Praising Cambridge

Clare College, Cambridge (my photo)

The University of Cambridge has been mentioned repeatedly on this blog. It is one of the oldest universities in the world – so old, in fact, that nobody is quite certain when it began (it seems to have been up and running by 1226, however). Cambridge is home to the Cavendish Laboratory, where many of the greatest scientific discoveries were made (the electron, the neutron, the structure of DNA, and more). Cambridge is ranked 4th in the world on the Times Higher Education list of engineering institutions. In the humanities, C. S. Lewis moved there from Oxford in 1954.

The university buildings are scattered across the city, which tends to confuse people. I can recall a tourist asking me, on a visit I once made to Cambridge, “Where on earth is the university?”

The Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge (photo: “RichTea”)

The university is also home to the Cambridge University Eco Racing team, which competes in the World Solar Challenge, and which fielded a rather unusual-looking design in 2013 and 2015:

Cambridge University Eco Racing team’s 2015 WSC entry (photo: CUER)

Thermodynamic visualisation

This plaster model was made by the great James Clerk Maxwell in 1874 (the photograph was by taken by James Pickands II, 1942). This historic artefact is one of three copies, held in museums around the world, including the Cavendish and the Sloane Physics Laboratory at Yale.

The model shows the relationship between volume, energy, and entropy for a fictitious water-like substance, based on theoretical work by Josiah Willard Gibbs. The lines connect points of equal pressure and of equal temperature. Maxwell found the model a useful aid in his research. The model prefigured modern visualisation techniques – today we would use computer software to visualise such surfaces, like this:


The Cavendish

Photo: “RichTea”

The Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge has had more than its fair share of major scientific discoveries. In this old building (which the Laboratory no longer occupies) worked James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Lawrence Bragg, James Watson, and Francis Crick, among others. Their discoveries included the electron, the neutron, and the structure of DNA. I’ve always wondered: did the genius ooze into the walls? Would I become a better scientist if I could sleep a night inside the old Cavendish building? Or would I see ghosts performing experiments?

The Cavendish opened on 16th June 1874, receiving a write-up in the (then new) journal Nature (10: 139–142, 25 June). A description by William Garnett is also available here. The inscription “Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates ejus” was placed over the doors. This is taken from Psalm 110:2 in the Clementine Vulgate (Psalm 111:2 in Protestant Bibles). The English version, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein,” was placed over the doors of the Laboratory’s new building.

In 1882 the Cavendish accepted women on equal terms with men, although the University itself did not award degrees to women until 1948. Eleanor Sidgwick was the first woman to work at the Cavendish (1880–1882). Elsa Neumann joined in 1899, and Katharine Burr Blodgett in 1924.

Photo: William M. Connolley