Rosalind Franklin’s Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

In 1952 Rosalind Franklin stared down upon her successful X-ray crystallography photo of DNA, unveiling for the first time the molecule’s double-helix structure. Franklin’s photo, the infamous Photography 51, quickly found itself in the hands of her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who passed it on to James Watson and Francis Crick. Unaware of this ‘sharing’ of the image, Franklin would support and applaud the pair when they announced their discovery of the structure of DNA in the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Dying at 37 from ovarian cancer, Franklin’s legacy has always been left out of the pub and out of that important moment of discovery – until now. Newnham Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Dr Emma Mawdsley, together with local resident Norman Sanders organised a new plaque that joined the already existing one commemorating the men in 2013. It was unveiled on the sixtieth anniversary of Francis Crick and James Watson’s announcement. The new plaque thereby makes for an existing point of departure for any historian interested in Franklin, the DNA story or, indeed, the history of female scientists in the UK.

A 15 minute walk from the Eagle pub across the river and onto Sidgwick Avenue will lead you to the bustling female college of Newnham, where Franklin came to study chemistry in 1938. A bust by the sculptor Howard Bate and a postgraduate hall commemorates her memory on site, and at the Genome Centre a lecture theatre has recently been given her name. For anyone particularly interested it is worth making an appointment with Newnham College Archives to see and hold the wartime letters written from Franklin to her parents. These are moving and insightful writings that create a very different image of the woman than the one Watson and Crick painted of her as difficult and harsh.

Howard Bates, Rosalind Franklin sculpture.

Howard Bates, Rosalind Franklin sculpture.

A final Cambridge location for Franklin-enthusiasts can be found in the Churchill College archives, housed in the architecturally fascinating college designed by modernist architect Richard Sheppard. The sleek and fascinating archives houses the largest collection of Franklin’s work, images and writings. Still there is a lot of work to be done regarding Franklin’s life and legacy. By visiting Franklin’s Cambridge at the Eagle, Newnham and in the Churchill archives, the visitor will hopefully be inspired by this inspirational, important and gifted scientist who happened to be a woman in a time of men.

Rosalind Franklin images and texts from the  Churchill College Archives.

Rosalind Franklin images and texts from the Churchill College Archives.

Further information:

Brenda Maddox, The Dark Lady of DNA W.W. Norton & Co, 2000.

Jennifer Glyn, My Sister Rosalind Franklin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

The Franklin bust by Howard Bate at Newnham College, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DF, UK.

The Rosalind Franklin papers at Churchill College, Storey’s Way,
Cambridge, CB3 0DS, UK.

Lord Porter of Luddenham at Imperial College, London

Norman Foster's Faculty Building, Imperial College, London

Norman Foster’s Faculty Building, Imperial College, London by Yersinia. Image licensed via Creative Commons license.

Chemical Landmark Plaque for Lord Porter of Luddenham, OM PRS, at Imperial College

Presentation of this plaque formed the climax of an RSC Faraday Symposium held in the Pippard lecture theatre, Imperial College, on Wednesday 21 November 2012. It was preceded by the presentation of four RSC Medals: the Harrison-Meldola Prize to Dr Tuomas Knowles and to Dr Marina Kuimova; the Liversidge Award to Prof Anthony Legon, and the Tilden Prize to Prof James Durrant, all of whom lectured before the presentation. Meldola, Liversidge and Tilden were all at the Royal College of Chemistry, the forerunner to Imperial College. The Group was represented at the meeting by Alan Dronsfield and Bill Griffith.

The Head of Department, Professor Tom Welton welcomed guests at the conclusion of the Symposium and Prof David Phillips, OBE, immediate past President of the RSC, then presented the plaque. He spoke affectionately of George Porter (1920–2002), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1967 (with Manfred Eigen and R.G.W. Norrish) “for his studies on extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy”. Essentially, his work at that time involved the use of the generation of visible and/or ultraviolet radiation by the discharge of a large bank of capacitors; the energy of such flashes would be commensurate with the lifetimes of chemical intermediates (milliseconds or less) of gaseous intermediates. George Porter had been at Cambridge (1949-1954), Sheffield (1955-1963), the Royal Institution (as Director and Fullerian Professor (1963-1985) and finally at Imperial College.

David spoke of George’s passion for science, his ability to communicate his own ideas and those of others (he was an extremely able speaker at the Royal Institution) and his ability to press the cause of science to politicians – he got on well, for example, with Margaret Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister. His was an affable and engaging personality, and his charisma was put to good use in his contacts with the Press, the broadcasting media, and of course the public from his time at the Royal Institution. He did much for science and its reputation with government and the public. He was a cultured person with many interests – he was, for example, a skilled yachtsman.

The plaque was unveiled by Lady Stella Porter, and the inscription reads:

Professor The Lord Porter of Luddenham OM PRS (1920 – 2002) 1985 – 2002 Chairman, Centre for Photomolecular Sciences and Visiting Professor, Imperial College; 1967 Nobel Laureate for the study of fast reactions by flash photolysis. 21 November 2012

After the ceremony a reception was held in the Chemistry department. More information on George Porter and the award, including some photographs, may be seen at

Glucose Sensor, Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford

Chemical Landmark Plaque for the Glucose Sensor, Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford, Monday 16 July 2012

Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford

Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford by Luca Borghi. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

This plaque commemorates the development, starting in the early 1980s, of an enzyme electrode for detecting glucose. The original paper described a ferrocene-mediated electrode for the analysis of glucose which was usable in whole undiluted blood, and had obvious potential for the sensing of sugar levels in diabetic patients. This original work was extended (principally by Hill, Cass and Davis) and later patented, and the resulting electrode system has saved the lives of many diabetic patients by the simple, reliable detection of sugar levels in the blood. Currently less than 1 µl of blood is needed in a painless straightforward procedure which allows patients to monitor their own blood sugar levels.

The unveiling ceremony began with a welcome and introduction by Professor Peter Edwards FRS, the head of inorganic chemistry at Oxford. Allen Hill FRS then reminisced about early work on the electrode leading to the first paper on it. Tony Cass spoke on “sensors today”: blood sensors are still of prime importance for glucose measurement but now also give an instant blood profile, e.g. for pregnancy and other conditions. Professor Fraser Armstrong spoke on “Looking to the future”; Dr Robert Parker, the Chief Executive of the RSC, spoke on the RSC Chemical Landmarks scheme, and the plaque was then unveiled by the three principal investigators of the original work, Allen Hill, Tony Cass and Graham Davis. Final comments were made by Pete Edwards and a reception for the large audience followed.

The plaque reads:

Glucose Sensor In this laboratory on 20 July 1982, Allen Hill, Tony Cass and Graham Davis made the crucial discovery which led to the development of a unique electronic blood glucose sensor now used by millions of diabetics worldwide.
16 July 2012

1. A.E.G. Cass, G. Davis, G.D. Francis, H.A.O. Hill, W.J. Aston, I.J. Higgins, E.V. Plotkin, L.D.L. Scott & A.P. Turner, “Ferrocene-Mediated Enzyme Electrode for Amperometric Determination of Glucose”, Analyt. Chem. 1984, 56, 667-671.

Chemical Landmark Plaque for James ‘Paraffin’ Young, The Bennie Museum, Bathgate, West Lothian

Professor Lesley Yellowless and Ian Blackley with the plaque commemorating James 'Paraffin' Young

Professor Lesley Yellowless and Ian Blackley with the plaque commemorating James ‘Paraffin’ Young at the Bennie Museum, Bathgate, West Lothian. Copyright: Royal Society of Chemistry

This plaque will draw to public attention an individual who was responsible for starting a major chemical industry in West Lothian, but who hitherto has had no memorial in the conventional sense. However, anyone who visits the region to the west of Edinburgh cannot fail to miss the huge heaps of a pinkish colour known as “bings”. These are the physical remains of the shale oil industry started over 160 years ago by James Young.

Young was born to a cabinet maker in Glasgow, and after a rudimentary education he initially worked for his father. At the age of 19 he enrolled on evening classes at Anderson’s University where he came to the attention of the Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Graham, later to become the first President of the Chemical Society. By 1834 he was lecturing for Graham, and in 1837 he moved to London to join Graham at University College. By 1838 he was employed by James Muspratt at his chemical works in Newton le Willows, and in 1844 he was manager of the chemical works of Tennant, Clow & Co. in Manchester. It was while there that a former fellow student at Anderson’s, Lyon Playfair, told him about a spring of petroleum yielding 300 gallons per day at a colliery in Derbyshire. Young was soon refining the oil. At first the most important product was spindle oil to lubricate the machinery of the cotton mills of Manchester.

Young erroneously thought that the oil had been produced from coal by a natural underground distillation process, so he started to experiment in the production of oil by heating various coals and shales. He discovered that the best material to use was torbanite or cannel coal, found near Bathgate, which is so rich in oil that a pointed stick of it will act as a candle (the name “cannel” comes from the Gaelic “conneal” meaning candle). Young patented his distillation process in 1850, and opened his oilworks near Bathgate soon afterwards.

The industry flourished, but the torbanite was soon near exhaustion, so the local shale was mined instead. Although this was not so rich in oil, it was much more plentiful. Other companies were established to obtain oil from the mined shale, and Young was forced to defend his patent rights on a number of occasions. Soon after the patent expired in 1864 there was a boom in the industry, and by 1870 there were 97 firms processing oil shale in the area. Young retired at that time a very wealthy man. He devoted his remaining years to science, leisure and philanthropy. His philanthropic activities included endowing at Anderson’s University the Young chair of technical chemistry which still continues at the University of Strathclyde. He also financed two of the expeditions to Africa of David Livingstone (another former fellow student at Anderson’s), and he erected statues to Livingstone and Thomas Graham in Glasgow. He served as Vice-President of the Chemical Society from 1879-1881.

Eventually the industry supported some 40,000 people in the area, and the crude oil obtained in the primary distillation was being further refined into a wide variety of products including, in the early 20th century, motor spirit. After World War I the importation of oil from overseas made shale oil uneconomic, and although the industry enjoyed a revival during World War II, the final works closed in 1962.

The unveiling ceremony commenced with an introduction by Malcolm Simpson, Chair of the Bennie Museum, which houses an interesting local collection. We then heard a presentation on James Young from Dr Robin Chesters, Director of the Almond Valley Heritage Trust. Professor Lesley Yellowlees, RSC President-Elect, then spoke about the Chemical landmark Scheme and we also heard from Ian Blackley, a retired diplomat, who is a great-great-grandson of James Young. Then followed the unveiling of the plaque, on which the wording reads:

James ‘Paraffin’ Young (1811-1883)

In recognition of his outstanding contribution, started on a site close to here in Birniehill Bathgate, where in c. 1850 he processed torbanite (‘cannel coal’) to create the first commercial production of paraffin oil in the world, leading to the major shale oil industry in West Lothian.

27 April 2012

The event was attended by teachers and pupils from two local schools (the James Young High School and Bathgate Academy). Also present was Graeme Morrice, MP for the Livingston Constituency, which includes Young’s house and the sites of some of his later works. It was a pleasure to represent the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group at this event, ably organised (as always) by Pauline Meakins. And it is nice to know that Young now has not only bings as his memorial, but a handsome plaque.

Postscript: Shortly after it was unveiled the plaque was stolen, apparently by scrap metal thieves. Luckily it was later recovered undamaged, but at the time of writing no decision has been reached as to where it should be re-sited.

Website: The Bennie Museum

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, opened 2008

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, opened 2008

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has evolved from the Center for the History of Chemistry which was established in 1982 as a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania and the American Chemical Society. It has developed independently since 1987 and it assumed its present name in 1992. The guiding force of the organisation up to 2007 was the historian of chemistry, Arnold Thackray; the current President is Tom Tritton. The CHF occupies a substantial former bank and adjacent buildings in the historical area of Philadelphia (contiguous to the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house, which was destroyed in 1812). The CHF offers resources to science historians, and it awards a number of fellowships annually. It has a massive library of more than 100,000 volumes (the catalogue can be accessed on-line), archival and graphic collections and a major resource of historical chemical instruments. A group which conducts research into contemporary chemical science policy oversees the production of oral histories, of which there are now more than 425. The CHF issues a magazine three times a year, Chemical Heritage, and it publishes monographs in

There are few really significant displays of the history of chemistry to be seen anywhere in the world. The CHF’s Masao Horiba Gallery is one of the few, and it is amongst the most recent. Its importance is based on a coherent and systematic collecting policy, and intelligent displays which are addressed primarily to thinking adults. As the development of the CHF’s museum activity only started rather recently, the strength of the collection lies in the period since the Second World War. Expert advice to the CHF has been provided by a group of distinguished chemists, meeting twice a year, who themselves were involved in the development and use of analytical instrumentation. Dedicated curators on the staff arrange to collect, conserve and store items which are identified as being desirable for the collection. It was they who developed the current permanent gallery, opened in 2008, named ‘Making Modernity’. There is additionally a small gallery for changing exhibitions.

The displays are strongly object-based and deal with challenging topics. The main hall includes islands of objects which are concerned with instrumentation and how measurements are used to illuminate chemical problems. Around the edge of this gallery are displays showing earlier techniques and some of the novel products developed by chemists, such as dyes and synthetic materials. Dominating the space is the very large Video Column which is an innovative and thrilling form of presenting the chemical elements, indicating what their properties are by means of short film clips. Above the main hall, and adjacent to an excellent modern conference centre, runs a gallery with cases presenting displays about chemists and themes. The CHF possesses a collection of portraits, including particularly fine examples of Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley (who spent the last ten years of his life in Pennsylvania) and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. One of the themes concerns young people’s chemistry sets and teaching more generally. The display was developed with the design input of the well-known New York firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and for those who know about such things, the presentation bears their strong signature. An extremely important group of seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings which are displayed (but not in the area to which the general public is admitted) offer representations of alchemists in their laboratories (see Lawrence M Principe and Lloyd DeWitt Transmutations: Alchemy in Art (CHF: Philadelphia, 2002)).

Chemistry displays in museums are particularly difficult to develop. Conceptually, the subject is difficult for most visitors. The objects themselves may be important, but that does not make them visually compelling. It is all too easy to end up with a ‘book on a wall’ type of display which offers verbal explanation, but little else. The CHF has been aware of the problems and the dangers which lurk. A visit for science historians is highly recommended (it has to be admitted that the author of this piece was involved in the establishment of ‘Making Modernity’), in part to act as a focus for discussion of the public presentation of recent science history. A particularly interesting comparison is with the Museum of the Royal Institution, London, which was developed at more or less the same time.

Address: Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA
Tel: (001) 215-925-2222

Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum, Widnes

Lablanc Process

Lablanc Process from the historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre is the only science and discovery centre in the country devoted to chemistry. It was opened on its current site in 1986 and is run by a charitable Trust. The building was originally built as offices for John Hutchinson’s alkali works (probably in 1862). After the absorption of Hutchinson’s by the United Alkali Company in 1891 the building was leased in 1893 (and then subsequently sold in 1898) to Barnett Dutton, Auctioneers of Widnes, later becoming part of the Gossage soap works, founded by William Gossage (1799-1877) in 1908. Finally, with the rest of the Gossage estate, it was acquired by Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., on 5th October, 1948, and adapted for use as laboratories. After it closed in 1961 the Gossage Building was used by several companies including Hughes and Treleaven, who were the last owner before Catalyst was established.

There are five floors. The ground floor contains a reasonably priced, comfortable café, and a large exhibition area of mainly interactive exhibits on a wide range of topics and materials, e.g. soaps, dyestuffs, autocatalysts, photovoltaic cells, batteries etc. There is a Periodic Table near the entrance where there is still space to sponsor your own element. On the first floor there are two lecture theatres and a working laboratory where no less than 900 presentations of chemical experiments were conducted last year. Various chemical processes are covered here too in the well-lit and well-arranged galleries, e.g. on the Leblanc, Solvay, Castner-Kellner and other processes; materials such as penicillin, DDT, polythene, halothane (discovered in 1951 in the nearby ICI Widnes lab.) etc. are shown. On the second floor there are exhibits on plastics. Don’t miss the top floor called the Observatory: this glass-covered structure gives magnificent, panoramic 3600 views of the surrounding Merseyside area, most of which had housed some of the world’s largest chemical industry (ICI and other firms); some are still there of course, much has gone.

Catalyst was awarded a Royal Society of Chemistry blue plaque in October 2011 to commemorate the 1951 synthesis and subsequent commercial development and use of halothane, the first inhalation anaesthetic designed by chemists. Halothane was nominated for a plaque by the RSC Liverpool Local Section, and the Historical Group was represented at the presentation by Bill Griffith and John Hudson. The ICI General Chemicals Widnes Research Laboratory, where the synthesis was achieved, has since been demolished, so the plaque was placed on the nearby Catalyst Centre, which occupies the site of the former ICI Tower laboratory. Catalyst now has a permanent display relating to halothane, and is also the repository of the ICI General Chemical Archive which contains the original documentation relating to halothane. One particular highlight is a the series of chemical demonstrations given to children belonging to the very popular Catalyst Saturday Science Club and their parents.

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst.

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

The proceedings commenced with a welcome from Dr Jenny Clucas, a Trustee of Catalyst. She outlined the role of Catalyst, which is the only science discovery centre in the country devoted to chemistry, as well as being a museum of the chemical industry. There then followed a presentation by Professor Colin Suckling, son of Dr Charles Suckling who led the team which synthesised and developed halothane. Several other members of the family were present, but Professor Suckling reported that sadly his father was too infirm to be at the event but was extremely proud that he and his team were being honoured in this way.

Professor Suckling briefly outlined the history of anaesthetics. He referred to the fact that the first attempt to establish the scientific basis of anaesthesia had been made by Dr John Snow in the nineteenth century, and that in 2008 the RSC had erected a Landmark Plaque to Snow to commemorate his demonstration of the mode of transmission of cholera. The halothane story commenced when Dr John Ferguson, ICI Head of Research, suggested to Charles Suckling that he investigate a range of fluorinated hydrocarbons as possible anaesthetic agents. The most widely used compounds at the time were chloroform, diethyl ether, nitrous oxide, and cyclopropane. The ICI research resulted in the compound 2-bromo-2-chloro-1,1,1-trifluoroethane, which was found to be far superior to the anaesthetics then in use. It was safer, non-inflammable, and had a relatively low toxicity. Known as halothane, and trademarked as Fluothane, it was used worldwide in millions of operations between 1956 and the 1990s. It still finds some application in the third world, although it has largely been superseded by halogenated ethers such as enfluane and isofluane.

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

Professor Paul O’Brien, Vice-President of the RSC and Professor of Inorganic Materials at Manchester University, then spoke about the Landmark Plaque scheme. He pointed out that the scheme helps to bring to the attention of the general public the role that chemistry has played, and continues to play, in advancing human wellbeing. The RSC normally erects three or four plaques per year, but a larger number will be unveiled in 2011, the International Year of Chemistry. Halothane was a perfect subject for a plaque, and Catalyst was the ideal location for it. He then presented the plaque to Jenny Clucas. The wording on the plaque reads:

ICI General Chemicals Widnes Research Laboratory in recognition of the outstanding scientific contribution made by Charles Suckling and others, close to this site in 1951, in the synthesis and subsequent commercial development of halothane, the word’s first synthetic inhalation anaesthetic. 22 October 2011.

A visit to Catalyst is highly recommended.

Halothane chemical plaque

Professor Colin Suckling (left) and Professor Paul O’Brien presenting the Chemical Landmark Plaque for Halothane, Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum, Widnes to Dr Jenny Clucas on 22 October 2011.

Further information

Address: The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre (or ‘Catalyst’ as it is simply called on the building) is on Mersey Road, Widnes, Cheshire, WA8 0DF


Opening Hours: 1000-1700 on Tuesdays to Fridays and from 1000-1700 on Saturdays and Sundays; closed on Mondays (except during local school holidays).

There is an admission charge.

Rutherford’s Nuclear Atom, Manchester

Landmark Plaque being presented

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. Photograph by Diana Leitch.

Chemical Landmark plaque to mark the centenary of Rutherford’s nuclear atom

The presentation took place in the Conference Centre, University Place, Manchester University on Monday 8th August 2011 as the opening part of the Rutherford Centennial Conference organised by the Institute of Physics to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Rutherford’s paper describing the discovery of the atomic nucleus. The conference marked one hundred years of the atomic nucleus by addressing the wide range of current topics characterising modern nuclear physics, including nuclear structure and astrophysics, hadron structure and spectroscopy, weak interactions and relativistic heavy-ion collisions. The historical aspects of his discovery were dealt with as part of the RSC’s Landmark event.

The conference itself was opened by Mr Derek Leask, High Commissioner for New Zealand, an appropriate choice given that Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealander by birth and lived there until he took up his postgraduate studentship in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1895.

Jeff Hughes of Manchester University gave an address outlining Rutherford’s life and scientific achievements. This was an amplification of his talk which he gave to our Group in March 2011 as part of our Mme Curie conference. Rutherford was appointed Macdonald Professor of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in 1898 where he quickly became an authority on the new science of radioactivity. In 1907 he moved to Manchester University and in 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his McGill work on radioactive decay. As he regarded himself primarily as a physicist, he remarked that this was the greatest transformation in his career! At Manchester, Rutherford and co-worker Hans Geiger, together with their student Ernest Marsden, used α-particles to bombard gold foil. They observed an unexpected back-scattering of the particles and this led Rutherford to propose his theory of the nuclear atom. The results upon which his theory was based were, in fact, published in 1909 but it was at a meeting of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on 7th March 1911 that his conclusions as to the nature of the atom with its nuclear “core” were given a public airing. The hypothesis was given a mathematical interpretation by Niels Bohr in 1913 into its now familiar form.

The second speaker was John Schiffer, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago who spoke on the development of nuclear physics post-Rutherford. This proved an ambitious aim for what was a lecture of less than an hour’s duration, but John managed valiantly and not only drew attention to the other landmarks that map out this field but also found time to speculate which of the current researches might be identified as the most promising ones.

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. The text on the plaque reads:

Ernest Rutherford on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus by Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and pioneer in nuclear physics, at the University of Manchester.

Prof Sean Freeman, of the Nuclear Physics Research Group School at the University of Manchester said: “It is a real pleasure for the Royal Society of Chemistry to be involved in the celebrations of the centenary of Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus.

“His genius uncovered the structure of the atom and effectively initiated the whole area of nuclear physics. It is particularly nice for the RSC to join us in the opening ceremony of the conference as Rutherford won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances’.

The University is particularly proud to receive a Chemical Landmark plaque to mark this anniversary”.

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: [English language version]

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.)


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.