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History: The light and shade of German science

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A Correction to this article was published on 17 November 2010

From physiology to physics, a stirring exhibition reflects 300 years of science in Berlin, discovers Alison Abbott.

Weltwissen (World Knowledge): 300 Years of Science in Berlin

Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin. Until 9 January 2011.

The first image to confront visitors to the Weltwissen exhibition in Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau is formed of shadows. Silhouettes of 250 historical objects in 96 giant shelving cubes are projected using bright lighting onto a vast canvas that backs the two-sided display, filling the atrium. The items — ranging from statues of Greek philosophers to skeletons and an iron lung — were selected from local museums by New York artist Mark Dion as 'witnesses' of Berlin's scientific past.

Mark Dion's wall of curiosities bears witness to Berlin's place in science history. Credit: R. MÄRZ

The display is a neat metaphor for the light and shadow of Berlin's 300-year scientific history, reflected in this ambitious show. The city was home to some of Europe's most important science before the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the physical destruction of the city in the Second World War and the 1949 rise of the Berlin Wall. Weltwissen opened on 24 September, 10 days before the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany.

The exhibition celebrates scientific rather than political anniversaries — 300 years since the founding of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and the Charité, now Berlin's university hospital; and 200 years since the Humboldt University was established. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society, now the Max Planck Society, runs 80 research institutes throughout Germany and was founded in 1911; running until early next year, the show also covers that centenary.

The exhibition's powerful fascination lies largely in the placing of Berlin science in the political and social contexts of its times, good and evil. It also lies in the curators' reliance on real objects, rather than multimedia, to tell the stories. To stand close to the 1880 full-body cast of a naked tribesman — made while he was alive for the then-fashionable science of anthropometrics — and to see how he squeezed his eyes shut against the wet plaster, is to experience a raw emotional force that would be hard to create by digital means.

Dion spent two months in the city sifting through tens of millions of historic objects for his installation; the curators spent even longer, and to good effect. The exhibition's rooms are organized into historical eras or are dedicated to eternal themes in scientific culture, such as quarrels over data interpretation or experimental methodology. The first few rooms depict the city's mad rush in the eighteenth century to catch up with established centres of science such as Paris and London, when its first observatory and anatomical theatre were built. Subsequent rooms focus on the next two centuries, when the city grew to be a major force in European research.

Towering scientific figures are introduced: naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859); physiologists Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–94) and Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–96), who did much to link animal physiology with the laws of chemistry and physics; Werner von Siemens (1816–92), who founded the famous electrical and telecommunications company; microbiologist Robert Koch (1843–1910), who identified the bacterium that causes tuberculosis; and chemist Fritz Haber (1868–1934), who won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his synthesis of ammonia.

Ethics is a running theme, and the dark side of science is prominently displayed. The ambitious Koch, for example, dodged local restrictions on human experimentation by going to East Africa in 1906 to test potential medicines for sleeping sickness. During the First World War, Haber developed poison gases for use in the trenches. The unspeakable Nazi abuses of science and medicine are laid out soberly. Personal letters and diaries of Jewish scientists who fled or were expelled from Nazi Berlin — such as Albert Einstein and Haber — are deeply moving. The exhibition tells us that, after the war, in East Berlin the communist state highlighted these abuses as evidence of the necessity of its regime, while West Berlin closed its collective mind to the issue until the late 1980s.

Notable films include historic footage of the 1933 Nazi book burning, and a new film made for an installation on experimental methods in Alzheimer's disease, a focus of research activity in Berlin. It shows a classic test of rodent memory: a mouse is dropped into a water maze and swims to find the submerged platform. Simple animated graphics show how a memory-impaired mouse must search much longer for the out-of-sight platform. But it is the mouse's perspective of its forced activity that will captivate biologists.

Of note also are the recorded reflections of 16 scientists involved in decisions about which East German institutes and individuals were worth retaining in the science system of reunified Germany. It was a cruel time for many; others, such as chemist Joachim Sauer, husband of Chancellor Angela Merkel, survived the cuts. Now a Humboldt University professor, he remembers the unfair handling of some older colleagues.

Berlin is still struggling with the expense of reunification. But the quality of the exhibition — the €5.5-million (US$7.4-million) cost of which was met by the Berlin lottery — demonstrates the current intellectual wealth of the city. Weltwissen is gorgeous to look at, yet visitors will find their preconceptions challenged, and will leave better educated than when they entered, having faced the shadows.

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Abbott, A. History: The light and shade of German science. Nature 467, 660 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/467660a

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