July 14, celebrated every year in France as Bastille Day, commemorates the storming and seizure of the notorious medieval armory, fortress, and political prison known as the Bastille. It was a major event during the French Revolution, and it’s celebration in Paris includes one of the oldest and largest military parades in Europe. The actual storming of the Bastille has an unlikely connection to crystallography.
Why the Bastille was stormed is rather complicated, but the immediate cause was dismissal from the French Royal Government of one Jacques Necker, a Swiss born Genevan banker who to serve as finance minister for French King Louis XVI, the French monarch who was to famously lose his head by guillotine, along with his wife Marie Antoinette. Necker became a very popular figure among the people of France, not least of for his public release of state budget, the first time this had happened in France. At the time, France was staggering unders a complex series of misfortunes, poor policy, and bad financial decisions. Having lost a series of wars against the United Kingdom during the preceding century, in revenge France chose to back the American Revolution, both financially and with direct military aid and forces but the cost of this victory was crushing. Overpopulation, drought, and incompetant advisors brought the state’s finances to the brink. Necker, a rising star well known for financial competance was brought in to stabilize the situation. His relationship to the monarch and his other ministers was turbulent and Necker moved in and out of government positions repeatedly, finally as finance minister. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to salvage the situation. His firing in 1798 triggered crowds to storm the Bastille releasing the few prisoners being held there.
Necker navigated the turbulence of the subsequent Revolution and the Napoleonic era in his native Switzerland. His nephew, also named Jacques married a Albertine Necker de Saussure. a prominent biologist and the two cared for his uncle in his later years. The couple had a son named Louis Albert Necker de Saussure. Louis studied Geology in Geneva, and later Chemistry at Edinburgh University in Scotland. He studied the geology of Scotland and produced the first geological map of Scotland. Ill health compelled Necker to give up mineral collecting. He settled permanently in Scotland become something of a recluse on the Island of Skye.
Necker’s collection of fossils and minerals was donated to the Musée Académique between 1842 and 1845, following his mother’s death and his retreat to Skye. The collection is housed in two departments, the fossils in the Department of Geology and Paleontology and the minerals in the Department of Mineralogy and Petrography. His 650 fossils are kept as a separate collection. Nearly all are from around Geneva and probably collected by Necker or his students. About 400 mineral samples are identifiable as Necker’s in the MHNG mineralogy collection database.
Necker is best know for the Necker Cube, an optical illusion showing a 2D view of a 3D wire wire framed cube. Necker observed that the ambiguous cubic shape could spontaneously switch perspective, writing “The object I have now to call your attention to, is an observation… which has often occurred to me while examining figures and engraved plates of crystalline forms: I mean a sudden and involuntary change in apparent position of a crystal or solid represented in an engraved figure”.
Necker cube on the left, impossible cube on the right.
By Gauravjuvekar – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17057834