Everyday Items. Image by Helen-Frances Pilkington, Runner-Up for the 2007 Image Competition.

Everyday Items. Image by Helen-Frances Pilkington, Runner-Up for the 2007 Image Competition.

The runner-up for the 2007 BSHS Outreach and Education Committee Image Prize was Helen-Frances Pilkington of the University of Cambridge, for her image Everyday Items, or Newton’s Experimental Instruments.

This picture is freely available for download and use in teaching and outreach work; if you use it, please ensure you supply an appropriate credit to Helen.


The main point of this image is to question what is scientific about a scientific instrument. The label of ‘scientific’ is frequently taken unquestionably and that assumption is what this image challenges. Is this an image of simply an apple and a glass of water, or of a universal body and a prism? The placing of the question mark is intended to highlight this discussion, draw the eye and literally question our assumptions.

The choice of Newton as an icon was deliberate. Most people have heard of Newton and will therefore respond to the caption. Apart from the laws of motion, the apple myth is one of the most enduring associations that people have with Newton. By linking the apple myth with the laws of motion, Newton’s achievement of creating a mathematical model of nature can then be explored. The concept of a heroic experimenter, as implied by the myth, can also be looked at — is it an accurate picture of Newton or of any scientist?

The other part to this image is that scientific instruments are, to some extent, scientific because they have been defined to be so. What is the difference between a beaker found in a chemical laboratory today and a Pyrex jug used in the kitchen? In Newton’s time, prisms were regarded by some as distorting tricks from the fair, so how could they be used for knowledge-producing enterprises? This debate is what the glass of water is intended to symbolise. Is being a scientific instrument all about perspective and definition or is there something more? Newton himself redefined prisms to be legitimate knowledge-producing instruments and argued that therefore experiments using them were valid. Can the same be said about scientific instruments today? Are they taken for granted as reliable knowledge-producing objects, or do the ideas and debates behind their existence ever come to the surface?

The final point that this image raises is that instruments encase previous experiments. Once an experiment has been accepted as true, the results can be used to create an instrument. Examples of this include the telescope (lenses and prisms) and the computer (silicon chips, various sensors). This links nicely back into the debate above concerning definitions of scientific instruments.

This image is aimed at an audience of sixth-form and above due to some of the complicated ideas involved. However, I think that able GCSE students will also find much to interest them.

Sources of inspiration:

D Gooding, T Pinch and S Schaffer (eds), The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the natural sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1993.

Cover image for The Triple Helix Volume 3 Number 2 (2007) Cambridge Edition.

The Alpha Course logo.

About the runner-up

Helen-Frances Pilkington is currently an undergraduate student at New Hall, Cambridge. She has had a varied career at Cambridge having studied Computer Science, then Geology before finally settling down into History and Philosophy of Science. Helen-Frances also found time to captain the Ladies’ Real Tennis team to their first Varsity Match victory at Lords MCC, making a speech in the Long Room, and developing an expensive preference for vintage champagne. This summer she will be taking up an internship with the National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory, Greenwich, looking at the growth of the Royal Observatory’s Library in the nineteenth-century.