The London Trip - Day 5 - Science and Natural History Museums

11th February 2003

After all that wine and beer, I didn't sleep too well. I kept waking up during the night. And someone in the B&B was leaving at 4am, so he was crashing about and waking me up. I had a late start and got up at 8am. I was running out of clothes by this stage. I had brought enough clothes with me, but what I hadn't counted on was the prevalence of smoking. I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. It makes me ill. It makes me gag. And the smell of smoky clothes makes me puke. I was changing every time my clothes got smoky, and I was running out. I thought it was bad when I moved from Australia (no smoking indoors) to Virginia (home of tobacco), but that transition was as nothing compared to coming to the UK. Here, people smoke all the time and they smoke indoors. Disgusting.

I went down to a late breakfast and just had cereal and toast and tea. I couldn't face the scrambled eggs again. I can't face scrambled eggs after a night on the tiles. I listened to the BBC radio news again while eating. There was a new big scare at Heathrow. Someone, very conveniently given the current kerfuffle about the NATO veto of America moving missiles into Turkey to help protect it after the USA starts to whack Iraq, had determined that terrorists were hidden outside Heathrow with small hand-held missiles and were just waiting to shoot down a plane. As I was due to fly out via United Airlines, a wonderful target, this was slightly disquieting news. I wasn't all that worried. Every time that the US and British politicians weren't getting their way with the greed for oil, there has always been a very conveniently discovered terrorist threat to keep the pot bubbling. This time, Blair was moving troops into Heathrow and there were reports of tanks rumbling about the airport, although I never saw that confirmed.

I was starting to work out times in my head, because getting from Redhill to arrive at Heathrow at 6am, meant leaving very early. Like about 4am. I wasn't sure if the trains were running that early. I suspected that I was going to have to cut short my stay at the B&B and move closer to Heathrow. Earls Court took my fancy, after hearing about it for years from old expats, and the promotion of it in the Bazza Mackenzie comics. I asked Brian about the early trains, but he didn't know. I'll check it out when I get to the station and let him know later if I plan on moving.

Walked up to Redhill Station, and did the Internet cafe again, writing Anne a long email. I got some from her, but they've had blackouts at home and she might be having trouble with her computer. I'll be home soon and can fix it all then.

Took the train to South Kensington with many station changes, and then walked to the British Science Museum. Peter and Shree were already there, waiting for me. They said I was only five minutes late, so that's not bad timing without having a watch.

[The entrance to the British
Science Museum]

We didn't do all the Science Museum. I was only really interested in the computer side of things, especially Babbage and his Engines. We had a quick look at the Telecommunications display, and that was fun but I would have liked to be able to play with the dialling relays more. Then up to the Babbage display.

[Babbage's Difference Engine
Number 2]

I read it all, walked around it all, and had a lot of fun. I already knew the basic story, but I wanted to see the original devices. Somewhere else in London, they have a reconstructed engine that works. Next time I'm over here, I'll track that down and go see it. But the historical display was what I was most interested in today.

[Babbage Display]

They had a display of Mathematics nearby, so I wandered through that. It was a blast. Slide rules, tables (which ties in with Babbage's engine), devices. Good stuff. I especially liked the small display of Moebius strips. Around the corner they had a display of Klein bottles too, with them sliced and split and re-shaped and re-formed. Topology is such fun. [Moebius Strip Display]

Then the History of Computing display. This had a display of early calculating devices, many of which were familiar, especially the old Burroughs adding machines.

[Mechanical calculator display]

And then they had more advanced calculating machines, including my favourites - Hewlett Packard calculators. I used to own a HP67, which was very similar to this HP65.

[Hewlett Packard calculator

Then it was on to Hollerith machines, and punched card systems, and up to reasonably modern computers of about 20 years ago, which is really still in the dark ages. By this time, Peter and Shree were a bit bored. This is all ancient history to them, but I came through most of the late computer years. I spotted them sitting and resting, and was startled to discover that Peter had grown an extra limb, á la Zaphod Beeblebrox. [Three-armed Peter]

We ended up in the Gift Shop, as always. I wanted a few things for my co-workers in the cubicle farm. And I wanted some books on the history of Babbage. I already had one book by Doron Swade called The Difference Engine (US). I found another here called the The Cog Wheel Brain (UK). When I got home, I found they were the same book, but with different titles, one for the UK market and one for the US market. I hate that. I also picked up a Science Museum publication on the Difference Engine, and that's a brief but very good book. I also grabbed a little paperback by Keith Devlin called The Maths Gene, about the development of mathematical ability. I'm working through that now.

[Gadget shop at Science

Next door to the British Science Museum is the British Natural History Museum. We didn't go in through the main entrance, but took one of the side entrances and came to this colourful and dim display. On each green pedestal was a fanciful creature, a mismatch of fossils and geological mistakes. At the back was an elevator, lit in orange, and it looked we were taking the elevator up to Hell.

[Striking entrance to the
British Natural History Museum]

Instead of Hell, we got to a nice cafeteria and had a restorative cup of tea and rested our feet. Then we headed away from the Earth Sciences and into the Life Sciences areas. Lots of simplistic displays for children, including a display showing a rabbit lifecycle, including the death and decay of the bunny and its absorption back into the soil.

But then we got to the stuffed bird and animal displays. I have a real problem with this. I would much rather see photos and films of the living beasts, not the stuffed carcasses. There was one display of hummingbirds, that contained maybe a hundred different hummingbirds display artistically for their colour. That was revolting. I'd rather see an aviary of the living birds than the fading corpses.

[Display of dead hummingbirds]

And of course, there's final remnants of the now extinct dodo. We found them in 1598 and ate them to extinction by 1681. When they were alive there were no cameras, so a few stuffed ones and some sketches are our only memories of these poor stupid birds.

[Dodo display]

Then we got to the good bits - the fossils. They have a large collection of fossils, a lot collected by Mary Anning, the fossil woman. I enjoyed wandering through and looking at these remains of such ancient and strange beasts.

And naturally, I found the Gift Shop. I'm a sucker for these things. I bought a small history of the Museum, but also grabbed a book by Deborah Cadbury called The Dinosaur Hunters, a story of the rivalry of Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen.

[Big mammal bones]

We must have started at the end of the building and worked our way to the front. We came to the main entrance. The main foyer was a beautiful bit of architecture. The walls and ceilings were stunning. The ceiling had panels showing plants and scientific names. I'll have to come back and spend a bit of time here just staring at the ceiling and taking it all in. And then the visit was over and we exited through the main entrance.

[Real entrance to the Natural
History Museum]

We walked to Kensington, after a few directional mistakes, and did some window shopping and sight seeing. We stopped at one CD store that was having a big sale of classical cds, and browsed. I picked up a Gilbert and Sullivan, but I was entranced by the music they were playing in the shop. It was a modern vocal work, and I wanted it. It turned out to be a CD of one of the staff, and not for sale, but they let me get the details of it. Franco Donatoni and Various Works. I ordered this from Amazon as soon as I got home, but it hasn't arrived yet. If it's as good as it sounded in the shop, I might try a few other works of his. Sad. I've never heard his music before, get a chance listen in a shop, and then find that he died just a few years ago. Oh well, more great music to explore.

We struggled to find coffee. It was just after 5pm, and the whole area was shutting down. Finally find one place, had a sitdown and an espresso, and then we headed back. We had several discussions about dinner, but in the end I opted out. Peter and Shree decided to go back to the same Indian restaurant and have dinner together, as a married couple should. I was going to do email and have another night in.

Back through the train system. I was getting really familiar with it by now. On one of the platforms, I saw this poster again. I'd seen it before and laughed, and wanted to remember it. It's a bit hard to see, but you might be able to work it out. [Poster of the king and the
  price tag]

Peter and Shree got out at Merstham, and I continued to Redhill and hit the Internet cafe again. It looks like the power blackouts at home have knocked out one or more of my computers. Two of my newest computers are very stupid. Remove power from them, then restore it, and they stay turned off. I don't want that. I want them to turn on and reboot. I'll have to check the BIOS and see if I can change that behaviour. Either that or replace the case or motherboard or whatever determines the behaviour.

Walked back to the B&B, and was greeted with news of terror at Heathrow and the possibility of Heathrow closing. That's a problem. I needed to keep an eye on the news and see if they shut down Heathrow. I still hadn't decided what to do about moving. So I settled down and watched TV to see if I can catch some news. All I could get were the three BBC channels (BBC3 started the week I was there). No news. Saw a property development show with two guys developing a dairy, then Operatunity where a bunch of non-professionals try out for opera. That show was a lot of fun, and some arias were just great, even done badly. Finally, there was some news. Heathrow is not closed, yet. But I decided to check out next morning, and move closer to Heathrow.

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