Nightmare at the museum
“Everybody, can I have your attention please, there has been a bioterrorist attack in the South Kensington area. The police are dealing with the situation but for the time being we are going to have to hold you all here in the Science Museum in quarantine.”
It all sounds a bit Jack Bauer doesn’t it? Before I start rumours that London is under terrorist attack I should probably clarify that it’s not real. It was the theme of this months Lates event at the Science Museum -Bioterrorism.
On the last Wednesday of every month, the Science Museum keeps its doors open a bit later than normal to allow those of us with 9-5 jobs, and an aversion to tourists, to visit. It’s a chance to play with the exhibitions without the throngs of school trips, pouting exchange students and whinging toddlers getting in the way. There are even makeshift bars dotted around the building, so that you can sip a nice glass of wine as you go around. It all sounds perfectly civilised, doesn’t it? At least until this month’s theme – Bioterrorism. And as the event was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a few of us felt we should check it out.
First things first, we had to get ourselves kitted out in a full hazmat suit and face mask. The museum had helpfully provided some sequins and glitter, feathers and pipecleaners, to help make your masks look authentic (or, at least, interesting).
Moving through the building, there was a make up workshop with the opportunity to recreate small pox pustules or plague sores using face paints and some kind of gross putty thing on your face. Or your arm (Note that by now, we are in full hazmat suits, with sequined face masks and sores on our arms, AND we still had to get the Tube home….).
The attention to detail here was astounding. Just in case you don’t know what a small pox pustule looks like, the museum had helpfully provided pictures for you to recreate from.
But it wasn’t all about the crafts. On an educational note, I managed to get myself into one of the (extremely popular) talks to find out a bit more about bioterrorism and how real the threat really is.
Dr Brian Balmer, a historian of science from UCL, led us on a voyage of discovery through the history of bioterrorism, delivering a plethora of anecdotes and useful pub quiz facts. For example, how long has bioterrorism been around for? I’d thought of it as a fairly modern approach to warfare, but this is not so – the Greeks were at it in the 14th Century. During the siege of Caffa, the attacking forces were struck down with the plague. But rather than admit defeat and go home, they began tossing the victims over the wall into the city, thereby initiating an epidemic. Nice.
After a potted history of bioterrorism during the Second World War and later the Cold War, Balmer began his assurances that it’s not really something we should worry about. He did talk briefly about the dual use dilemma, but said that we shouldn’t let the potential threat of bioterrorism stop us from steaming ahead with important biological research.
One fact really surprised me though: the majority of cases of anthrax in recent years have been caused by contaminated heroin, not some ex-army microbiologist with a vendetta. Apparently it’s common for drug dealers to dilute the drug with crushed up bones, and if those bones are infected with anthrax… well you get the picture.
All in all, it was a fabulous evening. Not your average post-work drinks with colleagues!
Jen Middleton, Media Officer, The Wellcome Trust