Spaces for Instruments

My participation in the XL Symposium of the Scientific Instrument Commission (Online, 25-31 July 2021) was entitled: “Play, Design, Science: Spinning Tops, Crossing Spaces, Understanding Physics”.


Crossing disciplinary spaces lies at the heart of the work of designer duo Ray and Charles Eames (1912-1988 and 1907-1978 respectively). They continue to inspire designers all over the world but are perhaps less known among the scientific community, despite their highly original contributions to the popularisation of science. In my presentation, I highlight their seven and a half minutes film Tops (1969), which communicates the physics of gyration. Avid collectors themselves of tops from numerous cultures, they used items from their collection to illustrate the universal laws of gravity and motion. The end result is a mesmerising short film about a fascinating artefact that has been crossing physical and intellectual spaces throughout history. Think of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games of 1560 where children experiment with various types of tops at a town market square; James Clerk Maxwell’s 1857 “dynamical top” presentation at the Royal Society in Edinburgh illustrating advanced concepts connected with rotating bodies; and different kinds of tops exhibited today in childhood and play museums all over the world. The humble top appears as an exemplary object for the range and variability of spaces for instruments. Furthermore, the history and usage of tops suggests the significance of cross-disciplinary approaches in museological and educational practice.