A tale of two cities


Street scene in Paris

One benefit of being a scientist is that it is an international game, and leads to opportunities to go abroad to collaborate and share knowledge with colleagues from other countries. I’ve been fortunate this year to get to go to Beijing, China to attend a workshop, and then was invited to spend a month in Paris, France working with colleagues there. It was the first time I had been to either city, or either country, although I have spent far more time in Europe than Asia. It was a fascinating contrast. I have to say that Paris is the most beautiful city I have been to, while Beijing might be the most ambitious, but with an ambition aimed towards growth and economic and technological achievement with beautification and the arts taking a long distant back seat.

One remarkable thing about Paris is that it is known for it artistic heritage, as well as food and culture, but it’s scientific legacy is literally all over the streets. I lived a couple of blocks from Rue Lamarck a long avenue that winds around the famous cathedral on Montmartre. Lamarck was one of the foremost evolutionary biologists of the 19th century; however his Lamarckian theory of evolution lost out by a neck to what we call the Darwinian theory of evolution today. There are those who think Lamarck is overdue for a second coming. Humorously, there was, also close by, a Rue Darwin that was all of three blocks long. There are many other avenues named for famous French scientists that I came across, Berzelius and Lavoisier (chemists), and according to Google there are 100 streets in Paris names after mathematicians! I worked at Marie and Pierre Curie University, Marie won two Nobel prizes in physics, she shared the first one with Pierre.


Beijing on a clear day from the Forbidden City

In Beijing our group was at the campus of Peking University (PKU), I was informed that it is the #2 university in the country; #1 is Tsinghua University across the street (actually a very large boulevard) from PKU. PKU has a very nice lake that centered the campus which is a mix of modern and older buildings. It felt like many universities, with lots of young people, including a high percentage of women. To me they looked like students at many other universities I have visited; however I know enough about the Chinese system to know that with the grades I had in high school, along with my innate lack of test-taking ability, I would not have been allowed near the janitor’s quarters at Chinese University Ranked #101, much less PKU. So it was kind of amusing to me to be on campus as an ‘esteemed foreign scientist’.

There were a lot of remarkable things about Beijing. One that struck me was how many cars there were in the city, but very few old ones. It was explained to me that car ownership has really only happened in a big way in the last 10 -15 years. It’s kind of hard to comprehend coming from the US.

The Chinese were very gracious hosts. They took our group to visit some of their state-of-the-art research facilities that are truly state-of-the-art, but we also got to see behind the curtain as well. The Chinese have made incredible progress in modern science in the last 20 years, and they are rightly proud. In my field, there were almost no scientific papers published from Chinese laboratories 20 years ago, although there were a number of Chinese authors working in American and European labs. One of my American colleagues in Beijing is an editor for a leading microbiology journal, he commented that he wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years 80% of their submissions came from China.


The Eiffel Tower

The French were extremely kind and gracious hosts as well, and very tolerant of a non-French speaking American. They are rightly proud of their scientific heritage, and the geophysics institute that I worked at is world renowned, and has it’s own state-of-the-art equipment, although I got to see behind the curtain there as well. In France, many of the scientists are civil servants, which means their jobs are pretty secure, although funding for actual projects can be hard to come by, and is getting harder. I work at a ‘soft money’ institution where I am responsible for bringing in my own funding, I feel fortunate if I know that a year from now I will still have a salary. The French model then, has its appeal, although I am not sure I would exchange it for the US model.

Needless to say at almost every level France and China are pretty stark contrasts to one another and to the US as well. But in both places, as scientists, it is easy to leave most of that behind and suddenly be engaged in a conversation that starts, “Well, have you thought about doing this…,” or “What if we tried that….”, or, “Oh that’s cool, do you think I could use the Ramen confocal laser microscope to analyze….”


Beijing street scene


David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.