We hit the road to Paris and paid a visit to the Pasteur Institute. The Institute’s museum is located in Pasteur’s former house and includes several rooms preserved since the 1800’s! One of my favorite rooms contained glassware, instruments, and even chemicals that Pasteur used in chronological order, tracing his work from fermentation to pasteurization to vaccination. The rest of the Institute is a scientific research center, something like an amalgamation of the CDC and National Laboratories in the United States.
Everybody with any interest in science has heard of Pasteur, but to a practicing scientist the myth of Pasteur seems a little too perfect. Pasteur’s productivity was a cut above everyone else’s during his time. To an extent, this was because he had latched onto a deep idea that everyone else had missed. At the same time, the story of Pasteur has a dark side: he kept his notebooks secret for his entire career. Once they became public, it was clear that he had exercised some deception in reporting his discoveries. I suppose we can conclude that in launching the field of microbiology, he was as much a marketer as a scientist. The whole issue of Pasteur’s legacy is interesting because his discoveries directly saved thousands of lives. It’s hard to argue that his deceptions weren’t worth it in the long run.
In the afternoon, we checked out some of the research facilities. I toured the protein crystallography center, where automated machines are used to set up thousands of crystallizations in a matter of a few minutes. The entire process of forming and handling crystals is managed by machines—all the scientist does is examine images and use computer interfaces to “grab” microscopic crystals. Truly amazing, as I can still remember when the process of protein crystallization was extremely painstaking and long winded!
For the rest of our time in Paris, I tried to get off the beaten path as much as I could (can’t stand waiting in lines). There are all kinds of interesting hidden gems in the vicinity of the more popular tourist attractions in Paris. For example, the Crypte Archéologique museum is underneath the Île de la Cité—while people were waiting to see Notre Dame above me, I was exploring Roman ruins unearthed at the center of Paris in the nineteenth century!
Earlier this year, I happened on a neat little book about experiencing Paris and its environs by train. The first chapter mentions several cathedrals that are just a short train ride from the center of Paris. The cathedral of St. Denis, near the end of the no. 13 Métro line, contains the remains of most of the kings and queens of France. In contrast to Westminster Abbey in London, this church is far from the center of Paris, evoking the classic image of the French aristocracy as detached and elitist. Smiling down on the unassuming sarcophagi of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI is exactly as satisfying as it sounds! The crypt beneath the church also includes an ancient Roman cemetery containing the remains of Saint Denis himself.