THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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4 posts categorized "Rare books"

03 July 2019

Renaissance science works in Treasures of the British Library

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To replace the Leonardo da Vinci items that are usually in our Treasures gallery, but are now in the stand-alone "A Mind in Motion" exhibition, our Manuscripts and Incunabula curators have selected some less well-known but very interesting items dealing with the connection between art and science in the Renaissance. On the pure art side are some works by Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, but this post is about three volumes of Renaissance science. They sum up the way that humanists during the Renaissance sought to synthesise the existing knowledge of medieval Europeans with rediscovered Classical texts, many of which had been lost in Europe but preserved by Arabic scholars, and further advances that had been made in the Arabic world.

Manuscript page showing pictures of flowers
Depiction of edelweiss from the Codex Bellunensis.


The first item, shelfmark Add MS 41623, is the "Codex Bellunensis", a bound manuscript of herbal material in Latin with some Italian notes. Much of the content is based on De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, a famous Greek physician of the first century CE. De Materia Medica was the single most important herbal text in Europe from its writing until the nineteenth century. "Bellunensis" refers to the town of Belluno in Italy, north of Venice, where the manuscript may have been created. The page to which the manuscript is opened in the display shows what is thought to be the first artistic representation of edelweiss, used to treat abdominal and respiratory diseases. The other herbs shown on this spread are valerian, an early sedative, eupatorium, and agrimony. The whole manuscript can be read free online .

The second item, shelfmark Royal MS 12 G VII, is a fifteenth-century Latin copy of Kitab al-Manazir, or "Optics", and another short work, by the great Arab scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in Renaissance Europe as Alhazen. The pages on display deal with binocular vision and how the visual axes of the eyes intersect. The book was the first to empirically demonstrate that sight occurs when light reflected from an object enters the eye. Many early classical thinkers had believed that vision worked by the eye emitting some kind of "ray of sight". The book also includes "Alhazen's problem", a geometrical problem involving finding the point on a spherical mirror that a light ray from a given location must strike to be reflected to a second given location. This would not be completely solved algebraically until 1965. The copy on display comes from the Royal Manuscripts collection, a collection of manuscripts and printed books donated by King George II to the British Museum (not to be confused with the King's Library collection housed in the centre of the building, which was donated later by George IV).

Manuscript page showing artistic depiction of constellations
Illustration from the Phaenomena

The third of these items, shelfmark Add MS 15819,  is a manuscript copy of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli, a Greek poet of the early third century BCE. This is a long poem with one section describing the constellations of the stars, and a shorter second section on weather forecasting based on observations of the heavenly bodies and animal behaviour. You can read a public domain English prose translation of the poem at the Theoi Project, although we have two copies of the most recent English translation by Douglas Kidd in our collections. Our copy is a manuscript of the Latin translation of the poem by the Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius and father of Caligula. Our manuscript dates from the fifteenth century and once belonged to, and was probably written for, Francesco Sassetti, a senior manager in the Medici Bank.

Posted by Philip Eagle, with thanks to Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, and Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula and Sixteenth-Century Books.

18 December 2018

Arabic science manuscripts from the British Library

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Kitab al sirah
The beginning of Kitāb al-sīrah al-falsafīyah, an autobiographical treatise by the physician and philosopher Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Add MS 7473, f. 1v)


Today is World Arabic Language Day, so here's a reminder of the scientific content in our Qatar Digital Library digitisation project. Our friends on the Asian and African Studies blog created two lists of major scientific works digitised in the collection, including Arabic versions of classical scientific texts, some of which were lost from Western European culture until the Renaissance, and original works by great early scientists of the Arabic-speaking world, such as Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Ibn Haytham (Alhazen), and Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Rhazes).

05 October 2015

New opportunities for collaborative PhD research exploring the British Library’s science collections

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Applications for collaborative PhD research around the British Library’s science collections are now open to UK universities and other HEIs

AHRC logoThe British Library is looking for university partners to co-supervise collaborative PhD research projects that will open up unexplored aspects of its science collections.  Funding is available from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme, through which the Library works with UK universities or other eligible Higher Education Institutes around strategic research themes.

Our current CDP opportunities include a project to examine the culture and evolution of scientific research, drawing on scientists’ personal archives, and another project to develop digital tools for the investigation of scientific knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through Personal Archives

This project will involve a detailed mapping of the key personal relationships of 20th century British scientists to shed light on the nature, communication and reception of scientific research. It will draw on the Library’s Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, which include personal archives and correspondence from the fields of computer science and programming, cybernetics and artificial intelligence, as well as evolutionary, developmental and molecular biology. As well as being situated within social and cultural history, particularly the history of science and the history of ideas, this cross-disciplinary project is applicable to research in areas such as social anthropology, sociology and social network analysis. It will open up a nuanced understanding of the BL’s collection of the personal archives of twentieth century British scientists. It will enable us to better exploit these valuable collections to research audiences across a number of disciplines.

Hans Sloane’s Books: Evaluating an Enlightenment Library

SloaneEngravedPortraitCroppedThis Digital Humanities projectwill evaluate the library of Hans Sloane (1660-1753): physician, collector and posthumous ‘founding father’ of the British Museum. For over sixty years, Hans Sloane was a dominant figure on London’s intellectual and social landscape. At the heart of his vast collections stood a library of 45,000 books, which – alongside his voluminous correspondence and thousands of prints, drawings, specimens and artefacts – bears witness to his central position in a globalised network of scientific discovery. The CDP project will apply digital techniques to exploit the raw data on over 32,000 items in the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue, and will break new ground by developing digital tools to cross reference, contextualise and analyse the data. This will forge fresh insights into how medical and scientific knowledge was gathered and disseminated in the pre-Linnaean period, with relevance to the history of science, medicine and collecting.

 

Moving beyond our science collections, there is also a third CDP opportunity for a project on ‘Digital Publishing and the Reader’. This will investigate the changing nature of publishing in digital environments to consider how new communication technologies should be recorded or collected as part of a national collection of British written culture.

Applications are invited from academics to develop any of these research themes with a view to co-supervising a PhD project with the British Library from October 2016. Our HEI partners receive and administer the funds for a full PhD studentship from the AHRC and, in collaboration with the Library, oversee the research and training of the student. We provide the student with staff-level access to our collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

View further details and application guidelines.

To apply, send the application form to Arts-Humanities@bl.uk by 27 November 2015.

 

04 October 2015

From fiction to fact: the science of Animal Tales

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Alice Kirke investigates the facts behind the fiction of the British Library’s Animal Tales exhibition.

The Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library explores what our portrayal of animals within literature tells us about ourselves. The natural environment and its inhabitants have inspired generations of writers, but how do some of our favourite, anthropomorphised fictional creatures compare to their real-life counterparts? I set out to discover what the science says about the creatures lurking among the pages.

Cats: aloof and independent?

Valued for their companionship, skill in hunting vermin, and role in numerous ‘funny cat videos’ on YouTube, the domestic cat was first classified as ‘Felis catus’ by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The exhibition features French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays,[1] in which he famously asked ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’ People have kept cats as pets for thousands of years. Though they are commonly thought to have first been domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, who considered them to be sacred, there is evidence of earlier domestication dating from around 9,500 years ago.[2] There are many theories and misconceptions about the behaviour of these enigmatic pets. As predators, cats are very focussed on their environment leading to the common misreading of their behaviour as aloof, and although they are seen as ‘independent’ they are in fact social animals. Cat communication includes a variety of vocalizations as well types of cat-specific body language.[3]

 

Snakes: slithering and sinister?

Lamia
A 17th century depiction of Lamia from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts L.R.301.cc.3.

Snakes have a sinister reputation in literature and culture. In ancient Greek mythology Lamia, the mistress of Zeus was transformed into a terrifying serpentine demon by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. In Keats’ poem Lamia[4], displayed in the exhibition, the protagonist appears in her beautiful human form before being transformed back into a serpent at her wedding feast. To an extent, this was a comment on science itself; knowledge of the natural world destroyed its beauty.

 

 

 Snakes are perhaps so often portrayed as evil in literature because some species are dangerous to humans, but snakes are diverse creatures- there are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, with at least one type of snake on every continent except Antarctica. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists over whether the fear of snakes is innate. Since those with a phobia of snakes would be more likely to stay away from them and avoid the dangers of being bitten, they had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Recent research suggests that although the fear of snakes is a learned behaviour, people do have a knack for spotting them; when shown images of snakes surrounded by objects of a similar colour babies and young children detected snakes faster than other objects.  

Spiders: creepy crawlies?

Frequent scare stories in the UK press about invasions of deadly spiders prey on a common fear of arachnids. There are over 40,000 different species worldwide, and although the vast majority are venomous most are not dangerous to humans. Arachnologists, experts who study spiders emphasise their diversity in terms of their appearance, habitats and behaviour.

Due to their wide range of behaviours, they have become symbolic of various attributes, including patience, cruelty and creativity in art and mythology.  The character of Anansi, a spider who often acts and appears as a man in West African and Caribbean folklore, has taken on a variety of different traits over time. Anansi Company,[5] featured in the exhibition, is a modern version of tales about Anansi and his friends which are central to Caribbean culture.

Crow: cruel or cunning?

Crow
The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919

In common English, corvids including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies, are all known as ‘the crow family’.  Ted Hughes’ Crow draws on mythology surrounding the much maligned creature, which is often connected with death.[6] In Irish mythology, crows are associated with Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, and the collective name for a group of crows is a ‘murder’. However, they have also been linked with prophesy, cunning and intelligence. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow spied a pitcher containing a small amount of water, which was out of reach of its bill. The crow began dropping pebbles into the pitcher one by one, thereby raising the level of water and enabling it to drink. A 2009 study published in Current Biology which replicated Aesop's fable, found that four captive rooks used stones to raise the level of water in a container, allowing a floating worm to move into reach, showing that the goal-directed behaviour of Aseop’s crow is reflected in actual corvid behaviour. European magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks have been shown to have the ability to make and use tools, previously regarded as a skill specific to humans and a few other higher mammals. This scientific research suggests that crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Animal Tales showcases many more familiar yet enigmatic creatures. The wealth of material in the Library collections can be used to trace animals in literature as well as the latest scientific research about their characteristics- come and see the exhibition and follow up with some research into your favourite fictional beasts!



[1] Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7

[2] Vigne JD, Guilaine J, Debue K, Haye L, Gérard P (April 2004). "Early taming of the cat in Cyprus". Science 304 (5668): 259

[3] Dennis C. Turner, and Patrick Bateson, The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000) m00/46105

[4] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes & other poems. (Waltham St. Lawrence, 1928) C.98.gg.16

[5] Ronald King & Roy Fisher, Anansi Company. (London, 1992) C.193.c.8

[6] Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (London, 1973)