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]

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.)

City of Science and Industry, France

City of Science & Industry

City of Science & Industry by Katchooo. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

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.

Maison d’Auguste Comte, Paris

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.