Friday, July 9, 2010

Paris

I just returned from a vacation in Paris, where my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Russ Hobbie was there at the same time, although conflicting schedules did not allow us to get together. My daughter Katherine posted the blog entries for the last two weeks, when I had limited computer access. Thanks, Kathy.

Although most of our time was spent doing the usual tourist activities (for example, the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Versailles, and, my favorite, a dinner cruise down the Seine), I did keep my eye open for those aspects of France that might be of interest to readers of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We visited the Pantheon, where we saw the tomb of Marie Curie (a unit of nuclear decay activity, the curie, was named after her and is discussed on page 489 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology). Marie Curie lies next to her husband Pierre Curie (of the Curie temperature, page 216). Also in the Pantheon is Jean Perrin, who determined Avogadro’s number (see the footnote on page 85) and Paul Langevin, of the Langevin equation (page 87). Hanging from the top of the dome is a Foucault pendulum, in the exact place where Leon Foucault publicaly demonstrated the rotation of the earth in 1851. I like it when physics takes center stage like that.

Another scientific site we visited is a museum honoring Louis Pasteur at the Pasteur Institute. Pasteur chose to be buried in his home (now the museum) rather than in the Pantheon. Readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will find him to be an excellent example of a researcher who bridges the physical and biological sciences. His first job was as a professor of Physics, although he would probably be considered more of a chemist that a physicist. His early work was on chiral molecules and how they rotated light. He later became famous for his research on the spontaneous generation of life and a vaccine for rabies. In his book Adding A Dimension, Isaac Asimov lists Pasteur as one of the ten greatest scientists of all time. The museum is enjoyable, although it is not as accessible to English speakers as some of the larger museums such as the Louvre and the delightful Musee d’Orsay. Because I speak no French, I had a difficult time following many of the Pasteur exhibits. Also at the museum was a nice display about microbiologist Jacques Monod, who I will discuss in a future entry to this blog.

The only other French scientist on Asimov’s top-ten list was the chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Oddly, the French don’t seem to celebrate Lavoisier’s accomplishments as much as you might expect. (Beware, my conclusion is based on a brief 2-week vacation, and I may have missed something.) Perhaps his death by the guillotine during the French revolution has something to do with it. We visited the Place de la Concorde, where Lavoisier was beheaded. In A Short History of Chemistry, Asimov writes
"In 1794, then, this man [Lavoisier], one of the greatest chemists who ever lived, was needlessly and uselessly killed in the prime of life. ‘It required only a moment to sever that head, and perhaps a century will not be sufficient to produce another like it,’ said Joseph Lagrange, the great mathematician. Lavoisier is universally remembered today as ‘the father of modern chemistry.’ "
I normally associate Leonardo da Vinci with Italy, but when touring the Chateau at Amboise in the Loire Valley, we stumbled unexpectedly upon his grave. He spent the last three years of his life in France. We toured an excellent museum dedicated to da Vinci, containing life-size reconstructions of some of his engineering inventions. Although da Vinci had many interests and may be best known for his paintings (yes, I saw the Mona Lisa while at the Louvre), at least some of his work might be called biomedical engineering, such as his work on an underwater breathing apparatus and on human flight.

Seventy-two famous French scientists and mathematicians are listed on the Eifel Tower, including Laplace (of the Laplacian, page 91), Ampere (of Ampere’s law, page 206, and the unit of current, page 145), Navier (of the Navier-Stokes equation, page 27), Legendre (of Legendre polynomials, page 184), Becquerel (of the unit of activity, page 489), Fresnel (of the Fresnel zone for diffraction, page 352), Coulomb (of the unit of charge and Coulomb’s law, both on page 137), Poisson (of Poisson’s ratio, page 27; the Poisson-Boltzmann equation, page 230; and the Poisson probability distribution, page 572), Clapeyron (of the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, page 78), and Fourier (of the Fourier series, page 290). I could not see all these names because the tower was partially covered for painting. Note that Lavoisier was included on the Eiffel Tower, but Poiseuille (of Poiseuille flow, page 17) was not. The view from the top of the tower is spectacular.

I admit, I am not the best of travelers and am glad to be home in Michigan. But I believe there is much in France that readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will find interesting.

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