I took a daytrip to Basel today, to give a lecture at the university. The University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland (founded in 1460), and yet the computer science department is in a nondescript modern building in the center of the city. I had many fascinating discussions with the faculty and students about their cutting-edge research.
My host professor is a native of Basel and kindly gave me a brief tour of the central city, which straddles the Rhine River. Despite the gloomy weather, it was fascinating to stroll the narrow streets of this ancient city and to hear the story behind the various buildings – from the 11th-century cathedral to the 21st-century headquarters of pharma giants like Novartis and Hoffmann-La Roche. This small city, nestled in a corner of Switzerland adjacent to both France and Germany, is the third-largest city in the country and is a major economic engine for the region and for the country. This role dates back centuries to 1225 when the city built the first, and for a long time the only, bridge across the Rhine.
We took a ride across the Rhine on a tiny ferry boat, big enough to seat perhaps a dozen passengers, which required no power at all – a cable on its bow is fixed to a pulley on a cable crossing the river, and by angling the bow against the current, the current pushes the boat across the river.
At the end of the day he dropped me off at the Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing, and Printing (founded by his grandfather), which was absolutely fascinating. Its water wheel still turns the machinery indoors, converting rags into paper; upstairs, restored printing machines spanning many centuries still run and demonstrate, often hands-on, how the printing process works. They even have the first Macintosh ever used in Switzerland, and the notebook used by the designer of Helvetica, the most successful font ever. My 40-minute visit was far too short.