Thursday, January 31, 2008

Paging Through the History of Science

A lot of my physics friends don't particularly understand my minor obsession with taking history classes because they don't understand just how it could be at all interesting. This semester, though, I'm taking "A History of Science in Western Thought," so I'm hoping that this post will clear a few things up as to why history can be such a great subject to devote spare credit hours to.

Last Friday, see, my history class took a visit to the rare books collection at the university library. It's a lovely spot filled with beautiful treasures from centuries past, and has such a friendly staff I feel bad that I hadn't visited them before... Anyway, we were looking at old science books mainly due to the nature of the class, and some of them were just gorgeous. Here are a few of my favorites-
This page is from a gigantic codex printed in 1493 known as the Nuremberg Chronicle. Back then, Nuremberg was a very wealthy city, so in order to commemorate their anniversary they decided to commission a history of the world up until that point. The drawings here are wood-cuts, and the color ink was added later.
This is a page from the Chronicle illustrating the city of Salzburg at the time. There are several such cities depicted in the book as you page through it (which, trust me, I did quite a bit of even if my Latin's too rusty to read it), but paradoxically the illustrations of the cities are only loosely based off of what they actually looked like- an artist would sort of work off of travelers' descriptions and the like. The same applies to all illustrations of people except that was an even less exact art, as they'd often reuse pictures and the like. I suppose such details did not matter quite so much over 500 years ago.
This is the last page in the book, and is a map of the world up until then (or at least the parts that mattered to Nurembergians). Kinda nifty.

By the way, I will point out that there were an estimated 1400-1500 Latin and 700-1000 German copies published in 1493, and an estimated 400 Latin and 300 German copies still survive. So if you don't feel a bit of excitement at the chance to flip through one of these, well, you're clearly not nerdy enough.
Change in books, this one being an illustration from Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica ("On the Fabric of the Human Body"), regarded as the world's first anatomy book. For those of you who perhaps haven't heard of him, Vesalius was a contemporary of Copernicus who was the first to say anatomy should be done in a systematic way instead of just relying on what the book said. This book was published in 1543 (and this copy is from that year as well), and it really is cool to page through because it's filled with skeletons and people with only muscles and the like idling in the Tuscan countryside.
Now this is exciting- it's the Dialogues! Also known as Dialogo Sopra I Due Massimi Sistemi Del Mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) and written by Galileo Galilei in 1632, the book was basically a conversation between a person who believed in the Aristotelian model of the universe and one who believed the Copernical model. It was written in Italian so the ordinary person could understand it, and was the book that made the Church go after Galileo and get it placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. This particular version of the book dates to 1699.

Personally I like the Dialogues because it is, in essence, the first "popular science" book ever published that I can really think of, meaning Galileo was the sort of Carl Sagan of his era. Also, interestingly enough, I have a friend who did the astronomy summer school last year run by the Vatican, and she says that if you go through the Vatican's library they have first editions of everything (of course) and they were supposed to black out the "objectionable" parts, but some kind soul either missed that memo or just never did. Hooray for science!
Not to sound odd, but I know a good number of people who would feel more reverence looking at this one than they would looking at a copy of the Bible. It is a copy of Sir Isaac Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687 (though this one is from 1739). It is from this book that Newton worked out his famous laws that laid the groundwork for classical mechanics and his theory of gravitation, and promptly doomed several centuries of university students to drawing free-body diagrams.
And if Principia isn't good enough for you, few can resist the allure of Optiks, first published in 1704 (this here being a second edition from 1717). You know how Newton split light with a prism to reveal a rainbow? Well that's in this book.

Of course, my favorite optical experiment Newton conducted (in a "my God this guy was something" sort of way) is that he once stuck a darning needle into his eye in an attempt to prove that color was the result of pressure on your eye, sticking it all the way through. Clearly the experiment didn't work as he'd imagined, but luckily he didn't lose his vision.
This last picture here is from one of the figures added in at the back of the book (as that's where all the figures were in this age- you folded them out). You can see Newton detailing how light split from the prism and how you could use geometry to figure out your prism's properties and what not.

I could go on as I have many, many more books to share (such as first editions from philosophers Henry More and John Locke), but this is getting long enough so I think I'll end things here. Isn't it cool to see and learn about old stuff?


cvj said...

Wonderful! Thanks for sharing!


(Huh...and you say *I* should get out more when I show pictures of libraries....)