Ehrenfest's Signature Wall – Leiden, Netherlands - Atlas Obscura
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Leiden, Netherlands

Ehrenfest's Signature Wall

For over 100 years the most important physicists in the world have autographed this university wall. 

Paul Ehrenfest was an Austrian theoretical physicist, a close friend of Albert Einstein, and the head of the physics department at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He was an enthusiastic and engaged professor, and even hosted a monthly dinner and lecture combination that has been going strong since 1912.

At the end of each of these lectures, the guest speaker was invited to sign their name on the wall of the lecture hall, which led to quite the collection of autographs over the years. The names of some of the most influential physicists of the 20th century can be found on this humble piece of wall, such as Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr, German theoretical physicist Max Planck, Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, and of course, Ehrenfest’s dear friend Albert Einstein.

Ehrenfest was a good but demanding teacher, often going into every little detail of a physical problem until everyone understood it completely. His colloquia were no different. The speakers would be pummeled with questions from Ehrenfest, who wanted to be absolutely sure on every detail and afterward would offer a summary of the talk.

Ehrenfest insisted that students attend his colloquia, and even took notes of who was there and who was not. In his eyes, it was simple: If you did not attend it was because you did not care enough about physics to make it. Anyone who skipped one lecture never got invited again.

After Ehrenfest’s death, the colloquium was continued in his name and still is to this day. The wall of scientists’ signatures has also been preserved, now on proud display at the Lorentz Institute at Leiden. The colloquium is held once a month with speakers from all over the world, who can sign their name on the same piece of wall as some of the most prominent physicists of all time.

Know Before You Go

The wall is freely accessible during office hours. Just tell the guard that you want to see the signatures. It's in front of the De Sitter room at the university’s Lorentz Institute (Instituut-Lorentz) for theoretical physics. Einstein's Sink is in the lecture room just beyond this structure, and the Van de Wall Telescope is a few feet in the opposite direction.

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