Science World Heritage

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has been holed up in New Zealand this week, issuing periodic additions and updates to the World Heritage List. Why they can’t release the year’s new sites all at once, I don’t know; I have this image of the committee doling out updates in exchange for sandwiches. Anyway. So far they’ve added four sites of interest to geologists:

And they’ve enlarged the existing High Alps site of Jungfrau – Aletsch – Bietschhorn.

Darwin’s house, however, has not been added to the list. The nomination was withdrawn after the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which advises the World Heritage committee, said it was crap. I say good for them! I think it’s silly to put Darwin’s house on the list when we already have the Galápagos Islands. Is the particular chair in which Darwin wrote his book really as important as the inspiration for his ideas? Granted, the proposed site includes Darwin’s greenhouse laboratory space, and the importance of the Galápagos to his work is easily and frequently overstated, but still – the proposal just smells too much of “George Washington slept here” for me to really be excited about it.

UNESCO has asked for more World Heritage proposals that celebrate science. Earth scientists are at an advantage here, because our work is so closely tied to place, our subject matter is often a spectacularly beautiful landscape, and geology’s influence on human history is easy to see. There is already enough geology on the list to fill an entire undergraduate curriculum – from Þingvellir (though the listing doesn’t mention the fact that the park is located right smack on the Europe-North America plate boundary, and one of few locations on Earth where you can see a mid-ocean ridge in action on land) to the Vredefort Dome impact structure to a whole freakin’ bucketload of mines, caves, volcanoes, glaciers, and fossil beds. The same goes for ecologists and archeologists.

As the British government points out, though, most scientific heritage looks different from the cultural and natural heritage sites that dominate the current list. Without a separate set of standards for evaluating scientific heritage sites, we’re going to keep adding geology and biology at the expense of physics and chemistry. They’re right. However, I don’t want to see UNESCO fetishize the Great Men of Science who made Great Discoveries and now we can show you how their furniture was arranged. I’ve certainly taken my fair share of silly pictures underneath plaques that say “childhood home of a B-List Scientist”, but I can’t say that doing so ever involved an appreciation of science per se – it’s been more about my desire to situate myself in the historical context of geekdom. Er, and take silly vacation pictures.

Good science heritage sites should force us to consider the process of science, in addition to its results and historical characters. I think the absolute coolest science heritage site on the list is the Struve geodetic arc, a series of monuments that provide a sense of scale and technique for an ambitious 19th century survey project. And there are some really great engineering / technology sites on the list as well. Sticking to the idea that the World Heritage list should be made up of “sites” – that is, identifiable locations rather than a set of archived papers or something – but ignoring the practical realities of preserving, e.g., lab space in university buildings where everyone is jockeying for an extra foot of fume hood, or experiments that have long since been dismantled – what else would I think about adding?

  • UC Berkeley cyclotrons – the earliest particle smashers were developed here back in the 1930s, leading to the discovery of a carnival of odd isotopes and new elements. Most of the early cyclotrons and synchrotrons have been dismantled to make room for modern equipment up at LBNL; I’m not sure if any of the desktop-sized early cyclotrons survive or not. It’d be a shame if they are no longer around. This kind of loss to history is precisely what World Heritage status is supposed to prevent.
  • The Michelson-Morley experimental apparatus
  • Various astronomical observatories. Early observatories like Angkor Wat and Stonehenge are on the list, but I’m thinking of the kind with a permanently mounted telescope. Not that I know enough about the history of astronomy to justify any particular choice, I just think observatory domes are cool.

Yeah, okay, I give up. Theorists are still getting the shaft, but other than a collection of papers and a chair with an “Einstein slept here” plaque, I’m not sure they leave enough physical marks on their workspaces to be worth considering. But what would all y’alls want to preserve?

Comments

  1. Lab Lemming wrote:

    I think the Trinity test site qualifies as a physics world heritage place.

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