Astrophysics

Astrophysics

Humans have been gazing up since the dawn of civilization, and the discipline of Astrophysics has a long, rich history whose chapters are some of the most important in the general history of scientific inquiry. A field in constant flux, it allows students to explore the entire universe, from our solar system to extragalactic astronomy and black holes. Houghton’s collection, with its historical underlying base, is a little more restrictive, but it contains some of the most important volumes in the long timeline of astronomy and astrophysics, as well as some curious documents related to the concentration that might pique students’ interests. A concentration deeply connected to its past, Astrophysics is one of the most represented sciences in the library, and students will be surprised at the amount and quality of material Houghton possesses.

One of the key topics in intellectual history is the early modern Scientific Revolution, and a pivotal field in the movement was astronomy. Houghton holds the original, first edition copies of some of the most significant early modern astronomical and physical treatises—those who changed the course of human history and without which the current state of human progress would be unthinkable. It owns a 1543 edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium (GC5 C7906 543d, 004952358), the book that overthrew the Ptolemaic idea of a geocentric universe to inaugurate a new era of astronomy based on mathematical observation; Tycho Brahe’s 1573 De nova stella (*QDC5 B7308 573d, 000523396), another challenge to the Aristotelian astronomical status quo dictated by the Catholic Church through its scientific analysis of supernovae; the 1610 edition of Galileo Galilei’s Sidereus nuncius (*IC6.G1333.610sa, 002461218, above), with its exquisite plates illustrating the Moon; and the 1687, first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica (EC65.N4844.687p (A), 002532032), which changed the history not only of astronomy and physics, but also of science and human progress.

Houghton’s impressive astronomical collection, however, does not end there. Students focusing on the Solar System will find two items of particular interest: the library holds the papers of Sir William Herschel (MS Eng 1414, 008827410), who discovered Uranus in in 1781, and the 1846 edition of John Couch Adams’ An Explanation of the Observed Irregularities in the Motion of Uranus (Astr 205.15*, 003804187), a treatise about then yet-undiscovered Neptune. Herschel’s astronomical papers are at Houghton as well (MS Eng 1144-1144.1, 009060010), and they are relevant from both an Astrophysics standpoint and a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies perspective: the scientist’s sister, Caroline Herschel, was a pivotal partner in his career, helping him write much of the material currently in the library. Herschel was also the first woman in the West to be paid for scientific labor, besides discovering many comets herself.

Yet the archives are not all first editions and tracts by the most important astronomers in history. One of the less known items that can be used by budding astrophysicists visiting Houghton is the annals covering the years 1877-1896 of Harvard’s very own astronomical observatory (S 205.24*, 000132714), which include plates, maps, and diagrams. Another fascinating yet neglected item is a collection of broadsides (Phys 105.11) that includes a 1921 Scientific American article about relativity and, more interestingly, an 1926 article by G. W. Cooper titled Electromagnetic Fluid: The Ether of Space, which he claims, in a letter also contained in the archive, described Einstein’s theory “that gravitation and magnetism were one and the same” three years before the German scientist published his findings.