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London for Science Buffs

Top 10 Things To Do

We remember a fabled time, long ago, when being a geek was a severely negative thing. That time was called the 90s, and programmes such as Saved By The Bell reminded us that being cool and not particularly intelligent or curious about the world was the “way to go”; a time when choker necklaces, curtains and over-sized clothing paradoxically upped one’s chances of being ‘cool’ (or ‘rad’ – remember that?).

Bands like Radiohead and Nirvana reminded us that being different is also a pretty niche thing – unwashed, drug-addled, creepy and talentless were okay as long as you were popular, but whatever you do, don’t become a geek.

Movies always had charismatic main characters supported by charming but undeniably lonely geeky besties who could solve every problem except their own. Professor Frink sent the geeky stereotype into such stratospheric weirdness that no one ever thought the image would recover. Indeed, it was a sad and troubled time for geeks.

Then the noughties apologetically shuffled into the frame and things slowly began to change. By the early 2010s, being a geek had become increasingly cool, culminating with today, where now everybody wants to be a geek, and being a suave, Daniel Craig type is considered predictable and passé.

Resultantly, science has never been more popular. A certain expletive-led website containing the words “I” “Love” and “Science” has stormed the web and fascination with all things quantum and meta has exploded like a nebula across the internet. This has coincided with our knowledge about the universe reaching unprecedented levels with the advent of stuff like the Large Hadron Collider.

And while there are a few pilgrimages geeks can make (MIT in the USA, the aforementioned Collider and so on), the Mecca of the science world has to be London. After all, this is where a lot of it started. London has given birth to the majority of antiquity’s titans of the formula and buildings will regularly boast blue plaques describing their famous scientific inhabitants.

So if you’re a science geek and proud, check out this little guide to our recommended science-based sights that you might not have heard about otherwise.

1. Old Operating Theatre

This is a venue great for both science and history buffs. Rather than expanding your knowledge about the universe, this quaint and fascinating museum will have you marvelling at what we thought we knew 100+ years ago.

The entrance on St. Thomas Street is small, as is the museum, and guests are let in in small groups to prevent congestion. Once inside, you climb a spiral staircase and up into a herb attic with a huge amount of information, genuine artefacts and an authentically historic vibe.

This room takes you through medicine in Britain through the ages and shows just how horribly misguided we were for most of our history.

Then, you go via an enormous collection of Victorian operating tools (some of which are incredibly grim, especially couple with the fact that there wasn’t anaesthetic for much of the time they were in use) into the main operating theatre.

It’s a fascinating journey for medical students, history fans and science buffs alike; fantastic value and a great part of a larger day out.

Get food before you go at the nearby Borough Market, because you certainly won’t want any when you come out. Might want a pint though, and the Bunch of Grapes across the road will sort you out something tasty.

9a St. Thomas Street
London SE1 9RY
www.thegarret.org.uk

2. Grant Museum of Zoology

Once again, history meets science in this utterly mind-blowing architectural spectacle. The museum is part of the University College London and is still a functioning department, however the museum bit is quite amazing.

This is another Victorian marvel absolutely jam-packed with specimens of every single animal in pretty much every state of being (by which we mean whole, partial or skeleton) and contains over 67 thousand individual pieces. There are even a number of specimens of animals that are now extinct.

As well as the skeletons and taxidermy, the architecture of this museum will knock your socks off. The central atrium which is lined on all floors and sides by artefacts is gigantic, and guests can spend hours and hours just roaming the shelves.

Keen Darwinists will be in seventh heaven amongst all of the evolutionary biology they can handle, and what’s more is that they have regular exhibitions using their specimens and visiting ones. Some highlight the weird and wonderful species from history that sadly no longer exist  while others offer introductions into palaeontology and related disciplines (among other things).

All told, it’s an atmospheric and informative museum that will give you a phenomenal day out in a central, historic but remarkably sleepy part of London.

Rockefeller Building
University College London
21 University Street
London WC1E 6DE
www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/

3. Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection is one of the most fascinating but also probably the most adult of the scientific museums that London has to offer. The concept is principally to examine the boundaries between science and art and the regular exhibitions provide an interesting and unique insight into the human mind.

Medicine is at the forefront of their work, and they provide a look through history at the medical discoveries we’ve made and how they relate to popular culture and the world of art. The founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, was an entrepreneur and pharmacist who developed extensive medical businesses and was fascinated by how to market his creations.

The Trust and its sites are his legacy, and now they offer interested audiences a truly unique insight into the workings of the medical, pharmacological and scientific industries throughout history (and speculate as to what the future may hold, too).

The Collection regularly houses exhibitions which offer probing and uncompromising looks into various elements of the human condition. While they can be quite hard-hitting, they’re usually done in good humour and with the satiation of curiosity at their core.

Their current exhibitions include one concerning sexuality and the mind/brain and one devoted to forensics and its use in crime-solving. They were the first UK venue to hold the controversial BodyWorks exhibition, and have developed a reputation for hard hitting and insightful research-led exhibitions.

The great thing about this venue is that it’s for the layman and the expert alike; everyone can find something to fascinate them, and while many museums are watered down for the average Joe, even the most seasoned geeky investigator will come away with a wealth of new knowledge.

183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE
www.wellcomecollection.org

4. Faraday Museum

The Faraday Museum, named after the renowned scientist Michael Faraday, is part of the Royal Institute. If you’re a science geek, then no one need explain to you what the Royal Institute is, and it was Faraday that initiated the world-famous Christmas Lectures which are still given here.

The RI has always been devoted to the application of science to everyday needs of everyday people; the high-falutin’ research labs where hypothetical realities get explored are great, but not really what the RI does.

The Faraday Museum offers an extensive insight into the Institution’s history and how it has contributed to life on earth. Perhaps what is most exciting about this museum, especially for real science history nerds, is Faraday’s own Victorian laboratory.

This isn’t a reconstruction; it’s the real thing with the actual original bits and bobs of scientific equipment he used to conduct his world-changing experiments.

This is a great option for kids too, as they run several schools’ and children’s exhibits and talks (things like “Superhero Science”, which explains the probable scientific implications were superheroes to actually exist and do the crazy things they do).

There’s a nanotech lab that’s quite impressive, a theatre where talks and demonstrations are given and a great deal more for families and adults to get involved in.

Needless to say, the architecture of such an incredible building is worth sitting down and taking in and we thoroughly recommend that you do before (or after) seeing the wonders inside.

Oh, and it’s free.

Albemarle Street
Mayfair
London W1S 4BS
www.rigb.org/visit-us/faraday-museum/

5. Science Museum

No compilation of London’s best scientific venues would be complete without a mention of the Science Museum in South Kensington. This is basically London’s museum district, with the Natural History Museum (coming up below), Science Museum, V&A and Royal Albert Hall all within shouting distance from each other.

And they’re all free, too (which is fortunate given the extortion of nearby cafés & restaurants).

But the Science Museum has got a lot that the others don’t have, and is arguably the most interactive of London’s science-orientated museums. It’s a family focused venue and has more than anywhere else a plethora of activities for the weans.

One of the great additions are the facilitators who are dotted around. They may just look like attendants making sure people don’t get too intimate with the exhibits but they are, in fact, highly trained “explainers”, many of whom have studied or are studying sciences at post-grad, doctorate or post-doctorate levels just earning a little bit of cash on the side and doing their bit for their cause.

At their disposal they will have a remarkable tool kit of explanations for anything your kids (or you) wish you know and they’ll be able to get the most salient bits of information across in succinct and understandable ways.

The museum is split over a number of floors and, as it was purpose-built, has some of the most impressive indoor structures of any museum anywhere in the world. Everything from quantum mechanics to physiology is explained here, as well as the implications of science on our society and globally.

There are the obligatory and ever-changing exhibitions (the current one looks at the history of communication technology) as well as a bleedin’ IMAX cinema on site. And everything is so much more magical when it’s explained to you with state of the art, 3D graphics on a screen larger than your entire house.

Obviously, there’s very little that this place doesn’t cover as it’s given itself the unenviable moniker “Science Museum”, but it does do something that none of the others do: Lates. These came into being in around 2009 and are targeted at more grown-up audiences (who like to be up late).

These are where the museums open overnight, and visitors can see the usual exhibits and some special ones, as well as some more fun interactions than you’d get during the day, have a couple of drinks and camp in the museum overnight (yes, that’s correct). This is a fantastic date or just a great night out for a group of friends.

6. Planetarium

For us, there was nothing – absolutely nothing – more exciting than going to the planetarium as children. It was actually like going to space, except an organised and interactive space that explains itself along the way.

The majesty and brilliance of the structure of planetariums and their displays cannot be undersold, and there is absolutely no way that kids and grown-up kids alike won’t love what’s on there.

For the uninitiated, a planetarium is where one sits in a sort-of cinema, where the chairs recline a great deal and the screen is the entire underneath of a domed ceiling above you, stretching to the extremities of your vision and the massive room you’re in.

This means that the night sky can be displayed much as it would look were you outdoors and looking up, except that it also behaves like a cinema, so one can suddenly be flown through space to take a close look at the planets. The entire experience is awe-inspiring and will leave you a little speechless.

At the Greenwich Planetarium, the shows are narrated by professional astronomers and offer a number of different showings (meaning you can go on multiple occasions!), including those that look at the planets of our solar system, neighbouring galaxies and the mysteries of farthest outer space.

There are shows for younger audiences, but all of them are appropriate for kids of seven years and over. Those where they have a lower age limit recommendation is usually because it’s such a massive experience that it can actually be a little intimidating and scary for real young’uns. They will, however, admit children even if they are below the recommended lower age.

Not only are you going to have a stellar time (sorry) here, but you’re also in a thoroughly beautiful part of London upon exit and right in the middle of the royal part of Greenwich. This is a multi-purpose place: go on a date here, take the family, take friends or just go on your own for that most special of alone times.

People even propose here (the venue arrange it) so you might catch someone popping the question at one of your shows!

7. British Dental Association Museum

I can already hear you groaning with disbelief and memories of pain and fear.

Fear of the dentist is indisputably the most widespread phobia in the developed world (or, if you want to sound very posh and knowledgeable, it’s odontophobia) and those who have a chronic case probably shouldn’t go here.

For those with only a passing fear, as well as normal people, this is a great museum and may actually help get you over your squeamishness but exposing you to the utter and abject horrors suffered by patients in dentist’s chairs throughout history.

If you thought going to the dentist now was bad, then there would have been no helping you even in recent history. Before anaesthetic, things were bad. Really bad.

Dentistry has had a chequered and interesting history with a great deal of chopping and changing going on to its practices. There was a time when you’d need to go to the blacksmith to have a minor oral operation (thankfully things have moved on).

And the museum takes your hand and leads you through these stages with their absolutely enormous collections. They concern dental practices through the ages (this is the particularly nasty one), dentistry at home throughout history (this one is far more humourous), dentistry in the arts and more, and they have one particular collection focusing exclusively on extraction. Unpleasant but fascinating.

You wouldn’t think that a dental museum would be a great day out, but it absolutely is. They’ve managed to avoid (or perhaps embrace and subvert) the stereotype of dentistry as boring, unglamorous and painful at its core and present a fun, engaging and informative exhibition. You’ll have to time it right though, as they’re only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

64 Wimpole Street
London W1G 8YS
www.bda.org/museum/

8. Freud Museum

Is it science or psychobabble? Given that almost all of Sigmund Freud’s theories have since been discredited, some may be on the more cynical side of this question.

However there are a majority that would argue there has only been one other significant contributor to the foundations of psychoanalysis and the birth of modern psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychology (we won’t tell you whom).

Aside from Freud’s gargantuan contribution to the world of mental health, his is also a fascinating personal journey from Austria when it came under Nazi occupation to obscure and resisted practice in the UK. While his views on psychology are well-known and well-documented, his influence has reached every corner of society, from theatre and actor-training to sport rituals and visual arts.

His views and writings on a vast array of subjects aside from the psychic are most interesting, and the museum takes a close look at his life, his family, his story and his work, as well as being in a beautiful setting and quite a nice house to boot.

20 Maresfield Gardens
London NW3 5SX
www.freud.org.uk

9. Royal Botanical Gardens

What would medicine be without plants? Well, nothing, probably.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are a fascinating insight into the history of pharmacology and the origins of a variety of medicines as well as being delightful and colourful gardens in their own right.

Botanists, avid gardeners, medics and those generally interested in medical science will find these perfectly maintained and comprehensive gardens boundlessly interesting and it provides the perfect environment to take a stroll with a lover or just someone whom you enjoy talking to – perhaps a fellow botany geek! Maybe you’d just like a quiet stroll in one of the most perfect gardens in the UK.

There is also the rest of Kew Gardens to enjoy, and the expansion that’s been going on in recent years puts you in good-stead to have a varied and awesome day out. They are constantly changing their exhibitions, currently housing a spices garden and recently opening their treetop walks.

There are few better places to spend your day in London, and you’ll be getting an education at the same time.

10. Natural History Museum

We’re sorry if it’s a cop out to end our Top 10 list with probably the single most famous museum in the world, but frankly, we don’t care because it really is the best.

Don’t get us wrong; there are some phenomenal museums in the world – the Smithsonians in Washington D.C., the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and so on and so on. We’ve been to them all (well, those ones), and they are impressive, obviously.

But none of them have the splendour, the iconography, the architectural brilliance and the sheer Victorian opulence of the Natural History Museum.

Museum geeks like us will know that it was purpose built by renowned architect Alfred Waterhouse (noted for his gothic designs) and opened in 1881, though the origins of the collection go back significantly further (to the mid-1600s).

The architecture can be said to be a museum all of its own. As you step into the main hall, if your jaw doesn’t drop then you simply don’t have a soul. This museum differs from the nearby Science Museum and many of the others listed insofar as it doesn’t prescribe a route to take; you can invent your own journey around its many, rambling corridors and collections, finding little nooks to hide yourself in and discover new things.

Its size is almost unparalleled in London (Tate Modern offers competition), and s such contains an absolutely enormous number of things to do. Possibly the most famous exhibit is the Large Mammals Hall, which has the scale model of the Blue Whale hanging from the ceiling, but over the years, additions have been made to the structure of the building to offer new areas.

These include the Charles Darwin Centre which undertakes research and houses specimens and the Attenborough Studio (named after our national treasure, Sir David), which is a sort-of theatre with a cinema screen for shows of all descriptions.

As the Science Museum covers most areas of science, this museum covers most areas of nature (including science!). So geology, palaeontology, oceanography, zoology and many more have subsections under its vast roof.

As with the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum offers both Lates (staying overnight for something of a party) and has “explainers” dotted around to give you greater insight into the matter at hand.

Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD

No trip to London would be complete without a trip to the Natural History Museum, though there are many other science museums beyond those mentioned here, and a keen geek will have no trouble in sniffing them out and enjoying their brilliance for days on end.

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