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[Maggie’s blog] Beautiful Science

On my recent vacation to Los Angeles, I visited Huntington Gardens. It’s a gorgeous place and in addition to gardens, it has several museums. I was very excited to see their permanent exhibit of old and rare science books. The exhibit is called “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” – and they aren’t kidding by titling it that. The front room is all astronomy texts and in them are indeed contained some revolutionary ideas.

Here are some of the photos I took during my visit.

Beautiful Science

The exhibit starts with a copy of Aristotle from 1495 – the text in which he, in the 300s BC, suggested that everything revolves around the Earth.

Aristotle: On the heavens and the earth, 1495

Next is a text from 1279, which contains Ptolemy’s 2nd century earth-centric universe. The book contains drawings of Ptolemy’s epicycles, needed to explain the movements of the planets in the sky.

Ptolemy, Almagest, 1279

This is Edwin Hubble’s copy of Copernicus’ “On the revolution of heavenly bodies”, a second edition, dating to 1566. Originally published in 1543, this book posited that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but one of the planets revolving around the Sun. Note that censors marked out portions of the text because this idea was so heretical.

Copernicus: On the revolution of heavenly bodies, 1566

A detail of the book:

Copernicus detail

Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are contained in this book, “Astronomia nova”, published in 1609:

Kepler, Astonomia nova, 1609

A detail:

Kepler detail

This is Tycho Brahe’s “Astronomy renewed”, published in 1610 and owned by astronomer George Ellery Hale. In this book, Tycho tried to find a middle ground between Copernicus and Aristotle was theorizing that the planets orbited the Sun, and the Sun orbited the Earth.

Tycho Brahe, Astronomy renewed, 1610

Here is one of the famous books ever in physics, Isaac Newton’s Principia (“Natural Principles of Natural Philosphy). It’s important to astronomy because it shows that the heavens and the earth are both governed by universal laws. He used math to describe the sun-centric universe, laying out the laws of motion and the basis of classical mechanics. Even cooler, is that this is Newton’s own copy of the book, and contains his own annotations. The book was later owned by Edmond Halley who also made notes in it.

Newton's Principia, 1687

A detail:

Newton detail

Ptolemian view

Copernican view

Display of letters

There were also some facsimilies of famous letters. Here’s one written by Annie Jump Cannon, famous for her work on classifying stars.

Letter written by Annie Jump Cannon

And one from Albert Einstein to George Ellery Hale, written two years before he published his theory of relativity.

Letter from Albert Einstein to George Ellery Hale

Here is Edwin Hubble’s log book from the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson:

Edwin Hubble's logbook for 100-inch Mt. Wilson telescope

On the telescope

Moving back again in time, we turn to the telescope, with this important text from Galileo, published in 1610, in which has the first drawings ever made of the moon under magnification. The publication of this work, in which Galileo first displays the results of his work with the telescope, is also why we celebrated the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, as it was considered the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s observations with a telescope. (We even “interviewed” Galileo about his work in a past podcast.)

Galileo Galilei, Starry messenger, 1610

In this text from 1659, Christiaan Huygens proposed that Saturn had rings. He even built a new telescope to see Saturn more clearly. It was a decade until his theory was accepted.

Christiaan Huygens, Saturn's system 1659

Newton made his own improvements to the telescope, documented from this book in 1672:

Newton's "An Account of a New Kind of Telescpe, invented by Mr. Isaac Newton" 1672

There were other sections to the exhibit, including biology and natural studies text – including old (and scary) medical books.

Then it was back to physics.

Here are some early lightbulbs:

Early lightbulbs

Early lightbulbs

Faraday’s 19th century experiments with electricity:

Faraday's Experimental researches in electricity, 1846

Volta’s 18th century book about galvanism, or creating electricity with chemistry:

Volta, 1809

And Benjamin Franklin’s own book on his experiments with electricity:

Benjamin Franklin, Experiements and observations on electricity, 1750s

Isaac Newton’s own copy of his “Opticks” – this book is also considered one of the most important books in science. It is a series of experiments and deductions about light and color, and diffraction of light. In this book is described Newton’s splitting of light into a spectrum with a prism. While the Principia was all about math – this book was about experiment.

Newton, on light.

Newton detail

Newton, on light and colors - his first publication

Rene Descartes on how eyes work:

Rene Decartes, Discours de la methode

Kepler’s book on optics…

Kepler, The optics

…which might contrast with Euclid’s theories on optics from 300BC:

Euclid, Optica 1557

Or Plato from the even earlier:

Plato, Timacus, 1520

Here is Einstein’s famous publication of his theory of special relativity from 1905:

Einstein, On the electrodynamics of moving bodies, 1905


Einstein detail

And Maxwell’s 19th century text which unified electricity and magnetism (you might have heard of his equations):

Maxwell, A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field", 1865

Maxwell detail

There were a number of books on spectra and their analyis:

From Lockyer:

Lockyer, Studies in spectrum analysis, 1878

To Fraunhofer… (This is George Ellery Hale’s copy of the text. Fraunhofer had the lines that are the signatures of chemical elements in the spectrum of the sun and other stars named for him.)

Fraunhofer, 1816

To Kirchoff, who helped determine what the sun and stars are made of:

Kirchoff, Researches on the solar spectrum, 1862

(I saw Kirchoff’s birthplace and spectrograph in Heidelberg, Germany.)

If you have a chance to see this exhibit, it’s well worth it. This is only a small sampling of what’s there. It’s to be in the presence of all these great works and to think about how the ideas contained in them left our understanding of the world forever changed.

Here’s a full slideshow of all the images:

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