Fascinating collection of rare books in illuminating new University of Leicester exhibition

Posted by pt91 at May 28, 2015 02:55 PM |
Spotlight on the International Year of Light

Issued by University of Leicester News Centre on 28 May 2015

Contact pressoffice@le.ac.uk to request images

  • In the year 1015: Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manazir) published
  • In the year 1815: Augustin Fresnel, a French physicist and engineer, proposed the wave theory of light
  • In the year 1915: the theory of General Relativity developed by Albert Einstein showed how light was at the centre of the very structure of space and time
  • 2015: UN’s International Year of Light

A new exhibition entitled ‘Light’ dedicated to the International Year of Light, an initiative of the United Nations, is now open in the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Gillian Butcher from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and explores themes in the history of the science of light through items from the Library’s Special Collections.

Dr Butcher said: “It is exciting to see these books written by scientists whose names are widely known even among the general public, that form the foundation of the work of today’s scientists. These are the publications that spread their new ideas and revolutionised thinking, sometimes creating huge controversy.”

It begins by highlighting some important anniversaries being celebrated in 2015, then examines the Age of Enlightenment, and astronomy before and after the invention of the telescope.

Among the rare books on display is a copy of the first printed Latin translation of an important work of Ibn Al-Haytham, an Islamic scholar, born in Basra in 965, dying in Cairo in around 1040. His Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manazir) of 1015 was composed while under house arrest: having promised the Caliph of Egypt that he could solve the problem of the annual flooding of the Nile, and after some work on site, he realised his solution wouldn’t work so feigned madness to escape punishment. He is regarded as one of the first to follow the scientific method, using experiments to test theory. On display is a copy of the first printed Latin translation of Al-Haytham’s work, published under the Latin name Alhazen, Opticae thesaurus: Alhazeni Arabis libri septem, nunc primùm editi (Basle, 1572).

Translations of the works of Islamic scholars, such as this Alhazen work, and of ancient Greek philosophers into Arabic and later into Latin, were of great importance in advancing the understanding of light during the scientific revolution, Dr Butcher explains.

Another display item is a 1613 edition of Galileo’s Letters on Sunspots. In June 1611 he observed spots on the sun, which appeared to indicate that the sun was rotating. Initially the church authorities happily accepted Galileo’s findings but in 1612 the first theological objections were raised, arguing that the sun couldn’t be imperfect and that rotation was against the teachings of Aristotle. Galileo’s letters of response were published in 1613, and are featured in the exhibition.

A rare book featuring correspondence and poems of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) demonstrates the tradition popular in the Age of Enlightenment of using poetry to explain or discuss aspects of science and technology. Also on display are important and rarely seen editions of works by Einstein, Ptolemy, Farghani, Newton and Descartes, and the famous article of Charles K. Kao and George Hockham, who were the first to show how fibre optics could be used for practical optical communications.

Passionate about history of science, Dr Butcher is delighted to be able to choose from a collection of fascinating books, which have been important to the development of research on the physics of light. This is the second Library exhibition curated by the physicist.

Dr Butcher said: “The University of Leicester is a perfect place for hosting an exhibition on light due to the extraordinary things we do here in the Department of Physics and Astronomy related to light, such as building space telescopes. Knowing that there is a collection of interesting books, it was just a question of looking through them and deciding what would make a good display.”

Simon Dixon, Digital Humanities and Special Collections Manager at the University of Leicester, said: “Special Collections holds a fascinating collection of rare books and manuscripts relating to the history of science, mathematics and medicine. These are seldom seen by members of the general public, so I was delighted when Dr Butcher suggested this exhibition. I hope that her expert and accessible text will inspire visitors to find out more about the International Year of Light 2015.”

The exhibition runs until 11 September 2015 in the basement of the David Wilson Library, and may be viewed during the Library's staffed opening hours. Entry to the Library is free but security controlled. Ask for admission to the Special Collections exhibition at reception.

Notes to editors:

For more information contact Dr Gillian Butcher on gib2@le.ac.uk or 0116 252 3852; or Simon Dixon on 0116 294 4871.

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