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13 May 2004

Heidelberg Scientist Discovers 1859 Lecture Manuscript by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen

On 17 May the manuscript of a lecture by chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen will be presented to the public — Dr. Christof Schulz of Heidelberg University's Institute of Physical Chemistry found the important 19th century document — University extends a cordial invitation to the media

On 17 May the manuscript of a lecture by the chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen will be presented to the public in Heidelberg. The University extends a cordial invitation to the media to attend the occasion (10 a.m., Rector's Offices, Grabengasse 1). The notes on the lecture were taken in 1859 by Ferdinand Karl Friedrich König, Bunsen's assistant at the University. After that, the document remained in the possession of the family for a number of generations and was more or less forgotten until Dr. habil. Christof Schulz of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the University of Heidelberg chanced upon it.

"For years now I have had good friends in Stanford and last autumn I joined them once again to celebrate Thanksgiving," Schulz recalls. "On that occasion I met the mother of an acquaintance and she told me about an old manuscript in German. We got talking and arranged to meet the next day. I was not expecting anything earth-shattering, so you can picture my surprise when I got to take a look at the fragile pages. Inge Koenig was not entirely unaware of the significance of this document for the history of chemistry. After all, she had been a chemist herself up to her retirement. But she had little idea of its meaning for the University of Heidelberg. It is in fact a minor sensation!"

Christof Schulz took some photos and sent them off with a report to the Wilhelm Bunsen Society, the German professional body for physical chemistry. The news caused a major stir there. Immediately a meeting was arranged for 17 May, to which Frau König will bring along the original manuscript. The meeting will also be attended by Prof. Dr. Klaus Funke, the president of the Physical Chemistry Society, who will then be able to inspect the 50 handwritten pages for himself. Three days later, he will take the opportunity of reporting on the manuscript in his opening speech at the annual meeting of the Society in Dresden.

So far, there are no plans for an in-depth scientific evaluation of the content of the manuscript, although in terms of the history of science it would amply repay the effort involved. Christof Schulz hopes that it will however be released for facsimile purposes. "Of course we are fully aware that these pages do not contain any scientific sensations. They are probably no more than the record of what Bunsen wrote on the board in the course of a lecture on the basics of his subject. The reason why it is such a fortunate find is that it gives us insight into the way Bunsen did his teaching," says Schulz, who is fully alive to the significance of the document for the University of Heidelberg. At present, he is a member of staff at the department headed by Prof. Jürgen Wolfrum but he will soon be leaving for Duisburg after obtaining his Habilitation a short while ago.

"One of the most fascinating aspects of the manuscript in my eyes is the much shorter list of chemical elements known at the time, although they were already arranged in groups. On one page two new elements have been added, which Bunsen and G. R. Kirchhoff discovered in mineral waters from the Odenwald Forest in 1861. He actually went out into the woods in search of samples and subjected them to flame spectroscopy. That way he was the first to identify the two elements caesium and rubidium. And in the 1859 manuscript there they are, in the right place — among the alkali metals."

This alone suggests that the manuscript was used in teaching for a number of years, as chemical research progress was immediately incorporated into the teaching material. "But the other pages show up interesting facets of 19th century research, like the sketches of chemical apparatus," Christof Schulz explains. He works in the field of laser diagnostics and combustion processes, which puts him very squarely in the tradition established by Bunsen. "So it was an incredible piece of luck for me to be sitting in front of this manuscript for the first time last Thanksgiving. It brought it home to me that I myself was part of this tradition. So this document is far more than a set of old lecture notes. It is a contemporary witness of an epoch that laid the foundations for the work we are doing today. Just as we today are laying the foundations for future research. And ultimately it gives any scientist a really good feeling."

Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. habil. Christof Schulz
Institute of Physical Chemistry
University of Heidelberg

(for journalists)
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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