Big Bang Theories: Museum of the History of Science

Housed in the world’s oldest surviving museum building  (dating from 1683) when it was the home of the Ashmolean Museum before that institution moved to it’s current site in Beaumont Street – Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science contains about 20,000 scientific instruments; some used by the scientists of antiquity, others by more recent researchers. Like the other museums in Oxford you can also see some artefacts from the Musaeum Tradescantianum, the actual first museum in Britain.

Museum of the History of Science
Museum of the History of Science

Oh, and the museum contains the odd occult artefact too… This one here was used by Elizabethan Alchemist John Dee (who’s magic mirror you can see in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery). Dee used the table (and the mirror) to communicate with Angels. Well, not this one really. This one is a marble replica based on an engraving of the original, lost, wooden table from 1659.

John Dee's magic table
John Dee’s magic table

” Here comes the science bit…”

As that advert for a hair-care product used to say, and it seems applicable here too. Enough of this magic malarkey, on with the science! And what is the science without some test tubes and stuff!? Nothing, that’s what. Exploring this museum really gives a sense of how beautiful science can be.




One of the most inspiring things on display is a blackboard used by Albert Einstein himself! The famous physicist gave a lecture at the University in 1933 and used the board to write one of his equations. According to local legend, there was, at the time, two blackboards. But – there is always a ‘but’- the cleaner, who was being thoroughly efficient in their duties, wiped clean the other. It was only the timely intervention of (someone, possibly a student) that saved this board for posterity.

Explaining the expanding universe
Explaining the expanding universe

The equation on the board shows how Einstein worked out the rate of the expansion of the Universe, along with the density, radius and age. Cool, eh?

Don’t Touch

This was a really interesting adventure, I haven’t been to many ‘science’ museums but this one was a gem of a find. The only downside was that there were so many handles just calling out to be cranked but, alas! you weren’t allowed to touch them. Here’s a quote to mull over. It’s on display in the museum and it’s about the visitors to the early Ashmolean:

“It is surprising that the things can be presented even as well as they are, since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and even women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff.”

So, it seems that ever since they opened, we’ve always had the urge to touch things in museums.


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