LYNN NEARY, host:
A book is like a newborn baby. When it first appears, you don't know what impact it will have. At the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, a new exhibition shows off a set of books that had explosive impact, dramatically altering what we know about our world and ourselves. NPR's Joe Palca has this report about the new exhibition and the man who organized it.
JOE PALCA: Lovely, exquisite, delightful. Those may not be adjectives that spring to mind when talking about science books, but Dan Lewis says they should be.
Mr. DAN LEWIS (Dibner Senior Curator, History of Science and Technology, Huntington Library, San Marion, California): We're trying to illustrate what is a sometimes slippery notion and one that's often unexpected, to think of science and beauty hand in hand.
PALCA: Lewis is the senior curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Mr. LEWIS: Some of these works are beautiful for the ideas they contain. Some of them are beautiful for the illustrations they contain because they're truly stunning visually, in some cases. Some of them are spectacularly uninteresting visually, but the idea behind them is really beautiful.
PALCA: Lewis is a tallish man with a child-like glee that bursts out as he talks about his books. When we met earlier this year, he was hard at work at preparing the exhibition, "Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World."
Mr. LEWIS: Let me just show you this here. And I've got a couple of things I want you to see - you have to see.
PALCA: We're in a room that could be in an underfunded public library: mismatched furniture, books on countertops that looked like they're waiting to be re-shelved. Lewis reaches for a nondescript volume with a tan binding.
Mr. LEWIS: Here, you can see Newton's "Principia," one of the great landmarks in the history of science, printed in 1687.
PALCA: This is the book where Newton set down the laws of physics, laws that were the final word for more than two centuries until Einstein modified them with his theories of relativity. The pages have more texture than a modern book. The type has bitten into the heavy paper.
Mr. LEWIS: What's great about this is - this is actually Newton's own copy of the "Principia." And Newton's, in fact, annotated a few bits in here in his own hand.
PALCA: So he just lined it out and wrote, it shouldn't be in local foledo(ph). It should be inknown fiat(ph), in eudem plano(ph).
Mr. LEWIS: Exactly. Well said.
PALCA: Lewis says the books in the collection contain information beyond just the words on the page. He grabs another old volume, "The Catalogue of Chemical Books," by William Cooper, printed in 1675. This book belonged to Newton. Lewis flips through it until he finds a page where Newton has turned down the corner. Lewis says the corner points to a particular passage Newton was interested in.
Mr. LEWIS: And he's done this throughout. And you could see a librarian in a non-historic institution taking this and going, tsk, tsk, tsk(ph). We must straighten out these dog years. And in doing so, you lose all the evidence in this book about what Newton thought was important in the books he read.
PALCA: After showing me several books, something dawned on me. Lewis was handling them with his bare hands, no gloves.
Mr. LEWIS: That's probably the question I get asked the most, is why aren't you wearing gloves? People are gasp audibly at times when I'm handling this stuff. We found that the lack of sensitivity that you suddenly get when you put on gloves is far worse than anything you might have on your hands - well, not anything, almost anything you might have on your hands. It's always my premise that rare-book librarians and archivists and doctors are the people that wash their hands more than anybody else.
PALCA: Quite possibly. Lewis reaches out his extremely clean hands for another treasure.
Mr. LEWIS: Let's look at Apianus. Why not?
PALCA: Why not? Petrus Apianus started illustrating his book of star charts, the "Astronomicum Caesarium," in 1532. It took him eight years to finish. Richly-colored plates show constellations, and some pages have intricate moving disks for plotting star positions.
Mr. LEWIS: It's an irresistibly beautiful book, and you want to show it to people, and you want to share the stuff but it deserves to sit quietly in a case with fiber-optic lighting open to a particular opening or two and let a larger public get a good look at it.
PALCA: It's in the exhibition, or you can get a peak at our web site, npr.org. The Apianus manuscript is exquisitely beautiful, but Lewis is drawn even more to ideas that are beautiful. And for that, he says possibly the most beautiful book ever is Darwin's "Origin of Species." Lewis says it's a book that continues to shape our thinking about what it means to be human 150 years after it was published. Lewis took me up to the conservation lab where one of the library's first editions of "Origin of Species" was getting a few touchups prior to going on display.
Mr. LEWIS: One of the ways to tell a first edition from a second edition is to turn to page 20 and go down - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten - 11 lines, and you see they have misspelled the word species.
PALCA: There's an extra E.
Mr. LEWIS: It's one of the easiest ways to determine this from later editions. So if you're ever at a garage sale and you see this dull-looking binding with Darwin's name on it, pull it out and go to page 20 and see if they've misspelled the word species. And if they have, pay their price, whether it's $5 or $8 or $10. This is now a $100,000 to $200,000 book.
PALCA: For Lewis, owning a first edition or at least being able to handle one, is like being present at the moment of creation, the moment a new idea or new piece of art is born. He told me about a room in the Huntington Library known as the vault.
Mr. LEWIS: It's a small room with a gigantic bank vault door that's hardened against a direct nuclear attack. And after six months, you get the right to be in that room by yourself.
PALCA: Lewis recalled his first day alone in the vault.
Mr. LEWIS: I'm down here, for instance, with the first two quartos of "Hamlet." There are only two copies in the world. Only place - only library with the first two copies of "Hamlet." I'm down here with Ben Franklin's autobiography and manuscript. I'm surrounded by untold treasures and just to be in their presence is an honor. And my first day in the room, after six months, I thought, I could die right here today, and I would die a happy man.
PALCA: Because he got to commune with beautiful books that changed the world. Joe Palca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.