London Blog

London Science Uncovered: Smartphone trail reveals London’s hidden physics

An interesting activity for a scientific long weekend in London: the Institute of Physics has created a trail for smartphone users aimed at uncovering some of London’s hidden scientific treasures. Developed with the Museum of London, the trail guides scientific searchers round seven London locations, promising to reveal titbits including which tube station was once home to an underground particle detector.

Free and available to anyone with an iPhone or Android phone, the trail can be accessed by downloading the free app SCVNGR, clicking “treks” and searching for “London Science Uncovered”. There is no time limit for completion, although it can be completed in a few hours, and successful hunters can report to the Museum of London to claim their prize.

Today I talked to Alex Cheung, creator of London Science Uncovered and Outreach Officer for the IOP about the development of this trail.

This trail was developed by the Institute of Physics. What was the idea behind developing the trail?

What we try to do in all our outreach activities is to go against the perception that physics is something quite far removed from every day life, that it’s something you do at school and then forget, that it’s not particularly interesting or useful or applicable to you any more. So the idea with the trail is to show people that physics is all around them. The locations that we’ve included include a historical perspective but we also wanted to show a bit of modern research to show that there are new discoveries still going on today.

How did you develop the trail?

We developed the trail with the Museum of London – their aim is to tell people about London and show them a side of the city they might not already have seen, so our aims really coincided. Technically we used an app called SCVNGR which allows you to develop trails. Anyone with an iPhone or an Android phone can download the SCVNGR app and find our trail on that.

How many locations are included in the trail and where did you get started deciding where to pick?

I did a lot of research, particularly online. There was a lot of interest on Twitter and people were really helpful, giving me stories which I then followed up. There turned out to be a real wealth of interesting stuff, so it was really a question of bringing it all together.

London has such a fantastic history in terms of science and of course there’s still such a lot going on, especially with all the universities. One of the modern examples is the Millennium Bridge, which had that problem when it first opened with the rhythm of people walking on it causing the whole bridge to sway. There were plenty of locations that we didn’t get to use and we’re hoping that if this trail is successful we’ll develop a much bigger one later on.

Is the IOP working on any other similar projects?

We’re running a project in Oxford called Quest involving Geocaching. Geocaching is a similar idea which involves GPS and we’ve made a trail around Oxford Arboretum, which is part of the Oxford Botanical Gardens. People doing the trail use GPS to find physical boxes which contain physics activities they can do outside.

We also have one geocache in London which is in Russell Square just by where the idea of a nuclear chain reaction was first conceived. [ Ed’s note: the story is that Leó Szilárd was walking to work in 1933, pondering an article he’d read in The Times the day before where fellow physicist Ernest Rutherford had argued that nuclear energy could never be harnessed for practical purposes. As Szilárd set foot on the crossing on the corner of Southampton Row and Russell Square, inspiration suddenly struck ]

Thank you, Alex, for talking to us today. For readers interested in doing the London Science Uncovered Trail, the trail will run throughout the whole summer and you can access it by installing the free SCVNGR app, clicking “Treks” and searching for “London Science Uncovered”


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