Museum Exhibits Rare Books on Astronomy

by ekramer on August 11, 2009

First editions of two revolutionary books that developed the field of astronomy are on view at a local museum.
WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer has more.

The books on display at the Frazier International History Museum are from the University of Louisville Libraries archives.

On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus proposed that the Earth orbits around the Sun, as opposed to the Catholic Church’s position where the Earth was the center of the universe. The book is one of only 276 that survive. Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is that scientist’s most famous work which championed the ideas presented by Copernicus.

It caused the Church to condemn Galileo, but it also marked a turning point for science, says Frazier Museum executive director Madeline Burnside.

“When you see it and realize that this a book that somebody really risked their life to produce and how important these ideas were and how world changing they were,” Burnside says. “I mean it really is the sort of watershed period because people become very, very interested in the science of motion.”

Burnside says Galileo and Copernicus knew that their ideas defied conventional thinking of their time and put them in danger.

“Copernicus’ book, in which he proved that the Earth that went round the sun — at the time he wrote the book, he was totally afraid to even think of publishing it because it would have been heresy and he could have been burned at the stake,” she says.

The exhibit, called Fathers of Astronomy, also features the Nuremberg Chronicle, which presented a biblical view of the world. This predecessor to the works of Copernicus and Galileo is an illustrated world history from Creation up to the time of the book’s 1493 publication. Less than 400 of these books have survived.

Burnside says she and the museum staff were thrilled the University of Louisville Libraries lent the books to the museum for the exhibit.

“The opportunity to actually see books like this, to really see the real thing is incredibly rare,” she says. “You can get your nose, like, 8 inches away from the actually book. That’s pretty amazing.”

The exhibit runs through January. It’s part of the International Year of Astronomy which marks the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo.

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