Accessibility links

Exhibit Conveys Beauty, Excitement of Science

A new exhibit at the Huntington Library, near Los Angeles, highlights the thrill of discovery and the beauty of science. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the exhibit curator, Daniel Lewis, about ideas that changed the world and impressive works of art produced by scientists.

The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, is home to some of the world's rarest books and greatest art treasures, from a Gutenberg Bible, the 15th century publication that sparked a revolution in learning, to Thomas Gainsborough's famous painting of Blue Boy.

Curator Daniel Lewis says a new exhibit, called Beautiful Science: Ideas the Changed the World, shows that many early scientists bridged the worlds of art and learning. He says this is seen in the 16th century work Astronomicum Caesareum by the German mathematician, mapmaker and astronomer Peter Apianus. Some have called it the most beautiful book ever published.

"He actually printed it and did the art work on it, but he was the guy that devised a system of rotating paper disks, which are called volvelles, in this big work featured in the exhibit, so that you can perform calculations by rotating these disks," said Daniel Lewis. "And this work is as much a calculating instrument as it is a work of art, and it is absolutely gorgeous."

The 17th century British scientist Robert Hooke shows detailed drawings of insects, animals and natural substances studied under magnification in an illustrated book called Microgaphia. A first edition of the oversized work is also on display, and Lewis says it shows Hooke's excitement at his discoveries.

"He writes as if he is seeing for the first time as he writes," he said. "He says, this is a most curious and astonishing thing, and he will go on to describe and illustrate some of these things in this particular work. So there is a sense of wonder that saturates many of these works that makes them very exciting to read and look at."

The exhibit shows the expansion of scientific knowledge, often in jumps and starts, from a 13th century manuscript of a work from the ancient mathematician Ptolemy to 20th century items, such as letters from Albert Einstein and a logbook from astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Curator Lewis says the exhibit shows that each generation of thinkers builds on its predecessors, by tracing the development key ideas in science, which include this shifting concept in astronomy.

"The idea that the earth was the center of the universe, to the changing notion under Copernicus in the 16th century that the sun, really, was the center of the universe, to the idea now that we understand more precisely that we are a tiny speck in a gigantic, almost infinite universe," said Lewis.

The exhibit contains a first edition of the ground-breaking work by Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, which explains the orbits of planets around the sun.

Seminal works from later times are also on display.

"We have Isaac Newton's own copy of his groundbreaking work, the Principia, published in 1687," he said. "He has made marginal annotations and notes in preparation for the second edition of this great work. We have got a first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species."

Nearby, 250 copies of Darwin's important book, in dozens of languages, are lined along a bookshelf seven meters - long to show the influence of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

In four rooms packed with treasures, curator Lewis says visitors can see the excitement of science, and some of the works of art created by scientists who were inspired by their own ground-breaking discoveries.