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Historic science texts, and what they tell us about history of science

  1. Sep 12, 2009 #1
    So I have recently read a couple of pop science books on a common subject that were pretty cool. I wanted to make a thread to talk about them and see if anyone else had any recommendation of more reading on the same topic. The thing the two books had in common was that they were both about tracking the history of some particular historic science book-- tracking the movement of copies of this book through periods when books were rare, expensive and easily destroyed. And in both of these cases, it was possible to unearth something about the history of science just from tracking the books people used.

    The first book-about-books I stumbled across was https://www.amazon.com/Book-Nobody-Read-Revolutions-Copernicus/dp/B000BNPG8C by Owen Gingerich, a professor of Astronomy and History of Science who sometime about 30 years ago undertook an enormous project to do a census tracking down every copy of the first two printings of Nicholas Copernicus' On the Revolutions, the book which proposed the heliocentric system, and noting the condition of each one. The thing about this project that turned out to be really fascinating is that it entailed copying down any notes found in the margins-- On the Revolutions was a working textbook, most of it consists of tables for calculating the positions of the planets and for many years the book was the most accurate instrument for doing so, and so its copies tended to be much more heavily annotated than other contemporary books. (The title of Gingerich's book comes from the idea, popular among historians of science before Gingerich started his census, that On the Revolutions *was* a book nobody read, something too dry and technical to be anything except a book purchased for its prestige. What the census of margin notes demonstrated was, no, this was a text widely labored over.) Once Gingerich started gathering this information, all kinds of fascinating patterns started popping up. He was able to uncover new things about scientific collaboration in the Renaissance based on notes copied from one copy of On the Revolutions to another, and knowledge of which copies had been present where at which times; identify notes left by Newton and other giants; and at one point he found evidence that the person who normally gets credit for inventing the logarithm had in fact taken the idea from elsewhere. Toward the end of the project he found himself being called in as a witness on legal proceedings when a copy of On the Revolutions had been stolen and needed to be identified based on his previous notes on that copy. Gingerich manages to thread his personal story and discoveries together expertly with a fascinating snapshot of Copernicus' work, the startlingly complicated series of events that had to come together just to get the book published, and what it meant to be a working astronomer at the end of the middle ages, all viewed through the lens of the books those astronomers left behind. I'd recommend this one to anyone who can find it.

    The second book I found, which maybe I should have listed first for chronological reasons, was https://www.amazon.com/Archimedes-C...=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1252805740&sr=1-1. This book was collectively written by a team that formed when around 1999 a medieval prayer book surfaced at auction, under which could be seen fragments of a number of lost texts by Archimedes, the ancient Greek master of geometry-- apparently this prayer book had been made by taking a larger codex containing Archimedes texts, cutting it apart, erasing the text and reusing the paper. The book had been looked at in the 20s by experts in classical texts, but very little of the text could be recovered at that time and the book then disappeared during the Turkish War of Independence. The team from 1999, with access to modern digital imaging techniques, were able to recover virtually the whole thing and were as a result apparently able to uncover new information about Archimedes as a mathematician and scientist-- for example apparently Archimedes was much closer to discovering the Calculus than previously thought, and one team member argues that a work in the prayer book (of which only a single page survives) demonstrates Archimedes was actually aware of combinatorics. I'm only about halfway through this one, and the team members contributing to the book sometimes like to toot their own horn maybe a bit much, but it's a pretty great read. Like The Book Nobody Read, it does a great job of capturing an era of science using the books that pass through it, and it goes into fascinating detail on reconstructing the paths that allowed the various extant Archimedes texts to survive to the current day.

    Both of these books go into some detail on the particular sort of peculiar detective work that's involved when you have to try to reconstruct an original text using only copies that were made of it later-- Gingerich in tracing marginalia copied from book to book, the Archimedes team in tracing which available versions of various Archimedes works most faithfully represent the original (apparently basically all writings by Archimedes available prior to 1900 stem from two codexes, neither of which still exist). I'm not actually sure what this is called (Paleography? Philology? My confusion on this point is what lead to the bizarrely poor title of this thread.) but I'm curious if there's anything else worth reading on that sort of subject or the history of science texts in general.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2009 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    Interesting questions.

    The OP made me think of James Burkes Connections program in which he starts somewhere in the past or present and links them by developments in technology.

    James Burke : Connections, Episode 1, "The Trigger Effect", 1 of 5 (CC)

    Part 2 of 5

    I also think of my grandfather who received up through an 8th grade education, didn't go to university, but who was a voracious reader and perhaps was more well read than most people. And I think of my ancestors, most of whom had no access to scientific texts, nor could they have probably have understood them if they did.

    It would be interesting to know how many copies of a given text exist and how they were distributed.

    Google is digitizing old texts, and I wonder if they have digitized old scientific texts.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  4. Sep 13, 2009 #3


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    "The Book Nobody Read" is indeed a very good book.
    It shouldn't too hard to find; I think I picked up my copy at an airport (I had read a review of it somewhere, probably New Scientist).
  5. Sep 16, 2009 #4
    Speaking of old science texts.

    I just re-found ( cleaning out old boxes ) an old one.
    First reprint March 1911 American Civil Engineers Pocket book.
    by John Wiley & Sons
    The drawings are by hand, and incredibly detailed.
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