Monday, June 30, 2008

A New York Times article tells of an auction that was to sell some pretty amazing scientific publication, including Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”). Yes, the very same book that heretically presented a heliocentric theory of the solar system. Also in the auction is one of the first phone directories! Pretty cool stuff.

From the New York Times article titled, “Among Scientific Treasures, a Gem” by Dennis Overbye:

The Copernicus is a cornerstone in the collection of a retired physician and amateur astronomer, Richard Green of Long Island, that constitutes pretty much a history of science and Western thought. Among the others in Dr. Green’s library are works by Galileo, who was tried for heresy in 1633 and sentenced to house arrest for his admiration of Copernicus and for portraying the pope as a fool, as well as by Darwin, Descartes, Newton, Freud, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Malthus and even Karl Marx.

Read all about it here.

(The image is of the copy of “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” on sale at auction.)

The auction took place at Christie’s on June 17, 2008 and fetched an ultimate price of $2,210,500. Not bad considering the article estimated the value at about $1,000,000. The page on the Christie’s site describes the book as a FIRST EDITION OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATION OF THE 16TH CENTURY AND A "LANDMARK IN HUMAN THOUGHT”

Looking over the items in the sale I came across this one, Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871). On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. London: Charles Knight, 1832. The site’s page describes the item as “one of the first books on operations research, and a classic of economics. Babbage undertook this analysis of machinery and manufacturing processes to discover ideas and techniques that could be applied to the construction of his Difference Engine no. 1, which he knew would stretch the available mechanical technology to its limits.”

Babbage’s engines were the subject of the book, “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I interviewed Sterling about the book for the British Science Fiction Association’s Online Magazine, The Matrix when they were covering Steam Punk in a retrospective celebrating the BSFA’s 50th Anniversary.

Here is one question excepted from the interview where Sterling describes Babbage:

LC: Are technological advances—in the POV of this book—not always such a good thing, especially if they come “before their time?”

BS: I don't believe that Babbage's early computer failed because it was "ahead of its time." The machine was feasible and well financed. It failed mostly because Babbage was Babbage. Babbage was a politician as well as a technocrat, and it's his techno-elitist politics that are adapted in DIFFERENCE ENGINE.

Look for the full interview on the BSFA’s Matrix website.

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