Science, patrimony & hors d’oeuvres on the other side of the Atlantic…

It is a bit strange being in Paris again – back seeing colleagues, back in my old apartment… déjà vu to be sure, but things feel different – an indication that our minds are in constant forward motion, our brains are continually changing & that we are not the person we used to be. I arrived here Wednesday morning last week & in that relatively short period that ended last week moved back into my apartment, went back to the research institute, got my login privileges & ID back, had internet meetings with colleagues across the Atlantic & was in the institute working on manuscripts. Friday afternoon I had the privilege of being the guest of a colleague at a scientific function at the Collège de France. No wonder I felt tired at the end of last week…

The Collège de France is an amazing institution in so many ways – it was founded by Francis I for the specific purposes of providing teaching in disciplines that were not yet available at university level. In 1530, he appointed a set of ‘Lecteurs royaux’ who were charged with this task [for more background, see]. I have copied the text below from their website which talks about its raison d’être: ‘Collège de France is a public higher education institution, which is unique in France and has no equivalent abroad. Since the 16th century, Collège de France has had a two-fold mission: to be a forum for cutting-edge research and teaching. Collège de France is committed to fundamental research, in partnership with the CNRS, INSERM and several other major institutions, but what differentiates it is that it teaches “knowledge in the making in every field of literature, science and the arts“.’

The French citizen benefits tremendously from this institution in that it has a wealth of free-public lectures in a wonderful auditorium/building – lectures that not only are given by high-profile French researchers/academics, but also by internationally renowned foreign scientists also. For example, this month György Buzsáki from New York University [] was giving a set of lectures – I just missed him unfortunately. Indeed, coupled with the freely available podcasts on French Public Radio, the average French citizen has access to a wonderful knowledge base of the sciences, the arts & philosophy. On the other hand, prominent French researchers/academics who are doing truly ground-breaking work enjoy patronage from this institution – with professorial appointments in 1 and 5-year terms being available across 8 different disciplines or ‘institutes’. [For example, in our discipline, NeuroSpin Director, Stan Dehaene has a 5 year appointment as a Professor – & rightly so! It was nice to chat to him at the Friday event – albeit briefly.] The Collège also has a collection of rare manuscripts & books that are amazing research tools for professors/researchers attached to Collège de France, as well as potentially being available to specialist researchers from outside.

The building of the Collège de France is, as one would expect is old & beautiful in the classic French sense, as some of these images below indicate:


Last Friday afternoon, the Fondation Fyssen had a 40th anniversary function at the Collège de France, where a set of academic ‘fireside chats’ with scientists had been organized. This Foundation is a private entity, with an endowment that facilitates & funds researchers – particularly post-doctoral fellows.


The MC for the event was Mathieu Vidard, a science journalist who has quite a following for his weekday program on French Public Radio. He very capably wended his way through the disciplines, being able to draw out something interesting from each of the researchers who were discussing their findings with him. Very impressive – he was at it for about 4 hours or so… Here is his picture & link on France Inter – the app for French Public Radio.


There was something for everyone on Friday afternoon – from archaeology & anthropology, animal behavior to human neuroscience, as the program below indicates:

As seen in the images above, there was pomp & ceremony with an initial opening address by the President of the Collège de France, Alain Prochiantz, followed by an address by Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, an internationally renowned pediatric neuroscience researcher [who herself does really cool MRI-based work on how the infant brain develops], who is currently the Vice-President of the scientific teaching part of the Fondation Fyssen.

What was the coolest part of the afternoon for me? Probably the archaeology discussion.


The above image shows Mathieu Vidard chatting with Dominique Grimaud Hervé, a paleo-anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, & Marie Soressi, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden. They discussed subjects such as endocasts across different hominins [Hervé] & the potential exchange of artifacts & culture between Neanderthals & Homo Sapiens [Soressi]. What really blew my mind was the latter topic: 200K years ago the extraction of birch resin occurred – being the 1st synthetic material ever made! Then, 50K years ago a fire-starter – MnO2 [manganese dioxide] was first used! But the thing that was most astonishing to me was the fact that the tool that is used to smooth leather today [in artisanal settings] comes to us courtesy of the Neanderthal culture! The idea of ‘cultural exchange’ between hominins has been advanced as Homo Sapiens & their Neanderthal cousins lived in certain common geographic regions & it is in these regions that early humans began to use these leather smoothing tools…

Overall, the afternoon was intellectually very stimulating, but very draining for me – since I had to concentrate extremely hard because when the scientists got excited about their work they spoke very fast & my French comprehension is not yet that good…

After the scientific program was completed everyone retired to the Collège de Bernardins, just up the road in the Latin Quarter, for a cocktail reception. This is an amazing building whose construction began in 1248 & its purpose was to provide a venue for the study of theology, philosophy & literature. It has had a checkered history, but in 2011 was repurchased by the Diocese of Paris from the City of Paris, with the idea of creating a cultural project devoted to the service of ‘mankind and his future’. In 2008 it opened to the public for the very first time & guided tours are available. Our reception was in the Large Nave – an amazing 70 meter long X 14 meter wide structure – which these days hosts receptions, concerts & exhibitions. Some images of this magnificent building appear below:


The statue of Christ in the image above left, dates back from the 14th century…

Overall, we spent a delightful evening in the Collège de Bernardins – the champagne flowed & the hors d’oeuvres were absolutely delightful. I got back to my apartment that night & slept like a baby.  What a lovely cure for jet-lag!

Back on the regular work side, it was funny walking back into the ICM – lots of familiar faces – felt like I had never left it in some ways…

Back in the lab with Nathalie George & Mariana Babo Rebelo at the ICM, Salpetriere in Paris.

When I walked back into the ICM the other day, I ran into a friend/colleague who had left the institute recently – what good fortune it was that we were both in the same place at the same time. What he did not mention to me is that he is now [in]famous – in an advertising sense! Another friend noted that she was standing at one of the main stations in London waiting to get a train to Paris. She did a double take because she thought she saw his face splashed across all of the TV monitors in the station… The ads were cycling through & sure enough – it was definitely him when she looked again. He is advertised as being a frenchman called Julien [he is Italian & has a completely different name]. The ad is for a bank whose pitch is that it’s customers live & work across Europe. I now call him ‘Julien’ when I see him! Mmm, I wonder what the bank is going to do with their advertising strategies with Brexit looming large…

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