A scientific transformation with IT
The Natural History Museum is leading the way in analysing thousands of specimens with the latest IT. High end workstations with hundreds of gigabytes of RAM, combined with sophisticated software, enable us to transform how we research and preserve natural history.
Natural History Museum, located in the heart of London, houses around 80
million specimens, including fossils, meteorites, plants, insects and many
more. We also work with academics and researchers around the globe, many of
whom request to use our IT or view our specimens.
2008, we introduced micro-CT technology, which is a versatile 3D X-ray scanning
technique. The advanced viewing systems allow us to see specimens from every
angle in a huge level of detail, transforming our scientific research.
Reaping the rewards
technology offers huge benefits. Before we brought in the systems, we had to
handle specimens, many of which were fragile. Additionally, we could never see
the level of detail that we can now.
scanning is used for one hundred or so projects every year at the Natural History Museum and the range of applications is diverse. They can include everything from
looking at fossils, to fine details on species in the wild today, as well as
meteorites from planets such as Mars.
around the world connect to us, in order to view the results of our scans and
carry out their own research. Prior to introducing the technology, we had to
send physical samples to them, but now we can scan the specimens and provide
them with all of the detail and imagery they need over the internet.
also enables us to share our knowledge better with visitors. As we digitise our
collection and also change our displays within the museum itself, we are able
to present new information to the public. It is absolutely essential that we
share this information quickly and provide all the detail people want to know.
conservation of natural history is equally impacted by the systems. As we use
micro-CT to allow regular analysis of items without having to handle them each
time, we can preserve specimens better. We can also avoid destroying samples by
cutting into them, which is something we previously had to do with certain
specimens in order to study them. Additionally, we can monitor the impact of
collection management techniques on specimens.
IT that goes behind our research in this area is fascinating. We use
high-powered gaming workstations, each with hundreds of gigabytes of RAM and
several gigabytes of graphic cards. This hardware is connected to the micro-CT
scanners themselves, and runs advanced software that enables us to extract the
massive detail we need for our analysis. A file from any one scan can be well
over 30 gigabytes in size.
have software systems that are open source and others that are commercial,
depending on the needs of our users at the museum and beyond. However, we tend
to encourage the use of open systems in order to ensure that people can
interact with each other as easily as possible.
are seeing a change in demand in what people want to see. Some researchers
desire to scan larger items at an even higher resolution, and we are fascinated
by the technology that will enable this. Others want increasingly microscopic
samples, even of soft tissue, to be scanned.
is a variety of technology out there, and we are also interested in how optical
imagery can be combined with micro-CT to produce more detailed research.
micro-CT is increasingly used by other industries, such as by manufacturers
that analyse parts, there is a fascinating future for the technology. We expect
our usage at the Natural History Museum to grow further as we meet the demands
of an information-hungry scientific and public community.