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Edinburgh, a city that celebrates the artists, philosophers and scientists

November 20 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Edinburgh is a town that celebrates its humanists, its writers, and its scientists instead of his kings, dictators, or war heroes.

While visiting together the town, a visitor of mine from Germany pointed to a neo-gothic moment on Princes street, the main street of Edinburgh, with a statue on it. She was wondering which Scottish historical figure would have deserved such a prominent location in town. She thought about kings, queens, or bishops. Wrong, she was starring at the (Walter) Scott monument, one of the largest monuments dedicated to commemorate a writer. She started to love the town. 

Scott Monument, Princes street, Edinburgh

Scott Monument, Princes street, Edinburgh

That was just the beginning. Edinburgh main train station is named after a work of Walter Scott (Edinburgh Waverley station). If the French start to name their train station after writers’ works, we would call the Grenoble station, la station “Le rouge et le noir” (Stendhal is a famous French writer from Grenoble). On Picardy place, there is a statue with the attire of a Victorian Londoner that may look familiar to you. It is the statue of Sherlock Holmes, erected close to the birthplace of the author of his adventures Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Not only writers have their statues. On the Royal Mile (High street) in the old town, you can find the bronze statue of two of the most influential Scottish thinkers, David Hume and Adam Smith. The first is famous for his concept of causality and the second for being the “father” of modern economics. Adam Smith is the author of “The wealth of Nations”, which is still nowadays studied and discussed by economists. Both philosophers were friends and now overlook the tourists strolling the Royal Mile.

David Hume's statue, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

David Hume's statue, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

What about the scientists? Should they feel excluded? From the Royal Mile back to the New Town on Georges street stands the statue of someone who you would hate if you were a first year physics student (more precisely you would hate the equations named after him). James Clerk Maxwell is mostly known for his work on electromagnetism and on kinetic gas theory (Astronomers use constantly the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution). But one of his early works was on the nature of Saturn’s ring. He demonstrated that the ring was made of many small particles.

James Clerk Maxwell's statue, George street, Edinburgh

James Clerk Maxwell's statue, George street, Edinburgh

One urban legend says that philosophy students should touch the toes of Hume’s statue to pass their exam. There is a plate on the side of Maxwell’s statue with the electromagnetism equations engraved on it. Almost nobody notices them but I am sure that a couple of physics students have touched those equations. Such superstitious behaviour would have certainly annoyed Hume.

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