Thursday, September 20, 2007

Oxford, Einstein, Alice, Harry, and Me

I spent a very enjoyable day in Oxford today, starting with a bus tour to get myself oriented in this historic but quite compact city. I then explored some of the beautiful old college buildings, had lunch in a pub, and climbed a couple of towers for the view. I also spent some time browsing in the enormous and wonderful Blackwell book shop.

Oxford has various museums, but the only one I visited was the Museum of the History of Science, which has an amazing collection of optical and astronomical instruments, among other things. Its most famous artifact is a small blackboard that was used by Albert Einstein when he gave a visiting lecture series at Oxford in 1931. It was left with a few equations that he had written to explain in a fairly simple way (for him!) the then recently discovered red shift in the spectra of distant galaxies, and how this relates through his General Theory of Relativity to the apparent expansion of the universe. I also saw parts of a Charles Babbage Difference Engine, a mechanical computing device from 1830! I took some pictures of this as well as other museum objects (and scenes around Oxford) which I may eventually add to my Flickr site.

I had forgotten that Oxford was also the home of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson. He was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church college in Oxford, where he had also been an undergraduate. I visited the grounds of Christ Church as well as the modern (tourist) version of the shop where young Alice Liddell had once bought her "barley sugar sweets," she of course being the inspiration for and original recipient of the famous Alice stories.

Christ Church also has a Harry Potter connection. Although I'm not a big Harry Potter fan myself, my daughter is, and I have at least seen the films. It turns out that the dining hall used in those films is actually the Dining Hall at Christ Church. I was hoping to see it for myself but it was closed due to a conference. Drat! Yes, I am a creature of pop culture, I must admit. And a science nerd. What an unbeatable combination.

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