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Research

     
           
 

Research at the ETH. Scientific routines and development of disciplines

High-voltage resistor in construction. Electrotechnical institute 1935.
High-voltage resistor in construction. Electrotechnical institute 1935.
The professors at the Polytechnic have been carrying out scientific work in many places since 1855, at their desks and in factory workshops, in the lecture hall and on excursions. Alongside their academic ambitions, they taught prospective technologists. The syllabus accordingly had to be related to practical reality, and thus, more often than not, clashed with questions of theory or the mathematical formulation of construction problems.
The school of chemistry was probably the first to realize that in the last quarter of the 19th century, Swiss industry was facing the challenge of developing new industrial procedures. There could be no new chemical substances or products unless innovation and new knowledge were high on the agenda. The chemistry department also first noticed that that its own standards as a scientific discipline were changing radically. Private and public funds were now poured increasingly into bridging the gap between theory and practice. Around 1900, several laboratories were extended, and experimental apparatus was either developed or purchased.

Traditional engineering skills were now placed on a scientific basis, not least because they were involved in the construction of these instruments. This was the start of a transformation in the way the Polytechnic viewed itself. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the engineering school became a technical university.

   
  !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!    
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Research

     
           
 

The unity of teaching and research

Ever since Wilhelm von Humboldt’s statements on higher education policy in Prussia in 1810, the guiding principle of universities has been "the unity of teaching and research". This concept is embodied most fully in the university professor. With the charisma of a maestro, he initiates novices into the methods and problems of scientific research. The lecture hall was tailor-made for the professor’s performance. The sociologist of science, Rudolf Stichweh, points out the different meanings of "unity" in 19th century science. To begin with, "science" is defined as the systematic unity of all knowledge. Moreover, the university as an urban location symbolizes the unity of all scientific disciplines. At the Polytechnic, this self-image was especially cultivated by the classical university disciplines.
Prof. Emil Baur lecturing on physical chemistry, around 1940.
Prof. Emil Baur lecturing on physical chemistry, around 1940.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Research

     
           
 

Changing scientific practices

In the last third of the 19th century, natural history collections, the classical scientific media for representing knowledge of nature, were in their heyday. The principles and standards of collections were constantly being modified according to the progress made in research, but also for pragmatic reasons. At the same time, views started to change with regard to what was actually meant by 'natural science' or 'research'. This shift in interpretation was closely linked to the idea of places set apart for experimentation: natural science became increasingly identified with the 'laboratory'. The laboratory arrangement reduced the scale of natural phenomena. Chemical, physical and biological structures and phenomena were isolated, visualized and analysed.
With the help of the laboratory, the technical sciences linked up with the new standards being set in natural sciences.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Research

     
           
 

Pure and applied research

Experimental arrangement in the ETH wind tunnel 1955.
Experimental arrangement in the ETH wind tunnel 1955.
"There is nothing so practical as a good theory" - This commonplace has been ascribed to all sorts of thinkers: Immanuel Kant, Kurt Lewin or Albert Einstein. With this phrase, scientists are showing that while they know the rules of their field, they also know how to distance themselves from these same rules. It is their way of coping with the need to differentiate between fundamental research and applied research.
As far back as 1900, and then especially after the First World War, there was evidence of a stronger shift towards applied research. This ran contrary to the wish for unity in science.

Cultural pessimists responded by staunchly defending this much-cherished unity. The ensuing discussion was a feature of life at the ETH for the whole of the 20th century. Nobody has a firm grasp of the definitive criteria for a clear-cut distinction between pure and applied research, and the decisions reached are often political ones.

   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Research

     
           
 

Science networks

Social part of the traditional physics conferences in Zurich organized by Paul Scherrer. Otto Stern and Wolfgang Pauli, Nobel Prize winners for 1943 and 1945 respectively, on the lake of Zurich, around 1935.
Social part of the traditional physics conferences in Zurich organized by Paul Scherrer. Otto Stern and Wolfgang Pauli, Nobel Prize winners for 1943 and 1945 respectively, on the lake of Zurich, around 1935.
The legacy left by professors in the ETH archives demonstrates most vividly the fact that science is based on personal relationships that are often extremely time-consuming. Whole shelves are bulging with private correspondence. In addition to the science networks established by correspondence, there are other platforms for discussion such as scientific journals and conferences. In national and international major research projects, the networking principle is no longer shaped by individuals. The structure of the scientific landscape is predetermined by expensive research apparatus that requires a large staff and can only be used on an interdisciplinary basis. What is more, political, military and industrial figures also have a say in decisions concerning research programmes.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Research

     
           
 

Life Sciences

The short title "Life Sciences" has a simplicity and directness that makes it very effective in the world of science and research. This is confirmed by the web portal "Life Science Zürich", which states: "As sciences that are concerned with life in all its manifestations, Life Sciences cover a wide variety of disciplines that know no frontiers." There are currently over 100 institutions, ranging from professorships to museums who want to ensure that they are on the interlink network.
As a way of presenting itself, "Life Science Zürich" has turned to the pictures of the web artist Demian Vogler. Here we have the illustration of the Functional Genomics Center Zürich and its "state-of-the art technology".
As a way of presenting itself, "Life Science Zürich" has turned to the pictures of the web artist Demian Vogler. Here we have the illustration of the Functional Genomics Center Zürich and its "state-of-the art technology".

The fascination with understanding 'life' began immediately after 1945. It enabled scientists to give the words 'atomic' and 'molecular' a new and more positive connotation, so that they were no longer associated exclusively with the use of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. In the middle of the 20th century, the alliance of natural sciences and technology broke new ground. Against this background, life sciences can also be defined as techno-sciences.

   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
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Reputation in science and in other social systems

A newly developed panoramic camera presents the ETH reading room in 1955 as a cathedral of knowledge.
A newly developed panoramic camera presents the ETH reading room in 1955 as a cathedral of knowledge.

Objectivity and excellence of research are major factors in science when it comes to awarding accolades. Those outside the scientific world may have their own criteria for admiring a particular scientist or his work. Scientists do not only express their opinions in scientific journals. They are consulted by other forms of the media for their views on scientific matters and mass media report on such events as the Nobel prize. Science and art share some common features and in many ways, scientific disciplines are belief systems. Religion, art, and the mass media all have their own different criteria in the way they assess reputation. These may clash with scientific values or, as in the case of Albert Einstein, Gottfried Semper and Wolfgang Pauli, may actually enhance their fame.