Geek Days Out: 10 best places to visit in the UK for space, tech and science
Geek Days Out: South England
Now, not only has Bletchley been refurbished top to bottom thanks to £8 million in recent funding, it’s also picked up a bit of cinematic sheen, starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.
If you visit Bletchley having watched the movie, you’ll be familiar with the story of Turing’s Bombe: the machine used by the maths genius to crack Germany’s Enigma encoder, enabling Britain to tap Nazi communications. It’s impossible to appreciate the scale of the Bombe machines, or the whirring and clunking sounds they produced, without seeing one in action.
Located a few miles south of Milton Keynes, Bletchley Park costs £15 for adults and £9 for children aged 12-16, and is free for younger children; your ticket grants you re-entry for a year. Don’t forget: The National Museum of Computing is just next door, so be sure to swing by to catch a glimpse of the first electronic computers too.
Dual 4K projectors powered by 16 PCs offer a 1.6 billion-pixel, 3D view of the universe at the At-Bristol Science Centre’s new planetarium.
Once you’re done exploring space in 3D, there are 300 other exhibits to gawp at. Highlights include
Eye Witness, which showcases the software the police use to “evolve” faces using facial recognition; Space Walk, which makes good use of a Kinect hack; and the Surprising Sounds listening game, which is a firm favourite of visitors.
Geek Days Out: London
London’s Science Museum frequently hosts technology-focused exhibits – it currently hosts a permanent exhibit dedicated to computing.
There are a few highlights worth seeking out, like the NeXT machine that Sir Tim Berners-Lee used to create the web, or LEO – the first computer to be used solely for business purposes, at that most British of institutions, Lyons Tea.
Aside from historical computers, the gallery also features a satellite (a Eurostar 3000), as well as the first GPS systems used by soldiers in the first Gulf War and the Marconi transmitter that made the first BBC transmission.
Take a trip to the arcade, but don’t expect Mortal Kombat – this collection of games is a bit different. A money-laundering machine where you pick up cash and try to dodge “regulators”, an art critic simulator, a race to get divorced and a game called Pet or Meat that has a messy ending. Novelty Automation is an arcade unlike any other – well, except its sister location in Southwold.
There are 20 unique machines to play. While some of the games are undoubtedly geared towards adults – the next project involves a model of a Beverly Hills mansion, which you fly a drone around to take “compromising” pictures of the celebrities inside – creator Tim Hunkin said he hopes that it also appeals to children. “It seems to work for all ages. I hope money laundering, operate a nuclear reactor, play pong on bicycles, meet a real alien’s mum, get divorced, amongst other things,” he said. “The machines are satirical – I used to be a cartoonist.”
Image: Tim Hunkin
The Royal Institution (shortened to Ri by the institute in a geeky nod to Pi) has been a base of research for some of the most famous scientists and inventors in the world. Illustrious names include electron discoverer JJ Thomson and photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot – and you can see their genius in action at the Michael Faraday Museum in London.
Through a gallery of touchscreens, visitors can find out about the science behind the innovations; these show excerpts from scientific notebooks and photos of early labs. Also on show is an interactive periodic table, where visitors can listen to Tom Lehrer singing his periodic table song while the ten elements associated with the Ri light up.
Geek Days Out: Midlands
If you want a closer look at the stars, you need head no further than Leicester. It’s home to the National Space Centre, including the UK’s largest planetarium, a 3D spaceflight simulator and six galleries of hands-on displays.
The centrepiece of the centre is the Rocket Tower. The 42-metre, semitransparent structure, covered in high-tech “pillows”, was designed to house a pair of famous rockets: the Blue Streak (which was used to launch satellites) and the Thor-Able (an American system used at Cape Canaveral). The tower is also home to the Gagarin Experience, which lets you sit inside the space capsule that took the Russian cosmonaut into orbit; an Apollo lunar lander; a real chunk of moon rock; and an Edwardian cinema playing the first ever sci-fi film.
These exhibits are targeted at older children – and their science-loving parents or guardians – but there are also activities to hold the attention of smaller space explorers.
Much as we love shiny new tablets and laptops incorporating the latest processor technology, classic machines will always hold a special place in our geeky hearts. If you agree, you have much in common with us, and the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester.
Run entirely by volunteers, the RCM was set up in 2008 with an initial collection of 25 classic computers. Thanks to donations, that number has since increased to more than 1,000 machines ranging from classic Ataris to a virtual-reality system made by W Industries back in the 1990s. A rotating selection of around 50 machines is on display each month; if you want to see a specific machine that’s tucked away out back, just ask a volunteer staff member, who will fetch it for you. We’re happy to report that this is no stuffy, hands-off museum: all of the machines on display are in full working order, and you can use them.
Geek Days Out: North England
If you find yourself in Bradford with an odd desire to play Pong, you’re in luck: the National Videogame Archive at the National Media Museum will happily cater to your needs. The museum opened its doors in 1983, and is home to photography, cinematography and television collections. It subsequently added the New Media Gallery, and in 2008 opened the video-game archive too.
You can play Pong, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, but those games are in addition to the unplayable and protected official National Collection – yes, there is one for video games – that the museum preserves on behalf of the nation.
Based in industrial Manchester, the MOSI is an excellent day out thanks to its series of fascinating exhibits that explore recent and historic breakthroughs in science and industry.
The museum also highlights the industrial history of Manchester, featuring a walkthrough Victorian sewer, a gallery of classic transportation and one stop in particular that Alphr readers shouldn’t miss: “Don’t forget to meet Baby,” curator Sarah Baines said. “The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), nicknamed the ‘Baby’ computer, was the world’s first computer to store and run a program.”
There are many reasons why a trip to Jodrell Bank is a day well spent for families, but here’s one you may not know: mobile phones must be switched off at all times. That’s because the signals interfere with the on-site radio telescopes, which are sensitive enough to detect a Nokia on Mars. So, if nothing else, you’ll part your children from their devices for a little while.
However, the main attraction at the Jodrell Bank Observatory is the Lovell Telescope, the third-largest steerable telescope in the world. In addition you can visit the clockwork orrery, arboretum and “galaxy garden”, and Discovery Centre to help you learn about the solar system.