The Hill at the École Polytechnique
I do some work with Charles Baroud, a man who likes to measure things, at the École Polytechnique, just on the outskirts of Paris. Charles works on droplet microfluidics and I play about with lasers; we bring them together to try and enhance the ways in which droplets can be manipulated on microfluidic chips. This week I have been over in Paris so we can write up our most recent work based on Charles’ cool new technique of ‘rails and anchors‘ microfluidics. We wrote our paper in two and a half days, which is not bad going! I’ll maybe write a bit more about the science in a later post, but I wanted just to jot down a few thoughts on the Ecole Polytechnique.
Much of this is hearsay from Charles, but it sounds true…The Polytechnqiue is one of the premier universities in Paris and has a very small, selective intake of students. It is slightly unusual in that it is a military school, made so by Napoleon at the start of the 19th century, so the students are quasi-military cadets (although the Polytechnique is now officially a civilian University, it is still overseen by the military). It also explains why there are lots of horses around the Polytechnique campus, as an important cadet skill is riding, obviously.
In the riots in Paris in the 1960s, in which French students played a prominent role, the powers that be had some concerns that the Polytechnique students were getting corrupted by their more liberal minded peers and decided to move the University from its central Parisian Latin Quarter location to the outskirts of Paris, to Palaiseau. (This move is perhaps the most dubious part of the story, but it should be true, even if it’s not). If you catch the RER B line from central Paris you can get off at Lozere, and walk to the Polytechnique….
Should there ever be another French Revolution, if the Polytechnique students are not running it), then they will be able to hold out against the Revolutionaries for a long time. This is because it sits on top of a *very* steep hill. There is a film called ‘The Hill’ with Sean Connery about soldiers in a military prison (I think they literally get read ‘The Riot Act’ as one point), in which one of the sadistic punishments the soldiers undergo is to run up a large hill made of sand. I sort of feel like this every time I visit the Polytechnique. It is a viscous, evil hill (mainly as I am pretty unfit). Oddly, I could get off a few stops earlier and get the bus up, but I seem to attempt the hill as some point of personal pride every time. What is even worse than going up the hill is coming down in bad weather. In rain, or God forbid when it’s a bit icy, it’s potentially lethal, and would be shut if it were in the UK on health and safety grounds. But still I see students and staff running down it to try and catch their train.
Hill excepted I had a really good time on my trip. We worked hard and got our paper written, and Paris in the early summer when the sun is out is a simply glorious place to be, and probably just shades Dundee in terms of overall desirability 😉