Holland-Belgium 2008 Vacation

The telescope was first patented in the Netherlands in 1608, and a scientific conference hosted by the European Space Agency was convened in celebration of the 400th anniversary in late September. Since I have enjoyed visiting the home and work places of the first Great Astronomers, I had to go to this conference. Belgium was close enough for a short visit to a mineral specimen store and see some cathedrals.

The first stop on my vacation was the town of Leiden, only about 30 minutes from the main Amsterdam airport and the site of the conference. I took the train and bus to my hotel, and had wonderful, sunny weather, good for getting over jet lag. Walking around town, there were a number of street banners proclaiming "What does this person have to do with Leiden?". I recognized various other scientists and musicians, including Einstein. Not quite fully awake, I didn't realize that this banner was not for Christiaan Huygens, the optics scientist, but his father. I guess Leiden considers a poet, composer, and secretary to two princes more worthy of a banner!

Jet lag always makes the first meal timing difficult. Luckily, there were a number of fast-food places around town that were open and not crowded on a Saturday afternoon. Partly evident here, it rapidly seemed to me that Holland is populated by an amazing proportion of very tall people!

Not far from the train station is the laboratory that was the work place of Kamerlingh Onnes, who was a pioneer in low temperature physics in the early 20th century. He discovered superconductivity and liquefied helium, both relevant to my own doctoral work. The only recognition in town was a plaque inside the building at Leiden University. It states that at this place on July 10, 1908, Onnes first liquefied helium.

There were an incredible number of bicyclists in Leiden, but I didn't have too many pedestrian close calls, as long as I kept an eye open for them on the sidewalks and bike paths. The buses had to slow down where the streets narrowed too far to allow for a bike lane. This parking lot was near the main train station, a covered lot near the University. I saw no one picking up or dropping off a bike on Saturday, but based on the number of bikes, it must be very busy on week days. This photo shows only one of several rows, and there were probably more bikes parked outside in large lots in front of stores and other buildings.

My hotel was just a few blocks from the North Sea beach, in the little resort community of Noordwijk aan Zee, and near this lighthouse built in 1921. Nowadays, it is probably more useful as a support for all the cell phone towers on top!

On Sunday, I took the train to Middelburg in southwest Holland, about two hours away. Most of the outside views during the journey looked like this; lots of farmland with cattle, sheep, and hogs.

Middelburg is touted as the home of the telescope, and lots of street banners showed this. The town is not very big, and since most businesses were closed on Sunday, it was easy to walk around the old town and relax.

The reason for my visit was the Zeeuws Museum, where there was a special exhibition on the history of telescopes. This 1608 book showed the original telescope patent application by Hans Lipperhay.

Another rare book was Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius, this edition from 1653. Galileo first described crater and mountains on the moon in this book, revolutionizing science and religion. The same book had his first drawings of Jupiter's moons. Lots of old telescopes were also on display, but the dim lighting was not very conducive to photography.

The 400th anniversary conference was hosted by the European Space Agency facilities in Leiden. About half of the 100 participants were historians, and the other half were astronomers. This illustrates one of the early talks on the history of telescopes.

After three days of presentations, an evening visit to the ESA museum, a tour of the Galileo satellite assembly facility, and another evening at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden (more 17th and 18th century telescopes and early scientific apparatus), I was ready to visit some non-scientific sites for a few days. I left for Belgium on Thursday, stopping first at Gouda in central Holland. The main attraction here were the stained glass windows in St. John's Church. No photography was allowed inside, but the 16th century windows were very nice, especially on another lucky sunny day. The story of the Ascension was illustrated by showing only Jesus' feet at the top of one window - a stained glass artist with a sense of humor! I spent a few hours wandering the town market area, taking advantage of the good weather.

One of the most disturbing sites in Holland was in the train toilet compartment. When the toilet was flushed, you could see the ground! I don't know how they get away with this in modern Europe, but I saw the same thing in Belgium. It makes me want to to stay away from any train tracks in these countries, and even spend less time hanging around the train stations.

I stayed in Gent, slightly west of Antwerp and Brussels. There are two large churches practically next door. The one shown here is St. Bavo's Cathedral, very light and colorful. The other is St. Nicholas's church.

Wandering around the markets and side streets looking for lunch, it wasn't hard to spot a Belgian waffle stand.

The other food this country is famous for is chocolate. Lots of places sold hand-made chocolate pieces for typically $15 to $30 per pound, pretty expensive. The most expensive chocolate I saw advertised is shown in this window - the equivalent of about $40 per pound for strawberries with a little chocolate coating.

A mineral dealer in Gent was courteous enough to invite me to his home one evening, even picking me up at my hotel. In addition to having the opportunity to buy a few nice mineral specimens, it also freed up the next day, so I took the train to Brussels, only about an hour away (only an hour, if I had taken the correct train, instead of winding up near France!). Again blessed with a wonderful sunny afternoon, I was very impressed with the large Cathedral of Saint Michael.

This cathedral was also well lit. It happened that there were a number of small works of contemporary art scattered through the side chapels, commenting on current social issues. Note the large circular banner hanging in the middle of the sanctuary.

After starting to head back to the train station to return to Gent, I realized that I would be returning early the next morning for the Netherlands, probably before the McDonalds in Gent would be open. I didn't want to leave Belgium without eating at least one meal in a McDonalds, so I started to panic. However, it doesn't take very long to find a McDonalds downtown in any big European city. After walking just a few blocks, I spotted the golden arches not very far away. There was a plaque in the restaurant stating that this was the first McDonalds in Belgium. Upon returning to Gent, the rain appeared. Earlier in the day I noted a flyer posted in St. Bavo that there would be an organ concert that evening, and I was even able to listen to the organist practice early in the morning. The flyer was in Dutch, but the concert would have at least one piece by Bach. I walked to St. Bavo in the rain, expecting a typically small crowd for this kind of recital, and was surprised to see big crowds and a tent selling tickets in front. When I got into the sanctuary, the stage was set up for a full orchestra. It turns out that I got there by accident, to see the Amsterdam Symphony performing as part of the Flanders Festival held annually in different cities. So, instead of a small organ recital, I enjoyed Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony #6 and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. On my way out, I looked for the flyer I saw earlier, and noted that the organ recital was in Antwerp!

Back in Holland, my last day was in Haarlem, where the Teyler's Museum is located. This place had a large variety of old scientific instruments, both optical and electrical, but not necessarily associated with famous scientists. The instrument shown here is a theodolite, a forerunner of the modern instruments I work with regularly. The craftsmanship was wonderful, and it looked easy to use, with lots of fine adjustments and leveling indicators. It is sitting next to an astrolabe, an instrument I am also currently updating to 21st century standards. The museum also had a mineral collection, organized as they were in the 19th century mineralogical system of Hauy.

The description of this early battery seemed to indicate that it was made by Volta himself.

My interest in high voltage apparatus stems from when my home in Colorado Springs was built on top of Tesla's laboratory site. Here are some original Leyden jars from the 18th century, along with a very large electrostatic generator from the 19th century. This was a very interesting museum, but I didn't plan on enough time here.

Outside in Haarlem the Saturday market was in full operation. I had the choice of more deep-fried fish at the little stand, or McDonald's. I chose the fish stand. Later, for my last meal in this Amsterdam suburb, I added a Heineken beer, locally brewed.

The main cathedral in Haarlem was also named after St. Bavo, and included an organ once played by Mozart. I was able to catch a few minutes of a recital that afternoon. The rest of the church was not very impressive, and seemed almost sacrilegious with a cafe in one of the side chapels and little respect given by the visitors.

I needed to leave my hotel early the next morning for my flight back home, so I channel-surfed that evening. Normally, game shows are worth watching, or classic American sit-coms in the local language. I couldn't find any of that. Apparently, ski-jumping is a popular sport, since it was broadcast live on one of the sport channels. Instead of snow, they were jumping from a low-friction (Teflon?) ramp and landing on green carpet more than 100m later.

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