by Andrew Walker
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When I signed up to travel over interterm, I was unprepared for the education I would receive while simply seeing the sights and lights of some of the great cities across mainland Europe. The tour was a delicate balance of sightseeing and experiences spanning decades of mathematical discovery and European history.
Budapest was our opening city and the most difficult area to experience. None of us spoke Hungarian, and English wasn’t as widely spoken there as it would be elsewhere in more Western nations.
Besides the Budapest Semester in Mathematics study abroad program for international students, the city is famous for its Turkish baths and the most published mathematician in history, Paul Erdős.
After “wrong weather” in Austria (to quote a station agent) and an extended day of transit, we disembarked in Geneva to tour CERN, the particle accelerator or, as I call it, “the physics factory.” To simplify an extensive presentation and guided facility tour: at CERN, physicists strip down hydrogen and accelerate the particles to smash them together at super high speeds. It was incredible to witness where such great experiments take place.
We had a two-night home stay while visiting Geneva, courtesy of the members of a French Mennonite church that Miriam Weaverdyck had once belonged to. It was wonderful to take a break from hotels and hostels and eat a home-cooked meal.
Our next city was the City of Love, and architecture: Paris. In addition to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and countless other grand attractions, we visited the Museum of Arts and Crafts, a collection of machines and inventions from multiple centuries.
Among the many mechanisms stored at the museum is the first calculator, made by mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal. Made up of complicated cog systems, the large box only has the capacity to add numbers up to four digits long, but to our mostly math-majoring group, it was the best thing since the abacus (which was also on display at the museum).
Arriving in our final country, Germany, we landed first in Göttingen, the “math city” known for its university and countless mathematicians, including Carl Friedrich Gauss. The university is historically relevant not only for the mathematical discoveries that were made there, but also for its importance during World War II. It was part of a no-bomb agreement made with the Allies in exchange for the Germans sparing the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England.
Our next destination in Germany was the small town of Wolfenbüttel, known for its comprehensive library. We were visiting at the specific request of Dale Schrag, Bethel director of church relations, who once worked there for a year. It was an incredible collection, even claiming to house the world’s most expensive book, a copy of which we were able to see on display.
The last city our group visited was the East German city of Leipzig. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz called Leipzig home, as did Johann Sebastian Bach when he became cantor of the St. Thomas Church.
The trip was an experience and a half when you consider how we got to visit not only some of the greatest cities in Europe, but also some of the cultural and historical contexts that helped make today’s mathematics.
Andrew Walker is a sophomore from Newton. Also participating in the Bethel College 2012 interterm course European Science/Mathematics History Tour, led by Lisa Thimm, assistant professor of mathematics, were Justin Beth, Newton, Jinwan Dai, Tianjin, China, Emilie Doerksen, Newton, David Gaeddert, Leawood, Emily Gundy, Halstead, Dylan Jantz, Newton, Megan Leary, North Newton, Roxanne Reimer, Walton, Sarah Unruh, Raytown, Mo., Anna Voth, Wichita, and Miriam Weaverdyck, Ann Arbor, Mich.