Visiting Other Worlds in Special Collections

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Class members viewing collection materials in the Bayer Galleria

In July, Lehigh's Special Collections hosted a session devoted to viewing and discussing early modern works about astronomy. The books, spanning the Copernican Revolution and the advent of new physical theory, included works by Brahe, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. (For a flavor of Lehigh’s rich holdings in history of astronomy, see "The Problem of the Planets"

Also displayed was a book published in 1511 that illustrates how navigators from that time enriched the preconceived Ptolemaic geography of the world.

Attending the event were summer undergraduate and graduate physics students participating in the NSF-funded Research Experience Undergraduate (REU) program. Professors Ginny McSwain and Josh Pepper, along with Special Collections staff and subject librarians, highlighted standout features of the selected volumes and fielded questions relating to the books’ histories and the historical development of scientific theories.

In addition to examining the astronomical works, students compared their contemporary understanding of global geography to the place names depicted in Ptolmey’s Cosmograhpia, which combines cartographic and astronomical depictions of the Earth. One student was even inspired to take a photo of the volume’s representation of her home country!

Held in the Bayer Galleria of Linderman Library, the session exemplified how Special Collections materials can provide context to interdisciplinary conversations about the history of ideas. Demonstrating this notion, Professor McSwain mentioned that

“Shakespeare used the bright 1572 supernova, which would have been well known to the general public of that era, as a foreshadowing plot device in the play Hamlet. Any new phenomenon in the night sky, such as the appearance of a new “star” or a comet, would have been interpreted as a bad omen in those times. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe studied the 1572 supernova in detail, and Shakespeare gave him a nod by naming the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after some of Brahe’s family members. Brahe’s volume Astronomiae instauratae mechanica [Instruments for the Restoration of Astronomy] was on display to highlight this unique scientific and literary partnership."

The text of Hamlet on display was from a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

About the event, Professor Pepper said

"this was an exceptional opportunity for the students to learn how the mathematics and concepts that they use every day were originally devised. What is especially remarkable is seeing how physics at the time was developed not using algebra and equations, but rather through sophisticated geometry. One of the highlights was seeing the actual sketches in the books by Copernicus and Galileo in which they laid out their theories that the Earth orbits the Sun, and not the other way around."

He also mentioned that even though works from this period were in Latin, “we can still understand the diagrams and tables in which the orbits of planets were being worked out.”

To schedule a similar class relating to one of the many subject areas covered in the rich holdings at Special Collections, contact