Exhibit: On the Shoulders of Giants

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Filed under Library News:  Mills Archives & Research Collections Events

If you would like a peek at the Library's two millionth volume as well as much other scientific literature from a twelfth century manuscript to the work of a man who died just last month, please come down to the Archives (Mills, Lower Level) and view our latest exhibit: On the Shoulders of Giants: Natural Science before and after Isaac Newton on display from September to December 2005. The phrase in the title comes from Newton himself; in an atypically modest moment he is said to have observed: "if I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants".

The focal point of this display is this division's significant collection of books by or related to perhaps the western world's greatest scientific genius, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The inventor of calculus, without which modern physical science would not exist, his mathematical research as well as his discoveries on light and gravity were drawn together in the three volumes of his epic work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Principia's publication, in 1687, has been said to mark "the moment when science came of age as a mature intellectual discipline". Our first edition of Newton's Opticks (1704) was selected for purchase as the Library's two millionth volume.

However, western science did not begin with Newton. Its earliest origins are, of course, to be found in Ancient Greece and Rome with such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Ptolemy. The oldest manuscript volume in our collection, probably dating from the twelfth century, consists of extracts from the writings of Boethius (d.524), a sixth century scholar, who could be regarded as both a philosopher and a scientist. This unitary approach to the pursuit of wisdom continued through the medieval and early modern periods, only fragmenting as the refinement of the scientific method imposed increasing specialization and narrower definitions.

The works of the great figures of the Scientific Revolution are represented here, most dramatically by a first, 1632 edition, of the Dialogues of Galileo (1574-1642). This work, despite its speculative tone which only suggested the possibility that the earth might revolve around the sun, was condemned by the Holy Inquisition the following year, and Galileo was forced to retract it. Works by Decartes (1596-1650) and Boyle (1627-1691), as well as many other seventeenth and eighteenth century scientists are included here and, in the final case, we honour the work of a modern day scientist, Joseph Rotblat (1909-2005). Rotblat, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his efforts to get scientists to take responsibility for their research, died last month at the age of 96.