Reaching across the centuries, these seminal science books speak volumes

At a recent “pop-up” exhibit, Yale physics students took a closer look at more than a dozen trailblazing tomes by Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and others.

Chiara Mingarelli, a physicist with a passion for science communication, devotes much of her professional time to deciphering the furtive chirps of gravitational waves from the far reaches of the universe.

But that is not her only entry point for the ways that science speaks to us across vast distances. She recently arranged a conversation between graduate students in her Yale astrophysics lab, undergraduate students in her General Physics Lab, and some of history’s greatest mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and astronomers.

Mingarelli and her crew descended to a lower-level room at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, part of Yale University Library, where they commiserated with Johannes Kepler over the drudgery of long division and reveled in Sir Isaac Newton’s relationship with the universe.

Chiara Mingarelli with student
Chiara Mingarelli, left, with students at the Beinecke Library. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Galileo, Da Vinci, Du Châtelet, Faraday, Copernicus — all were represented here, speaking their truth via the groundbreaking science texts that changed humanity’s perception of the world. More than a dozen of their works rested on plump brown pillows in the center of the room, waiting to be perused.

It’s rare to see a collection of important scientific books like this, all in one place,” said Mingarelli, an assistant professor of physics in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and curator of this “pop-up” exhibit. “I think it’s important for students to understand these scientists were real people with foibles and problems.”

As an example, she pointed out Kepler’s “Astronomia Nova Aitiologetos,” from 1609. In this book, the famed astronomer presents the first of his two Laws of Planetary Motion, while also dealing with legal battles to defend his mother, who was under investigation for witchcraft.

Kepler was also contending with some considerable math.

He had to do one calculation 70 times,” Mingarelli marveled. “He complains about it, which is a very human emotion.”

On the far side of the room, Morgan Cole, a first-year Ph.D. student in physics, leaned forward to take in Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” from 1687. The edition on display is exceptionally rare: it is one of only 386 first-edition copies still in existence. It’s also perhaps the most influential physics book ever written, positing the idea that gravitational forces held planets in their orbits.

Before I entered this field, I thought of physics almost as a finished discipline,” said Cole, who works in Mingarelli’s lab. “But there’s still so much that’s fundamental that we don’t know. I think every day about having a closer relationship with the universe, and just looking at these pages, you can see Newton’s deep connection.”

Students huddled reverently over the tomes, drinking in their once-startling notions and occasionally letting out an appreciative hoot or chortle before moving on to the next book.

Kayleigh Bohémier, science research support librarian for astronomy, Earth and planetary sciences, linguistics, and physics, helped Mingarelli assemble the exhibit, working with Beinecke staff and with other librarians around campus who have put together previous pop-up exhibits relating to science and technology.

This is a very collaborative effort with a lot of moving pieces,” Bohémier said.

Those pieces included an appropriately blue hardcover of 1863’s “On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing,” by Yale’s own Josiah Willard Gibbs; a 1974 edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Madrid Codices,” featuring sketches of machines and mechanisms; and Émilie du Châtelet’s 1744 dissertation on the nature and propagation of fire.

Hand holding a magnifying glass up to a science book
(Photo by David Liebowitz)

Andrew Casey-Clyde, a visiting assistant in research from the University of Connecticut who works in Mingarelli’s lab, was entranced by Newton’s “Principia” and astronomer Tycho Brahe’s “Historia Coelestis,” from 1666.

He very carefully tracked the positions of the planets,” Casey-Clyde said of Brahe, turning his own gaze around the exhibit room. “All of this is eye opening. To flip through these pages and see how much data there is — collected by hand — it gives you an appreciation for how far we’ve come.”

In this case, it brought Mingarelli back to Kepler and his calculations.

With a couple of students in tow, she turned to chapter 16 of “Astronomia Nova Aitiologetos.” She motioned to a section in the center of a page, written in Latin, and then read a translation aloud: “If thou art bored with this wearisome method of calculation, take pity on me, who had to go through with at least seventy repetitions of it, at a very great loss of time.”

This is long division,” Mingarelli said. “And it’s beautiful.”

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