Saturday, December 6, 2008

Beautiful Science

John and I splurged on an evening out the other night. We planned ahead, made reservations and bought tickets for a special event: the curator tour of a new permanent exhibit at the Huntington Library. It's called Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World.

Dan Lewis, the Huntington's Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology, somehow got this wacky idea that science is beautiful. He went about putting together an exhibit of books and objects significant to the history of science as well as beautiful in and of themselves. Lewis gave an introductory talk to the 20 of us who were lucky enough to have made reservations early. Then he let us loose.

The Huntington Library already owned a vast collection of books relating to the history of science when, in 2006, it received the donation of the 67,000-volume Burndy Library from the Dibner family of Connecticut. This new exhibit features some of the most significant books and manuscripts of the now-combined collection (think Edwin Hubble's copy of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus), augmented by other fun stuff - like a prism experiment, antique medical models and the coolest collection of light bulbs I've ever seen.

Not that I've seen a lot of light bulb collections. But!

I love books, especially rare and ancient ones. I marvelled at 13th century astronomy books. I gaped at the sight of at least a hundred volumes of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species in different languages and editions, lined up in a special case in a red room. I liked the optics room with its twinkly lights and I think kids will especially love it. But my favorite was the section on medicine and childbirth, with its gruesomely beautiful texts and drawings from the days when medicine was first breaking taboos to learn the workings of the human body.

The 16th century astronomy book above has colorful moving dials for measuring the heavens. Behind it is a mural created specifically for the exhibit, depicting the view you'd see if no wall separated you from a San Gabriel Valley night without light pollution - something like what Hale and Einstein might have seen over 75 years ago.

More pics tomorrow.

21 comments:

Cafe Observer said...

16th century? That's a great shot! They had cameras back then? Shows you what little I knew about science.

Dina said...

Wow, lucky you. It all looks fascinating.

USelaine said...

What a spectacular exhibit that must be! The Huntington is so amazing, with unbelievable collections. Indeed, lucky you!

Laurie said...

WOW, P, this shot is gorgeous -- and I must go see this exhibit!

Jilly said...

Sounds an astounding exhibition with a beautiful photograph to illustrate it. How amazing to see all those Origin of the Species. Look forward to tomorrow's photograph.

Sharon said...

This exhibit sounds wonderful and what a beautiful place to have it. The Huntington is a great museum. I wish I could jump in the car and go see it today.

Susan C said...

That book is gorgeous.

Funny how even potentially harmful things in science are beautiful too. A proliferation of Eosinophils (a component of the white blood) made me very, very sick last summer. But the scientist who first discovered eosinophils was blown away by their beauty. He named them after Eos, the goddess of the dawn, because of their stunning sun-rise red color.

Petrea said...

It's all beautiful. What's most amazing to me is to be so close to these objects that were once handled by the great early minds of science, and to see how much has changed in how little time because of their brilliant discoveries.

Susan, your story is an example of what this exhibit is about. Some of science's most beautiful discoveries do ugly things, and vice versa.

HearkenCreative said...

Totally cool. I let my Huntington membership lapse, and now you've convinced me that I'm going to have to renew. I, too, love the history of science, especially locally, and have considered volunteering up at the Mount Wilson Observatory for that reason; my wife says I'm volunteering enough already for the school district, so I'm going to have to make some tough decisions if I want to do that...

If you like old books, the Getty has rotating collections of both illuminated manuscripts and pages out of great artists sketchbooks. More than anything, those pages give me inspiration for my own art...it's also incredible how many of those artists were the great scientists of their day as well.

By the way, splurging on culture is good every once in a while; I went and saw L.A. Opera's Carmen a few weeks ago. Wonderful.

Speaking of culture, Petrea, you never told us how your November run at the theatre went...

Chuck Pefley said...

Science is beautiful. What a wonderful way to spend and evening! I'm honestly envious, but I sure can't imagine having a collection of 67,000 books ... OMG, could the owners have even opened all of those? What a gift! Even more so, though, the minds that created the ideas and translated those ideas onto paper. Wow!

pasadenaadjacent.com said...

Aha! the divine Oracles of the City Daily Photo Cult. Why it's nothing but Orbs everywhere you look. Wasn't Huntington persuaded to stay in town by none other then Astronomer Hale? Wasn't Hale the one to encourage the wedding between science and capitalism? Isn't the Jet Propulsion Laboratory the think tank that succored the genius of Jack Parsons who in turn invented a form of rocket fuel thus changing the aero space industry forever? The circle turns.

Detective Elderly Queen wanted me to ask you that. I'm going back to my arts and crafts class now.

Ted Thompson said...

The odd thoughts that cascade through my brain....

I occurs to me. In that time, great pains were taken to produce diagrams like this, ones that were a sort of functional art. Today, a simple chart is the norm, and until recently, usually devoid of color.

Meanwhile we see great lengths taken to "illustrate" websites - the whole web 2.0 thing - where as IT started as simple text on colorless pages...

I have no idea what that means - but I thought it, and I can't unthink it! ^_^

I now return you to more relevant discourse, already in progress.

d53 said...

New to your blog; I linked over from Pasadena Adjacent while trying to follow the slew of clue(s). I'm compelled to comment on the collection of light bulbs you mentioned. I once had a large collection of expired bulbs years ago, thought I was the only odd one. They were eventually dispersed in various ways. One antique bulb is all that's left.

Bernie K. said...

How beautiful to see an ancient tome open, like the Pasha's
lotus, which bloomed from Vishnu's navel and revealed Brahma. Now I am become knowledge, destroyer of myths. But here came a hairy prince—Leakey's Enkidu to Blake's Urizen.

How like a magisterial book to open to our eye, just as knowledge unfolded to the human mind when the churches faltered. Stars speck the museum wall like sparks from the burning Alexandrian library: brute belief immolated and annealed to scholarly truth. Yet the gods stayed aloof.

Your camera, like the roving mind of history, looks down (with something like their eye) on the pristine pages. Rumors of material fact whisper across the vaults of space and are fixed to the page in ink. What could the gods of old have done—who could have contained Prometheus's rebellion? The book—like scripture, but heretic in its demotic aim—floats in an indigo void devoid of deity. Once, one could have imagined auroral fingers riffling the leaves of heaven.

But no: that cry you hear is the lament of the gods, as they quit our skies for more believing worlds. We have become our Artificer; we have better ways to fill our time than in mummery.

Tash said...

What a treat you've provided for us. I didn't know the tour was available - excellent recommendation for all of us near by. Thank you.

Ms M said...

Oh, this is wonderful! I love exhibits like these -- definitely worth the splurge! Wish we could see it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Petrea said...

Oh I know, Loren/Hearken, and it's hardly a splurge when you think of what you get for your money. A trip to the Huntington without a membership is only about $15. The Pacific Asia Museum is $7! So's the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Can't beat it.

Beautiful minds, Chuck. And thank goodness for people with the foresight (and space) to save those books.

PA: You can tell EQ I don't know, but I don't think so. Enjoy your class and be sure and take your pills.

Ted I don't know what it means either, except that in both cases a lot of attention is put on making something beautiful. Aesthetics are still important.

Welcome d53, thanks for clicking over. You've gotta go! Something like 100 antique light bulbs and they're all different. A few of them are actually lit. I gasped.

Bernie, I don't think science will ever chase fancy from the heavens. (Even your words are fancy.) Click on Bernie's links, people, they add enjoyment.

Tash, it may have been a one-time deal. Check the Huntington's website. They send a calendar to members and we jumped at the chance.

My pleasure, Ms. M.

maria said...

wow - i love books and i always think how the internet has affected the lack of books we pick up these days. there is so much beauty in drawings, illustrations that can only be captured on the warmth of a page.

Petrea - your evening sounds so wonderful....great dinner and art (have you been hanging out with Eric?) btw - thanks for the trash can tip ;-)

magiceye said...

wow! that sure must have been fascinating!

Anonymous said...

"your evening sounds so wonderful....great dinner and art (have you been hanging out with Eric?)"

She's been hanging out with me, the husband. I may have to have a word with this Eric.

Petrea said...

Don't worry Maria, he knows I hang out at PDP every chance I get!