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Seeking Science in Bologna – Part 2

Image for Seeking Science in Bologna Part 2 blogIn my previous blog, I was thrilled to be seeking science at the University of Bologna, the world’s oldest and longest continuously operating university. In part 2, I moved on to some institutions that are not a part of the university system.

The Museo Civico Medievale provides a window on medieval life in Bologna. Since 1985 it has been housed in the Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava, a building dating to the mid-1400s. The collection is filled with Bolognese artifacts from medieval times amassed by private collectors in the 1700s. While most of the displays showcase art objects, there was one fascinating display of early scientific instruments that caught my attention.

The most impressive and modern museum in Bologna is the Museum of the History of Bologna in Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio which opened in January 2012. In the large initial foyer, called the Tower of Time, exhibits explain the Gregorian calendar, Cassini’s meridian and the role Quirico Filopanti played in helping establish the 24 time zones. I was familiar with the Gregorian calendar and the improvements it made over the Julian calendar. There was a lot written on the topic around the year 2000 as we all prepared for the millennium. Perhaps my favourite book on the topic was David E. Duncan’s Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.


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I was fascinated to read the explanation of Cassini’s meridian, which I had seen in situ the previous day at the Basilica of San Petronio. A very small hole in the ceiling casts a beam of light onto a marked line on the floor of the church. This meridian not only displays the accurate day of the year, but it also determines the length of the solar year. Giovanni Domenico Cassini’s work also helped establish the geocentric model of the universe as proposed by Copernicus (who was also a graduate of the University of Bologna in 1501). Another large panel was dedicated to Quirico Filopanti, the pseudonym for Giuseppe Barilli. He was one of the first to advocate for dividing the world into 24 time zones. His challenge was later picked up by Canada’s Sanford Fleming and standard time was finally a reality worldwide by 1929.

Two other significant scientists are championed in the science section of the museum: Marcello Malpighi (1628 – 1694) and Guglielmo Marconi (1874 –1937). I felt familiar with both names. Because of his significant work in the fields of microscopic anatomy, histology, physiology and embryology, Malpighi has had his name attached to a number of biological features. Some older texts referred to the Malpighian pyramids as part of the mammalian kidney. Malpighian tubules are a part of the insect and terrestrial arthropod osmoregulatory system. Malpighi used his microscope skills to discover capillaries and verify William Harvey’s theory of a closed circulatory system in 1661, thirty-three years after it was proposed. This is used as an example to illustrate the need for reasoning based on observation and experimentation challenging the views of ‘authority’, and of theories needing the development of new instruments and techniques prior to verification.

Marconi is known for his work on long-distance radio transmission. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909 "in recognition of his contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy". Marconi is also part of Canadian history. He is recognized as receiving the first transatlantic radio message on Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1901. Fans of the popular television show Murdoch Mysteries may remember Marconi’s appearance in the episode Republic of Murdoch. In this episode he was initially mistaken by Murdoch and Crabtree as a suspect prior to guest star Allan Hawco playing Jacob Doyle sending Marconi to Signal Hill.

Bologna may not be as touristic as Florence, Venice or Rome, but if you have an interest in science, it makes a great place for seeking science.

Click here for my entire Seeking Science Series

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Seeking Science in Bologna – Part 2

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