Harvard College Observatory

Situated in cluster of red brick buildings to the east of Harvard, Harvard College Observatory (HCO) is an astrophysical institution managed by the Harvard University Department of Astronomy. Founded in 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, HCO’s mission is to advance the knowledge of the universe through astronomical research and education. Harvard College Observatory contributed to astronomical research and both its research and premises are an example of the 19th and 2oth century achievements in the fields of science and architecture. HCO is a place of interest regarding the history of science, reflecting not only the history of astronomy and astrophotography but also the role of women in science.

Exterior of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The building houses the Plate Stacks (©Copyright Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Exterior of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The building houses the Plate Stacks (©Copyright Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The establishment of HCO is interwoven with the development of astronomy within higher education institutions in North America. There were two main reasons behind HCO’s foundation. The first reason was that in the late 19th century astronomy was beginning to be taught as a science subject and not as an extension of philosophy. The second motivation was that universities were starting to receive funds for astronomical research. Astronomy is a science based on observations and exact calculations, so there was a need for a place where researchers would have the means to conduct their research.

In 1973, HCO and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory formed the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). The entrance is at the west of CfA’s premises, near Madison Street, in 60 Garden Street. The first building of today’s CfA complex is the mansion of the HCO. It is a building made of bricks that it was built to safeguard astronomical data. The establishment of this building as well as the arrival of Harvard’s first ‘Astronomical Observer’ in 1839, William Cranch Bond (a well-known Boston clockmaker), marked the foundation of HCO.  The first astronomical instruments were installed during the fall of the same year.

The mansion served as an office, when astronomer Edward Charles Pickering became director of HCO, in 1877. Pickering advanced HCO, by establishing a photographic program that covered both the northern and southern hemisphere, as well as opening the doors of astronomy to women. The new director recognised that the new technologies, such as telescopes and astrophotography, facilitated data collection and made possible to photograph light patterns around stars. Moreover, he acknowledged the women’s suffrage movement and the abilities of educated women. Pickering convinced the Harvard Corporation to hire women to work as ‘computers’, to catalogue and identify stars, a meticulous work originally performed by young men.

 Photograph of the Harvard Computers, a group of women who worked under Edward Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. The photograph was taken on 13 May 1913 in front of Building C, which was then the newest building at the Observatory. The image was discovered in an album which had once belonged to Annie Jump Cannon. Image courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Back row (L to R): Margaret Harwood (far left), Mollie O'Reilly, Edward C. Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland (behind Cannon), Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte (behind Cushman), Grace Brooks. Front row: Arville Walker, unknown (possibly Johanna Mackie), Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods (Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Photograph of the Harvard Computers, a group of women who worked under Edward Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. The photograph was taken on 13 May 1913 in front of Building C, which was then the newest building at the Observatory. The image was discovered in an album which had once belonged to Annie Jump Cannon. Image courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Back row (L to R): Margaret Harwood (far left), Mollie O’Reilly, Edward C. Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland (behind Cannon), Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte (behind Cushman), Grace Brooks. Front row: Arville Walker, unknown (possibly Johanna Mackie), Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods (Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Moving towards the top of the Observatory Hill there are a number of domes.

Grounds of Harvard College Observatory, circa 1899. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Grounds of Harvard College Observatory, circa 1899. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Since the late 19th century, the grounds of HCO have consisted of numerous domes surrounding the mansion, as well as laboratories, dormitories and a dance hall- today converted to laboratories, offices and meeting halls. Within these premises the women ‘computers’, who were college graduates, teachers and single mothers, known as ‘Pickering’s Women’ or ‘Pickering’s Harem’, implemented essential classification research on photographic images and identified around 400,000 stars. Their work allowed the determination of the composition and position of these stars. Pickering employed more than 80 women to photograph and catalogue the stars, effectively mapping the night sky. The work of many of those women at HCO advanced astronomical research: Annie Jump Cannon, for instance, catalogued over 350,000 stars and developed a classification system that it is still used today; Williamina Fleming worked on the first system to classify stars by spectrum; Henrietta Swan Leavitt generated a law to calculate stellar distances and Antonia Maury assisted in spotting for the first time a double star and formed her own classification system.

Women ‘computers’ at the Harvard College Observatory, circa 1890. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857– 1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952). Seated, third from left, with magnifying glass: Antonia Maury; standing, at center: Williamina Fleming. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Women ‘computers’ at the Harvard College Observatory, circa 1890. The group included Harvard computer and
astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–
1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952). Seated, third from left, with magnifying glass: Antonia Maury;
standing, at center: Williamina Fleming. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

The Sears Tower on Observatory Hill is part of the observatory’s Building A and is now considered a historic astronomical observatory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sears Tower-Harvard Observatory (Source: Daderot. The copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain).

Sears Tower-Harvard Observatory (Source: Daderot. The
copyright holder of this work, release this work into
the public domain).

This square brick building with a Greek Revival entrance is the oldest part of the complex and was built in 1843. In 1847, a visit from a comet became the stimulus to purchase the 15-inch Great Refractor from Munich. This, HCO’s first telescope, was placed in the Sears Tower and was active for nearly 75 years. It was the most important device for astronomical research in the United States for 20 years.  This telescope contributed to important achievements in astronomy: the discovery of the eighth satellite of Saturn in 1848; the first observation of Saturn’s inner ring in 1850; the first daguerreotype of the bright Vega, in 1850, as well as to take detailed images of the moon (1847 – 1852). In 1851, these first clear photographs of the moon were honoured with an award at the Great Exhibition in London. During the past 50 years, the Great Refractor has been used for public ‘Observatory Nights’ and special research projects. It is now being restored. The Sears Tower is now used as a laboratory, library and observatory.

 

Sketch of the 15-inch Great Refractor telescope at Harvard College Observatory (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Sketch of the 15-inch Great Refractor
telescope at Harvard College Observatory
(Source: Harvard College Observatory. This
is a faithful photographic reproduction of a
two-dimensional, public domain work of
art. The work of art itself is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

In 1955, Donald Menzel, chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University and Director of the HCO, supported the relocation of the the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) to Cambridge. George Field facilitated the interactions between HCO and SAO by creating the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in 1973.  HCO is now part of the CfA that supports research in astronomy and astrophysics as well as sponsoring a variety of workshops, conferences and seminars. Additionally, CfA is a venue aimed at engaging the public with science by organising ‘Observatory Nights’- free of charge for the public- at the premises of the HCO, as well as by hosting lectures and events on astronomy throughout the year.

Harvard Observatory Photographic Plate, 1897. This telescopic image of the Large Magellanic Cloud was produced on a photographic plate by Harvard Observatory. Each individual notation made on the plate denotes a star, astronomical object or area of interest designated for possible further investigation (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Harvard Observatory Photographic Plate,
1897. This telescopic image of the Large
Magellanic Cloud was produced on a
photographic plate by Harvard Observatory.
Each individual notation made on the plate
denotes a star, astronomical object or area of
interest designated for possible further
investigation (Source: Harvard College
Observatory. This work is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alison Doane, curator of a glass database, highlighted the contribution of HCO in astronomical research stressing that: ‘Besides being 25 percent of the world’s total of astronomical photographic plates, this is the only collection that covers both hemispheres,’ (The New York Times, July 10, 2007). HCO houses now a collection of historic significance which includes around 500,000 glass astronomical plates (mid 1880s – 1989) as well as Daguerreotypes and collodion plates of the planets, the moon, the sun and solar eclipses (1849 – 1885). Digital Access to a Sky Century @Harvard (DASCH) is a project in progress which aims at digitalising and archiving these glass plates that cover 100 years of temporal variations in the universe.

Plate Stacks at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (©Copyright Ashley P, 1 June, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Plate Stacks at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (©Copyright Ashley P, 1 June, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Address:

Further information

Books & Articles

Bailey, S. I., The History and work of Harvard Observatory, 1839 to 1927: an outline of the origin, development, and researches of the astronomical observatory of Harvard college together with a brief biographies of its leading members’ Published for the Observatory, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, INC: New York and London, 1931)

Bunch, B.H., & Hellemans, A., The History of Science and Technology: A browser’s guide to the great discoveries, inventions, and the people who made them, from the dawn of time to today, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Hoffleit, D., Women in the History of Variable Star Astronomy, (The American Association of Variable Star Observers: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993)

Jones, B.Z., The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919, (Harvard University Press:  Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971)

Mack, P. E., ‘Strategies and Compromises – Women in Astronomy at Harvard College Observatory 1870-1920’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 21:1, (1990): 65- 76

Websites

Harvard College Observatory, http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/hco/

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/

Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, volume III http://ads.harvard.edu/books/hcoann/toc.html

Johnson G., ‘A Trip Back in Time and Space’, The New York Times, 10 July, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/science/10astro.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH),  http://dasch.rc.fas.harvard.edu/status.php

The ‘Harvard Computers’, http://www.womeninscience.org/story.php?storyID=108

The women who mapped the universe and still couldn’t get any respect, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-women-who-mapped-the-universe-and-still-couldnt-get-any-respect-9287444/?no-ist

Kew Observatory, Richmond

Side view of Kew Observatory

Side view of Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory is close to the River Thames in the Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey. It is not open to the public, but can be viewed through the metal gates to its enclosure from the end of a road leading to it through the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club. (Beware of flying golf balls!) In the middle years of the nineteenth century Kew was a major centre for research into Sun-Earth connections, geomagnetism and meteorology and from 1900 to 1902 it was briefly the first home of the National Physical Laboratory, now at Teddington.

On 3 June 1769 the second transit of Venus of the eighteenth century occurred. This event was partially visible from the UK and King George III commissioned the building of the observatory in the Old Deer Park. On 3 June the sky cleared just in time for the transit. The King, Demainbray and a small group of others successfully observed the ingress of Venus onto the Sun’s disc. In the 1770s Kew was the site of the successful testing of John Harrison’s marine chronometer that enabled sailors to find their longitude at sea.

In 1841 the government decided to stop maintaining the observatory and offered the use of the building to the Royal Society. In March 1842 the Royal Society turned down the government’s offer, but by then the Royal Society had a rival in the form of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), who quickly made moves to acquire it. Under the BAAS, Kew Observatory was soon re-established, initially concentrating on meteorology. The main mover and shaker behind the scenes at Kew under the BAAS was the geophysicist and Royal Artillery officer Edward Sabine. As well as meteorology, in the 1840s he gradually introduced geomagnetic research at Kew as the BAAS’s limited budget allowed.

The Sun and its influence on the Earth

Soon after Kew was acquired by the BAAS, German amateur astronomer Heinrich Schwabe discovered that the number of spots seen on the Sun varies in a cycle of approximately 10 years. In the early 1850s Sabine discovered that Schwabe’s sunspot cycle exactly matched a 10-year cycle of variations in Earth’s magnetic field. Astronomers quickly became interested in observing the Sun. In 1856 the printer, chemist and amateur astronomer Warren De La Rue designed a ‘photoheliograph’, a special telescope for recording photographic images of the Sun. This was used at Kew to take daily solar images from 1859 until the early 1870s. Solar activity was measured by working out the total surface area of the Sun covered by sunspots on the photographs.

In 1859 Kew played an important role in discovering a connection between what are now known as solar flares and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. On 1 September of that year the magnetometers at Kew recorded a brief but very noticeable jump in the Earth’s magnetic field at exactly the same time as a flare was observed by two amateur astronomers.

In 1860 the photoheliograph was briefly removed from Kew to a site in Spain, where De La Rue used it to take some of the first good pictures of a total solar eclipse. He used these images to show that prominences are part of the Sun and do not, as some believed, belong to the Moon.

Meteorology and the National Physical Laboratory

Ever since it was acquired by the BAAS in 1842, meteorology was a major part of the observational programme at Kew. Systematic records were kept of the main meteorological phenomena such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity and experiments were made in using automatic instruments to record the weather.

Meteorology itself underwent major changes in the years after 1852. In 1854 the Board of Trade established a ‘Meteorological Department’, now known as the Met Office, initially to provide weather information to ships at sea. From the earliest days of the Met Office, Kew was vital to its work. It became the Office’s central observatory, from which its best observations were obtained. Instruments to be used on board ships were sent to Kew for testing, to ensure they all complied with the same standard of accuracy. The testing of instruments became a major part of the work at Kew, especially towards the end of the century. From the 1870s instruments verified at Kew bore a distinctive monogram, which became an international symbol of instrument quality.

Meanwhile, the BAAS was finding Kew an increasingly expensive drain on its limited finances and so in 1870 it was taken over by the Royal Society. In the 1890s calls intensified for a national physical laboratory for calibrating instruments on a large scale and establishing standards of measurement. Kew Observatory, with its existing calibration programme, was the obvious location and the National Physical Laboratory was officially established there in 1900. However, the building soon proved to be too cramped for the purpose and local residents objected to new buildings going up in the Old Deer Park, so a new site had to be found. In 1902 the laboratory was moved to new premises at Bushy House, Teddington, the headquarters of the NPL today.

Kew Observatory in the 20th century and beyond

The solar programme was moved to Greenwich in 1873 and geomagnetic observations were discontinued in 1925. In 1910 the observatory was taken over by the Met Office and it remained a major observatory and research station in meteorology for much of the twentieth century. Sadly, government cutbacks forced the Met Office to close down operations at Kew at the end of 1980. Until 2011 the building was leased by the Crown Estate (its original owner) to the holding company of Autoglass, who used it as offices. Now (2013) it is about to be converted and modernised inside, before being sold as a kind of millionaire’s dream property. As a listed building, however, its external appearance cannot be significantly altered.

Further Reading

Cawood, John, 1979. The Magnetic Crusade: Science and Politics in Early Victorian Britain. Isis 70, 492-518.

Clark, Stuart, 2007. The Sun Kings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howarth, O J R, 1922. The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect. 1831-1921. London: BAAS. (A second edition was published in 1931.)

Jacobs, L, 1969. The 200-Years’ Story of Kew Observatory. Meteorological Magazine, 98, 162-171.

Magnello, Eileen, 2000. A Century of Measurement: An Illustrated History of the National Physical Laboratory. Canopus Publishing.

Scott, Robert Henry, 1885. The History of the Kew Observatory. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 39, 37-86.

Walker, Malcolm, 2012. History of the Meteorological Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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”.

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.

Richard Feynman’s Grave, California

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

This last December, I paid my respects at the grave of physicist Richard Feynman, interred with his wife Gweneth at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California.  Feynman died of cancer in 1988 and his wife died the following year.

The grave is marked by a very simple plaque, which my wife and I would never have found without the help of the cemetery staff.  Even then, until we brushed it off, the plaque was barely visible among the leaves and twigs –  fallout from the Santa ana winds that have just ripped through the region.

Today was calm and sunny though, and the cemetery is a beautiful spot to find yourself.  Lots of trees with birds and squirrels running about, the whole overlooked by the San Gabriel Mountains and Mount Wilson (of 100 inch telescope fame).

Richard_Feynman at Fermilab

Richard Feynman at Fermilab. Image in public domain and available via Wikicommons

Feynman researched and taught as Professor of Physics at the nearby California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1950 until his death.

If you don’t know about Richard Feynman, I recommend in addition to his Wikipedia  page you check out the biographies Genius by James Gleick, and Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss.  I also enjoy failing to completely understand (note the word order) Feynman’s 1979 Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures on Quantum Electro-dynamics (QED).

More recently, here’s physicist Leonard Susskind’s personal insight on the man in his January 2011 TED talk ‘My friend Richard Feynman’

and the BBC Horizon ‘No Ordinary Genius’:

 

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

T

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.

The Zentralfriedhof, Vienna

Zentralfriedhof in Wien, Austria

Zentralfriedhof in Wien, Austria by <a href="by Tobi_2008. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The Zentralfriedhof (cemetery) on the edge of the city is a place of pilgrimage for many visitors to Vienna. It has a special section of Ehrengraben (honor graves) where Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, and many Viennese Burgermeister are buried. There is a scientist among them, however, Ludwig Boltzmann, interred in Section 14C. Being placed in this company is a singular tribute, considering that his peer group in Austria did not seem to like him too much for most of the time when he was alive. The tombstone itself bears the inscription “S = k log W,” Boltzmann’s famous equation linking entropy to the world of atoms and molecules. (How many tombstones in the world carry equations?) Other members of Boltzmann’s family are buried with him, up to his grandson, his last male descendant, who was killed in the war in 1943 in Smolensk.

Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Leidse Flessen, Teylers Museum Haarlem

Leidse Flessen, Teylers Museum Haarlem by koopmanrob. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Haarlem is in the heart of the Dutch bulb centre, and each spring the road from Haarlem to Leiden affords an incredible multi-coloured spectacle, unequalled anywhere in the world. The city itself has a history going back to the Middle Ages and counts Frans Hals and other artists among its former citizens. Its interest for our purposes lies in the Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the Netherlands (founded 1778), dedicated by its founder to serve both science and the arts. Today the museum can hardly be classed as among the most distinguished institutions of its kind, but it has a certain charm and happens to be a good place to focus on two highlights in the history of science, one ancient and one very modem.

The museum’s first director, Martinus von Marum, was an indiscriminate collector, and the museum’s contents still retain their original haphazard character, including dinosaur skeletons, minerals of all kinds, old telescopes, and ancient air pumps. There is a battery of early Leyden jars and a friction generator for charging them, but little in the way of explanation to indicate how they work. One of the telescopes is a lovely wooden one, built by the Herschels in England.

One unique exhibit, typical of what an indiscriminate collector might acquire, is a skeleton of the famous Homo diluvii testis, a supposedly human witness of the biblical deluge. It illustrates one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of paleontology, promoted by an avid fossil collector, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer (1672-1733). Scheuchzer was obsessed with the search for remains of the miserable sinners who perished in Noah’s Flood and eventually actually believed that he had found human skeletons to fill the bill in a quarry on the German side of the Rhine, near Schaffhausen. The quarry men there, aware of his passion, obliged Scheuchzer with a steady supply of the skeletons over the next several years. Scheuchzer enthusiastically broadcast his discovery far and wide, with the warning “Take Heed!” as a preface to his tract. He might have applied this warning to himself, for one of his friends raised a valid objection to his sermonizing, namely that the skeletal vertebrae in his specimens lacked a canal for passage of the spinal cord and therefore could hardly be mammalian, much less human. But Scheuchzer was too full of enthusiasm to listen and at least part of the outside world agreed, for Homo diluvii testis became an accepted textbook item.

It was not until 1825 that the record was set straight: France’s Georges Cuvier came to Haarlem to examine the specimen there, and pronounced it to be the remains of a large salamander. It was then noted that all the specimens that Scheuchzer had obtained from the obliging German quarry men contained only the top half of the skeletons-the bottom half, which would have included a long tail, was invariably missing. The visitor will also note that the tailless skeletons are not much more than half a meter long, and it is not easy to understand today how anyone could ever have imagined them to be the remains of human beings, even without the problem of the spinal cord canal. (The skeleton is in Showcase 29 on the main floor. Several samples are provided, together with a Swiss stamp that pictures an uncut giant salamander skeleton, complete with tail.)

In a more recent period, Hendrick Antoon Lorentz was curator of the Teylers Museum for 16 years, a curious choice, given that he was a theoretical physicist. It appears that his teaching duties at the University of Leiden were becoming increasingly burdensome to him (he had been there for 30 years) and the curatorship was made available to him in 1912 to give him more time for his research. (Should we have invited a comment from a typically harried director of a present-day museum?) There is a portrait of Lorentz just by the entrance to the old Teyler library in the museum. His books and notes are kept here and are available for scholars who might need them.

University of Manchester: Coupland Street to Bridgeford Street

The unglamorous rear (Bridgeford Street side) of the laboratories.

The unglamorous rear (Bridgeford Street side) of the laboratories. Above the rectangular plaque was the room where the first Manchester computer was originally assembled.

By 1900, Owens College was expanding, sweeping away the terraced residential streets of Chorlton-on-Medlock. While chemistry, medicine and the life sciences developed on and around the original site, physics and the various branches of engineering were steadily relocated in new buildings to the north, between Coupland Street and Bridge (now Bridgeford) Street.

In the nineteenth century, the College’s international reputation had focused strongly on chemistry. Into the twentieth – although the chemical laboratories were still growing – its world role was to be defined increasingly by physics. Key to this development was the prominent red-brick building on Coupland Street, now known as the Rutherford Building. On its opening in 1900, this was the fourth-largest physics laboratory in the world, after those of Johns Hopkins, Darmstadt and Strasbourg.

The facilities were largely devised by Arthur Schuster, Professor of Physics since 1888. Schuster had a key role in shaping the College’s overall development: alongside the historian T F Tout, he oversaw its transformation into the Victoria University of Manchester, completed in 1904. Schuster was the son of a German banking family, and contributed to the equipment of the laboratory from his personal wealth. Under his charge, student numbers in physics grew from 10 to around 250.

Pediment above the main entrance to the Physics Laboratory

Pediment above the main entrance to the Physics Laboratory, showing the crest of the original Victoria University of Manchester.

Schuster was succeeded in 1907 by the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford, a specialist in radioactivity. Under Rutherford’s supervision, this building was home to investigations into the nature of the atom which in many ways defined the research agenda for twentieth-century physics.

Hans Geiger developed the first Geiger counter here with Rutherford in 1908, and around 1913 Henry Moseley’s X-ray diffraction established the relationship between nuclear charge and atomic number. Moseley, regarded by Rutherford as a star student, died amid the carnage of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915.

The department had an unusual research culture. Ernest Marsden, later a leading scientific administrator in New Zealand, was a final-year undergraduate when he achieved the famous deflections which led Rutherford to propose what became known as the “nuclear” model of sub-atomic structure. Atoms, said Rutherford, are composed mostly of empty space; most of their mass is packed into a tiny core, or nucleus, in the centre.

Plaque on the wall of the 1900 Physics Laboratory (Rutherford Building).

Plaque on the wall of the 1900 Physics Laboratory (Rutherford Building).

Manchester under Rutherford became one of the major centres of cutting-edge research in both experimental and theoretical physics. The Danish grand theorist Niels Bohr worked here for a time in the 1910s, combining Rutherford’s model with Max Planck’s quantum theory to propose the orbital model of atomic structure. So too did James Chadwick, co-discoverer of the neutron.

Rutherford left to become Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1919. One of his final achievements at Manchester was to demonstrate the artificial disintegration of nitrogen by alpha-particle bombardment, an achievement often referred to as the “first splitting of the atom.”

The original Whitworth Laboratories.

The original Whitworth Laboratories.

The Whitworth Laboratories of 1909 were the territory of Osborne Reynolds, Professor of Engineering over a remarkably long tenure from 1868 to 1905, best known for introducing the Reynolds number in fluid mechanics.

The Laboratories’ graduates include Beatrice Shilling, who entered the electrical engineering programme as one of its first two female students in 1929, transferring to mechanical engineering for a Master’s in 1932. Manifesting an impressively absolute disregard for conventional standards of middle-class female behaviour, she combined a career in aeronautics with a passion for high-performance motorbikes, lapping Brooklands at 106 miles per hour in 1934. Shilling spent most of her career at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, notably producing a modification to the Rolls-Royce Merlin carburettor (the “RAE restrictor” or “Tilly orifice”) which greatly improved British aerial manoeuvrability in 1941.

The purpose-built home of the Mark 1 computer on Coupland Street (now Coupland Building 1).

The purpose-built home of the Mark 1 computer on Coupland Street (now Coupland Building 1). Alan Turing's office window is at the right-hand end on the upper floor.

Behind the Physics Department, on the Bridge Street side, grew a complex of extensions. Some of which dealt with “electro-technics”: broadly, what is now called electrical engineering and information science. This was the cradle of Manchester’s early international strength in computer research, which owed much to the Second World War. On the engineering side, F C (Freddie) Williams and Tom Kilburn had worked on radar at the Telecommunications Research Establishment; in mathematics were Max Newman and (from 1948) Alan Turing, both of whom had worked on codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

It was in the Electro-Technics Department that the world’s first electronic digital stored-program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine or ‘Manchester Baby,’ first operated on 21 June 1948. Though only a prototype, the new machine was designed to investigate a new technique of storing information on a cathode ray tube, based on Williams and Kilburn’s wartime radar experience. In doing so, it became the first machine ever to store its own instructions electronically in the same format as its data, demonstrating the essential properties of the architecture used for almost all computers ever since. The achievement is commemorated by a plaque on Bridgeford Street.

Plaque in the wall on the Bridgeford Street side.

Plaque in the wall on the Bridgeford Street side.

The Manchester Baby gradually evolved into a more usable machine, known variously as the Manchester Mark 1 or the Manchester Automatic Digital Machine (MADM). It was developed in close collaboration with the local engineering firm, Ferranti, who produced a commercial model in 1951.

The Ferranti Mark 1, as it was called, was the world’s first commercially available electronic computer: for a brief period in the early 1950s, Ferranti was one of the world’s leading suppliers of computing equipment, prompting (short-lived) hopes of British dominance in this increasingly important new industry. The first model was delivered to the University in February 1951. Its first home was the low-rise brick building on Coupland Street, now known as Coupland 1, which was purpose-built as the University’s “Computing Machine Laboratory”. Computing activity later transferred to the Electrical Engineering (now Zochonis) Building on the other side of Oxford Road, and eventually to the much larger Computer Building (now Kilburn Building) to the north.

Alan Turing, who joined the Mathematics Department in 1948 and became Deputy Director of the Laboratory the following year, was already well known for his revolutionary 1930s work on computability theory. Although his official role on the computer project was to develop software for the Mark 1, the restless and often unpredictable Turing pursued a variety of interests which the possibilities of the computer had opened up.

It was here, in 1950, that Turing prepared his famous 1950 contribution to the psychology journal Mind, on the question of whether machines in future might be defined as “thinking”: the answer, said Turing, was yes, if their responses to any given variety of questioning could not be convincingly distinguished from human responses.

Turing’s other great interest, from 1952, was morphogenesis – the formation of asymmetry and patterns in biology – which he pursued in collaboration with C W Wardlaw, who held the Cryptogamic Botany chair. Turing here hoped to treat the computer as a newly powerful tool to demonstrate that, given certain starting conditions and rules, distinct patterns could emerge from apparently homogeneous starting materials. His notorious conviction for “gross indecency” in 1952 had no apparent effect on his enthusiastic contribution to research on this and other mathematical questions. In 1954, however, Turing took his own life.

Access: no formal public access to the interiors (most of which have been heavily modified structurally, and now serve various administrative, non-laboratory academic and museum roles). There are good views of the exteriors along Coupland Street, Oxford Road and Bridgeford Street.

Albert Einstein Memorial, Washington D.C.

Einstein statue, Washington DC

Einstein statue, Washington DC

The Albert Einstein Memorial, located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. near the corner of 21st Street northwest and Constitution Avenue, is the official monument to Einstein in the United States. Free to the public, it is situated in a shady grove of trees in front of the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) . Einstein was elected a foreign associate of the NAS in 1922 and a full member in 1942.

The Einstein Memorial features a 12 foot bronze statue of Einstein that weighs about 4 tonnes. The sculptor, Robert Berks (1922- ), modeled it after a bust he had made from a portrait sitting with Einstein in 1953. Consequently, it portrays the founder of relativity in his final years.

Einstein is depicted sitting on a three-step granite bench reading a paper with a set of equations. These equations summarize the results of three of Einstein’s most important contributions to physics: the photoelectric effect, the general theory of relativity and the famous relationship between energy and mass.

Einstein statue detail

Einstein statue detail showing a set of Einstein's most famous equations

Engraved in the bench are three different quotations attributed to Einstein:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion …

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

At the base of the statue is a granite field speckled with over 2700 metal studs. These represent the position of the celestial objects in the sky at the time the memorial was dedicated, as ascertained by astronomers at the US Naval Observatory. The unveiling took place on April 22, 1979, during a meeting of the NAS that honoured Einstein’s centennial year.

The stately NAS building, just a few steps from the Memorial, stands as an emblem of the dedication of astrophysicist George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) to construct suitably elegant quarters for the esteemed organisation. A pioneer in the field of solar spectroscopy, inventor of the spectrohelioscope and founder of Mt. Wilson Observatory, Hale was elected to the NAS in 1902. Almost immediately, he set out to reform the organisation and transform it into an active force for the promotion of science. An 1863 act of the U.S. Congress had established the NAS as an honorific society but didn’t provide it with dedicated quarters. Hale pushed for the founding of an arm of the NAS, called the National Research Council (NRC), to enable scientists to help guide government policy. With the establishment of the NRC in 1916, Hale argued that the NAS required a proper headquarters. He personally sought out noted architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, led a fundraising campaign for the building, oversaw its design and even contributed the motto inscribed in the dome of its Great Hall. Hale wrote:

To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

Location: 2101 Constitution avenue northwest, Washington, DC

Parts of this description are excerpted from my article “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour.”

References:

  1. Paul Halpern, “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour,” Physics in Perspective 12, No. 4, (2010), pp. 443-466
  2. “The Einstein Memorial,” National Academy of Sciences, http://www.nasonline.org