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Equal odds – heaven and earth in the salon of Louis XIV

Some claim the major importance of Newton’s mechanics is that it can be applied to the stars as well as to everything on earth. Speaking in terms of  a natural philosophy, perhaps the mechanics were offering a certain equality of heaven and earth. Nothing of this can be seen in two of the most decorative items of popular knowledge of the years 1680, the pair of globes fashioned by cosmographer Vincenzo Coronelli for a salon of Louis XIV.

2050 pathwaysFrom their conception on the globes were scientifically outdated, which certainly does not diminish their appeal to the eye. Following the tradition of the 16th century, Coronelli produced one globe presenting the sky and another presenting the earth. The pair of globes can currently be seen in an exhibition of the Bibliothèque Nationale « Les globes du Roi-Soleil ». The celestial globe is kept in a dreamy blue, showing the signs of the zodiac in a rather tidy manner.  Read on…

Climate as cultural memory

It is becoming quite fashionable to think of climate as a large scale cultural phenomenon. Our today’s discussions about greenhouse gases will probably go down in meteorological books of the future. A classical example is the almost simultaneous development of the price of wheat and the political climate of the french revolution. Read on…

Looking over the shoulder: How de we become individuals?

We consider ourselves as autonomous beings. At the same time we are actively reproducing us and we know that we are part of evolution. This is the basic opposition of human individuals, as the philosopher Frédéric Worms pointed out in a discussion today. He was holding a public talk together with the biologist Alain Prochiantz, about the topic: « Comment devenons-nous des individus ? »

Over the shoulder

Each discipline is shaped by its object under study, as Alain Prochiantz remarked. Perhaps this is the reason for different, but not necessarily opposing views of biology and philosophy on individuation. To Mr Prochiantz, humans are animals with a very special monstrosity, as he put it, the human brain. It is our human brain that enlarges our capacity to become individuals above the one of an ape or a bee. To Mr Worms, our human ability to mentally distinguish ourselves from our environment in an ongoing process, is central to individualisation. For him as a philosopher, extreme cases of individualisation are love and hatred.

Read on…

Hypothetical fish and evolutionary time

Glossopetrae: Minerals believed to be ancient teeth - taken from „The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences“ p. 116

Glossopetrae: Minerals assumed to be teeth of an ancient fish – picture taken from „The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences“ (Dover) p. 116

Do you think it’s right to assume a hypothetical fish to explain the existence of tooth-shaped minerals? Apparently, to some researchers in the early 17th century, this was just the thing to do. The tooth-shaped minerals called Glossopetrae where from these years on believed to be remainings from ancient fish. I found a lovely depiction of this explanation, when I looked yesterday in a history of geology book, a few minutes before I went to a public talk about time, history and evolution. To me this is one of the most myterious topics of history of science, so I was pleased to listen to the biologist Michel Morange (ENS) and the historian François Hartog (EHESS) talking about „Le temps de l’évolution, le temps de l’histoire“. Read on…

Clouds, Genes, LSD

“The farther you look inside of living nature, the more miraculous one experiences her. — Je tiefer man in die lebendige Natur hineinsieht, desto wunderbarer erlebt man sie.” Albert Hofmann, chemist and discoverer of LSD

Yesterday was a terrific Saturday, full of wonderous things such as clouds, genes and LSD. The festival for scientific documentaries “Pariscience” was up und running in the Jardin de Plantes in Paris. Among yesterday’s movies were a documentary on the Himalaya Mountains “Un nuage sur le toit du monde” and a film about the scientist who discovered LSD: “The Substance – Albert Hofmann’s LSD“. After the screening of The Substance, there was a small question & answer session with the sociologist François Beck and the pharmacologist Nicolas Bonnet, who are both working on drug usage. Read on…

An afternoon with Marie Curie

 

Photo 1 : A signpost to a medical institute named after Marie Curie.

Photo 1 : A signpost to a medical institute named after Marie Curie.

Last Sunday was the second of the European Cultural Heritage Days 2012 and I enjoyed a guided tour in the Quartier Latin. This academic quarter of Paris was also the birthplace of the scientific career of Marie Curie and our guide led us to discover some of the places she lived and worked.

Photo 2 : Rear view of the Sorbonne, Faculty of the Sciences with tower of astronomical observatory.

Photo 2 : Rear view of the Sorbonne, Faculty of the Sciences with tower of astronomical observatory.

In the time of Marie Curie, the whole quarter had undergone a remake by the architect Haussmann – as usual for almost all quarters of Paris. The university Marie Curie entered in 1981, the Sorbonne, was now placed in a brand new building, realised in haussmanian style. (Photo 2 : Rear view of the Sorbonne, Faculty of the Sciences with tower of astronomical observatory). The students from abroad coming to study at the Sorbonne were many. Marie Curie could spend some of her time with students from a similar background of polish original and russian nationality. She received teaching from some well known personalities, for example in mathematics from Henri Poincaré. Following her scientific curiosity, she was looking for a suitable laboratory, but this should become an ongoing task. Read on…

Auszug aus dem Tagebuch eines fiebrigen Austauschstudenten, 26.Februar 2009, Paris.

Von der Fabrikation des Herzen reden sie. Fahle Gesichter legen ihre Stirn in Falten, als sich ihre ewig gleichen Mienen auf das konzentrieren, was sie hören und sehen. Glasige Augen verfolgen meinen Weg, als ich – eine Viertelstunde zu spät – den Raum betrete.

Doch das Gesprochene fließt weiter. Als ob es keine Unterbrechung gegeben hätte. Gehetzt wenden sich die Blicke der Ausdruckslosen wieder dem Redner oder ihren Aufzeichnungen zu. Monoton peitschen die Worte durch den Raum, hallen von den Wänden wieder, verschwinden in Ohren, in Köpfen, um durch die kratzendenden Enden der Stifte in Form unscharfer Stichpunkten wieder auf Papier gebannt zu werden. Read on…

Die Tagebücher anderer Leute: Teil 1

Alexander von Humboldt, 25.05.1800

Immer noch Regen. Regen ist gar kein Ausdruck, denn so etwas hat keiner von uns je zuvor erlebt. Es schüttet wie aus Weinschläuchen zum Erntedankfest. Wir sitzen seit Tagen in diesem Loch fest, von Moskitos geplagt, von Augen aus dem dichten Urwald beäugt und einmal wäre Bonplant um ein Haar auf eine kleine dunkle Schlange getreten, die bei den Eingeborenen auch als Portalpförtner an der Himmelstür bekannt ist. Dies würde zumindest dann gelten, wenn sie hier so etwas wie einen Himmel kennen würden. Read on…

Die Tagebücher anderer Leute: Einleitung

Die Tagebücher anderer Leute: Einleitung

Über die Jahrhunderte verschmilzt zweifellos Erlebtes, Niedergeschriebenes, Repetiertes und Erdachtes. Der Umfang verschiedener Erzählungen und Beschreibungen, die sich mit demselben Gegenstand befassen, ist abhängig von der Gattung der Literatur, des Zeitraums der zwischen dem Beschriebenen und der Beschreibung liegt, der strukturellen Zwänge des jeweiligen Autors und schließlich der Willkür desselben. Historiker fassen einen vorhandenen Quellenkorpus beispielsweise gern kurz und bündig zusammen.

„Ende Mai des Jahres 1800 erreichte die Humboldt-Expedition die Gabelung des Orinoco.“ Read on…

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