Why Swiss scientists are asking people to bury underwear?

Digging a hole in the soil and hiding knickers under ground along with tea bags — yes, tea bags — may seem like a bizarre ritual. But in Switzerland, it is all done in the name of science.

Why Swiss scientists are asking people to bury underwear?
From drying line to under ground. Photo by Karolina Grabowska/ Pexels

As is often the case in Switzerland’s grass-roots democracy, citizen participation is needed to carry out the project, launched on Wednesday by the Agroscope research institute along with the University of Zurich.

One thousand volunteers from all over the country will receive two pairs of cotton underwear and six tea bags, which they will have to bury it in a field, meadow or garden.

After two months, the garment will be dug up and its condition assessed to determine the quality of the soil.

Advanced decomposition, researchers say, will prove that active organisms are living in the soil, which means it is healthy.

Briefs have been used by farmers for several years as an indicators of soil health.

“But so far no one has verified that this method also meets scientific standards,” said project director Marcel van der Heijden, ecologist at Agroscope and the University of Zurich.

But why tea bags?

The so-called “Tea Bag Index”, which is apparently a well-known phenomenon in soil research, will show long it takes for different types of tea to decompose.

As for the undies, the first experiment of this type carried out in 2019 at the Agroscope station in Zurich had shown that, in most cases, only the elastic band remains intact after two months.

The rest is devoured by earthworms, woodlice, bacteria, fungi, mites and other microorganisms lurking under ground. And that is a sign that Switzerland’s soil is in great shape.

If you would like to volunteer to be a local soil tester, you can order your underwear-and-tea kit here.

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Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’

The traditional Swiss style of chalet so beloved by tourists visiting the alpine country is actually the creation of foreign architects, a researcher at federal technology institute ETH Zurich has found.

Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’
'Swiss style' by a German architect. Image: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

Daniel Stockhammer discovered the revelation as part of his doctoral thesis, the results of which are published in Horizons magazine this month.

His research focused on 19th century German architect Ernst Gladbach, a professor at the then newly-founded ETH Zurich, who created a comprehensive collection of sketches and plans of Swiss wooden houses .

In studying the drawings – which lay unpublished in the archives of the Swiss National Museum for a century – Stockhammer came across other, much older sketches of Swiss houses by architects from England, France and Germany.

He then realized it was these foreign architects who created the archetypal ‘Swiss’ style of chalet.

Speaking to The Local, Stockhammer said although wooden buildings have long been a part of Swiss rural architecture, they were “regionally so different that one could at most speak of local and regional traditions, not national ones”.

“The enormous diversity made it impossible to reduce these styles into a national Swiss style of wooden buildings”.

So foreign architects invented one.

In the late 18th and early 19th century wealthy foreign architects such as Briton Peter Frederick Robinson began travelling through Switzerland to draw and document the wooden buildings, said Stockhammer.

Back in London, they redrew these sketches, altering them in the process based on their own idealistic view of Switzerland.

“In this process, the architects did not stick closely to a faithful representation,” says Stockhammer.

Some parts were exaggerated, some were copied from different buildings and others “completely made up” to create “an idealistic picture of the Swiss house”.

This invented ‘Swiss national style’ represented a rural ideal for the European elites of the 18th and 19th century who then created buildings in this image in major European cities, according to Stockhammer.

The Rütlihaus before and after its transformation by Ernst Gladbach. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

This architectural style was then transported back to Switzerland with the advent of mass tourism in the country.

“The tourists brought their idealized images (back) to Switzerland . The Swiss responded to the needs of guests [by building] hotels and railway stations but also kiosks and souvenirs in the Swiss style.

“Since, at the beginning, they did not know exactly how to build in the 'Swiss style', the architects and chalet-builders looked back at the original works of almost exclusively foreign architects for inspiration.”

Stockhammer was particularly surprised to find that even the Rütlihaus – the 'original' Swiss house on the Rütli meadow, considered the birthplace of Switzerand – was the invention of German Gladbach, who studied the original building before it was demolished and then created a new, ‘more real’ version.

“To a great extent, Switzerland owes its national style, and its success, to tourists,” concludes Stockhammer.