The history of science: making it personal

Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science shines the spotlight on a scientist lost to war.

There are particular challenges for a museum of science and technology in interpreting its collections for visitors. The main one is how to put across with human interest and relevance subjects which can seem dry, remote and technical when stripped of their historical, and indeed personal, context. Another, as co-curator and researcher Dr Elizabeth Bruton points out, is ‘to explain how objects worked and were used when you can’t see them in use’ – because they are old, fragile and often no longer complete.

Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science (MHS) successfully addresses both of these factors in its exhibition ‘“Dear Harry...” – Henry Moseley, a Scientist Lost to War’, jointly curated by Dr Bruton and Assistant Keeper Dr Stephen Johnston. Photographs, contemporary letters and anecdotes illuminated the life of Henry ‘Harry’ Moseley, an extraordinarily bright young scientist who might well have gone on to win the Nobel Prize had he not been killed in action at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. Aged only 27, he was a signals officer with the Royal Engineers.

Running as a connecting thread throughout the displays are observations from the social diaries of Moseley’s mother Amabel. She supported Harry’s scientific work and followed his progress closely all his life; on his death it is what she did not record, rather than the sparse entry itself, that is profoundly affecting. As Dr Bruton explains, this is a new way of presenting scientific history at the MHS. ‘Previously we have not had the opportunity to produce exhibitions that are so deeply personal and biographical. We are keen to continue with this approach because there are so many fascinating personal stories to be told within the collections here.’

At the centre of the exhibition is the physical apparatus used by Moseley in 1914 for recording x-ray spectra ‘photographs’ of various chemical elements. The observations Moseley made from these tiny pictures provided a new basis for the periodic table of the elements. The chemist Mendeleev had grouped elements according to similar properties, and arranged them in rows by increasing atomic weight – but in some places the numbers did not seem quite right. ‘What Harry did’, explains Dr Johnston, ‘was to use this physical apparatus and approach, and to say, “It’s actually not atomic weight that is the way of arranging it. It’s this other thing: atomic number.” And he derived the atomic number from these frequencies of the spectra, of the x-rays that he observed.’

This goes to the very essence of what physics is about – it’s the very essence of how the world around us works.

Before viewing Moseley’s apparatus – an induction coil, some interconnected glass vessels and a cylinder containing a tiny camera – exhibition visitors watch a computer animation showing clearly how the equipment worked and was used. The MHS is finding this method very effective in bringing its holdings to life and hopes to apply it to other historic apparatus.

The exhibition, along with an extensive and varied programme of public events to accompany it, was made possible through a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Without this, Dr Bruton notes, ‘We could not have had this broad, ambitious programme; we couldn’t have had such a wide selection of objects on display; we couldn’t have put together the related programme of events; and we couldn’t have engaged with audiences we previously haven’t worked with. So we are especially thankful to the HLF.’

The exhibition ‘“Dear Harry...” – Henry Moseley, a Scientist Lost to War’ has been extended until 31 January 2016.

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