SHS Prize 2021-2022: the ‘laboratory of nature'

Medya Tekes Mizrakli,  Lukas van den Heuvel, and Gabriele Furlan with their heliothermometer © M. Mizrakli, L. van den Heuvel & G. Furlan

Medya Tekes Mizrakli, Lukas van den Heuvel, and Gabriele Furlan with their heliothermometer © M. Mizrakli, L. van den Heuvel & G. Furlan

The annual Social and Human Sciences (SHS) Prize has been awarded to a team of three master students for their semester project, which involved – literally – retracing the steps of an 18th-century Swiss scientist to recreate his pioneering mountaintop experiments.

Medya Tekes Mizrakli (Data Science), Gabriele Furlan (Energy Engineering), and Lukas C. van den Heuvel (Life Sciences Engineering) have been selected to receive the prestigious SHS Prize for their project, “Lab on Top, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s Laboratory of Nature”, which they completed as part of the course Experimental History of Science (HUM – 466), led by Simon Dumas-Primbault and Ion-Gabriel Mihailescu in the College of Humanities SHS program.

The trio will be honored at a ceremony in February 2023 at the SwissTech Convention Center.

Science on the summit

As part of their year-long project, Medya, Gabriele and Lukas followed the footsteps of the 18th-century Swiss scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who carried out his natural science experiments in the “laboratory of nature”: mountain summits. The three students wanted to find out how de Saussure’s experiments could have been so successful, despite the chaotic and unpredictable natural settings in which he chose to conduct them.

To achieve this, the students reenacted three of de Saussure’s experiments aimed at measuring the strength of the sun’s rays (using a heliothermometer), the density of the atmosphere (using a diaphonometre), and the ‘blueness’ of the sky (using a cyanometre).

Not only did the students travel to the summit of the Rochers de Naye near Montreux to conduct their experiments, but they also built each instrument themselves using de Saussure’s original instructions.

“By taking measurements with these instruments in the mountains, we understood that de Saussure placed himself – the observer – as a central component in his web of instruments. Doing so allowed him to share his measurements and communicate them to others objectively,” the students concluded.

They added that in addition to having a lot of fun building and troubleshooting the instruments, which allowed them to combine their different skills, they also found a lot of meaning in the work of de Saussure, whose scientific rigor helped pave the way for contemporary meteorological studies.

“We think that in the light of the current climate crisis, the “laboratory of nature” is more meaningful than ever. Objectively quantifying environmental phenomena remains necessary, and we can draw a lot of inspiration from natural philosophers like de Saussure.”

The SHS Prize

The SHS Prize has been awarded since 2012 to master’s projects conducted by individual students or groups of students within the framework of a master’s-level course in the CDH’s SHS program.

The honor comes with a prize of CHF 1,200, following a vote by the SHS teaching committee. The prize rewards exceptionally high-quality, original projects that illustrate the contribution of social and human sciences in technical education and training.

This year, four additional student teams were selected as finalists for the honor by the SHS Prize committee based on their projects’ exceptional quality:

Culture Ouïghoure à Kashgar : Une sinisation sans issue de secours
Students : Luciano Antonietti, Reda Berrada, Hervé Laurendeau
Course : HUM – 438 Chine : la renaissance d’une grande puissance (Kathy Lam)

Rare earth mining in Europe
Students : Chiara Ongano, Iléane Lefevre, Simone Merotto, Johann Plüss
Course : HUM – 470 Economic growth and sustainability (Philippe Thalmann)

Sur la voie de l’efficacité énergétique
Students : Pierre Morin, Paul Dené, Valentin Jarry-Cammas, Vinski Voutilainen
Course : HUM-477 : Transition écologique (Romano Wyss)

Wine, music & death | Song of Alice

Student: Antoine Astour
Course : HUM – 463 Hommes / machines (François Rosset)