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Centers of Progress, Pt. 21: Bologna (Universities)

Blog Post | Tertiary Education

Centers of Progress, Pt. 21: Bologna (Universities)

Introducing the city that pioneered the university model of higher learning.

Today marks the twenty-first installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our twenty-first Center of Progress is Bologna, home to the first university (as commonly recognized) and the oldest continuously operating university in the world today. The University of Bologna, traditionally said to be founded in the year 1088, was the earliest institution to award degrees and promote higher learning in the manner of a modern college or university.

Today Bologna is the seventh-most populous city in Italy and home to over a million people. The city’s symbol is le Due Torri (the Two Towers), stone structures which may date to 1109 and 1119, respectively. (A scarcity of documentation from that time period means that the exact construction dates remain a bit of a mystery.) Despite sustaining damage from a bombing in 1944, Bologna’s historic city center has remained largely intact and, at 350 acres, is Europe’s second largest stretch of medieval architecture. The major historic squares are dominated not by statues of generals or political figures, but by tombs and memorials to medieval professors. While less popular with tourists than Florence, Venice, or Rome, Bologna has a burgeoning tourist industry. Other prominent local industries include energy, machinery, the refinement and packaging of local agricultural products, fashion, and automotives. The city is the headquarters of both Ducati, a motorcycle company, and Lamborghini, which produces luxury sports cars.

The city has three nicknames. La Rossa (the red) for its stunning medieval architecture, defined by red rooftops and lengthy UNESCO-protected red terracotta porticoes that make it possible to traverse much of the city while remaining in the shade. (Bologna also has a reputation for left-leaning politics, giving that nickname a double meaning.) La Dotta (the learned) for its long tradition of devotion to knowledge and for its many university students, as well as its status as the city that produced the first university. And La Grassa (the fat) as an acknowledgment of the city’s culinary innovations and reputation as one of Italy’s gastronomic capitals.

Bologna’s contributions to global food culture are significant. The city lends its name to Bolognese sauce, a meat-based pasta sauce popular in Italian cuisine that dates to at least the 18th century. Its variations are served in Italian restaurants around the world. But the city is perhaps most famous in the English-speaking world as the origin of the processed lunch meat known as Bologna sausage—with Bologna corrupted into the pronunciation baloney rather than ba-loan-ya—or simply called baloney. (Either spelling is acceptable for the food).

Baloney is a variation of Bologna’s mortadella sausage, which may have originated as long ago as the 14th century. Both mortadella and baloney are made of ground-up heat-cured pork. Italian immigrants to the United States popularized baloney in the early 20th century. An inexpensive product made from scraps of leftover pork, baloney has also come to mean “nonsense.” That is ironic given that, far from encouraging nonsense, the city of Bologna spearheaded humanity’s search for truth through higher education.

Bologna enjoys a prime location amid broad fertile lowlands next to the Reno River – to this day one of Italy’s leading agricultural regions. It is thus unsurprising that Bologna was first inhabited as early as the 9th century BC.

The city’s desirable location meant it was frequently conquered by outsiders. The original Etruscan city of Felsina (as Bologna was then called), fell to the Gauls by the 4th century BC. A Celtic people, they called the settlement Bona, meaning “fortress.” In 196 BC, Bona became a Roman outpost bearing the Latinized name Bononia, from which Bologna is derived. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Bologna was repeatedly sacked and variously occupied by invading Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and Lombards. The city was then conquered by the Franks, led by King Charlemagne, in the 8th century. Hungarians sacked the city in the 10th century.

By the 11th century, Bologna sought to escape feudal rule and become a free commune, with the motto Libertas (“freedom”). Exactly when Bologna made the transition is unknown, but the oldest surviving constitution of the city dates to 1123. However, the city did not remain independent for long, as various warring noblemen of the Italian medieval and Renaissance periods vied for control of the city.

While limited medieval records make dates uncertain and the precise order of events unclear, at some point during the 11th century Bologna became the center of a revived interest in higher education, particularly the study of law. Lay students from across Europe flocked to Bologna to study law under a renowned jurist known as Pepo, an expert on Justinian the Great’s compilations of Roman law.

Upon their arrival, foreign students were faced with discriminatory city laws. Bologna allowed collective punishment, the charging of any foreigner with the crimes and debts of their compatriots. The city could, in other words, seize a Frenchman’s property to pay another Frenchman’s debt, and punish a Hungarian for a crime committed by a different Hungarian. Because Italy was not yet a unified political entity, many groups who are today Italian, such as Sicilians, counted as foreign nationals and were also subject to collective punishment in Bologna.

Bologna’s growing body of foreign students decided to try to change the laws concerning collective punishment that made living in the city perilous for non-natives. They formed a guild, a kind of mutual aid society, known as the universitates scholarium. The guild hired legal scholars to give organized instruction to the students, and the latter successfully petitioned the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1122–1190) to aid their cause. Frederick I issued a charter officially recognizing the University of Bologna. Known as the authentica habita, the charter granted protection to Bologna’s foreign scholars from collective punishment and gave them the right of “freedom of movement and travel for the purposes of study.” The word universitas, which meant guild in late Latin, was coined to describe the organization and gave us the modern sense of the word university.

Like today’s universities, the University of Bologna developed separate departments for different fields of study, such as theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. And, like today’s universities, the University of Bologna set degree requirements and awarded bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. By pioneering the university model of instruction, the University of Bologna helped humanity to make progress in many areas—but especially legal studies. Pepo is often said to be the first university’s first legal instructor.

Pepo was soon far surpassed by his student Irnerius (c. 1050–after 1125), who also went on to teach at the University of Bologna. He was originally a student of rhetoric and didactics. His wealthy patroness, one of Italy’s most powerful nobles at the time, Matilda of Tuscany (c. 1046–1115), convinced him to switch fields and study jurisprudence. Nicknamed lucerna juris (“lantern of the law”), Irnerius’s scholarship is credited with creating much of the Medieval Roman Law tradition. His glosses on the ancient Roman law code helped to move medieval law, which was sometimes disordered and contradictory, in the direction of becoming more systematic and rational like the ancient Roman legal system. Irnerius’s most famous students – Bulgaro, Martino, Ugo, and Jacopo – came to be called the Four Doctors of Bologna. Each allegedly had a different approach to legal philosophy.

By the end of the twelfth century, the University of Bologna had the uncontested title of Europe’s premier center for higher learning, particularly legal studies, drawing an ever-larger crowd of elite international students from across the continent. The Englishman Thomas Becket (c. 1120–1170), a famed Archbishop of Canterbury who sought to preserve the independence of the Church from the State, and who is now revered as a martyr-saint in both the Catholic and Anglican Church, studied law at the University of Bologna in his youth. The Florentines Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) also both studied at the University of Bologna. Other famous alumni include four former popes. Yet another renowned alumnus was the Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536), an early champion of religious toleration and peace, and arguably a hero of progress.

From the twelfth to the fifteenth century, the university had between three and five thousand students. Today, the university has over eighty-six thousand students.

The University of Bologna is also commonly said to be the first university to award a degree to a woman and allow one to teach at the university level. According to tradition, in 1237, a noblewoman named Bettisia Gozzadini (1209–1261) graduated after studying philosophy and law and began lecturing on jurisprudence in 1239.

Whether Gozzadini actually graduated from Bologna became a point of contention in the 1700s. The writer Alessandro Machiavelli (1693–1766) sought to provide evidence (possibly faked) of Gozzadini’s achievement in order to support the Bolognese Countess Maria Vittoria Delfini Dosi’s request to be granted a law degree. Despite Machiavelli’s efforts, the countess’s request was ultimately denied. Male scholars who opposed the idea of granting women degrees sought to dismiss Gozzadini as a popular legend. Scant records from the medieval period make the truth hard to discern.

That said, the University of Bologna employed the first female salaried university professor, the physicist Laura Bassi (1711–1778). She is credited with popularizing Newtonian mechanics in Italy. She was also the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in science and only the second woman to receive any doctoral degree. Bassi’s doctorate was also from the University of Bologna.

Bologna boasts many achievements in realms as diverse as architecture and gastronomy. But creating the world’s first university has been Bologna’s defining contribution to human progress. Universities have helped to promote scholarship, innovation, and higher learning ever since. By promoting the study of the law, in particular, Bologna helped humanity in its pursuit of an improved system of justice.

The translated university motto reads, “Saint Peter is everywhere the father of the law; Bologna is its mother.” The university’s full name is Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, or “the Nourishing Mother of Studies University of Bologna.” From that name, we get the term alma mater, popularly used by university graduates throughout the world to refer to whatever university they attended. But the mother of all universities is Bologna. For birthing the modern university system, medieval Bologna is rightly our twenty-first Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Science & Education

      Centers of Progress, Pt. 38: Cambridge (Physics)

      The ideas generated in Cambridge transformed humanity’s understanding of the natural world.

      Today marks the thirty-eighth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

      Our thirty-eighth Center of Progress is Cambridge during the Scientific Revolution. The 16th and 17th centuries constituted a period of drastic change in the way humanity conceptualized and sought to understand the world. Scholars made massive leaps in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and, perhaps most notably, physics. Arguably, no city contributed more profoundly to that new understanding than Cambridge.

      Today, Cambridge is a picturesque and walkable university city filled with stunning architecture, cozy pubs, and brilliant minds. “Cambridge is heaven … As you walk round, most people look incredibly bright, as if they are probably off to win a Nobel Prize,” says author Sophie Hannah. Indeed, if Cambridge were a country, it would rank fourth on the list of countries according to its number of Nobel Prize winners. Cambridge is nicknamed the “city of perspiring dreams” as a nod to its scholars’ tireless dedication, in contrast to rival university city Oxford’s older nickname, “the city of dreaming spires.”

      The great minds that have defined Cambridge are reflected in its architecture and artworks. Architectural highlights include the Gothic-style King’s College chapel, featuring the world’s largest fan vault, and the Mathematical Bridge, designed in 1749 with the technique of tangential radial trussing, which creates the illusion of an arch although the bridge is built only of straight timbers. The conduit gutters, or runnels, lining many of the city’s ancient streets and university buildings owe their construction to none other than Thomas Hobson, the successful stable-owner-turned-benefactor from whom we get the term Hobson’s choice (e.g., “take it or leave it”). The city also boasts fascinating artworks such as the Corpus Chronophage Clock, a massive “inside-out” electromechanical timepiece that lets onlookers view the usually hidden grasshopper escapement mechanism. The clock is topped with a moving statue called the Chronophage (“time eater”), a grasshopper-like entity constructed from stainless steel, gold, and enamel. According to the artist, the horologist and Cambridge alumnus John Taylor (b. 1936), “the time is exactly correct every fifth minute to one hundredth of a second.”

      Cambridge is also known for the Fitzwilliam Museum, the city’s lively market square, and the pastime popular among tourists and students alike of punting (a method of boating in shallow water) on the River Cam—the natural feature around which the city was built. The waterway has made the area an attractive farmsteading site since the Iron Age, and has allowed Cambridge to serve as a trading center throughout the ages, including for the Romans (who called the city Duroliponte, meaning “the fort at the bridge”), the Vikings, and the Saxons. 

      But the true significance of Cambridge began with the founding of Cambridge University, which started with a murder mystery. In 1209, a woman was found killed in Oxford, and her death caused an uproar that would alter the course of academic history. She was a local and her fellow townspeople blamed outsiders drawn to their city to study and teach at Oxford University. At the time, most of the university’s students were teenage clerics, also called clerks. The primary suspect was a liberal arts clerk, who promptly fled his rented home. 

      The townspeople resented the clerks’ special legal privileges, relative wealth, and reputation for drinking and fighting—tense town versus gown relations are nothing new. The killing took on an urgent significance in the broader conflict between the townspeople and the university, and a mob of riotous locals soon imprisoned the suspect’s roommates. This occurred in the midst of a power struggle between the Church and the crown. The excommunicated King John is said to have personally ordered the hanging of the imprisoned clerks “in contempt of the rights of the church.” The other pupils and instructors at the university fled, fearing further executions. To this day, the crime has not been solved—some say the killing was an accident, while others claim it was murder.

      The dispersed scholars, possibly including the alleged killer, continued their studies elsewhere. What would become Cambridge University started as “no more than a bunch of scholars who had fled from Oxford and who had started to teach their students in rented houses in the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Church.” St. Mary’s Church today marks the center of Cambridge. In 1214, when the king and the Church had reconciled, Oxford’s townsfolk were made to welcome back scholars and offer them reduced rents. But tensions remained high in Oxford (boiling over periodically, such as in the St. Scholastica’s Day riot), and many ex-Oxonians chose to remain in Cambridge.

      Soon Cambridge University was an intellectual powerhouse in its own right, where great thinkers took human understanding of the world to new heights. “I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word,” the English poet A. E. Housman once quipped. And indeed the city birthed ideas so groundbreaking that many of them may have sounded mad when they were first expressed.

      Cambridge has nurtured great minds in many areas of achievement. Consider the arts. Cambridge’s streets have been trod throughout the centuries by literary and poetic geniuses, including Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), John Milton (1608–1674), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Lord Byron (1788–1824), Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), William Thackeray (1811–1863), A. A. Milne (1882–1956), C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and Douglas Adams (1952–2001). Famous Cambridge alumni include comedians, such as John Cleese (b. 1939), Eric Idle (b. 1943), Sacha Baron Cohen (b. 1971), and John Oliver (b. 1977), as well as award-winning actors such as Emma Thompson (b. 1959) and Hugh Laurie (b. 1959). And Cambridge gave the world musical feats ranging from the comedic Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to the well-known 1980s hit Walking on Sunshine.

      Next consider philosophy and economics. Cambridge educated the celebrated Catholic theologian, humanist philosopher, and pioneer of religious tolerance Erasmus (1466–1536). Other noted philosophers who were Cantabrigians include Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Cambridge was also the alma mater of influential economists, such as the overpopulation alarmist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), the father of the beleaguered field of macroeconomics John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), and Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and Angus Deaton (b. 1945).

      But Cambridge’s greatest contributions to human progress arguably came in the natural and physical sciences. William Harvey (1578–1657), the physician and anatomist who first detailed the human blood circulatory system, studied at Cambridge. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the father of empiricism and one of the founders of the scientific method, studied at Cambridge and represented Cambridge University (which for a time was a Parliament constituency with its own representatives) in the British Parliament in 1614. 

      Most historians consider the Scientific Revolution to have begun with the insight of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who studied in Bologna, another Center of Progress, and in Padua) that the Earth orbits the sun rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. However, the revolution culminated in the quiet university city of Cambridge with the writing of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (the Principia, published in 1687), a groundbreaking work that advanced mankind’s knowledge of physics and cosmology. To this day, Cambridge University Library retains the first edition print of the book owned by author Isaac Newton (1642–1727), which contains his handwritten notes for the second edition scrawled across it. 

      If Newton was the father of modern physics, then Cambridge was arguably the field’s birthplace. The course of Newton’s life revolved around Cambridge; one might say the city’s intellectual gravity kept him in its orbit and he could not resist its pull. He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from Cambridge University. Like Bacon, Newton briefly served as member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge (from 1689–1690 and 1701–1702). In 1669, only a year after completing his master’s degree, Newton became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, which is now among the most prestigious professorships in the world, and remained in that position until 1702. 

      The professorship was made possible thanks to private funding from a benefactor named Henry Lucas (c. 1610–1663). He was a clergyman, politician, and Cambridge alumnus who also generously bequeathed a collection of some four thousand books to the University Library at Cambridge. Other famous Lucasian professors include the mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871), often called the “father of computing” for conceiving the first automatic digital computer; and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018), who, despite severe health challenges from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS is a progressive motor-neuron illness), made several notable contributions to his field, including conceptualizing Hawking radiation. The Lucasian Chair has even attracted the attention of popular culture: in the well-known science-fiction franchise Star Trek, a central character named Data is said to hold the Lucasian Chair in the late 24th century.

      The privately funded professorship allowed Newton to make several breakthroughs in the fields of mathematics, optics, and physics, such as developing the first reflecting telescope. Generous private funding also made publication of the Principia possible. The astronomer and physicist Edmond Halley (1656–1742), the namesake of Halley’s Comet and the heir to a soap mogul, traveled to Cambridge to encourage, edit, and fund the publication of Newton’s Principia. In his book, Newton demonstrated how the planets orbit the sun, controlled by gravity. A popular legend holds that Newton first formulated the theory of gravity in the mid-1660s after watching an apple fall from a tree. The precise apple tree often said to have inspired him is, remarkably, still alive—it stands around 70 miles northwest of Cambridge in Newton’s family home, Woolsthorpe Manor. Grafted from that storied tree, another “Newton’s apple tree” can now be viewed in Cambridge. Whether Newton ultimately did his most momentous thinking in his birthplace or in his intellectual home at Cambridge, one thing is certain: the Principia took the world by storm. Its publication is often said to have laid the foundation of modern physics.

      After the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge continued to produce world-changing thinkers, such as Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), the discoverer of hydrogen (which he termed “inflammable air”). Later, Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory was home to major discoveries, including that of the electron in 1897, the neutron in 1932, and the structure of DNA in 1953. The latter came about thanks to the work of physicist Francis Crick (1916–2004) and biologist James Watson (b. 1928), who may have built on findings by other Cantabrigians, including chemist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958). The physicist Niels Bohr (1885–1962), who developed the Bohr model of the atom, also studied at Cambridge. The university city was the site of other groundbreaking moments in scientific history, too, such as the invention of in vitro fertilization technology (1968-78), the first identification of stem cells (1981), and the earliest eye-recognition technology (1991).

      It also must be mentioned that Cambridge educated the founder of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin (1809–1882). He forever altered understanding of living things by positing the fundamental scientific concepts of animal and human evolution and natural selection. Along with Newton, he is probably the most influential figure in scientific history to emerge from Cambridge’s classrooms—and one of the most influential men in history, period.

      Church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge

      Cambridge grew from its unconventional murder-mystery origins into an intellectual center that played a pivotal role in the Scientific Revolution, which is often said to have been made complete with the publication of the Principia. Thanks to the rigorous culture of Cambridge’s academic community and funding from generous benefactors, the city has often served as the headquarters of mankind’s quest for truth and understanding. Many scholars believe that the new way of thinking that emerged during the Scientific Revolution directly led to the Enlightenment movement in the 17th and 18th centuries. The innovations of the Scientific Revolution continue to form the basis for humanity’s present understanding of the natural world, including modern physics. It is for these reasons that we must gravitate toward Cambridge as our 38th Center of Progress. 

      Blog Post | Science & Technology

      Centers of Progress, Pt. 38: Cambridge (Physics)

      The ideas generated in Cambridge transformed humanity’s understanding of the natural world.

      Today marks the thirty-eighth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

      Our thirty-eighth Center of Progress is Cambridge during the Scientific Revolution. The 16th and 17th centuries constituted a period of drastic change in the way humanity conceptualized and sought to understand the world. Scholars made massive leaps in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and, perhaps most notably, physics. Arguably, no city contributed more profoundly to that new understanding than Cambridge.

      Today, Cambridge is a picturesque and walkable university city filled with stunning architecture, cozy pubs, and brilliant minds. “Cambridge is heaven … As you walk round, most people look incredibly bright, as if they are probably off to win a Nobel Prize,” says author Sophie Hannah. Indeed, if Cambridge were a country, it would rank fourth on the list of countries according to its number of Nobel Prize winners. Cambridge is nicknamed the “city of perspiring dreams” as a nod to its scholars’ tireless dedication, in contrast to rival university city Oxford’s older nickname, “the city of dreaming spires.”

      The great minds that have defined Cambridge are reflected in its architecture and artworks. Architectural highlights include the Gothic-style King’s College chapel, featuring the world’s largest fan vault, and the Mathematical Bridge, designed in 1749 with the technique of tangential radial trussing, which creates the illusion of an arch although the bridge is built only of straight timbers. The conduit gutters, or runnels, lining many of the city’s ancient streets and university buildings owe their construction to none other than Thomas Hobson, the successful stable-owner-turned-benefactor from whom we get the term Hobson’s choice (e.g., “take it or leave it”). The city also boasts fascinating artworks such as the Corpus Chronophage Clock, a massive “inside-out” electromechanical timepiece that lets onlookers view the usually hidden grasshopper escapement mechanism. The clock is topped with a moving statue called the Chronophage (“time eater”), a grasshopper-like entity constructed from stainless steel, gold, and enamel. According to the artist, the horologist and Cambridge alumnus John Taylor (b. 1936), “the time is exactly correct every fifth minute to one hundredth of a second.”

      Cambridge is also known for the Fitzwilliam Museum, the city’s lively market square, and the pastime popular among tourists and students alike of punting (a method of boating in shallow water) on the River Cam—the natural feature around which the city was built. The waterway has made the area an attractive farmsteading site since the Iron Age, and has allowed Cambridge to serve as a trading center throughout the ages, including for the Romans (who called the city Duroliponte, meaning “the fort at the bridge”), the Vikings, and the Saxons. 

      But the true significance of Cambridge began with the founding of Cambridge University, which started with a murder mystery. In 1209, a woman was found killed in Oxford, and her death caused an uproar that would alter the course of academic history. She was a local and her fellow townspeople blamed outsiders drawn to their city to study and teach at Oxford University. At the time, most of the university’s students were teenage clerics, also called clerks. The primary suspect was a liberal arts clerk, who promptly fled his rented home. 

      The townspeople resented the clerks’ special legal privileges, relative wealth, and reputation for drinking and fighting—tense town versus gown relations are nothing new. The killing took on an urgent significance in the broader conflict between the townspeople and the university, and a mob of riotous locals soon imprisoned the suspect’s roommates. This occurred in the midst of a power struggle between the Church and the crown. The excommunicated King John is said to have personally ordered the hanging of the imprisoned clerks “in contempt of the rights of the church.” The other pupils and instructors at the university fled, fearing further executions. To this day, the crime has not been solved—some say the killing was an accident, while others claim it was murder.

      The dispersed scholars, possibly including the alleged killer, continued their studies elsewhere. What would become Cambridge University started as “no more than a bunch of scholars who had fled from Oxford and who had started to teach their students in rented houses in the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Church.” St. Mary’s Church today marks the center of Cambridge. In 1214, when the king and the Church had reconciled, Oxford’s townsfolk were made to welcome back scholars and offer them reduced rents. But tensions remained high in Oxford (boiling over periodically, such as in the St. Scholastica’s Day riot), and many ex-Oxonians chose to remain in Cambridge.

      Soon Cambridge University was an intellectual powerhouse in its own right, where great thinkers took human understanding of the world to new heights. “I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word,” the English poet A. E. Housman once quipped. And indeed the city birthed ideas so groundbreaking that many of them may have sounded mad when they were first expressed.

      Cambridge has nurtured great minds in many areas of achievement. Consider the arts. Cambridge’s streets have been trod throughout the centuries by literary and poetic geniuses, including Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), John Milton (1608–1674), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Lord Byron (1788–1824), Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), William Thackeray (1811–1863), A. A. Milne (1882–1956), C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and Douglas Adams (1952–2001). Famous Cambridge alumni include comedians, such as John Cleese (b. 1939), Eric Idle (b. 1943), Sacha Baron Cohen (b. 1971), and John Oliver (b. 1977), as well as award-winning actors such as Emma Thompson (b. 1959) and Hugh Laurie (b. 1959). And Cambridge gave the world musical feats ranging from the comedic Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to the well-known 1980s hit Walking on Sunshine.

      Next consider philosophy and economics. Cambridge educated the celebrated Catholic theologian, humanist philosopher, and pioneer of religious tolerance Erasmus (1466–1536). Other noted philosophers who were Cantabrigians include Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Cambridge was also the alma mater of influential economists, such as the overpopulation alarmist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), the father of the beleaguered field of macroeconomics John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), and Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and Angus Deaton (b. 1945).

      But Cambridge’s greatest contributions to human progress arguably came in the natural and physical sciences. William Harvey (1578–1657), the physician and anatomist who first detailed the human blood circulatory system, studied at Cambridge. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the father of empiricism and one of the founders of the scientific method, studied at Cambridge and represented Cambridge University (which for a time was a Parliament constituency with its own representatives) in the British Parliament in 1614. 

      Most historians consider the Scientific Revolution to have begun with the insight of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who studied in Bologna, another Center of Progress, and in Padua) that the Earth orbits the sun rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. However, the revolution culminated in the quiet university city of Cambridge with the writing of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (the Principia, published in 1687), a groundbreaking work that advanced mankind’s knowledge of physics and cosmology. To this day, Cambridge University Library retains the first edition print of the book owned by author Isaac Newton (1642–1727), which contains his handwritten notes for the second edition scrawled across it. 

      If Newton was the father of modern physics, then Cambridge was arguably the field’s birthplace. The course of Newton’s life revolved around Cambridge; one might say the city’s intellectual gravity kept him in its orbit and he could not resist its pull. He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from Cambridge University. Like Bacon, Newton briefly served as member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge (from 1689–1690 and 1701–1702). In 1669, only a year after completing his master’s degree, Newton became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, which is now among the most prestigious professorships in the world, and remained in that position until 1702. 

      The professorship was made possible thanks to private funding from a benefactor named Henry Lucas (c. 1610–1663). He was a clergyman, politician, and Cambridge alumnus who also generously bequeathed a collection of some four thousand books to the University Library at Cambridge. Other famous Lucasian professors include the mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871), often called the “father of computing” for conceiving the first automatic digital computer; and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018), who, despite severe health challenges from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS is a progressive motor-neuron illness), made several notable contributions to his field, including conceptualizing Hawking radiation. The Lucasian Chair has even attracted the attention of popular culture: in the well-known science-fiction franchise Star Trek, a central character named Data is said to hold the Lucasian Chair in the late 24th century.

      The privately funded professorship allowed Newton to make several breakthroughs in the fields of mathematics, optics, and physics, such as developing the first reflecting telescope. Generous private funding also made publication of the Principia possible. The astronomer and physicist Edmond Halley (1656–1742), the namesake of Halley’s Comet and the heir to a soap mogul, traveled to Cambridge to encourage, edit, and fund the publication of Newton’s Principia. In his book, Newton demonstrated how the planets orbit the sun, controlled by gravity. A popular legend holds that Newton first formulated the theory of gravity in the mid-1660s after watching an apple fall from a tree. The precise apple tree often said to have inspired him is, remarkably, still alive—it stands around 70 miles northwest of Cambridge in Newton’s family home, Woolsthorpe Manor. Grafted from that storied tree, another “Newton’s apple tree” can now be viewed in Cambridge. Whether Newton ultimately did his most momentous thinking in his birthplace or in his intellectual home at Cambridge, one thing is certain: the Principia took the world by storm. Its publication is often said to have laid the foundation of modern physics.

      After the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge continued to produce world-changing thinkers, such as Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), the discoverer of hydrogen (which he termed “inflammable air”). Later, Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory was home to major discoveries, including that of the electron in 1897, the neutron in 1932, and the structure of DNA in 1953. The latter came about thanks to the work of physicist Francis Crick (1916–2004) and biologist James Watson (b. 1928), who may have built on findings by other Cantabrigians, including chemist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958). The physicist Niels Bohr (1885–1962), who developed the Bohr model of the atom, also studied at Cambridge. The university city was the site of other groundbreaking moments in scientific history, too, such as the invention of in vitro fertilization technology (1968-78), the first identification of stem cells (1981), and the earliest eye-recognition technology (1991).

      It also must be mentioned that Cambridge educated the founder of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin (1809–1882). He forever altered understanding of living things by positing the fundamental scientific concepts of animal and human evolution and natural selection. Along with Newton, he is probably the most influential figure in scientific history to emerge from Cambridge’s classrooms—and one of the most influential men in history, period.

      Cambridge grew from its unconventional murder-mystery origins into an intellectual center that played a pivotal role in the Scientific Revolution, which is often said to have been made complete with the publication of the Principia. Thanks to the rigorous culture of Cambridge’s academic community and funding from generous benefactors, the city has often served as the headquarters of mankind’s quest for truth and understanding. Many scholars believe that the new way of thinking that emerged during the Scientific Revolution directly led to the Enlightenment movement in the 17th and 18th centuries. The innovations of the Scientific Revolution continue to form the basis for humanity’s present understanding of the natural world, including modern physics. It is for these reasons that we must gravitate toward Cambridge as our 38th Center of Progress.