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Relics of Science History For Sale At Christie's 142

circletimessquare writes "Dennis Overbye at the New York Times has some ruminations on some of the historical totems of science going up for auction at Christie's next week. There is the 1543 copy of 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' by Copernicus, which you can have for $900,000 to $1.2 million. If you have some cash left over, maybe you can pick up an original work by Galileo, Darwin, Descartes, Newton, Freud, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, or Malthus. And then there is the 1878 copy of the world's first phone book: 'a shock of recognition — that people were already talking on the phone a year before Einstein was born. In fact, just two years later Einstein's father went into the nascent business himself. Einstein grew up among the rudiments of phones and other electrical devices like magnets and coils, from which he drew part of the inspiration for relativity. It would not be until 1897, after people had already made fortunes exploiting electricity, that the English scientist J. J. Thomson discovered what it actually was ...'"
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Relics of Science History For Sale At Christie's

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  • by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @01:47PM (#23730303) Homepage Journal
    i knew i should have included a link to christie's site for the auction: []

    some of this stuff is (relatively) cheap, if you stray away from the really big names. i'm talking names like angstrom, fahrenheit, ampere, babbage, von neumann, can be had for a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand bucks

    some of you may wonder what the fuss is all about, but to me, this stuff is awesome. its the fruits of the enlightment, the intellectual explosion of mankind, solid proof of the greatness of mankind, that you can buy and hold in your hands

    a lot of us here work in computer science. well, for $2500 you can own the first edition book of something that pretty much started the entire computer field, boolean logic:

    BOOLE, George (1815-1864). An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. London: Macmillan and Co., 1854. []

    well, maybe not $2500 after i just hyped the dang thing

    christie's should be paying me a dang commission!
  • by Jabbrwokk ( 1015725 ) <grant.j.warkentin@g m a i l . com> on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @01:48PM (#23730347) Homepage Journal
    Tycho Brahe [] was a cornerstone for the development of modern astronomy:

    He is credited with the most accurate astronomical observations of his time, and the data was used by his assistant Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motion. No one before Tycho had attempted to make so many redundant observations, and the mathematical tools to take advantage of them had not yet been developed. He did what others before him were unable or unwilling to do -- to catalogue the planets and stars with enough accuracy so as to determine whether the Ptolemaic or Copernican system was more valid in describing the heavens.
    He meets the criteria of a scientist perfectly, regardless of his motivations. Plus, the dude lost his nose in a duel and wore a copper or gold one the rest of his life. How cool is that.
  • by jwkfs ( 1260442 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @01:49PM (#23730357)

    Then again, Tycho Brahe took Copernicus' heliocentric model and tried to revert us back to a geocentric model to appease the church, so I don't think he deserves the title either.
    Brahe may not have contributed much himself, but his work was extremely important. He recorded in detail the appearance and position of the planets and stars over a large period of time, which later scientists -- such as Kepler -- used his data to determine and test important concepts. Like Kepler's laws.
  • Re:Ugh... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @02:17PM (#23730975)
    Typically only a small fraction of a Museum's collection is ever put on display, or even ever looked at. There are a lot of researchers who spend their entire careers doing field work in the basements of museums, rather than getting dirty out in the jungles or deserts.

    With objects such as these, despite how rare they are, the knowledge contained within them is already well known. There are very few things that I don't think should be privately owned... The Rosetta Stone comes to mind, as would unpublished works of any of these great minds.
  • by Crispy Critters ( 226798 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @02:21PM (#23731055)
    Carefully collected data has a value that outlasts all but the most fundamental and far-reaching theory. Conceptual frameworks can evolve and adapt, but they remain anchored by observations.

    This is not obvious because of the way science history is taught. We learn about the geniuses and a few of the classic blunders. We don't spend much time on the work that was merely not great. Consider the development of quantum mechanics and atomic structure. There were accurate atomic spectra, correct mathematical descriptions of the line spacing, and innumerable incorrect theories about the mechanism before there was a correct description. The spectral observations eventually led to a usable theory, even though they may have been used on the way to support ideas that turned out to be bunk.

  • Re:Ugh... (Score:5, Informative)

    by kbob88 ( 951258 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @02:26PM (#23731175)
    So I called my sister who works in museum curation and asked her about this. Here's her take on this:
    • Multiple copies of most books like this exist, so even after putting some in private hands, museums still have quite a few copies (usually).
    • Books going back as far as 1600 are usually really not that rare. They're rare enough to command $$ from collectors, but not so rare that museums and universities don't already have lots of copies.
    • The text itself is well known, and available in many other forms, that are easier to use than a 500 year old book.
    • Museums don't buy much stuff on the open market (although some). They are given stuff on loan (which is usually forever), or given it outright. Some well-funded museums do have large acquisition budgets.
    • Many museums actually sell a lot of stuff like this that they have been given, or when they want to refocus their collection. Usually they have to use the proceeds to acquire new items.
    • Most people don't really want to see rare, important books, plus they're hard to display effectively. There are exceptions (Book of Kells in Dublin). And science history is tough -- science museums do well with kids, and history museums do OK, but science history is a tough draw. Low attendance.
    • She wanted to know how much the parent poster has contributed to his local museums recently. A bit of 'money where your mouth is.'

    Her take in general: no big deal, happens all the time. They'd rather spend their precious acquisition money on extremely rare stuff of significant interest to the public or to scholars.
  • by hkmarks ( 1080097 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @02:35PM (#23731423)
    Freud was more of a theorist than an empiricist. He formulated hypotheses based on observations and case studies. Others tested his theories, and found many of them wrong or a little off. But not all of them: the idea of an unconscious mind (which is vital to current psychological theory), and of stress causing physical symptoms, are basically sound. Of course he didn't understand exactly why -- psychology was still in its infancy.

    Psychology generally doesn't work in terms of "universal laws" - it's the science of individual differences. Some discovery might be true in 30% of the population, have some bearing on about 40%, and be completely wrong for the other 30%. That doesn't mean it isn't true in 30%.

    Some people like the smell of tar and some hate it. There cannot be a universal law that says "tar smells bad." And just because an observation can't be explained correctly with the current state of knowledge doesn't mean it isn't science.

    I don't really like Freud either, and I think he was mostly a bad philosopher, but to say he didn't contribute anything to the modern understanding of the mind is just wrong.
  • by Lapsarian ( 1073104 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @02:40PM (#23731543)
    First of all, Freud was a superb neurologist before he moved into the area of psychology. Second, you may disagree with his basic ideas, be believe me, it is basically impossible to have a discussion about Freud, about the mind, about even the validity of his ideas without using terms he invented. Giving us a solid linguistic foundation for being able to debate the validity of these ideas is a superb step towards true scientific understanding. Pre-Socratic philosophers believed that the all matter was composed of small particles of earth (and, later, fire). This is clearly nonsense, and not at all 'scientific', but without it, we would not have an idea to work against in order to move towards ideas of atomism and the makeup of matter. This is absolutely a contribution to science and the basis of scientific progress. Last: try reading Freud sometime instead of the terrible wikipedia pages on him, you will find a very modest writer who continually prefaced his essays with assertions that he was only beginning a study of the mind, one that he hoped would keep a close link to neuroscience, and the he was more than prepared to have all of his ideas overturned once more was discovered of the mysteries of the brain. He was wrong, no doubt, but so were many great scientists that paved the way for our current understanding of scientific 'truth'. thanks.
  • by dances with elks ( 863490 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2008 @04:32PM (#23734757)
    he had a pet elk, but it got drunk fell down some stairs and died :(

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