Category Archives: France

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

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Musée des arts et métiers

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: [English language version]

Institut Curie, Paris

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

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

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.)


Paris Observatory, France

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Paris Observatory

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.)

City of Science and Industry, France

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

City of Science & Industry

This is a monstrous “theme park” extolling science and its applications, which must be seen to be believed. Whether one will be any wiser after a visit will be a matter of experience and temperament. It is likely to be most useful as a supplementary resource for school children taking elementary science courses and guided by their teachers. The glossy high-tech approach may appeal especially at that level.

The overall tone is set by what one sees at first entry, the Geode, a giant steel globe with a mirror surface and an auditorium within it, its tiers of 357 seats suspended from a single pillar. Scientific instructional films are shown here around the clock. Beyond the Geode is the Explora, which houses the main exhibits, divided into four sectors: “From the Earth to the Universe,” “The Adventure of Life,” “Matter and the Work of Man,” and “Language and Communication.” Headsets can be rented to pick up running commentaries in four different languages as one wanders about, and there are also informative panels, TV sets with instructional video shows, and interactive gadgetry of all kinds. Some items are very good and quite sophisticated-an excellent hands-on apparatus for proof of Pythagoras’s theorem and a clear demonstration of symmetry axes, for example, in the mathematics section at Level 1 of “Earth to Universe.” Others seem merely tawdry-a winding trail “in the eye of the microscope,” for example, in “Adventure of Life,” or a huge panel map of the earth that lights up to show where polygamy or polyandry is practised. Many of the exhibits are geared to familiar modern technology: rockets, jet planes, a submarine, particle accelerators, ecosystems, and so on.

Insect souvenirs in Provence, France

By Charlotte Sleigh

Jardin de l'Harmas de Fabre à Sérignan

In the heat of the Provençal summer, the countryside whirs and buzzes with the sounds of uncountable insects. Bees cruise around the lavender, and cicadas chirrup in the dry grass.

Just over one hundred years ago, a skinny, bearded man in a big hat, together with his several children, trailed after these insects all around his garden. This man was Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), a phenomenally popular and prolific author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fabre studied and taught many areas of science, but it was his colourful accounts of insects – the Souvenirs Entomologiques (1879-1907) – that won him fans in many countries and languages.

Fabre enjoyed the bizarre and outrageous aspects of insect life. His description of the praying mantis related with breathless faux-horror the fate of mantis ‘husbands’ after their ‘nuptials’. Strictly in the interests of science, Fabre introduced male after male to his female, to see when she might be satisfied.

The result of my inquiry was scandalous. The Mantis in only too many cases is never sated with embraces and conjugal feasts … in the course of two weeks I have seen the same Mantis treat seven husbands in this fashion. She admitted all to her embraces, and all paid for the nuptial ecstasy with their lives … insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour [the husband] during the act surpasses anything that the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from the surprise.

It was the instincts of insects that most fascinated Fabre. How did these tiny creatures ‘know’ how to act so perfectly, without either brain-power or teaching? In one classic series of observations and experiments, he showed how the female bee-hunter Philanthus apivorus ‘knew’ how to sting her prey at a specific location so that it would not be paralysed. Thus, she was able to empty its stomach of honey, which she ‘knew’ was poisonous to her offspring, before leaving it in the hatching-cell for her young to eat.

Jean Henri Fabre, as photographed by Nadar aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910).

Fabre’s reputation suffered at the hands of academic entomologists after his death. His resistance to the evolution of instinct was often highlighted, and he was written off as a theistic bigot despite the fact that he was not a believer in any formal sense. Fabre’s observations were patronisingly lauded for their patience even as they were put down as suitable only for children. In fact, Fabre’s treatment of insects as primarily creatures of instinct continued to drive the research agenda of entomology for a long while. But like so many other amateur entomologists, Fabre was dismissed as ‘eccentric’.

Many aspects of Fabre’s life and work actually come out as remarkably admirable by contemporary standards. He was firmly committed to education, and girls’ education in particular; he respected children’s participation in science; he had a strong affinity for nature; a respect for the living world and a humility about the place of Homo sapiens within it. In anachronistic terms, we might say he managed to achieve a genuine public scientific dialogue.

Fabre’s loving attention to insects was and is contagious. Most recently, the film Microcosmos (1996) was a humorous but fond homage to his art and science. There are two places to follow in Fabre’s footsteps in Aveyron: the edutainment centre Micropolis, and the Harmas de Fabre, his final home and all-important garden.

Further information

Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Entomology (Johns Hopkins, 2007)

Micropolis (12780 Saint Léons)

Musée Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre (84830 Sérignan-du-Comtat)

Maison d’Auguste Comte, Paris

By Thomas Dixon

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is known to historians of science for his role in founding the science of sociology, the philosophy of positivism, and the religion of humanity.

A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence
A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence

For sixteen years, from 1841 until his death in 1857, Comte lived in a relatively modest apartment at 10 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince in Paris, where he composed works on philosophy, sociology, politics and religion. Modern-day visitors who retrace the steps of intellectual pilgrims who visited the eccentric French sage during his lifetime will find a museum, library and archive devoted to the man and his work. Comte’s living quarters are preserved and, for those wishing to make a more scholarly visit, the library and archive are extremely well stocked with books, periodicals and other printed materials relating to all aspects of positivist thought and activities in France, England and further afield.

Comte’s works, especially the Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) had a considerable impact on British intellectual life, and those who visited Rue Monsieur-le-Prince to pay their respects included George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer. Bain found Comte’s home to be ‘modest enough, being only a half-floor of some three or four rooms altogether, and looked after by a single female servant.’ Comte ‘received us in a bright-coloured dressing-gown, – which only meant that, in regard to dress, he was a Frenchman.’ This Frenchman’s whole attitude, Bain found, was one of ‘severe denunciation or self-aggrandisement’ devoid of any sense of humour. ‘Of such men as Aristotle, Milton, Bishop Butler, and Wordsworth, it may be safely said that they wanted the sense of humour’, Bain wrote, ‘but, in sheer negation, probably, they never approached to Auguste Comte.’

Herbert Spencer was also unimpressed. Comte’s physiognomy was ‘unattractive’ although, being ‘strongly marked’, it was at least ‘distinguished from the multitudes of meaningless faces one daily sees.’ Spencer did not recall a great deal of the conversation that passed between himself and Comte: ‘I remember only that hearing of my nervous disorder, he advised me to marry; saying that sympathetic companionship of a wife would have a curative influence.’ This, Spencer noted, was a point of agreement between Comte and Thomas Huxley who, many years later, also ‘suggested that I should try what he facetiously called gynœopathy: admitting however that the remedy had the serious inconvenience that it could not be left off if it proved unsuitable.’

An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written
An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written

During a visit to Paris in 1865, some years after Comte’s death, George Eliot and G. H. Lewes thought the great positivist’s former home the most interesting thing they saw. Eliot wrote to a friend: ‘We thought the apartment very freundlich, and I flattered myself that I could have written better in the little study there than in my own.’ In the 1890s, the artist Thomas Sulman and his wife sent new year cards to their fellow English positivists, offering ‘Fraternal Greetings from Finchley’, which bore an image of the library in Comte’s apartment, with the caption ‘Room in which La Politique Positive was written’.

Truly devoted Comteans today can visit not only the Maison d’Auguste Comte, but also a surviving Chapel of Humanity at 5 Rue Payenne; Comte’s grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery (including a monument erected by Brazilian positivists in 1983); a statue of Comte at the Place de la Sorbonne; and the Rue Clotilde de Vaux, named after the woman who was the inspiration for Comte’s Religion of Humanity and its associated ideal of altruism.

There is an informative article on Auguste Comte at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and more information on Comtean locations in Paris at the ‘Invisible Paris’ blog.