At-Bristol Science Centre

Blog posts

Volunteers' Week: Meet Gill Shire!

Blogging science to life

Mon 1 June 2015, Jennifer Garrett

To celebrate national Volunteers' Week, we caught up with our fabulous volunteer Gill Shire!


Gill with Mayor George Ferguson on 1 June, collecting her award for Volunteers' Week

Tell us a little bit about yourself! 

I am 65 years old, been married for 39 years and have one son who is 31. I left school with GCSEs and gained ONC in Applied Physics whilst working for Imperial Tobacco. Most of my employment has been in science based companies or education, whether it was seconday, futher education (FE) or special needs. I trained as a science technician with Imperial Tobacco at Ashton Gate where I was employed for 16 years in the Physical Chemistry and Physics laboratories. After having our son, I went to work with special needs students in Knowle and then went on to FE with City of Bristol College at Hartcliffe, Marksbury Road, Brunel Technical College and finally at City Centre site, assisting and teaching over 16s and up to 65 year olds. I continued my education whilst at City of Bristol College and eventually gained a Teaching qualification. I have been employed by several different schools in Bristol and have recently retired from Bridge Learning Campus in Hartcliffe.

How long have you been volunteering for At-Bristol?

I have been volunteering with At-Bristol for 8 years and have enjoyed every moment of it! Now I have retired from my full time post at Bridge Learning Campus, I hope to volunteer a little bit more during the week.

What’s been your favourite moment so far? 

When after volunteering on a Brownie science day, 180 of them, several of them sent in thank you notes to all volunteers. I thought that was very gratifying.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of volunteering?

I would tell new volunteers to "pace themselves" as it can be a very tiring day, especially if it is raining!

Find out more!

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Is time travel possible?

Blogging science to life

Fri 29 May 2015, Beth Cotterell

Beth Cotterell from Live Science Team explores the physics of time travel! 

If you could travel to any point in time, where would you go? Would you go back and witness the time of the dinosaurs, attend an Edwardian ball to find your Mr. Darcy, or see if you could hop on board a space flight to another planet in the future? Time travel captures our imaginations because it contains endless possibilities for adventure and holds the answers to many of our questions. But is it possible?


Technically we are all travelling through time at a rate of one second per second, but to go further in either direction is tricky. Let’s start with travelling to the future.

To travel forwards in time, you simply need to move fast. Special relativity states that the speed of light is a cosmic speed limit, nothing can go faster than light. But as we get closer to this speed, strange things start to happen: time itself slows down.  A person in a spaceship travelling away from Earth at close to the speed of light, will experience less time passing than the people back on Earth. This means that if we send a twin up in this spaceship, when they come back they will be much younger than the twin who stayed at home! Or maybe, they will return to find only the ruins of their civilisation, as what was only a few years for them, was thousands of years back on Earth. The problem with this method of time travel is it only works one way, there’s no going back.

Travelling back in time is a bit harder. One possible option is to use a wormhole, which is a theoretical object in space that acts like a tunnel between two places. In theory, these two places could be at different times to each other, so you could go through the entrance in the present and come out of the exit in the past! One disappointing feature of this kind of time travel is you can only go as far back as the creation of the worm hole, so no visiting the dinosaurs with this one.

Credit: S. Terfloth

Stephen Hawking suggested that an obvious argument for the impossibility of travelling back in time is the lack of tourists from the future. Surely if time travel has been invented in the future, we would have met some curious historians who have come to see our time for themselves. Hawking went one further and constructed an experiment to prove that visiting the past is impossible: he threw a party for time travellers and didn’t send out the invitations until after the party was over! No one came to the party, which means either Stephen Hawking is really unpopular in the future, or travelling back in time is impossible.

So, our question was “is time travel possible?”, and my answer is yes. Thanks to the laws of special relativity, whenever you travel in a train, plane or automobile you are experiencing time slower than those walking around you! It may be only a tiny fraction of second that you are skipping by, but it is time travel nonetheless. It may seem insignificant, but this time adds up and becomes very important in GPS satellites, whose clocks run “too slow” because of this effect. 

Though visiting the distant past or future may be contained to the pages of science fiction for now, scientists are expanding our understanding of the Universe and making new discoveries all the time. Who knows when we will come up with our own blue police phone box and go exploring. Until then, my Mr Darcy will just have to wait.

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Will humans ever become cyborgs?

Blogging science to life

Tue 19 May 2015, Joel Sanderson

Joel from our Live Science Team explores whether humans have become cybernetic organisms...

The traditional view of a cyborg is a person that has been modified with electronic or mechanical features, which would usually require some kind of invasive surgical procedure. Perhaps an eye has been replaced with an infra-red camera, or the mind is half a computer that can understand any language on the planet.


Despite the possible advantages, if these modifications were widely available I still don’t think that most of us would be opting for them. Technology that requires invasive surgical procedures that might permanently alter our bodies is not, I imagine, appealing to the majority of people.  

However, I do think that most of us are cyborgs of a certain sort, we just don’t realise it.

Think about the kind of things that cyborgs can usually do in science fiction. Perhaps they can see in the dark or read people’s vital statistics, like a heart rate, just by looking at them. We don’t have circuits and wires running under our skin or through our skulls, but a lot of us do now have the ability to do previously unthinkable acts of science fiction via our smart phones.

Nokia smart phone

Imagine that you can see in the dark. You could assess landscapes before you get to them and have a pre-planned route to a specific location. You could look through cloud to see the location of stars. You could tap into the collective consciousness of your species to find out the answer to almost any question you can think of, and talk to people who aren’t in front of you. Yet all of these things can be achieved through a smart phone with the appropriate application.

Phones can ‘look’ at people’s faces and, through detecting tiny variations in skin tone associated with blood flow, can monitor a heart rate. A smart phone can monitor your movements in bed and wake you up at an appropriate time during your sleep cycles so that you feel more refreshed. People can input the data from their gym sessions to allow applications to plan their progress in a given endeavour, pushing them to get better, faster and stronger.

So although we aren’t soldering each others eye sockets or having the latest titanium limbs fitted at the local ‘body’ shop, we are now living lives that are massively augmented. Through the external modules of technology that we call smart phones, I think we have already become cyborgs. Just not in the way that science fiction predicted.

Find out more about Joel and the Live Science Team!

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How to make a barometer | Do Try This At Home

Blogging science to life

Fri 15 May 2015,

The British are obsessed with the weather. Before you know it, a sunny picnic can turn into a flooded bog. So, how can you predict the weather to know if you need to pack an umbrella? In this video, Kerina and Sarah of Live Science Team show you how to make a barometer to measure changes in air pressure.

How to make a barometer

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How to make a pink pixel

Blogging science to life

Fri 1 May 2015,

Why is pink an imaginary colour? What is a pixel? How do you recreate the universe with 53 million microscopic mirrors? Find out all this and more in our latest video with Ross & Nerys of the Live Science Team!

Pink Pixel

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Happy birthday Hubble!

Blogging science to life

Wed 29 April 2015, Will Davies (Live Science Team)

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of what might just be the coolest camera ever built, and certainly the coldest. Happy birthday to the Hubble Space Telescope, in the chilly reaches beyond our atmosphere. It’s been a source of amazing images of deep space for over two decades, and each sight is as breathtaking as the last. Let’s take a moment to reflect on this reflector, from a troubled start to years of wonder, and even glimpse at what the future holds. 

Hubble Space Telescope

Named after American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (1889–1953), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) wasn’t the first of its kind. The prospect of space-based optics had been suggested as early as 1923, long before manned rocketry took off. It took constant pressure from Dr. Lyman Spitzer, who had written about the advantages observations from orbit would have over terrestrial telescopes, to start outlining a mission in 1965. 

Such things don’t come cheap and funding the mission faced hold-ups and outright cancellation. Promotion of astronomers, astronauts and a public campaign won back only half of their original budget. This meant a downsizing of Hubble’s primary mirror from 3 to 2.4m which, while still sizable, lowered the limit of how much light could be captured significantly. 

Grinding of Hubble's primary mirror at Perkin-Elmer, March 1979

After years of delays, rising costs and having to invent new equipment to build the equipment that HST would carry, a launch date was finally set for October 1986. Then, in the January of that year, the Challenger space shuttle suffered a catastrophic joint failure, causing the death of all seven astronauts aboard. The shuttle fleet was grounded, and all launches cancelled.

Eventually, after more than 20 years of design, redesign, cancellation and some $2.5 billion, on April 24th 1990 the STS-31 shuttle mission launched from Kennedy Space centre in Florida. Aboard it, at last, flew the The Hubble Space Telescope.

STS-31 shuttle launch

Which didn’t work. The mirror mentioned before is the most important part of a reflecting telescope, and having exactly the right curve to the mirror to focus all of its reflected light requires a carefully engineered correcting machine. Unfortunately the correcting machine was incorrectly assembled (even NASA suffers the astronomical equivalent of post-IKEA anxiety). This led to a focussing error on the mirror of one edge being misaligned by 0.00022cm, so a set of corrective lenses were installed. As imperceptiable as this sounds, it made a big difference. Just take a look at these before and after images:

Hubble image before and after correction 

So, by now you’re probably wondering if all the time and trouble was worth it. I mean, what does 25 years and $2.5bn get you? How about:

  • Set the estimated age of the universe at 13-14bn years
  • Found 3000 galaxies from the smallest, darkest corner of the night sky
  • Which altogether means about 500,000,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe
  • And that since the big bang, rather than slowing down, the universe appears to be accelerating outwards 
  • Identified that black holes make up the core of pretty much every galaxy
  • Recorded the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter

And it’s not even done exploring yet! Though at 25 years old HST is no spring chicken in terms of technology. Replacement or upgraded parts can only do so much to boost its observational ability. Which is why construction is already underway for a new generation, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Not a direct successor JWST is more finely attuned to the oldest and furthest bodies in the universe. Until such a day as it’s called back home to Earth, HST will be up above with a careful eye watching, exploring and discovering.

Happy birthday Hubble! 

Coming soon... look out for our display of the Hubble Space Telescope 25th anniversary image in our foyer. 

Find out more about Will and the Live Science Team!

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The Energy Tree

Blogging science to life

Mon 27 April 2015,

Last week we launched The Energy Tree in Millenium Square with Demand Energy Equality and Bristol Drugs Project, as part of Bristol’s European Green Capital 2015 celebrations. The Energy Tree has grown out of a shared commitment to hands-on learning, the need to reduce energy consumption and to equal access to clean energy for all. 

Watch our film documenting the project and the people who made it:
Energy Tree

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Cosmic competition time!

Blogging science to life

Thu 16 April 2015, Jennifer Garrett

Get ready Bristol! The UK’s first digital 3D Planetarium is preparing for launch, and we would love you to join in with the celebrations!

Planetarium logo

Our staff and volunteers got creative and made some cosmic space helmets to celebrate launch day! Could you do any better?

We'd like you to make your very own homemade, super space helmet! The best will win a family ticket plus Planetarium show* for the launch weekend on 25 & 26 April. 

Group space helmets

You will get to try out the new Planetarium for the very first time! Discover the universe from the comfort of your seat – fly through the rings of Saturn, journey to distant stars, and tour our Solar System in the UK's first ever digital 3D Planetarium! Brand new shows include presenter-led Seasonal stargazing (in a choice of 2D or 3D*) and Space Explorers (2D) show for under 6s.

Home made space helmet

How to enter

For a chance of winning, send us your photos:

Terms and conditions

  • Only one entry per person
  • Family ticket permits entry for 4 persons, with a maximum of 2 adults
  • Competition closes midday on 24 April 2015
  • The winner will be notifed by 5pm on 24 April 2015
  • Competition not open to At-Bristol staff or their direct family members
  • We promise not to share your details with anyone else!
  • Unfortunately 3D technology is unsuitable for under 6’s due to health restrictions

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How to test the soil in your garden | Do Try This At Home

Blogging science to life

Fri 27 March 2015,

Soil is essential to life as we know it on planet Earth. This week, Robbie and Joel show you a simple activity to try at home to investigate what kind of soil you might have in your garden.

soil testing video

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Alien Tours: an out-of-this-world view of At-Bristol

Blogging science to life

Sat 28 March 2015, Jennifer Garrett

We caught up with our robot tour guide to find out about Alien Tours, why aliens are here and what you can get up to...


Hello, nice to meet you! Could you introduce yourself?

Greetings human spawn of the Earth. I am Cybernetic Android Tour Enhancer, but you can call me CATE for short. May I complement you on your excellent appendages? Your thumbs are particularly wonderful... I’ve just downloaded a compliment function, it’s still settling in.

Oh... thank you! So what brings you to At-Bristol?

I was sent here as a virtual programme and have built myself out of Earth parts. I’m programmed to deliver tours and explain this quaint little planet, you locals call ‘Earth’. Life forms from all across the galaxy are welcome to join the tour to explore the wonders of hominid life.

Robot aliens

Are you enjoying life on Earth?

In order to appreciate Earth to the fullest, I have programmed myself using an Encyclopaedia. I found it in a skip along with my left eye and third thumb (it’s a spare just in case). I don’t why anyone would throw away a CD-ROM, terribly useful. Today I learned about ancient Egyptians, Echolocation and Encyclopaedias... I must confess I was confused up until that point.  

So how do these tours work?

I take intergalactic travellers around the exhibits and will guide you around the oddities of life on this planet, and explore the history and function of Earth. The wonderful thing about At-Bristol is there are lots of exhibitions that explain your world. While we’re on the tour we may even see some humans!

RoboChef, CATE and Alien

Can anyone come?

Anyone can pay two and a half earth pounds for full size intergalactic travellers and one pound fifty for younger space travellers. Currency exchange points can be found on the dark side of the moon.

To wrap up, here are 5 quick-fire questions:

  • Favourite hobby? Downloading human programmes. Today I learnt rhetorical questions, metaphors and high-fives.
  • Pet hate? I couldn’t possibly hate pets, from what I’ve learnt they’re meant to be adorable.
  • What do you miss most about your planet? Telekinesis, and the night life.
  • What do you do on your days off? Recharge, literally.
  • Best part of your job? It’s my life’s purpose.

Aliens have landed in At-Bristol, and you’re one of them! Our robot tour guide will take you around At-Bristol to explore the planet Earth and the humans who live there, all through the ‘eye’ of an alien! From 30 March to 12 April visitors will be able to dress up in alien costumes* and follow our expert robot tour guide around At-Bristol to learn about the bizarre species ‘humanity’.

* Cost: Adults £2.50, Children £1.50 (in addition to standard admission)


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