This past summer, I studied for two months in a tiny university town called Göttingen, in Lower Saxony, Germany. I was there to learn beginning German and, with lots of study, managed to accomplish that. However, living alone in a different culture was the experience that I think was the most valuable and life changing.
Although I was worried about living overseas in a country whose language I didn’t yet speak, the town won me over completely. A week into living there, I was completely in love with it. Göttingen is small and very pretty, with a gorgeous town center and an island of bicycles outside the train station. The university is the most famous institution in Göttingen and has benefited the town in the past – the Allied Forces spared Göttingen during World War II for its status as a center of learning. Sadly, although the Allies spared the town, its residents haven’t. During the late 20th century, according to my gregarious and strangely piratical tour guide, many of the owners of the gorgeous-but-high-maintenance medieval houses sold them for remodeling as modern commercial buildings.
Since it is a university town, Göttingen is also a quirky town. During my stay, news broke that a group called “A Few Autonomous Flower Children” had planted marijuana throughout the city, to the utter horror of the authorities and the delight of the students. Both groups immediately began uprooting the plants with enthusiasm. The town is also full of the residue of academic fame. Virtually every other house in the town center has a plaque, or several, commemorating people such as Carl Friedrich Gaus, Alexander von Humboldt and Max Planck. Otto von Bismarck lived in Göttingen for some time, as well, studying at the George-August University until he was kicked out of the city for unruly drunken behavior.
During my stay, I lived at the Goethe Institute, the official German language school in Göttingen. The main building is a fantastic mansion that resembles a castle and is over a hundred years old. Some people get to live in the building’s tower, but the guesthouse, where I lived, is modern and bland. The doors do not have turning knobs, giving them a detestable propensity for locking one out. I know this from grim experience, although a brave friend, a balcony and quite a few stacked picnic benches saved me from the discomfort of sleeping on a wooden bench in the Grand Hall.
At the end of my stay, I went to the old graveyard in Göttingen to see the grave of Max Planck. What I didn’t realize was that Göttingen has an entire section of the graveyard dedicated to its Nobel Prize winning scientists. My distress at not knowing much, if anything, about most of these amazing people gave me the idea for this column. I’ve always been sad that I, and many others who do not classify themselves as “science people,” do not know anything about important scientists and their contributions. For the rest of the term, this column will be about the lives and achievements of the scientists buried in Göttingen.