Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

650th anniversary party for University of Vienna

The University of Vienna is celebrating its 650th birthday this year. Happy birthday!

As part of the festivities, the university organised a three-day festival from June 12 to June 14. I happened to be in town for part of this, so I had a look at some of the booths on Saturday.

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Other parts of the programme included some public lectures, and a “music and science stage”, which included some Austrian science cabaret groups. Here the stage is being set up for Science Busters.

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This week, the University of Vienna continues its birthday celebrations with a film festival.

Interrailing through Europe with Borodin and Mendeleev

Long ago, in a kingdom that no longer exists, a bohemian traveller was mistaken for a fugitive revolutionary, and arrested.

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

The traveller was Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin. He was on his way to Italy with his friend Dmitri Mendeleev. Both men were researchers in the chemistry department of the University of Heidelberg, where they learned the ropes from Robert Bunsen (inventor of the bunsen burner) and Emil Erlenmeyer (inventor of the erlenmeyer flask). In a few years, Mendeleev would develop his own classic staple of chemistry labs – the periodic table – but now he was taking a break from science, and making his way to Italy with his friend.

They travelled light, and brought very little clothes with them. “We wore only blouses, so that we would look like artists”, Mendeleev has said of this trip. “That’s not a bad idea in Italy, because you can get along very cheaply that way. We took hardly any shirts with us, and had to buy new ones when the need arose; we gave these away to the waiters in place of tips. We absolutely let ourselves go in Italy, after the stifling cloistered life of Heidelberg.”

Picture these two men, dressed in their artists blouses, walking across large parts of Switzerland. Looking nothing like the academics they were in Heidelberg, they reached the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This kingdom no longer exists. The area is now Northern Italy, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian police were on the lookout for a political fugitive.


Seeing a bohemian figure who matched the description of the revolutionary they were told would cross the border that day, the police arrested Borodin.

He was not at all the man they were looking for. Borodin had led a quiet and privileged life, filled with books, music, and education. After graduating from medical school in St Petersburg, he moved to Heidelberg to study chemistry. He spent all of his free time making music, and had already composed several pieces for piano, voice, or string ensembles. Much later, years after his untimely death at a costume party, Borodin would posthumously win a Tony Award for composing the original score used in the musical Kismet. He was a chemist, a musician, a Russian prince’s illegitimate son, a women’s rights activist, and an educator – but not a member of an Italian revolutionary movement.

By the time the police realised their mistake, the real fugitive had taken advantage of the distraction, and crossed the border. When Borodin and Mendeleev finally boarded their train, they were greeted with cheers and applause by the Italian passengers, for unwittingly helping a member of the revolution escape.

We don’t know the identity of the mysterious fugitive, but at the end of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was no more. The region became part of Italy, which it still is. And somewhere along the way, two Russian chemists on a low budget holiday may have played a very minor role in shaping the political situation in 19th century Northern Italy.

Source: the book “Borodin”, by Serge Dianin, translated by Robert Lord (1963). Mendeleev’s words about their outfits are quoted in the book, but originally from another book by M.N. Mladentsev and V.E. Tischenko, called “Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. His Life and Work, Vol I.” (1938). The photo of Borodin and Mendeleev is a crop from a larger photo including two other chemists – Gitinsky and Olevinsky. The original photo was taken in 1860 – the year this story takes place. Lombardy-Venetia map in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

An inch off the top

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Climbing Mount Everest is now slightly less impressive than it used to be. After the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, Mount Everest sank by about an inch.

The reason Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas are there in the first place is the same force that caused the earthquake that shrunk it: India is slowly pushing against the Asian continental plate.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was one of the ones heavily damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

We tend to think of plate tectonics as something that happened in the past to shape the continents as they are now, with features like the matching coast lines of Africa and South America just a remnant of an ancient continental break. But the recent earthquake – as any large earthquake does – reminds us that these shifts are still happening, and that geological features we take for granted, like the height of Mount Everest, are still changing. Usually very gradually, but sometimes with a big and abrupt shift.

The earthquake on April 25, and another big one this past week, haven’t just shifted Mount Everest by an inch, but also caused the region around Kathmandu to rise by a few feet. And this was the shift that caused the most damage.

Kathmandu is an old city with a rich history and a poor population. It has the most UNESCO World heritage sites of any city in the world, but more than half of them suffered extensive damage in the earthquakes.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Thousands of people have died, and even more have been made homeless, or suffered a loss of income. I visited Kathmandu a few years ago and I love the city and its people. So I’m simultaneously impressed by the forces that changed the height of Mount Everest and worried for the local community. Earthquakes are pretty impressive, but not always in a good way!

If you would like to help support the rebuilding of Nepal, please consider donating to a reputable organisation. There are too many to list, and they’re different depending on where you live and what kind of support you want to provide (medical, heritage rebuilding, children, etc), but feel free to ask me on Twitter for recommendations.

All photos by me, and I can never take similar photos again, because even Mount Everest no longer looks exactly like that…

P.S. If the photo captions are confusing, there are THREE places called “Durbar Square” in Kathmandu neighbourhoods. All three are UNESCO sites, and all three were destroyed in the earthquake :(

Another Finch and Pea GeoGuessr game!

Think you know where this is? Here’s a hint: it’s just outside one of the locations we’ve covered on the Have Science, Will Travel series. But which location?

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 21.08.02I’ve created a custom GeoGuessr game with five locations that should be familiar. See if you can find them on the map!

London Zoo

2015-04-18 13.45.36I’ve lived in London for just over two years now, but have already visited London Zoo three times.

The zoo, founded in 1826 is in the middle of London, but in one of its rare open spaces: Regent’s Park. It’s not a very large zoo, but the zoological society of London has a second – much larger – zoo outside the city, which is where the elephants are. At the moment, the lions are also temporarily out of the city, while they’re getting an awesome new enclosure.

When I was in high school, I did a mini literature research project about zoos, and learned that they have four key functions: entertainment, research, conservation and education. Since then, whenever I visit a zoo, I look for those four roles. London Zoo, perhaps unfortunately, relies very heavily on entertainment. Its Zoo Lates programme, allowing visitors to party in the zoo after hours, has been criticised for being stressful to animals. But on the other hand, the zoo’s popularity also saved it from closing in the 1990s. As a whole, though, the Zoological Society of London, which runs both London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, does do a lot of work on animal research and conservation, so the superficial entertainment value of London Zoo is a bit misleading.

In the three times I’ve visited London Zoo in the past two years, I also noticed that it’s currently undergoing a lot of improvements that all create more space or better enclosures for animals. Yay! The most recent one is the new lemur exhibit. It’s not as great a space as the Apenheul or Duke Lemur Center lemurs have, but much better than the old lemur cage (which you can briefly see in the 2013 video at the bottom of this post).

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As part of the launch of the new lemur exhibit, the zoo’s website also has a lemur game, where you can let a lemur jump from tree to tree. (Unless you are as bad at platform games as I am, in which case the lemur just does one jump and falls to the ground. I’ll leave the jumping to real lemurs.)

Lest we turn this into the Lemur & Pea blog, let’s move on to this anteater.

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This little guy was new to the tropical rainforest exhibit when I visited, and was just as curious as the visitors were. He has free reign of both the animal and people parts of the exhibits, but was still learning to deal with crowds and had two human babysitters (anteatersitters?) with him.

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We also visited the penguins, and the exhibit about penguin research. This group of penguins was recently featured in The New Yorker, in an article by Ed Yong, discussing their wobbly walk. Just another example of the “research” function of zoos!

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Even with a relatively small zoo as London Zoo, I still have never managed to visit ALL animals in one day. I’ll be back next year to visit the new lion enclosure, and here’s a video from my visit two years ago: