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The Observatoire de Paris

Created in 1667 by the French minister Colbert, the Observatoire de Paris is the oldest scientific building in France, as well as the largest, still used by astronomers today. This is the view from the front of the building, which you can see through the gate at 61 Avenue de l’Observatoire (14th, just south of RER Port Royal).

One of the Secrets of Paris contributors, Christopher Bonnett, is studying Dark Matter (I don’t know if that’s supposed to be capitalized, but it looks good…perhaps say it in your head in a deep, booming voice….”DARK MATTER”) at the Observatoire, so he graciously agreed to show me around the historic monument, usually closed to the general public (group visits are possible). Here he’s standing in front of one of the old, disused buildings that’s slowly rusting away.

This is the entrance around the back of the building, through a garden where the tree-lined street and the median line of the building defined the Meridian of Paris from 1667 to 1911, when the French finally adopted the international meridian that passes through Greenwich.

Here you can see one of the several domes housing telescopes on the grounds.

Christopher has promised to write (with more authority than I could produce) about one of the more illustrious astronomers who worked at the Observatory, François Arago, who made the Meridian more precise with his research in the early 1800s. Many Parisians know Arago because of the 135 small bronze discs bearing his name, which are embedded in the pavement throughout Paris, along the historic Paris meridian line.

Arago used this very chalkboard when giving his lectures. According to Christopher, it still works (which is more than future historians will be able to say about “the laptops that the great writers of the 21st century used to write on”…but I digress).

This may be the only portrait of the Sun King Louis XIV still hanging in a government building (and one dedicated to science, too). “He paid for the building,” explains Christopher.

Pretty ceiling. Beats the science labs I remember from my school days.

A pretty amazing staircase, I wasn’t able to really capture the way the stone curved around and upwards without any visible support.

Up on the rooftop, a view of Montparnasse Tower and the Eiffel Tower.

Luxembourg Gardens, the Senate, (also on the Meridian) and the hills of Montmartre…I could see Sacre Coeur, but this photo is not very good.

Christopher (wearing shorts because it was 95°F/35°C that day…and he’s not French so it’s okay) shows the entrance to one of the telescope domes. We’re not allowed to go inside, but I peeked through the window. Apparently the “mottled” surface of the dome was originally smooth, but when the interior paint was removed with a high-pressure water jet, it dented the surface. Oops.

If you’d like to visit the Observatoire, mark your calendar for these special events:

For the 2009 Année Mondiale de l’Astronomie, the public can visit for the Nuits de l’Observatoire de Paris, every Friday through end of October, with a talk given at 8pm and observations through telescopes in the gardens from 9:30pm (enter at 77 ave Denfert-Rochereau, 14th).

Journées Européennes du Patrimoine: September 19-20, from 1pm, enter at 61 Avenue de l’Observatoire, 14th. Free entry.

Les Nuits Galiléennes: October 23-24, reserve your place in advance (free) to follow the Galilean satellites of Jupiter.

Finally, Marie LG gives tours of the Paris Meridian, from one end of Paris to the other (beware the brief but annoying musical entry to this website).

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