The four greatest astronomy books

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, November 09, 2007

PrincipiaIf you've followed my blogging, you know I love books. On Friday, November 2, I visited Linda Hall Library in Kansas City with Astronomy Editor David J. Eicher and contributing editor Raymond Shubinski. Linda Hall ranks as one of the world's finest science libraries, and it has a terrific collection of rare astronomy books.

During the visit, we sat at a table and paged through a first edition of Isaac Newton's Principia — the book in which the great mathematician detailed the law of gravity. What can I compare that to? Being at a Super Bowl?

Add to the table Galileo's Starry Messenger. It was in this book that Galileo detailed his astronomical observations — the first in history — with an instrument that would come to be called the telescope. He drew Jupiter's large moons, showed that the Moon's surface was irregular, and described seeing more stars than anyone had ever seen before. I liken this experience to being at the first Super Bowl in 1967 when the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs to win the world championship.

There's more. A librarian brings out the book that introduced the world to the Copernican system (It stated that the Sun, not Earth, sits in the center of the solar system) — Narratio prima de libris revolutionum Copernici, written in 1540 by Austrian Georg Joachim von Lauchen, also known as Rheticus. Less than 2 dozen copies of this seminal work survive. It tops the list as the most expensive book in Linda Hall's collection. Now I'm not only at the first Super Bowl, I'm walking the sidelines.

But the staff at Linda Hall has an even greater treat for us. As the librarian put it, "I thought while I brought out Rheticus, I'd also bring out Copernicus." And there it sat, the greatest science book ever penned — De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the celestial spheres) by Nicolas Copernicus.

Amazing! Ok, I know some of you are waiting for a football analogy. How about this: I'm at the first Super Bowl, walking the sidelines. Suddenly, Packer coach Vince Lombardi turns to me and asks, "Michael, what play should we run?"

That won't happen for any of us. But if you're traveling through Kansas City, you can spend time with Newton, Galileo, Rheticus, Copernicus, or your own favorites. Just stop by the Linda Hall Library, one of the friendliest facilities to astronomers (amateur or professional) you'll ever visit. Check the facility out online.

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