New Exhibit Showcases 'Beautiful Science' A new exhibit at California's Huntington Library showcases centuries of diagrams covering everything from anatomy to astronomy. Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World collects original drawings from scientists such as Galileo, Darwin and Robert Hooke.
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New Exhibit Showcases 'Beautiful Science'

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New Exhibit Showcases 'Beautiful Science'

New Exhibit Showcases 'Beautiful Science'

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JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. A brief program note, they live in both real and virtual worlds. They post their new baby's pics on Facebook. They blog, vlog, and chronicle their daily lives digitally. They are generation net. Join Neal Conan and Don Tapscott on his new book "Growing Up Digital." Next Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

But for now, we're talking about science and beauty. In 1609, Galileo built a new optical device, a tube with lenses. His telescope was pretty weak compared to the ones we used to gaze at the heavens today. But he turned it on the moon and was startled to see its lumpy, cratered surface. Far different from the smooth and perfect sphere famous scholars and philosophers had described. Soon afterwards, he turned his telescope toward Jupiter and discovered four moons orbiting the giant planet. He made dozens of drawings in his observations, and published them in 1610 in a book called "The Starry Messenger."

You can take a look at one of these original volumes of Galileo's observations, and even peer through a replica of this telescope at a new exhibition called "Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World." It opens this weekend at California's Huntington Library. That's in Pasadena. And it highlights the ark of scientific research through the centuries. My next guest has spent several years delving into these beautiful stories of science from Galileo's time to today. Let me introduce him now. Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator of History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, which is right next to Pasadena, California. He joins us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena. Dan Lewis, welcome to the program.

Mr. DANIEL LEWIS (Dibner Senior Curator, Huntington Library): Thanks Joe. Happy Halloween.

PALCA: Thank you. I wonder if they're out in force in Pasadena now. But we'll talk about that later. Let's start by asking the question - this notion, beautiful science, what are you trying to capture in this exhibition?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, one of the things that this does is sort of crook a seductive finger towards and unwilling public because talking about science and talking about history has a potential to be a doubly eye-glaze over topic for a visiting public. And I know that science is beautiful and muscular and delicate. And it's beautiful in different ways. And so to talk about beauty is to talk about a number of specific things, but it's also a chance to talk about different kinds of beauty, because there's certainly not one certain stripe of beauty and at times, it's like a delicate cloth. At times, it's a very robust, burly sort of thing. And some of this works in the exhibit - I assembled this over the last couple of years. If you look at them visually, they're really spectacularly uninteresting in text or form. And I'm trying to break away from library exhibit.

It's at least where you find yourself staring into a case, looking at something like Charles Darwin's origin of species, which is 502 pages long and has about a single illustration in all that text and there's a chart in the illustrations. So, there's a beautiful idea behind that relatively uninteresting visual object that is of vital and giant importance. Other works are really spectacular visually. They range from the beautiful and gory in the medical domain, to the first illustrations of the moon and modification by Galileo, as you mentioned. So, it spans a wide spectrum.

PALCA: It's - as you know, I've seen some of the pieces in the exhibit and they are mesmerizing. I'd like to ask our listeners if they would like to join the conversation, please give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. I guess I should say this exhibit is going to be around for a while, so it's not like you have to run out and see it tomorrow.

Mr. LEWIS: It's a permanent exhibit. And permanent exhibits are challenging for all institutions whether it's a museum or a library. That's because light is the enemy of artwork and paper and ink. And so we actually have conservators come in to do a page change anywhere from 12 weeks to six months for a work. So there's a lot of activity, making sure that things aren't damaged by the materials. And just as scientists are stewards of historical ideas over the centuries, curators in libraries are also - stewards of material that really is just passing through their hands that they really hope will be preserved for future generations. So there's a really long term stewardship notion, the physical protection of the material in library exhibits.

PALCA: So, we've talk some about the Galileo "Starry Messenger." What are some of the other greatest hits of the kinds of volumes and pictures that they'll be able to see in the exhibit?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, we have so many things, Joe. We've got Isaac Newton...

PALCA: We've only got about 15 more minutes, so...

Mr. LEWIS: This is my challenge. Exhibits always take of a tiny fraction of a percent of library's holdings, library exhibits doing so. It's challenging to find things that tell a story and are high spots as well. But we've got Newton - Isaac Newton's own copy of the Principia Mathematica - his great work on the structure of the Laws of the Universe. And it has annotations in his own hand - it's not the only copy, and Newton had other copies annotated more extensively but we certainly have that one. We got - we've also got Newton's own copy of the "Optics," which was his great work on optics, and another section of the gallery which is in four parts - astronomy, natural history, medicine, and then light and optics.

We've got stars, super stars in every one of the sections. We've got Robert Hook's "Micrographia" in the Natural History Section, accompanied by a facsimile of a microscope where you can look at a flea, (unintelligible) irritants, it's the flea that Hook drew and that is represented there. And I've been trying to find the 17th century flea to show on the slide for this microscope to go with the 17th century illustrations on the book. So there's Robert Hook, there are a whole bevy of beautiful medical works. Robert Hunter's book on the "Gravity of Uterus." A state of the body and pregnancy.

A fabulous book by a Frenchman name Gaultier Dagoti(ph) with his beautiful mezzotinths from the 18th century in color, very, very rare and very labor-intensive process. So these works span a bunch of different types of artistry as well as a bunch of different topics and different ideas that worked their way along through this notion of beautiful science.

PALCA: OK. Let's take another call now - take a call now and go to Andrew in Philadelphia. Andrew, welcome to Science Friday.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, I love the show. I just wanted to make the observation that I've lately fallen in love with astrolabes, the Islamic ones in particular from I think the 12th century. I saw some of them in the Smithsonian, and I've seen some photographs in books, and I think there - you know, it's just spectacular artistically.

PALCA: OK. That's interesting. And Dan Louise, are you familiar with these Islamic works?

Mr. LEWIS: Astrolabes are wonderful, and they stem out of an Islamic tradition. And one of the things that came along with this collection that evolved into this exhibit is something called the Burndy library which was based at MIT for many years. And in the Burndy library was a series of objects that are based on astronomical observation - either for direct observation or as didactic teaching tools. So along with astrolabes - I don't have any astrolabes in the exhibit because they're often big, not always and there were very few in the Burndy collection. But I've got spectacular sundials which date back to the 16th century, and I've got - what's called an armillary sphere which - the one we have is the one that's been in the Huntington's collections for many decades, that dates to about 1550.

And their bands of strips of wood that serve as a model for rotating heavens around in this case, the Earth which proved to be incorrect because the heavens don't rotate around the earth. But it's the way - they're really beautiful visually and they let you perform operations and move things around. But astronomers also used really big instruments, so Tycho Brahe, the Swedish astronomer based on the Island of Havine, had these gigantic tools he used for naked eye astronomy, something called the Mural Quadrant. We've got a great big work on Atlas by Yohann Blaw(ph) showing one of these Mural Quadrants of Tycho Brahe's. And so the tools of astronomy were really spectacular, one of the greatest works in the history of astronomy is something called the astronomical (unintelligible) by Petro Sapianis(ph) printed in 1540 in Ingolstadt.

And it - and Owen Gingrich(ph), who is a well-known historian of science and an astronomer at Harvard, has called this the most beautiful scientific book ever printed. And I'm not - that's a hard superlative to use in a field rich with goodies. But it really is spectacular and it makes use of these rotating paper disks or volvels to perform astronomical calculations. They were very accurate, within perhaps a minute of arc in some cases. And it's lavishly printed and lavishly colored, and done as a homage to a king. And it's not often, if ever seen on exhibit. So that's open in the astronomy section of the exhibit.

PALCA: We're talking with Daniel Lewis about his new exhibit or the new exhibit. But I guess you can call it his at the Huntington Library that shows science or beautiful science. Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And let's go now to James in Cincinnati, Ohio. James, welcome to the program.

JAMES (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was wondering whether this exhibit included maybe the ancient - like Incan and Mayan stuff, or what they were able to predict the movement of the stars and the moving stuff with the great precision and all the artifacts from that. And also, from Egypt and those types of areas like before common era.

PALCA: OK. Interesting.

JAMES: (Unintelligible). I'll take my answer off...

PALCA: OK. Great. Thanks James. Yeah. Daniel Lewis.

JAMES: Bye-bye.

PALCA: Pre-historic.

Mr. LEWIS: That's a field called archeoastronomy and it's widely represented and talked about. Exhibits always emerge out of the contents of an institutions collections and so, a lot of this archeoastronomy isn't stuff that is easily collectible in paper forms. So if it is on a gigantic piece of stone, sitting in a Mayan village, it's hard to work into the exhibit. There's a bit of that. This exhibit tends to privileged Anglo-American astronomy and to some degree Islamic astronomy, which is another grand traditional source of astronomical discovery and knowledge.

So, a lot of the archeoastronomy doesn't show up in this exhibit. It's not placed well as a material type for an exhibit. It's hard to show. As I said some of these really gigantic things - if I had more space I could have expanded it into a newer, into a more really, really comprehensive set of things. So this has a particular focus that doesn't include the archeoastronomy details.

PALCA: OK. Interesting. Let's take another call now from Mary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mary, welcome to Science Friday.

MARY (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I really enjoyed the program. I'd like to ask if you have had a particular focus on how woman have contributed to science. I know that probably there's a publication bias in the ancient times towards that. But I'm just curious if you had noticed that at all or if you tried to find manuscripts or lectures.

PALCA: Interesting.

MARY: I'm embarrassed and I'll take my answer off the air.

PALCA: OK. Thank you, Mary. Dan Lewis, women.

Mr. LEWIS: There's a great tradition of women in the history of science and every domain. And even though it tended to be men, as a rule working in science, women made many vitally important discoveries and observations, and I've got a number of works in there that will speak to that. A woman named Maria (unintelligible) did a spectacular volume on the insects of Suriname that I've got up in the exhibit, in digital form as well, so you can turn the pages of the spectacular work - a very brave pioneer who went to Suriname with her daughter and collected and drew for quite some time these insects and plants of Suriname.

Annie Jump Canon, a twentieth century astronomer at Mount Wilson, who classified stars by the tens of thousands, writes a great letter about how she hates to go on vacation because she's leaving behind her star catalogue and wishes she could keep working on it. Caroline Herschel, one of the great Herschel family of astronomers, has observation work that's mentioned and covered in the show. There's also a thing that - there's also a section in the medicine subsection on child birth which is a particular strength of a Hichens(ph) collections, but is also obviously a female topic and midwives for many centuries were the ones who facilitated birth and knew the most about the birthing process.

We have a really, really rare ivory model of an - it's an obstetrics model from about 1550 with removable parts, so this ivory model has a woman laying there and you can remove the belly and then remove the (unintelligible), kind of work your way down to the little fetus inside as a teaching tool. So...

PALCA: Oh, very interesting.

Mr. LEWIS: So, the childbirth section is something that speaks to women's issues.

PALCA: Excellent. Excellent. We're talking with Dan Lewis about a new exhibit at the Huntington Library. I'm Joe Palca, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's take another call now, this time we'll go to Paul in Portland, Oregon. Paul, welcome to Science Friday.

PAUL (Caller): Yes, I'm just curious as to whether you know about Adam Elsheimer's "Painting of the Night Sky?" Was done in Rome in 1609 and it includes the details of Galileo's sky. I always thought how did - they must have known each other through the extremely detailed and slow painter and I happen to have a print that was done in 1611 of this painting, and it just seems extraordinary. I've never found any actual historical connection between the two, but they had to know each other.

PALCA: Well, possibly, but you say Elsheimer is the name?

PAUL: Yes, Adam Elsheimer.

PALCA: OK, Dan Lewis.

Mr. LEWIS: I must confess, I haven't heard of Adam Elsheimer. There - the telescope came along in about 1608 and was patented simultaneously by three different people. So, Galileo wasn't the first to use the telescope certainly and he was the first to produce a printed work, but I have not heard of this (unintelligible) I'd be really curious to hear more about that. That's an interesting find.

PALCA: All right. Well...

PAUL: He's the - the painting itself is in a museum in Germany, and I've been fascinated by it for a long time because I just think they had to know each other because it's an amazing - the first truly amazing painting of the night sky, a very detailed, and very accurate.

PALCA: Paul, thanks very much for that. You know, it doesn't surprise me actually that artists unconnected specifically with science have been drawn into science because when we were looking into flooding issues in Venice for example, in Italy, some of the famous paintings from the Venetian school showed buildings that are still around today, and you can see where the water line was, so you get some information from the painting that way.

Mr. LEWIS: There are all sorts of clues, individual records about many different things. One - speaking of evidence in books and manuscripts, one of the things that is that Isaac Newton did with his own books is he would actually dog ear the pages of the book to point to a particular passage.

So, if there was a paragraph in there he wanted to highlight, he'd dog ear the page up from the corner or down from the corner, so it pointed to it and that's behavior we don't usually prohibit - don't allow in our reading room and so I'm going to have to have this books in the Burndy library that go out with dog ears, but there are really direct physical evidence sort of thing like the water line, you know the painting shows, you know how - there's a life to these things, and it's one of the things I love about all books and manuscripts is that there's a life to them, they have stains and fingerprints and marginalia are written in the margins of books. And the subtitle of this exhibit is 'It's Beautiful Science Ideas that change the World,' and that's my stand in for saying history, which is a word there is nowhere in the exhibit because of the fact that these things are a continuum over a long period of time, from the distant past up to the present and then on into the future.

PALCA: All right. Well, we have to leave it there, Dan. Thanks for that lovely thought, Dan. Dan Lewis is the Dibner Senior curator of History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Thanks for joining us today.

Mr. LEWIS: My pleasure. Thank you.

PALCA: And thanks to all of you for joining me today.

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