Paging Through History's Beautiful Science

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The constellation of Leo, depicted in John Flamsteed's 1776 book, Celestial Atlas. i

The constellation of Leo, depicted in John Flamsteed's 1776 book, Celestial Atlas. Courtesy Huntington Library hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Huntington Library
The constellation of Leo, depicted in John Flamsteed's 1776 book, Celestial Atlas.

The constellation of Leo, depicted in John Flamsteed's 1776 book, Celestial Atlas.

Courtesy Huntington Library
Detail of a Petrus Apianus star chart. i

Detail from a 16th-century star chart made by Petrus Apianus. The illustration also had a movable disc that was used to calculate the positions of constellations. Courtesy Huntington Library hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Huntington Library
Detail of a Petrus Apianus star chart.

Detail from a 16th-century star chart made by Petrus Apianus. The illustration also had a movable disc that was used to calculate the positions of constellations.

Courtesy Huntington Library

What makes something beautiful?

Is it exquisite colors? Elegant form or striking style? Or can something be beautiful simply for the ideas it contains?

The answer to that last question is a resounding "yes," according Dan Lewis, Dibner senior curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. He's the man responsible for a new exhibition at the library called "Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World."

"We're trying to illustrate what is sometimes a slippery notion, and one that is often unexpected," says Lewis, "to think of science and beauty, hand in hand."

The exhibition focuses on four areas of science: astronomy, natural history, medicine and light. Some of the books featured are Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, the book where Newton codified the laws of motion and gravity; Nicolaus Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, the description of a solar system which had the sun, not the Earth, at its center; and Petrus Apianus' Astronomicum Caesarium, a collection of strikingly beautiful, hand-illustrated star charts published in 1540.

Lewis brings an attitude of joy and exuberance to the new exhibition. The idea is to make the books and illustrations come alive for visitors. Sometimes, however, he admits to getting carried away.

"I wanted to do things like hang alligators from the ceiling," says Lewis. Not real ones, of course, but the kind amateur naturalists once kept in their collections. "No one ever tells me 'no' around here. They just say, 'That might not be the best idea.' So my designers gently but firmly talked me out of hanging big things from the ceiling, and I'm a little bit sad about that."

Even without the alligators, the show is an interesting historical glimpse at how beautiful ideas that shape modern science exploded on the world.

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