art combined with serious scientific instrument and I will consider bearing your children. (Ok, I might be overstating things here a touch, but you get the point. I really really like them.). I can spend -and have spent- several hours wandering halls of such instruments -and many of the machines and instruments of similar vintage- on display in several museums, and this is the reason I seldom get to the loud and sparkly stuff later in the museum.

Ok now. I’ll shut up and let’s have some hushed reverence as we look into some of the cases together.

Splendid shiny thing number one. Joseph Lister’s microscope. This was a particularly finely made instrument from 1826 which really put the microscope on the map as a serious scientific tool (it says in the display). Lister was a pioneering surgeon who advanced research and practice in antiseptics, and after whom, yes, Listerine, is named.

science museum tour

In the same display case, we have a magnet and coil from the laboratory of none other than one of my all time favourite experimenters…. Michael Faraday. We are talking about 1831 here, and the discovery of science museum tourelectromagnetic induction: You can get an electric current flowing through a wire if you move the wire in a magnetic field. The electricity your using to power your computer to read my rantings right now? And to power so much of the rest of your life? Our knowledge about how to generate it, manipulate it, and harness it all began with those experiments, done with coils an magnets -including this very one. I hope there is a at least the hint of a tingle down your spine, ‘cos if not, you’re a cold cold fish, my friend. In its own way, this display has as much romance, wonder and poetry in it as looking at the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo’s David, or the duplicate Apollo landing vehicle in the adjoining room, to name a few random examples.

original cooke wheatstone telegraphOk. Same display case: The telegraph machine of Cooke and Wheatstone! This is circa 1837, and basically exploits the recently-hot discovery by Oersted that if you pass a current through a wire, it generates a magnetic field….Yes. A sister mechanism to Faraday’s little observation a paragraph ago. They agreed on a coding system, set one of these up in London, and another just like it in another West Drayton, 13 miles away, and in 1839 began what we now take for granted: near-instant public communication over great distances. Do I hear some spines tingling, or what?

So you see my problem. That’s just the first display case. There are hundreds more. No, in case you are worried, this will not be the longest. blog. post. ever., showing case after case of nineteenth Century knick knacks. I will stop eventually. I’ll show you a few more of the things that caught my eye, and then I’ll stop, I swear. Soon.

Yes. This is indeed Stevenson’s Rocket!

stephenson's rocket

Oh yes. Another thriller. Rather that attempt to give you a sense of just how pivotal this machine is in our history (transport – communications – engineering- commerce – much more) let me point you to the truly wonderful book that came out relatively recently -that you simply won’t be able to put down- called “The Last Journey of William Huskisson”, by Simon Garfield (same guy who wrote the wonderful book “Mauve”) . Just go out and buy it. Don’t hesitate. Or offer to bribe your librarian with whatever it takes (money, promises of silence, sexual favours, whatever) to encourage them to get it in the library asap. When you get it, if you read nothing else, read the description of the competition that was held to find the engine that they would use on the first self-propelled strip of railway line. That is a movie script dying to happen, if there ever was one. No sports movie has ever been made that could hold more drama. That gives me an idea…..Hmmmmm.

Now, I can’t resist showing you this lovely bike that was hanging from the ceiling. Of course not, you sigh, having heard me blog about bikes a lot before. Yes, this was the first commercially successful “safety bicycle” (as it was called then):

safety bicycle

This was the result of the main realization that the whole penny-farthing (one giant drive wheel that you pedal) setup needn’t be the way to go in the bike world. You don’t need that huge wheel. You can go a lot smaller in your wheel size for a smaller bike overall, a more stable ride, and have a lot less far to fall. you just make up for the loss of drive wheel size by a nifty thing called gears, and you can do just as a well as a penny farthing (below, right, among some splendid things).

penny farthingAt this point, I should rant on -as I have in the past- about how silly it is that people now have stuck in their heads that the current wheel size is somehow the end of the story and they automatically assume that if your bike has smaller wheels (and all the advantages you get from that…like being able to fold it up very small and carry it easily in one hand!) that somehow it is not a real bike anymore as they are somehow “too small”, and how it seems to make no difference reminding them of the existence of gears which help to compensate, just as they did before in moving from penny-farthing to “regular bike”. Makes no difference. Sigh….head-bang-on-desk-noise. But I’ll hold my tongue, and just point here.

science museum tourHere are some more lovely shiny brassy instruments. Here is a sextant, from the late Eighteenth Century. This enables you to accurately determine the position of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies in the sky. This is vital for determining where you are on the planet’s surface especially when you’re – literally – all at sea. At this point I refer you to Dava Sobel’s wonderful book “Longitude” on aspects of the history of this science, technology, and instrumentation. (I’m a big fan of at least two of her books (see also “Galileo’s Daughter”. I was all set to be a literary groupie-type if I got meet her at the LA Times Book Award ceremony and after-party (which I blogged about here), but she was not there. I met her agent instead. Nice fellow, but it’s not quite the same. Sigh.)

Look at the delightful compass. It is a meridional compass (c. 1795), designed to combine a sundial with a compass, showing the true north and the magnetic north. The difference between the two varies depending upon where you are and is also a useful guide to navigation.

meridional compass

Finally, here are two groupings of rather fine navigational instruments:

science museum londonscience museum london

I’ll stop here for a bit. There’s more to come. I have to say that it is a delight to see that the London Science Museum -which is free, by the way- remains such an alive place. I did not get through more than two of the halls, but if all the others were as lively as that (with children being shown around by their parents/guardians, asking questions excitedly and getting really engaged with the displays), then it’s just wonderful.

Go along and support your local science museum. Take the kids! Or someone else’s kids!

-cvj

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Personal, Science
  • http://hep.phys.sfu.ca/~tstewart/blog/ Travis

    I love the old brass instruments. I have not been to London, but when I do I will have to make sure to visit the London Science Museum.

    While it is certainly a much, much smaller and less glamorous museum, have you been to the History of Science Museum in Geneva? It has a nice collection of instruments, and is located in the Villa Bartholoni which is worth visiting in its own right.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    No, I have not been there. I will try to go next time. Thanks!

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Oh, my goodness….just had to be the first to make fun of myself here: An earlier version of the first paragraph (written in a jetlag haze…. bad idea) was very poorly written! Made me sound like a schlocky vampire character….maybe something out of an Anne Rice novel. Have since restored it to my more normal level of, uh…. craziness.

    -cvj

  • adam

    Have you been visiting the String Theorists in the Imperial Theory Group, Clifford?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi,

    No. And definitely not on a Sunday! No, this visit really was just an unscheduled hop to London for the aforementioned reasons. No professional physics visiting involved. In fact, I’m back in LA now.

    -cvj

  • citrine

    Clifford,

    Looks like you had a great time exploring that part of the universe! As far as clothes go, you could note down the high quality garments in the upscale stores and look for deals on the same stuff on e-bay. I use this method to get books, clothes, shoes, etc. online at big discounts.

  • adam

    I bet Arkady Tseytlin was at work on Sunday.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Heh… You mean I could have Arkady to come shopping with me in Harvey Nichols and Harrods? Why didn’t I think of that!?

    -cvj

  • adam

    I bet Harrods sells blackboards, which would surely be more valuable if they were covered in string theory calculations.

  • Mike

    Come on, folks! Time’s a wasting! There are problems in physics and in our understanding of the universe! Maintain your focus!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Sigh.

    Hi Mike,

    (1) There is way more to life than solving problems in physics.

    (2) Also, looking at other aspects of life brings fresh insight into physics (and other science) problems.

    (3) Also, learning about the history of physics (and other science) teaches a lot about physics problems today.

    Best,

    -cvj

  • Mike

    What about the fame? The fame associated with being the next Einstein? What about the fortune? What about the girls?!?

  • http://irrationalpoint.blogspot.com IrrationalPoint

    I love the History of Science Museum in Geneva …takes me back to many fond memories of the days when I was just a little geeklet….

    ‘What about the fame? The fame associated with being the next Einstein? What about the fortune? What about the girls?!? ‘

    I think if you decide that your calling in life is to search for girls, the physics department may not be your best bet, lol.

    –IP

  • adam

    Hey, I met my wife in the physics department.

  • Science

    Mike and IP,

    See the physics paper http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~kovar/hall.html

    “Conclusion

    “Going into physics was the biggest mistake of my life. I should’ve declared CS. I still wouldn’t have any women, but at least I’d be rolling in cash.”

    So don’t try to do new physics for money, fame and women. There are deeper reasons: searching for the meaning of everything, the missing pieces of the mathematical jigsaw between classical physics (GR and Maxwell) and quantum field theory.

    Even if nobody wants your ideas, at least you get a fulfilment from the enthusiasm when you think you have an advance. The excitement inspires you to try to learn more and that can’t be a bad thing.

  • http://hep.phys.sfu.ca/~tstewart/blog/ Travis

    IrrationalPoint,
    I really enjoyed the the History of Science Museum as well. I can’t say it brought me back to anything, but maybe in the future it will be responsible for giving me that kind of feeling.

    The best part of the museum was my complete surprise in finding it. Earlier this month, while visiting CERN for the first time I went into Geneva and walked around pretty randomly, and while making my way along Rue de Lausanne I simply stumbled upon it.
    It was also a nice surprise finding the Antiquités Scientifiques shop in the old town. Lots of nice brass things to look at.

  • cynic

    Lovely photos, Clifford. Have you checked out the Museo di Storia della Scienza, in the Piazza de’ Giudici, Florence? And the neighbouring shops are way cool, too. Retail therapy for the discerning dilettante; Galileo and Gucci within spitting distance of each other.

  • Pingback: Danger in London’s Science Museum | Cosmic Variance

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