Optics in focus

The Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments contains over 900 items and this guest blog post come from one of our student volunteers, Suzie Hill, who has been helping organise this collection:

Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the MUSA Collections Unit. The store itself is like a rather posh warehouse, with hundreds of beautiful old objects all with hand written labels, black ink on cream card attached with string, which appealed to the kitsch in me. Every object holds some kind of history, from the selection of gowns through the ages to the portrait of a distant academic in which the head was cut out by a sabotaging group of students.

I have been charged with the job of making sense of the arrangement of the huge and varied range of scientific instruments recently moved to the store from the Physics department.  Each of the objects is registered on the database as being part of a specific group (for example if the object is linked to the study of electricity or navigation), and the challenge is to place all the objects from a particular group in the same area of the store. I began with the large sections entitled ‘optics’, which included an array of lenses, slides, and even a very beautiful, metallic-coloured insect.

For the first shelf that I arranged I collected together anything that was tall, gold, and shiny. This brought together telescopes, microscopes and Polariscopes. The Norrenberg Polariscope is a particularly beautiful object. It allows light to pass through lenses in the main body of the instrument onto a mirrored plane, which itself has a hinge and therefore the light can be reflected at an angle. Having done a little research I have gathered that Polariscopes are used to analyse and measure the polarisation of light waves (which are an example of transverse waves). They look at the optical properties of materials, considering, for example, how light bends when it passes through specific materials. The mirror plane immediately below the cylindrical lens fills the role of the polarizer, and the mirror at an angle is the analyser. This object is now proudly exhibited in the middle of the top shelf that you come to when you enter the store, along with all the other tall, golden, ‘opitical’ pieces.

It is the aesthetics of these objects that really strikes me, but then as an art history student that is probably inevitable; however as I collect more like objects together I begin to piece together the purposes of these pieces and the science which they represent. I am now familiar with the objects used to study birefringence (which is the splitting of a ray of light into two when it passes through particular materials) and all the various ‘-iscopes’, which in themselves are a significant part of this universities history thanks to Mr Brewster (for more information on that one get yourself down to gallery 3 at MUSA!)


That’s opitics done – now onto the sound instruments!

– Suzie Hill (student at University of St Andrews and Museum volunteer)


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