Europe for science lovers
Basalt has surreally erupted in hexagonal pillars along Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway. (Manfred Gottschalk/LPI/Getty)
Fellow lovers of science, listen up: our geeky instincts will not be satisfied by yet another dreary natural history museum. If your brain cells are unstimulated by stuffed eagles and dusty models of the solar system, Europe’s rich history of scientific discovery and wondrous natural sights is sure to inspire. Here are a few of the big hitters, for every kind of brainiac.
Whether you are an ardent debater of life, the universe and everything in between, or merely titter at typos of “Hadron Collider”, a visit to Cern (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland will blow your mind right open. At the world’s largest particle physics lab, scientists are hoping to answer some of the universe’s most fundamental questions through the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle. Organised tours will steer you around a lab where, underground, beams of trillions of volts are smashing into each other.
The alternative: Marie Curie’s achievements cannot be overstated – two Nobel prizes in different disciplines, and the discovery of two new elements. Learn more about the work of this legendary physicist at the eponymous Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw, Poland.
The delightfully photogenic Jurassic Coast in Dorset, England is a magnet for fossil fans. Rummage for a perfect specimen on Monmouth Beach in the town of Lyme Regis, where the crumbling cliffsides of clay and limestone layers deposit new fossils daily. Time your visit for a morning after the tide has gone out to maximise your chances of beating the crowds. For tips on safe and eco-friendly fossil hunting, as well as tide times, check the Lyme Regis fossils and fossil-collection website.
The alternative: admire geological wonders of a different kind at Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. Hexagonal basalt pillars create a truly surreal stretch of Irish coast.
Romantic souls might name a constellation after their lover; science geeks would know that it is already called the Coma Berenices. Get inside the mind of the greatest of astronomers, Copernicus, who showed the sun to be the centre of the universe. Museums have sprouted all over Poland to laud his achievements, and the finest are in his hometown of Toruń, where the Nicolaus Copernicus House immerses you in the great polymath’s life and work, and gives you a glimpse into medieval Europe.
The alternative: admire Galileo’s telescope in the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. Or to star-spot yourself, remote areas of Scotland are famed for their light pollution-free skies (try the Galloway Astronomy Centre for an organised holiday).
Geologists and volcanologists
Nowhere in Europe does the ground grumble beneath your feet as much as in Iceland. The country is sliced in two by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, meaning it straddles the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Magma welling up from the ridge widens Iceland by an inch every year, and groundwater heated by magma spurts up as hot springs all over the country. Get acquainted with plenty more nerdy facts at Reykjavik’s Volcano Show and take a tour of the famous Golden Circle to see geysers, hot springs and the dramatic rift valley at Thingvellir National Park.
There may be haunting courtyards and clinical, echoing corridors (think Shutter Island), but the dark ambiance of the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent, Belgium is misleading. As the expansive museum attests, legendary psychiatrist Dr Guislain was a trailblazer in the transition from shackles and imprisonment (the norm for mentally ill patients in the past) towards a more enlightened view of mental illness as curable through humane and supportive means.
The alternative: France teems with interesting history. Lunatic asylum Charenton , where writer/philosopher Marquis de Sade was imprisoned, still stands in the town of Val-de-Marne outside the capital. And another famous asylum, the Salpêtrière in Paris, continues to treat France’s good and great. If you are in the area, look out for the monument to the great pioneer of psychiatry Philippe Pinel in front of the building.
All that we know about human genetics began with a priest and some pea plants. The Medelovo Museum in Brno, Czech Republic, delves into the great mind of Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, from his life and to the latest advances in the field. The exhibition is housed in a stunning Augustinian abbey, where Mendel himself quietly cultivated peas while changing the face of science forever.
The alternative: if you like your biology a little more hands-on, why not witness a remarkable oddity of evolution in the animal world? The olm, or proteus, is a blind amphibian adapted to live its entire life cycle in pitch darkness. Visit this ghostly creature in the caves of Postojna, Slovenia.