Copernicus and Newton at Haverfordbwillman | October 9, 2010
Last week, I took my Astronomical Ideas class to Haverford’s Special Collections wing in Magill Library to discuss and interact with our first edition of Copernicus’s 1543 de Revolutionibus (On the Revolution [of the Heavenly Spheres]) and our first edition of Newton’s 1687 Principia. Ann Upton of our Special Collections department generously arranged a session with these books for my class. She also brought Owen Gingerich’s amazing book describing his census and study of all first and second editions of the Copernicus book, and a transfer of debt that had been signed by Newton. Fewer than 500 copies of the Copernicus book were produced in the first edition, and only 300-400 copies of the Principia were produced in its first edition. So these are two rare commodities.
Here, you can see Ann showing students the Gingerich book, in which he presents i) the results of his study of the marginalia of the hundreds of Copernicus books he inspected, in an effort to learn about the impact of Copernicus’s work on the evolution of astronomical thought and ii) the present locations of all books he inspected, their individual histories, and individual interesting facts:
Gingerich’s census revealed many juicy tidbits about the influence of Copernicus. Gingerich’s census was inspired by a richly annotated version of the book he viewed in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh (if my memory serves me correctly) that had been owned by one of the leading astronomers of the 16th century. The detailed annotations made no mention of the heliocentric model that Copernicus is famous for today. I was particularly fascinated by the marginalia that Gingerich found in the copy that has been owned by Kepler, but previously owned by someone else. Gingerich found that two passages in particular had been annotated prior to Kepler acquiring the volume: One notation was of a passage where Copernicus raised the question of whether the center of the Sun or the center of the Earth’s orbit was the center of the Universe. Another notation was the word “ellipse”(!) written next to a passage where Copernicus was discussing the shapes of planetary orbits that included epicycles.
In this shot, you can appreciate the beautiful table with a wood base and glass top that the books were presented on. The Principia is on the left and De Revolutionibus is on the right, with Newton’s picture in the middle. Its amazing that any student can thumb through these works:
Finally, here is a cool candid of students using a flashlight on the Principia to detect the presence of the chain lines going crosswise through the pages. Chain lines – light lines hidden in the paper – are an artifact of the way paper was made back in the times of Copernicus and Newton. The crosswise orientation of the chain lies here reveals that this book’s pages were printed as “quartos”: