Friday, June 14, 2013


Three summers ago, my wife and I visited Paris for our 25th wedding anniversary. We carefully planned our trip so we could see all the most famous sites—the Eifel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles, the Pantheon, the Louvre, and the Musee d’Orsay—but somehow WE MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT THING! Apparently there is a giant painting in the Musee d’Art Moderne by Raoul Dufy, depicting many scientists who have contributed to the study of electricity. What more could a physicist like me ask for? I first learned about this painting in a book I am now reading, The Spark of Life: Electricity and the Human Body, by Frances Ashcroft. I’ll have more on that book in a future post. Here is what she writes about the painting:
An unusual tribute to the scientists and philosophers who contributed to the discovery of electricity hangs in Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. A giant canvas known as “La Fee Electricite,” which measures 10 metres high and 60 metres long, it was commissioned by a Paris electricity company to decorate its Hall of Light at the 1937 world exhibition in Paris. It is the work of French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, better known for his wonderful colourful depictions of boats, and it took him and two assistants four months to complete. The Electricity Fairy sails through the sky at the far left of the painting above some of the world’s most famous landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome among them. Behind her follow some 110 people connected with the development of electricity, from Ancient Greece to modern times. As time and the canvas progress, the landscape changes from scenes of rural idyll to steam trains, furnaces, the trappings of the industrial revolution and finally the giant pylons that support the power lines carrying electricity to the planet.
Short of going to see the painting in Paris, the next best thing is to view it in sections at the Electricity Online website of the University of Leeds. I won’t list all the scientists depicted in it, but let me note those Russ Hobbie and I mention in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology (roughly in chronological order): Newton, Bernoulli, Laplace, Poisson, Gauss, Ohm, Oersted, Clausius, Clapeyron, Fourier, Savart, Fresnel, Biot, Ampere, Faraday, Gibbs, Helmholtz, Maxwell, Poincare, Moseley, Lorentz, and Pierre Curie. A few were only present in IPMB because they have a unit named after them: Pascal, Watt, Joule, Kelvin, Roentgen, Becquerel, Hertz, and Marie Curie. Galvani is shown with a frog, Faraday with a coil and galvanometer, Pierre Curie (mentioned in IPMB through the Curie temperature) is standing next to his wife Marie Curie (only mentioned in IPMB in association with her unit, and the only female scientist in the painting), and Edison is next to his light bulbs.

I’m still not sure how I never knew about this magnificent painting. I guess we need to take another trip to Paris. Honey, start packing!

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