On gravity and the attraction of old books
Physicist Arno Keppens (Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy) got the opportunity to consult a selection of old and rare books on subjects from his area of expertise. Even though one may not spontaneously associate pioneering publications by Copernicus, Kepler and Newton with the national library of Belgium, its stacks are full of treasures. As it turns out, behind these walls lies a lot to discover for researchers in the exact sciences.
Few aspects of our daily lives are as defining and yet as imperceptible—both literally and figuratively—as gravity. How do we keep our feet on the ground? Is light also subject to gravity? Why does everything on Earth fall down at the same speed, regardless of its mass? Throughout time, many great minds have puzzled over this seemingly simple attraction. Two of the most famous names in physics, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, are not coincidentally those who came up with revolutionary theories of gravity.
History at your fingertips
When I got the chance to browse original copies of historical works on gravity, I didn’t hesitate. I am a bibliophile and library lover, so my visit to KBR and its immense underground maze of library stacks feels like entering a treasure chamber. Fortunately, I have a guide, so that I can enjoy this experience without getting lost. The treasures I get to look at have been carefully selected in advance and are displayed on specially designed cushions.
Many have preceded me in beholding these treasures, and hopefully many more will follow after me. Contrary to what some people may think, KBR is a real treasure trove for exact scientists.Arno Keppens, physicist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy
KBR’s rare books collection contains books printed as early as the invention of printing. This impressive collection contains about 300.000 items in total, so my selection of a dozen or so physics ‘classics’ is actually pretty modest. Nevertheless, it is a mesmerising experience to hold and browse centuries-old first editions that, at the time, turned the world upside down. Holding History, as we say. One can often learn about the book’s reading history or ownership from notes on the title page or elsewhere in the margins. Many have preceded me in beholding these treasures, and hopefully many more will follow after me. Contrary to what some people may think, KBR is a real treasure trove for exact scientists.
According to some historians, the Renaissance begins with the publication of three influential books within two years (1543-1545): Cardano’s Artis Magnae, on the ‘great art’ of algebra as developed by the Arabs, Vesalius’ – who was born in Brussels – De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which equates the human body with that of (other) animals, and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which puts the Sun at the center of the universe. Three punches in the face of the established order that preferred to stick to Biblical truths in order to maintain its power.