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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FOURTEEN Agnes Pockels


It was one of those meals that you deserve after 13 days of cycling: marinated white and green asparagus (it is spargelzeit, after all); fried steak, chicken and pork in a creamy mushroom sauce; and a few pancakes under chocolate ice cream and cashews. Fortunately, the Harz Mountains await next week. The restaurant was in the basement of the Rathaus where there is a memorial to Braunschweig’s Sinti Romani population, murdered in the war – as were many of the town's Jewish population. Braunschweig was a Nazi stronghold - starting in 1932 by giving Hitler German nationality so he could stand in the election for President.

This is the city that gave Germany the first translation of Shakespeare; the first public theatre in Germany (1690) was built here; Goethe's Faust was first performed here; the oldest museum in Europe is here - with an incredible collection of Renaissance and baroque art: Dürer, Cranach, Holbein, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, Raphael, and our very own Hogarth.

And it was where Louis Spohr was born in 1784. Spohr had a vast output - nine symphonies, thirty-six quartets, lieder, operas (his opera, Jessonda, was banned by the Nazis because it depicted a white man in love with an Indian princess). But he was not only a composer and violinist: he is credited with having invented the chin rest for the violin and the idea of musicians marking their scores during rehearsals, thereby making themselves slaves to the conductor.

In 1939, Braunschweig was a medieval jewel and a centre of arms manufacture – so we bombed it heavily. Nevertheless, it still has the oldest half-timbered house in Germany; the oldest surviving free standing library; and now it has the Rizzi-Haus, an extraordinary building by the American pop artist James Rizzi.

the model (c)

the Rizzihaus as built (c)tripadvisor

Braunschweig was – and is – also an extraordinary centre for science. In 1838, the first railway in northern Germany ran from here; the first nuclear test by North Korea was detected by amateur volunteers at the Braunschweig tectonic listening post; and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt holds the atomic clock that guides official time in Germany. And it was here that the existence of surface tension was first recognised. Our friend, Jean Taylor, a chemist and philanthropist, takes up the story of Agnes Pockels, born in 1862, who spent most of her life in Braunschweig.


“Agnes enjoyed science at school but, as a woman, was not allowed to attend university. It was not until her younger brother studied physics that she had access to any scientific literature. Looking after her ailing parents and doing the housework, Agnes was inspired, while washing up, to experiment with the effect of soap, oils and other substances on the surface tension of water. At the age of 18, she developed what she called the Schieberrine (shift trough – the forerunner of the apparatus, the Langmuir trough, in use today) to measure surface tension. Recognition came after she learnt from her brother that the British physicist Lord Rayleigh was working in the same field. Agnes sent her ‘modest work’ to him. It is said that it is only because Rayleigh’s wife happened to speak German that he became aware of the value of what he had been sent. He was so impressed that he arranged to have her letter published in Nature. Agnes continued as a Hausfrau, experimenting in her kitchen and publishing the results, until the increasing frailty of her parents and WW1 forced her to stop. In 1932 the Technische Universitat Braunschweig, the institution she had not been able to enter as a young woman, awarded her an honorary Ph.D. and later named the Agnes Pockels laboratory after her. Agnes Pockels contributed to the work of two Nobel laureates: Lord Rayleigh and Irving Langmuir. In his acceptance speech in 1932 Langmuir said that part of his achievement was founded on ‘original experiments first made with a button and a thin tray, by an 18-year-old lady without any formal scientific training’. Given the constraints of her gender on her role in late nineteenth century Germany, Agnes Pockel’s achievements are as remarkable as those of more famous contemporaries, such as Marie Curie. Could she have imagined that a century later another physical chemist would become the first female Chancellor of Germany?”

(c)bbc history extra

Or, one might add, that another chemist would be Prime Minister of England.

Jean, apart from being a chemist, was a Trustee of The Camden Society for many years and is now a Trustee of Quite Quite Fantastic, a charity which provides activities, mainly drama, for people with a learning disability: more at And QQF have their own JustGiving page at: If you would like to know why surface tension is so important and worth two Nobel prizes - see

If you would like a recipe for white asparagus -

And here is Louis Spohr's Violin Concerto No 2 in D performed by the 13 year old Thai violinist Mayer Pitchayapa Lueangtawikit :

And if you let YouTube run on, you can hear it played by the 9 year old Danila Bessonov.

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Unknown member
Apr 08, 2021

Hi! I love how informative and great your articles are. Can you recommend any other Food Blog Names or blogs that go over the same topics? Thanks a lot!

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