Our group of “scientific/historical travelers” talked excitedly among ourselves as we approached the great towers of Westminster Abbey that spring day. Americans are not used to seeing scientists honored anyplace, never mind at a great Christian church. This one was in the very heart of London near Big Ben and here we knew we would find the graves of some of the greatest scientists in world history. We entered via the usual tourist entrance. Our shoes clacked on the stone floors, our eyes were drawn to the great vaulted ceiling, and our voices echoed off the centuries-old walls covered by plaques, inscriptions, and statues. We followed the velvet ropes around the ornate apse and saw the great coronation chair and the tombs of the various British monarchs. (See Drawing #1.) From there we slipped into the south transept of the cross-shaped necropolis and took note of the poets buried in a rather remote and dusty corner. Our group was only marginally interested in “Poets’ Corner” – we were headed to the altar-like area in front of the magnificent Gothic Revival choir screen, the very heart of the abbey, where we expected to stand among the markers to the great scientists whose work we knew so well.
After making a nearly complete circuit around the abbey, we stood elbow-to-elbow atop the diamond-shaped memorial stone to Sir William Herschel (1738 – 1822), the great German-English astronomer. In 1781, with their beautiful handmade telescope set up in their garden in Bath, England, William and his sister Caroline accidentally discovered a small bluish-green planet as it drifted in a nearly circular orbit far beyond that of Saturn, then the outermost planet known in our solar system. Herschel wanted to call the planet Georgium Sidus (George’s star) after the reigning King George III but the tradition of naming the outer planets after Roman and Greek gods was eventually (and thankfully) continued. (Imagine learning the names of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and . . . George?) William and Caroline’s planet was named Uranus and their discovery nearly doubled the diameter of the known solar system. Appropriately, the Latin inscription on William’s stone translates to “He broke through the confines of heaven.”
Great though Herschel was, he was not the primary reason for our visit today. Huddled in a rough U-formation around the Herschel marker, we could see the markers to other great scientists, but between us and the altar-like area where they lay, was a barrier in the form of a plush, velvet rope held up with newly polished brass posts and fasteners. What would we do, having come all this way? In somber tones, we pondered what to do next.
Just on the other side of the rope we could see that five of these memorials in the floor of the abbey are all clustered about a large rectangular stone. The Latin inscription on this impressive stone translates to “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton.” (See Drawing #2.) Built into the choir screen was a magnificent statue honoring the man who had discovered gravity and split light into its component colors. But even Newton, arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was not the primary object of our visit that day.
Just beyond the Newton cluster were the connected diamond-shaped stones marking the graves of the Nobel Laureates Ernest Rutherford and J. J. Thomson who in life worked side-by-side at Cambridge University during the first third of the 20th century. Rutherford and Thomson were particularly special to us. Rutherford, a brash and profane New Zealander, had used his newly discovered radioactive particles in a low-tech, creative experiment that revealed the existence of the atomic nucleus. Rutherford’s discovery led to radioisotopes used for medical diagnoses and treatment, dating of geological deposits, atomic power, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. Thomson, a much admired, congenial Englishman, had used an ingeniously designed and delicately crafted 30” glass vacuum tube to discover the electrons that surround the nucleus. Thomson’s discovery of these fundamental sub-atomic particles explained the whole basis of electricity and led to the development of modern electronics. Thomson’s tube, now called the cathode ray tube, is still the basis of many modern television sets.
Not only were these two stones in the off-limits area, they were nearly completely covered by a thick purple cloth draped over a ceremonial table. Deciding to take action, two of us persuaded a verger to take us into the off-limits area and lift the heavy cloth to reveal Rutherford and Thomson’s names carved in stone. Poets Schmoets!! – THIS was the holy grail for the eight scientists who traveled together this day.
Together again around the Herschel stone, we talked about the strange quirks of fate that found them and the others buried here in this great church. One would expect to find kings and queens, great clergymen, statesmen, and yes, even poets. But great atomic scientists, the men who had discovered the fundamental building blocks of matter – to see their graves here in this great abbey filled us with a sense of awe and respect.
Our time in the 940-year-old abbey had come to an end. We will go back and take others with us, perhaps our grandchildren. Perhaps you will go as well. Once inside, feel the centuries resonate around you, admire the graves of English royalty, gape at the coronation chair, and linger at “Poets’ Corner” if you must. But whatever you do, don’t miss the great scientists at the heart of Westminster Abbey. If you cannot gain admittance to the restricted area, stand on the memorial to William Herschel and peer over the velvet ropes.
Dr. Glen Rodgers is a "scientific/historical traveler", defined here as one who researches and enjoys traveling to sites related to the history of science. He has traveled to Europe seven times in the past nine years and has led or co-led two college-level travel seminars. You can read about these trips and find more information about the scientists mentioned in this article at his website travelingatom.com.