Unlocking the Senior Library: astrophysics

Towards the end of the Michaelmas term, as part of our “Unlocking the Senior Library” series, the Senior Library opened its doors to a group of Oxford astrophysicists interested in exploring material in our collection that related to their fields of study. It was with some trepidation that I set about choosing books from the historic collections that might be relevant to a group representing a range of specialities, from exoplanetary science to the evolution of galaxies, very much outside my area of expertise.

Aristotle, Opera (Basel, 1539)

Aristotle, Opera (Basel, 1539)

The final selection included 16th century editions of the works of some of the earliest Greek and Arab astronomers, from an Aldine edition of Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s De coelo (Venice, 1526) to editions of Ptolomy’s Almagest (Basel, 1538) and Abu al-Hasan’s De iudiciis astrorum (Basel, 1551). One of the treasures of the Senior Library is a copy of Erasmus’ edition of Aristotle’s works (Basel, 1539) in which one section, the Physics, is heavily annotated in Greek by a 16th century reader.

Cassini, Abrege des observations (Paris, 1681)

Cassini, Abrege des observations (Paris, 1681)

We moved on to the 17th century with two important first editions: Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae (Ulm, 1627) and Hevelius’ Selenographia (Gdansk, 1647), the first complete lunar atlas and a landmark in lunar topography. We also looked at editions of works on comets by Cassini and Halley and, of course, Newton’s Principia (the second edition). We ended with a run of printed volumes of astronomical observations made at the Radcliffe Observatory from the first half of the 19th century.

Interdisciplinary encounters can sometimes feel like ships passing in the night. This was the opposite, with genuine engagement on both sides. I gained a new appreciation of the intellectual context of the books we looked at, and conversely I believe our guests enjoyed seeing familiar topics in historical context. For me at least it was one of the highlights of 2014.
Dr Sarah Cusk is the antiquarian cataloguer at Lincoln, cataloguing the early printed books in the Senior Library.
 With thanks to Vinesh Rajpaul for his photographs of the event.
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