About Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

This article originally appeared in "The Scientific Traveller: A Guide to the People, Places and Institutions of Europe" by Charles Tanford and Jacqueline Reynolds, published in 1992. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers, Wiley. Although this book is no longer in print, copies are available via Amazon UK. This article may have been amended or updated from the original.

Torun, Poland

Copernicus Statue, Torun

Copernicus Statue, Torun, by Toni Kaarttinen. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The birthplace of Copernicus is a picturesque town on the Vistula River and provides some of the best examples of Gothic urban architecture in Central Europe. (And it’s famous for its gingerbread, too.) The tower on the Town Hall dates from 1274 and is the oldest in Poland. The house in which Copernicus was born is now a museum, devoted to his life and work.

Further information on Nicolaus Copernicus House Museum: http://www.visittorun.pl/301,l2.html

Louis Agassiz, Neuchatel, Switzerland


Neuchâtel by Akane86. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Louis Agassiz, the leading figure in persuading geologists that a recent Ice Age had engulfed Europe, was one of the first professors to be appointed to the University of Neuchatel in 1840. He is honoured by a bust and plaque in the principal administrative building at the corner of Avenue du Premier Mars and Rue P. L Culon, but, sadly, the local natural history museum at the present time has no exhibits related to Agassiz or even to geology in general.

For dedicated mountaineers there is an Agassizjoch at 12,700 feet (3850m) on the approach route to the summit of the Finsteraarhorn in the Berner Oberland. We don’t know if there is a direct connection with Louis Agassiz.

National Technical Museum (Musee des Arts et Metiers), Paris

Musée des arts et métiers

Musée des arts et métiers by trypode. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Here we have a museum as different from the City of Science and Industry as one can imagine. It was created by an act of the revolutionary Convention in 1794. “Let original models of instruments and machines which have been invented be deposited here,” it was decreed, and “let the construction and use of tools be explained.” The decree has been followed ever since and as a result we have before us a vast all-encompassing collection of museum pieces. Clocks, watches, trains, bicycles, motor cars, aeroplanes, refrigerators, musical instruments, electrical generators, microscopes, telescopes-you name it and you will find it, although staff tell us that they can actually display at anyone time less than one-tenth of their possessions. An extra dividend is the building itself, the former priory of St. Martin-des-Champs, part of which dates back to the twelfth century.

This accumulation of objects would not by itself fall within the scope of this book were it not for the museum’s deliberate stress on pure science and its technical instrumentation, with clearly written accompanying explanations. There are several of Pascal’s mechanical calculating machines, dating from 1642; Buffon’s burning mirrors to focus the rays of the sun (a la Archimedes): electrical devices that trace the history of our understanding of electricity from the two-fluid theory of the Abbe Nollet, through Volta, Coulomb, Ampere, and beyond; optical devices all the way up to early electron microscopes; even an early cyclotron is shown. There is an excellent exhibit on the standardization of weights and measures.

Of particular interest in relation to the highlights of science that we like to stress in this book is an attempt to create a proper tribute to the “father of chemistry”, Antoine Lavoisier. Situated prominently at the foot of the main staircase (the former entrance hall of the priory), the display contains both comprehensive educational placards and apparatus that he used in his research. Lavoisier was a crusader for quantitation and the instruments shown are truly impressive-there is nothing of the primitive here. Beautifully engineered beam balances and gasometers are especially striking. Also of interest are several calorimeters. They remind us that heat was considered an element by Lavoisier and by most scientists of his time and that Lavoisier collaborated with physicist Simon Laplace to measure its quantity and properties.

Finally there is a special treat – Foucault’s pendulum, suspended from the twelfth-century high vaulting of the priory church, its path of oscillation turning slowly hour by hour to mark the rotation of the earth beneath it. Foucault’s original pendulum was installed in the Pantheon in 1851, but popular demand led to the construction of several duplicates. The one in the museum was on display at the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris.

Website: http://arts-et-metiers.net/?lang=ang [English language version]

Frombork, Poland


Frombork by Rapsak. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Frombork (the former Frauenburg, east of Gdansk) was home base for Copernicus. It is the city in which he held the position of Canon of the Cathedral. The old, fortified cathedral still stands on a hilltop, surrounded by stone walls from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it has a remembrance tablet (from 1735) to the famous astronomer in the nave. The tower in the northwest part of the courtyard, built in the late fourteenth century, is named for Copernicus, and the sixteenth-century Bishop’s Palace in the south-west corner contains the Copernicus Museum. Here one finds old copies of De Revolutionibus and other memorabilia of both the man and the times.

Copernicus travelled extensively in the execution of his canonical duties, and the Polish Tourist Office publishes a map and guide to the region around Frombork listing nearly every village and town that Copernicus ever had occasion to visit. Making a circuit of 125 miles (200 km), we are directed to Braniewo (once Braunsberg and an important city of the Order of Teutonic Knights), then to Pieniezno, the village that used to be the seat of the religious Chapter of the See of Warmia-Copernicus lived here for two years. We then proceed to Orneta, where Copernicus was sent to receive oaths of loyalty (and taxes!) from the local serfs and from there to Lidzbark Warminski, where his uncle, the Bishop, had his home-Copernicus, among his other activities, served as the Bishop’s secretary and medical advisor. Lidzbark Warminski has a fine medieval Gothic castle, well-preserved and now housing a museum. Finally we are led to Olsztyn, a city with a popular folk museum, where Copernicus is said to have been put in charge of the defences against one of the invaders of the early sixteenth century. Our “monk” emerges as versatile man!

The Mendelianum, Brno

Ancient Brno's monastery

Ancient Brno's monastery by M.Pardy. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Brno, the capital of Moravia, is a commercial city, containing the Augustinian monastery where Gregor Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance named after him. Part of the monastery is now a museum in his memory, called the Mendelianum. A patch of garden in front of the entrance is said to be Mendel’s actual experimental plot, where he did the thousands of hybridization experiments that were the basis for his results.

The number “2” is the magic number here. The statistics of Mendel’s results are the same as the statistics of tossing two coins simultaneously, and it made good sense to Mendel, for there are two sexes, allowing each metaphorical coin to be derived from one parent. It makes sense in modern terms, too, for chromosomes (not yet discovered in Mendel’s day) are generally paired. These basic principles emerge clearly from a visit to the museum, presented by means of detailed posters. Flowers planted in Mendel’s garden patch are also intended to help, but they are merely floral representations of numbers (three red and one white in the second generation, for example), unrelated to anything to do with hybridization. They may even cause confusion by obscuring the statistical nature of actual hybridization experiments.

The former refectory of the monastery now contains a sequence of showcases and posters to display the facts of Mendel’s life, education, and work, and they go on from there to a few highlights of modem genetics, such as the discovery of chromosomes and the role of DNA. Another room (a former chapter hall) is now a conference room, with contemporary furniture and a fine portrait of monk Gregor. There is also a good photograph of Mendel with some of his monastic colleagues, which shows them as anything but unworldly monks-it’s more like the annual group picture of a present-day departmental faculty.

Website: http://www.mendelianum.cz [in Czech]

Institut Curie, Paris

Chapel of Our Lady of Lebanon with Institut Curie on the left

Chapel of Our Lady of Lebanon with Institut Curie on the left, by LPLT. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The Institut Curie, 11 Rue Pierre et Marie Curie, just a few hundred meters south of the Pantheon, was initially created explicitly for Marie Curie, with the name of “Institut du Radium.” It is today a modem research facility, but Marie’s former laboratory and office have been preserved as a kind of museum, which is open to the public by advance appointment. It contains some of Mane’s notebooks, instruments, laboratory coats, and a replica of Pierre Curie’s device for quantitative measurement of ionizing radiation-the essential tool for the discovery and purification of radium and other radioactive elements, because of the miniscule amounts contained in the native ores. Needless to say, the actual technical artifacts from the Curie period were highly contaminated and had to be subsequently destroyed. Scientific equipment on show in the museum dates from a later period, when Marie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot held sway in the laboratory. There are sculptures of Marie and Pierre in the Institute’s courtyard, done by a Polish artist for the celebration of the centenary of Mane’s birth in 1967.

It is important to appreciate that the fine institute we see here came to Marie Curie only late in life, at the end of World War I. As anyone even slightly aware of the Curie legend knows, Marie and Pierre’s discovery and purification of radium were done in the most wretched, cold laboratory imaginable, in the basement of the Ecole superieure de Physique et de Chimie. The site on the Rue Vauquelin, about 500 yards (500 meters) south of the present Institute, is marked by a commemorative plaque. There is another plaque at 24 Rue de la Glaciere (on the other side of the Seine, close to the observatory), to mark the apartment where Marie and Pierre were living at the time and where their daughter Irene was born in 1897. It was not until 1905 that reasonable laboratory space was provided for the Curies in the Sorbonne and Pierre himself never had the chance to use it, for he was run down and killed in 1906 by a horse-drawn carriage in the Rue Dauphine. (Mane’s health had begun to decline from the effects of radiation even before the Institut du Radium was opened. For the last 20 years of her life she lived close to her laboratory, at 36 quai de Berthune on the He St. Louis-another plaque indicates the place.)

Website: http://www.curie.fr/en

Paris Observatory, France

Paris Observatory

Paris Observatory by Joerg Weingrill. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Paris observatory dates back to the ambitious days of Louis XIV and his chief minister Colbert. It was completed in 1672; its four walls are oriented precisely to the four points of the compass; the southern wall defines the nominal latitude of the city and a perpendicular line through the center of the building defines the “Paris meridian.” The actual numerical coordinates, relative to other places on earth, were established with the aid of the Danish astronomer Ole Remer, brought here by Colbert because he had inherited the mantle of Danish expertise that had been established a century earlier by Tycho Brahe. Remer remained in Paris for several years and it was here that he accomplished his main scientific achievement, the measurement of the speed of propagation of light, in 1676~ The event is marked by one of the official city plaques placed on the observatory wall. Christiaan Huygens from the Netherlands was here for several years in the same period and was the first to see the rings about the planet Saturn.

In front of the observatory entrance is a statue of the French astronomer LeVerrier, effectively the discoverer of Neptune, the eighth planet of the solar system. The seventh planet, Uranus, had first been sighted by William Herschel in England in 1781, but irregularities in its orbital motion suggested the existence of a more distant planet beyond. LeVerrier in 1846 predicted its orbit on the basis of mathematical calculations and the prediction, of course, included its “present” location. A German observer O. C. Galle) found it where predicted on the very next day-the instruments at the Paris observatory lacked the requisite precision. (This was probably the first discovery of an object in sky on the basis of calculation, which has now become commonplace.)

Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark

Niels Bohr Institute

Niels Bohr Institute by ettlz. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The Niels Bohr Institute, founded in 1920 explicitly for Niels Bohr, is at Blegdamsvej 15-19, adjacent to the National Hospital. Today it is a thriving institution with ongoing work in many branches of theoretical physics, but it also permits itself the luxury of a Niels Bohr Archives. A small historical room is preserved, containing Bohr’s desk and chair and a few other items; the Institute’s auditorium is still much as it was in Bohr’s later years and contains a few historical pictures.

The Stadt Friedhof, Gottingen

Otto Hahn's gravemarker, Stadt Friedhof

Otto Hahn's gravemarker, Stadt Friedhof by goe-panorama-2008.

The most conspicuous memorial site in Gottingen is a cemetery, the Stadt Friedhof, located on the road to Kassel. There is a scientists’ corner here, where many famous scientists who worked or studied in Gottingen are buried close together. They include Max Planck, the original discoverer of the need for energy quantization; Otto Hahn, one of the authors of the famous paper on the splitting of the atom; Walther Nernst and his entire family: and several more. Hahn’s tombstone bears an enigmatic, perhaps ominous inscription:

92U + on


The top line is standard chemical language for the reaction of an atom of uranium (isotope of mass 92) with a neutron. But how are we to interpret the down-pointing arrow? The end of the world or maybe descent into hell?

Max Born is buried with his wife in a totally different part of the cemetery, the family plot of his wife and her forebears. His epitaph, too, is in the form of an equation, a mathematical formula in this case: pq – qp = hI27ri, and what will strike the layman about it is the fact that pq – qp is not zero, as he would expect. It turns out that p and q stand respectively for the momentum and the position of a particle in space and the significance of the inequality of their forward and reverse products is the underlying basis for Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This may be Born’s claim to posterity for at least an equal share of the credit.

There is an amusing anecdote about the interment of Walther Nernst, a none too popular physical chemist (but sufficiently proficient to have won a Nobel Prize in 1920). He died in 1945 on his estate in East Prussia and was buried there, with two colleagues, Karl Bonhoeffer and Max Bodenstein, serving as pallbearers. When the Russians annexed East Prussia, the remains were removed to German soil (to Berlin) and there WaS another ceremony with Bonhoeffer and Bodenstein again in attendance. Some years later the family thought he should really lie in Gottingen, where he had been professor for most of his career, and so the body was moved once more, still with the same honorary escort. “I’m getting tired of this,” Bodenstein is reported to have remarked to his partner, who, however, responded more cheerfully: “You can’t bury Nernst too often” was his reported reply.

Museum Boerhaave, Leiden


The Museum Boerhaave is has funding problems and is in danger of being closed in January 2013. For further information and how to donate, see Save Museum Boerhaave campaign.

17th century science in Boerhaave museum Leiden

17th century science in Boerhaave museum Leiden by koopmanrob. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The most interesting building of the present university is at No. 73 Rapenburg, one of the prettiest streets in Leiden, with a canal down the middle. The building contains an Aula (or Senate Chamber), the walls of which are lined with handsome portraits of most of its early and some of its more recent professors, and there is a lovely wooden staircase leading up to it. Unfortunately, this chamber is still in use for examinations and other university functions, and it is not open to the public, but the rest of the building can be admired. (The doorway to No. 73 also provides access to the university’s botanical garden.)

Boerhaave Museum. This museum, named after the former professor and physician, has been in existence for many years, but it has recently been completely restructured and installed in brand new quarters on the site of the former Boerhaave hospital. At an artistic level it has been beautifully done-the renovation retains the original architecture and the exhibit layout is spacious and encourages unhurried perusal. The emphasis is historical rather than didactive. with contents arranged in chronological sequence and not by subject area. We are made acutely aware that the division of science into specialized fields is a recent phenomenon and that in Leiden’s heyday the distinction between physics, chemistry, and even medicine was blurred. The museum has a commendable international flavor, less chauvinistic than might be expected, though achievements of Netherlands scientists are of course properly stressed. The Dutch have long been instrument makers for much of the world and a predominance of instruments in the exhibits reflects that-the collections of surgical tools, telescopes, and microscopes are especially noteworthy. Even seasoned specialists will be fascinated by the technical advances that the chronological style of the museum naturally unfolds.

One of the highlights of the museum is a faithful reproduction of Boerhaave’s anatomy theater, clearly patterned after the prototype in Padua. Individual instruments include three of van Leeuwenhoek’s original microscopes (which prove to have extremely tiny lenses), Leyden jars and batteries, Huygens clocks, as well as more modem items, such as the first artificial kidney (dialysis machine), designed by Dutchman Willem Kolff in 1943, and a prototype electron microscope manufactured by the Philips Co. in 1947. The museum also has a fine archival library, which occupies the site of the cells in which madmen were kept in the old hospital. (Is there a hidden message here?)