Physicists and science historians have travelled around various cities across the world, including Paris, Vienna, Berlin, New York, Berne, Barcelona and Madrid, in search of spaces historically related to physics. Two of the researchers, Xavier Roqué and Antoni Roca-Rosell, propose four scientific routes through Barcelona.
For several years the journal ‘Physics in Perspective’ has been publishing routes through world cities in a series called ´The Physical Tourist’.
To date, journeys through Paris, Vienna, Berlin, New York, Berne and Madrid have been published, suggesting to the visitor places historically connected to physics. The city of Barcelona has been included in the most recent edition.
“The reader who visits Paris, for example, will know where radium was discovered, and a visitor to Berlin will know where Einstein publicised his theory of general relativity. The journal’s editors -John S. Ridgen and Roger H. Stuewer - have compiled some of these articles in a book, ‘The Physical Tourist: A Science Guide for the Traveler’,” Xavier Roqué (Autonomous University of Barcelona) and Antoni Roca-Rosell (BarcelonaTech), the study’s authors, explained to SINC.
The article on Barcelona suggests four routes through the city and highlights other places in its metropolitan area.
Route 1: the Gothic Quarter
The Plaça del Rei square, one of the urban spaces in the medieval period fostering the cultivation of astronomy and natural philosophy, disciplines highly regarded in the Catalan court, is found in the heart of the Gothic Quarter.
Palau del Lloctinent (the Viceroy’s Palace), located in this square, housed the Archive of the Crown of Aragon until 1994, a unique source for learning about the production and circulation of medical and scientific manuscripts in the city. A few metres away, in the Plaça de Sant Jaume square, opposite the City Hall (Casa de la Ciutat), is the Palau de la Generalitat palace, seat of the institution’s president since the 15th century.
“In 1923, during his visit to the city, Albert Einstein gave three lectures on relativity here, in what was then Barcelona’s Provincial Council headquarters. The article includes an image of the reception which was given in the City Hall, on the other side of the square,” the scientists explained. The Palau was also the headquarters of the Catalan Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Another of the buildings in this sphere is the Museum of Barcelona’s History. It was built on the remains of the old Roman city and inside, the Cathedral’s clock, dating to 1576, can be seen, which told the city’s time for 300 years. In 1865, it was replaced by another which used the Suisse Albert Billeter’s mechanical system, who in his workshop in Gracia – then an independent municipality – made scientific instruments.
According to the study, this clock was destined to be Spain’s first electric clock, the inscription reading Primum cum semi electrico regulatore in Hispania, but it did not meet this expectation.
120 metres away, in Carrer del Paradís, is the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya (Hiking Centre of Catalonia), founded in 1876 under the name Associació Catalanista d’Excursions Científiques. Remains from the columns of the Temple of Augustus, restored in the 20th century, are preserved in its central courtyard. A plaque indicates the height of Monte Tàber, the highest point of the Roman Barcino which was the origin of the city. The boats of the old port were controlled from that point.
Continuing on to Plaça de l’Àngel square, formerly Plaça del Blat, there is one of the workshops where the Roget brothers, Joan and Pere, manufactured lenses for distance vision, “highly accurate refracting telescopes for the time,” claimed the experts.
Until 1391, the Gothic Quarter was Jewish. At this time, it was the centre of astronomic, philosophical and mathematical activity in the city. “Two sets of astronomical tables are attributed to Jewish scholars: the Taules de Barcelona (1361-1381), started by king Pere III’s astronomers and completed by the Hebrew Jacob ben Abi Abraham Isaac al-Corsuno; and the Taules of 1361, compiled by Jacob ben David Bonjorn,” the study points out.
Another distinguished member of Barcelona’s Jewish community was rabbi Abraham bar Hiyya (1070-1136), known as Savasorda, a scholar interested in astronomy and natural philosophy.
Route 2: from La Rambla to Barcelona’s oldest hospital
The upper stretch of La Rambla – the city’s most popular throughfare – is known as Rambla de los Estudios. This road is so-called because in the first half of the 16th century, king Alfonso the Magnanimous constructed the University of Barcelona’s first building there, founded in 1450, as Barcelona’s Estudi General (the term for university at the time).
Walking along La Rambla towards the sea, the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona (RACAB), the city’s main scientific institution since its foundation in 1764, can be found at number 15.
“The article not only talks about the scientific activities and instruments in the RACAB, but also echoes the testimony of the British author George Orwell, who stood guard on the building’s terrace roof during the Civil War,” added the researchers.
The road continues to number 47 of Carme street, which leads to a complex of buildings, the oldest of which is Hospital of the Holy Cross (Hospital de la Santa Cruz), dating to the 15th century. Currently the restored gothic buildings of the old hospital, moved at the beginning of the 20th century to a new modern building designed by Lluís Domènech I Montaner (Hospital de Sant Pau), houses the National Library of Catalonia.
The same complex includes Casa de Convalescenica (Convalescence House), a late 17th century building which is the Institute for Catalan Studies’ headquarters, and the Royal Academy of Medicine, in a building erected in the 18th century as the Royal College of Surgery.
“Between 1843 and 1906 this was the headquarters of the University of Barcelona’s Medicine Faculty where Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) gave classes; one of the academy’s most noteworthy elements is his anatomical theatre,” they added.
Route 3: the city’s seafront
The Maritime Museum, near the end of La Rambla closest to the sea, is the route’s starting point. Once the Barcelona Royal Shipyard (Drassanes Reials), it is a magnificent example of civil Gothic architecture.
The museum houses the archive of Narcís Monutriol (1819-1885), pioneer of submarine navigation, and has a replica of Ictineu I, the first vessel conceived by Monturiol, in its outdoor patio.
The journey continues along the length of Paseo de Colón to Pla de Palau, where the city’s Lonja (Llotja de Mar) is found. Since 1758, La Llotja was the headquarters of Barcelona’s Trade Board, a centre essential for understanding technical and scientific education, promoter of technical schools, such as experimental physics and direct precursor of the industrial engineering faculties.
A small diversion must then be taken to Moll de Pescadors (fishers’ quay), where the old lighthouse stands. This building houses a clock which was one of the triangulation points used by the French astronomer and geographer Pierre Méchain for his metric measurements, between 1792 and 1794.
The route finishes in the Parque de la Ciudadel park, which took its name from the fortress that replaced the houses of La Ribera’s working quarter after the War of the Spanish Succession, and which was in turn destroyed for the 1888 Universal Exposition of Barcelona, which contributed to the redefinition of spaces for the production and consumption of knowledge in the city.
The Universal Exposition of 1929 gave rise to the urbanisation of Montjuic mountain, at the other end of the city following the cost. Montjuic castle, a modest fortification enlarged throughout the 18th century, was the observatory chosen by Méchain for his determining of the metre.
“A plaque at the foot of the castle’s main tower, on the southern extreme of the arch, commemorates this French academic’s visit to the city who, setting off from Dunkirk and passing through Paris, was to identify the first universal measurement unit. One of the city’s main roads, Avenida Meridiana, winds precisely through a stretch of this meridian.
Route 4: The Eixample and the history of the university in Barcelona
The most characteristic element of the urban expansion of Barcelona is the Eixample. In the Plaça de la Universitat square, near to the Plaça de Catalunya square, is the building that housed the University of Barcelona from 1872. The route continues across the Eixample to the new university campus in Avenida Diagonal, constructed in the 1960s, passing by the Industrial School, installed in an old factory dating to the beginning of the 20th century (Comte d’Urgell, 187).
The article ends with a brief reference to other places related to physics around the city, including Fabra Observatory and the National Museum of Science and Technology (mNACTEC), in Terrassa.
”The recent institutionalisation of physics must not be thought of as a lack of tradition. As our routes suggest, this discipline has played an important role in one way or another in the historical configuration of the city, and it has left visible traces in its urban history,” they concluded.
Xavier Roqué y Antoni Roca Rosell. “Physical Science in Barcelona.” Physics in Perspective 15 (4): 470–498, noviembre de 2013. Doi:10.1007/s00016-013-0122-4.
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