An American chemist in Paris
Travel is opening up again and as always, Paris is a top destination. On a recent reporting trip, this Newscriptsterset aside time to take in the sights. Of course, a few days wasn’t nearly enough to see everything. The city contains a wealth of science and engineering to explore.
One museum not to miss is the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Though the name translates roughly to the Museum of Arts and Crafts, it is in fact a world-class deep dive into the history of science and industry. The exhibits trace scientific development from the late 1600s to today through the tools of measurement and laboratory science.
Of special interest to chemists is a re-creation of Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier’s laboratory. Starting in the 1760s, the Lavoisiers refined the tools and techniques of chemistry from the heady, mystical practices of alchemy. Most of the couple’s possessions were taken by looters during the French Revolution, but the Arts et Métiers contains the lion’s share of what remains along with replicas painstakingly crafted from drawings, experimental procedures, and other historical documents.
Seeing the intricate apparatus of giant glass flasks, pots of water, scales, vacuum pumps, and static shock generators that Antoine Lavoisier used to discover oxygen and explore the stoichiometry of its reactions brings the “Father of Chemistry” to life. The tale of his demise is described on plaques nearby. The same privileges of wealth and class that gave Antoine and Marie-Anne the money and time to probe the elements earned them the ire of the Revolutionaries, who sent Antoine to the guillotine in May of 1794.
The exhibits proceed through time and feature devices including an aurora borealis simulator, scales of increasing precision, and a refrigerator-sized 1985 Cray supercomputer boasting a whopping 243 MHz of processing power. Next to an 80 kb floppy disk sits the same model of Nokia cell phone this Newscriptster used in college, which was mildly disturbing to see in a historical exhibit.
aOn the other end of town is a small but fascinating mineralogy gallery, part of the Jardin des Plantes city park complex. Enormous crystals of quartz and related minerals dominate the center of the room, some of them bigger than a person. Around the edge, displays of gems and crystal formations both precious and mundane correlate crystallography, mineralogy, and chemistry.
No trip to Paris would be complete without a stop by a famous site on the left bank of the Seine: the Paris Sewer Museum, or Musée des Égouts, built into a working wastewater distribution hub. The sewers have been—not kidding—a popular tourist site since they first opened to the public during the 1867 World’s Fair. Back then, workers would tow visitors along the brown-water canals in little boats and teach them about the inner workings of the city’s waterworks. The raised walking platforms in use today are a welcome upgrade.
The sewage, stormwater, and potable water system grew organically with the city, starting with the first covered trenches in the 1740s. Napoleon III dramatically boosted the sophistication of the system starting in 1853 as he redeveloped Paris to make it the center of French civic, cultural, scientific, and economic life. Today the sewers are in good shape and pipe waste to modern treatment plants outside the city. At the end of the tour, digital displays give a live report on the water quality of the Seine River, which runs through Paris, and a video describes a bold goal: water that is safe to swim and fish in by 2025.
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