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Laura Freeman gets more sound than light but is warmed by The Sun: Living with Our Star at the Science Museum
It is quarter to seven as I write, and the sky, which was dark 10 minutes ago, is now brightened by a lick of pink on the horizon. In the East, the Greek god Helios is checking the axles of his chariot. Or perhaps it’s the Egyptian Ra punting his boat towards dawn, or the India Surya bridling her seven horses.
Or maybe it’s a less romantic, but no less extraordinary explanation: that 92.96million miles from Earth, atoms of helium and atoms of hydrogen are fusing together at temperatures of 15million degrees Celsius, releasing huge amounts of energy. Oh, yes, here comes the sun.
This hot ball of glowing gases is now the blazingly beautiful subject of a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, The Sun: Living with Our Star. The first exhibit is a live-feed of the Sun filmed from Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in space. What an altogether more fearsome star she is than the smiley-faced suns of children’s cartoons: more Eye of Sauron than The Sun Has Got His Hat On.
Curated by particle physicist Dr Harry Cliff, with intelligent attention to both curious children and sun-worshipping adults, the exhibition takes us from the Stone Age to our own age. The display is thematic – measuring time; sunshine and health; power from the sun; observing the sun – rather than chronological. This is stimulating, but you start to feel a bit Doctor Who as you lurch from Ancient Babylon to Galileo, Stonehenge to sun cream, Mayan pyramids to prototype nuclear fusion reactor.
The earliest objects in the exhibition come from Bronze Age Scandinavia (c1400-1100BC). A replica model of the Trundholm sun horse pulls a great disc of bronze across the sky. A bronze belt plate is tooled with sun symbols.
Then, in a mighty leap in time and understanding, we come to an armillary sphere (a spherical framework of rings demonstrating the relationship of celestial bodies) of the 1500s and an orrery (a clockwork model of the solar system) of 1712. Then backwards to Nicolaus Copernicus, who in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) made the argument that the sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the universe. Back again to Saxon sundials (c1055) and forward to Islamic astrolabes (c1650). Each exhibit and accompanying label is individually enlightening, but the jumping timeline frustrates.
The Sun and Health room is illuminating: breezy and lighthearted, but with a serious message about the dangers of both too little sun and too much. In the Thirties, sun cures were promoted to cure all manner of maladies, from tuberculosis to nervous disorders. A photograph from 1944 shows children skiing in the Alps wearing only white pants and cotton sun hats.
A Fifties photograph captures infant quadruplets receiving “sun treatment”. The mid-20th century was the age of swimsuits, suntans and cheap trains to Scarborough beach. An ominous note is sounded by an American Cancer Society poster of a bikini babe under the headline: “Fry now, pay later”. The Inuits have worn slitted wooden sun goggles to protect against snow blindness for 3,000 years.
The rooms dedicated to harnessing and observing the sun demand most concentration. It’s a shame that the atmospheric soundscapes and explanatory videos are so intrusive. Why no headphones? If you’re trying to get to grips with photovoltaics and spectrographs, or gaze in wonder at Elizabeth Beckley’s eerie sunspot photos, it is difficult to do so under an aural onslaught. Visitors ought to leave blinded by our dazzling sun, not deafened
by the soundtrack. Until May 6 2019. Tickets: 0333 241 4000; sci sciencemuseum.org
Star attraction: stunning imagery explores our historic and current relationship with Earth’s closest star