Much like with sciences such as chemistry, the physics collection at Houghton is very focused on the history of the subject rather than on more practical aspects of the concentration. That is not to say, however, that the library’s material is obsolete. To understand most of the concepts in modern physics, one must reflect on the advancements of the last few centuries—today, humanity stands on the shoulders of ancient giants. Moreover, some of the physical advancements made two or three centuries ago are still as current as new theories and laws; physics is, after all, a science based on the cold logic of mathematics, and it is not often that an answer exhaustively proven to be right turns out to be wrong.
Houghton is renowned for owning many first editions of seminal works; it is no surprise, then, that it owns the first edition of one of the most influential works in physics. Students have access to the original issue of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which was edited by Edmond Halley (EC65.N4844.687p (A), 002532032) and changed the scientific world forever. Houghton also holds Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Naturalist journal (MS Am 1280H (99), 008290191), which contains his observations on multiple fields of science—including optics and astronomy; English (Chem 400.2.2*, 001705165) and French (Chem 400.3*, 005943499) copies of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier’s Essays Physical and Chemical; and the papers of Edwin Herbert Hall (MS Am 1734, 000601801), a Harvard physics professor responsible for the discovery of the Hall effect—a key electromagnetic phenomenon. Students coming to the library can also pour over a 1540 copy of books I and II of Aristotle’s Physics (IC5.N5593.508pc, 007539839)—and a 1363 Hebrew manuscript containing Averroes’ commentary on the fifth book of that treatise (MS Hebrew 40, 009981408).
However, the library is also the home of lesser known materials equally as engrossing. Students, for example, can request a 1675 book containing a 1674 speech about gravitation to the English Royal Society by John Wallis (*EC65 W1584 675d, 004216846), the inventor of the infinity symbol. They can study a seventeenth-century pamphlet (FC6.T3444.665m, 014319243) advertising a “new machine,” better known today as a level, and they can peruse a 1706 edition of Compendium Physicæ, a physics textbook used by Harvard and Yale students (MS Am 2523, 010258145). They can, in conjunction with Women and Gender Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures, peruse an Italian treatise dubbed Il Newtonianismo per le Dame, destined to teach women physics (Typ 725.37.133, 003973520).
Through W. V. Quine’s papers (MS Am 2587, 008937558), students can also explore a more philosophical side of physics with academic articles such as M. L. Dalla Chiara’s Individuals, Kinds, and Names in Physics (1614), which can also be analyzed through a Linguistics lens, and D. C. Dennett’s Folk Craft versus Folk Science and Belief versus Opinion (1643). Finally, budding physicians can learn about the effects of their science on the human species from the master himself. Houghton owns some of Albert Einstein’s letters about the threat of atomic power (MS Am 1803 , 000601830), a lasting warning to humanity’s self-destructive impulses.