Earlier in 2015 the National Library of Wales took on two loan objects from MHS, which feature in their exhibition ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early Science. In this guest post Dr Geraint Phillips, the Exhibition Curator, tells us a little about the exhibition and the combination of artifacts, images and ideas within the display area.
Our exhibition, ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early Science, at the National Library of Wales, was conceived to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. It explores the significance of Micrographia within the context of the Scientific Revolution and seeks to show how the rise of modern science was made possible by the invention of the telescope and the microscope. The exhibition features early books and manuscripts from our own collections together with two loan objects from MHS: an English hand held refracting telescope from c. 1680 (inv. 15115) and a John Marshall compound microscope, c. 1700 (inv. 46463).
The exhibition is situated in our rare materials display area and contains four cases, covering astronomy and the telescope, The Royal Society and the Baconian method, the development of mathematics, and the rise of biology.
The earliest item is a copy of the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (London, 1556) a treatise on cosmology which includes an early and subtly favourable reference to the Copernican theory of a heliocentric cosmos. We have placed the telescope between Recorde’s book and our copy of Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632) in order to show how modern science began in 1610, when Galileo pointed a refracting telescope at the heavenly bodies, proving Copernicus right and establishing that Aristotle could be proved wrong.
This display case on astronomy also includes a letter, dated 1782, from the great eighteenth-century botanist, and President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, describing William and Caroline Herschel’s construction of a forty foot telescope for the exploration of deep space.
If the invention of the telescope enabled Galileo to prove that the earth moves around the sun, the development of the microscope introduced the challenging idea that there is more to the visual world than the eye can register. The potential of the microscope was brought home to the general reader in 1665, with the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. Our copy of the book has been opened to show Christopher Wren’s startlingly accurate drawing of a flea, now one of the icons of scientific literature.
The Marshall microscope, with its accessories, sits alongside Micrographia, in a case which also includes books by Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Following the publication of Micrographia, there was a huge demand for compound microscopes among gentleman amateurs, and English instrument makers, such as John Marshall, obliged by copying Hooke’s design.
We believe that the inclusion of these two beautiful loan objects from MHS has greatly enriched our exhibition. And we are very grateful to Lucy Blaxland, Collections Manager at MHS, for bringing them to Aberystwyth and facilitating the loan. On a purely aesthetic level they complement our own books and manuscripts, and give balance to the display. We also hope that they have enhanced our visitors’ understanding of the world of 17th-century science by showing how the ideas expressed in our books and manuscripts have their origins in practical experimentation using physical apparatus. Above all, they underline our exhibition’s fundamental theme: that great advances in science are often brought about by the invention of ways of seeing what had previously been unseen.
By Dr Geraint Phillips