Saturday, March 19, 2011

Piccard in Space

Art and science are about to meet in a new opera that will premiere at London later this month. Auguste Piccard was born in Basel, Switzerland and studied physics at the world renowned Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH) in Zurich. In 1931 Piccard ascended in his own spherical, aluminum gondola, that hung from a giant balloon, to a height of over 15,500 meters above the earth. He braved the freezing cold, toxic balls of mercury, cosmic radiation and a serious roasting by the sun, in order to find evidence for fellow ETH graduate Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and to study the planet’s stratosphere. No man, or woman (though three years later his sister-in-law would become the first woman to ascend into the stratosphere), had ever gone higher, and this in a time that predates rockets. A year later he made a second ascent from just outside Zurich that took him even higher. Thousands of curious onlookers availed of the special trains that took them from Zurich’s city-centre to watch the mad professor as he climbed into his gondola and disappeared into the midnight sky. It was recorded for the cinema and we can view this event again here.  (Mind you, they wrongly refer to him as a “Belgian professor” – he was a Swiss professor in Brussels.) On this trip he would ascend to an altitude of ten and a half miles. Ultimately, his highest ascent of all reached an incredible 23,000 meters – that’s over twice the altitude of a commercial intercontinental flight today.

The Belgian cartoonist Herge was inspired by Piccard’s exploits and based his character Professor Calculus, the archetypical absent minded mad scientist in The Adventures of Tintin, on Piccard, while the Star Trek character Jean- Luc Picard is also a nod to our Swiss scientist. Now, Piccard is about to be remembered again, this time in opera. Musician and composer Will Gregory has been commissioned by the BBC to compose a work for the BBC orchestra. His opera, “Piccard in Space” will receive its premiere performance on March 31st at London’s South Bank Centre.


  1. It is always thrilling when a scientist can push the boundaries of knowledge further and further forward. And even more impressive that Piccard was looking for evidence for Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A serious scientist can be a very heroic, romantic figure.

    But I can see he was wearing a wedding ring. So didn't his wife tell him she wanted him alive and not throwing away his life on the freezing cold, toxic balls of mercury, cosmic radiation etc?

    Did you say whether he survived the experiment or not?

  2. Hi Hels,

    Yes he was married - indeed his progeny are still at the cutting edge of exploration today. His Dad was a professor of Chemistry and his twin brother was a leading scientist. His brother's wife, Jeanne, also made ascents into the stratosphere. Auguste was married to Marianne Denis and they had five children. In the latter years of his life he worked with his son Jacques, developing a vehicle to carry them to the depths of the sea. Together they set a record at 10,000 feet - Auguste thereby became the man with the record for altitude and the record for depth. The son, Jacques, gave up his job as Professor of Economics at the University of Geneva in order to focus on deep sea exploration and eventually went as deep as 10,915 meters under sea level in 1960 - this is still the world record. He is one of only two people to have reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world. His son, so Auguste's grandson, is called Bertrand Piccard and is one of the most famous living Swiss citizens. Born in 1958, he set a world record in 1999 by becoming the first person ever to circumnavigate the earth with a non-stop balloon flight. Together with the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, he has developed a solar-powered plane called "Solar Impulse"- It's first test flight took off recently from the same place outside Zürich as Auguste's second ascent in his balloon and gondola. Bertrand Piccard intends to fly "Solar Impulse" non-stop around the world in 2012. This is a major technological experiment, supported by the Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne and a number of corporations. If it is successful it will mean a major breakthrough for solar energy. Auguste Piccard died in 1962 but his family is still flying high.