If you like astrolabes, Oxford is the place for you. There are 170 of them in the History of Science Museum. And not just astrolabes. There are also (according to Christopher and Edward Hibbert’s magisterial Encyclopædia of Oxford) ‘armillary spheres, orreries, globes, equatoria, quadrants, sun-dials, instruments of navigation and telescopes’, plus sextants, microscopes and optical devices. Together they constitute a collection of early astronomical and mathematical instruments unrivalled in Britain.
They are displayed, moreover, in one of Oxford’s most beautiful buildings. It’s the original Ashmolean museum in Broad Street, designed to house Elias Ashmole’s collection, and said to be the first purpose-built public museum in Britain. It was opened in 1683 by the Duke of York, later the ill-fated King James II, whose crowned crest is carved on the glorious north facade with its steeply rising, portalled staircase.
Such a splendid building, possibly inspired by Christopher Wren’s design for the Royal Society in London, reminds us that science can be a beautiful as well as practical endeavour. The buildings on the twentieth century science park half a mile away are decidedly dull by contrast.
Science in Oxford goes back a very long way. But if you had to pick one treasure from the entire Museum it would have to be something more recent than an astrolabe.
Einstein’s Blackboard. It dates from 1931: 16thMay to be precise. For that was the occasion when the great physicist gave a lecture (one of three in Oxford) on Relativity. Standing before it, you can somehow conjure up his whiskery presence and hear the squeak of the chalk as he wrote equations for measuring the expansion, density, radius and age of the universe.
One eager student liked the lecture so much he made off with the entire blackboard – and subsequently presented it to the museum where it stands to this day. Apparently, it has not been varnished or preserved in any way. No zealous cleaner has mistakenly tried to dust it. The chalk hasn’t crumbled. It’s just as it was in Professor Einstein’s time – a black and white reminder of Oxford’s great scientific as well as literary tradition.