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History, Science and the History of Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Oxford radiates prestige. The city boasts more than a thousand years of learned history and is one of few British locales with a royal coat of arms. The university glows with momentous locations, such as the place where Robert Boyle discovered Boyle’s law in the seventeenth century and the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954.

In addition to prestigious, the city and university are surprisingly accessible. Entrance to the museums, libraries, and colleges costs only a couple pounds or, in many cases, is free.

One place that is definitely worth a stop is the Museum of the History of Science. When, on my first day touring the town, I saw the museum’s sign announcing “Open. Free Admission,” I thanked the bearded busts towering over the wrought-iron entrance before walking into three floors of contraptions and charmingly outdated assumptions.

The Museum of the History of Science is a curiosity shop of astrolabes, microscopes, and other finely-tuned instruments that helped their owners measure things about the world. Regardless of what would suit your individual fancy, all visitors should check out the following experiences:

Experience #1: Inspecting King George III’s microscope.

Made circa 1770–of silver–the microscope is part sculpture, part instrument. While leaning forward to view a specimen, a user of George III’s microscope would nearly touch foreheads with the two sculpted figures standing over the eyepiece. One could imagine the King straightening up from a short bout at the microscope and turning to page through Opulent Scientist, i.e. his observation notebook.

Aside from George’s silver scope, the Museum is a treasure trove for the microscope junky. According to the museum’s website, their collection includes “…microscopes from the earliest types used by Anton von Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke to the more elaborate ones of the nineteenth century.” See the slideshow at the end of this post for another photo highlighting the many ways to magnify our world.

Experience #2: Standing awestruck before Einstein’s blackboard.

You can stare at the chalk marks made by Albert Einstein’s own hand in 1931! The board hangs in the museum’s lower floor and preserves the equations he wrote to explain to Oxford scholars how to model the expansion of the universe. Einstein visited the university in May 1931 to give three lectures; he used this board to demonstrate the concepts discussed in the second lecture. An accompanying sign helps viewers decipher the chalk marks: “The first three lines establish an equation for D, the measure of expansion in the universe. The lower four lines provide numerical values for the expansion, density, radius and age of the universe.”

Experience #3: Giving a moment of respectful silence to the people who recovered penicillin patient urine.

You can view the actual penicillin Oxford medical researchers produced in the early 1940s–groundbreaking work that made the drug widely available during wartime. The reddish brown contents of three small glass vials hardly do justice to the lives saved and the effort invested to do so. The vial on the left (in the photograph) holds the kind of penicillin that doctors initially used for treatment and required hundreds of cultures to produce. The middle vial holds the remains of a more refined penicillin that researchers produced after seeking ways to minimize contamination. On the right, a vial contains penicillin collected from a patient’s urine, recovery efforts that demonstrate the high value of antibiotics to mid-20th-century medicine.

Many more treasures line the display cases in the Museum of the History of Science. When I visited, their rotating exhibition was about meteorology. One specimen on view was an 1851 datalog whose accompanying sign both summarized why the log was displayed and why the whole museum exists–to pay homage to scientists and their “…extraordinary devotion to the value of the data, and an ambition to realize its full value.”

Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

All images: Emily Eggleston. See more pictures here.

Emily Eggleston About the Author: Emily Eggleston is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is pursuing two master’s degrees, one in journalism and one in geography. Emily is using her soil science background to guide her research on Japanese American internment camp gardens soils and her creative side to write about the neat and useful science all around her. Data journalism is a new and brightly shining star in Emily’s sky; she hopes to makes use of a computer science course for data visualization next semester to sharpen her storytelling skills. Emily blogs at Curious Terrain and her Twitter handle is @EmilyEggleston. Follow on Twitter @EmilyEggleston.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. chemraven 12:48 pm 04/27/2013

    In this video Prof.Poliakoff says the lecture that Einstein gave in Uni.of Nottingham was a “disaster.” Because Einstein gave his lecture in German, since he couldn’t speak English. I am wondering when he started to give lectures in English.

    Link to this

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