Oxford, the city and the university, ooze with prestige. The city boasts more than a thousand years of learned history and is led by a Lord Mayor, rather than simply a Mayor. The university besieged me 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 being of high repute, when I visited Oxford during University of Wisconsin ? Madison?s spring break, I discovered the city and university to also be surprisingly accessible. The museums, the libraries, the colleges?you don?t have to stand and gaze admiringly at their outer walls, you can walk right inside for a couple pounds or, in many cases, for free. When, on my first day touring the town, I saw the sign announcing: Museum of the History of Science. Open. Free Admission. I glanced at the bearded busts towering over the wrought-iron entrance, thanked them for my good fortune, and walked into three floors of contraptions and charmingly outdated assumptions. The Museum of the History of Science is a curiosity shop full of astrolabes, microscopes, and other finely-tuned instruments that helped their owners measure things about the world.
If you?re in town, I recommend the stop. Depending on your discipline, you may be drawn to particular areas of the museum. But regardless of specialty, all visitors should check out the following Museum of the History of Science experiences:
Experience #1: Inspecting King George III?s microscope.
Made of silver circa 1770, the microscope is part sculpture, part instrument. While leaning forward to view a magnified specimen, any user of George III?s microscope would nearly touch foreheads with the two sculpted figures standing over the eyepiece. One could imagine King George III straightening up from a short bout at the microscope and turning to the latest copy of Opulent Scientist.
Besides King George III?s silver scope, for the microscope junky, the Museum of the History of Science is a treasure. 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 stand and stare at the chalk marks made by Albert Einstein?s own hand in 1931. The board hangs on a wall in the museum?s lower floor, preserving the equations he wrote to explain how to model the expansion of the universe to Oxford scholars. Einstein visited University of Oxford in May 1931 to give a series of three lectures, he used this board to demonstrate the concepts discussed in the second lecture. The sign displayed with the blackboard helps viewers decipher the chalkmarks: ?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.
The row of three small glass vials with white metal twist caps and their reddish brown contents summarize countless hours of effort and prolonged life. You can view the actual penicillin produced by medical researchers in the early 1940s at Oxford while executing their groundbreaking work to make the drug widely available during wartime. The vial on the left holds the kind of penicillin that was initially used for medical purposes and required hundreds of cultures to produce. In the middle, a vial holds the remains of a more refined penicillin that researchers produced after seeking ways to minimize contamination. On the left is a vial of penicillin that was collected from a patient?s urine, recovery efforts that demonstrate the high value of penicillin antibiotics to mid-century medicine.
Many other treasures line the display cases in the Museum of the History of Science. When I visited, their rotating exhibition was on meteorology. One meteorological item on view was an 1851 datalog whose placard noted the log?s value and, for me, summarized the purpose of the museum. The log and the entire museum embody scientists? ??extraordinary devotion to the value of the data, and an ambition to realize its full value.?
All images: Emily Eggleston. See more pictures here.