Open shelved serendipity

One of my favourite radio science programmes is BBC Radio 4’s Science Stories presented by Philip Ball and Naomi Alderman. Yesterday was the first episode of the fifth series of this excellent piece of popular history of science broadcasting. Last week whilst advertising the new series on Twitter Philip Ball let drop the fact that next weeks episode would be about the medieval theologian and scholar Robert Grosseteste, featuring the physicist of the fascinating interdisciplinary University of Durham research project Ordered Universe, Thom McLeish. This brief Internet exchange awoke in me memories of my own first encounter with the medieval Bishop of Lincoln.

14th-Century Portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln by unknown scribe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I studied mathematics, philosophy, English philology and history with a strong emphasis on the history and philosophy of science, as a mature student, at the University of Erlangen between 1981 and 1991. It was this period of my life that converted me from an enthusiastic amateur into a university educated and trained researcher into the history of science (For more on this see my post next Monday). When I started this decade of formal studies I held a fairly standard, conservative view of the Scientific Revolution; this started with the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543 and was completed with the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687. What disrupted, one could even say exploded, this idealised picture was my first encounter with Grosseteste.

Erlangen University is a comparatively large university and its main library is, like that of almost all such institutions, closed shelf. However the department libraries are almost all open shelf and as a student I developed the habit of browsing library bookshelves with no particular aim in view. The Bavarian State university library system has for book purchases an emphasis policy. Each Bavarian university library has a collecting emphasis so that specialist books in a particular discipline are only bought/collected by one university but are available to all the others through the interlibrary loan system. This is a method of making the available funds go further. Erlangen’s collection emphasis is philosophy, including the history and philosophy of science, so the philosophy department library is particularly well stocked in this direction.

One day fairly early in my time as a student in Erlangen I was cruising the history and philosophy of science bookshelves in the philosophy department library when my eyes chanced upon a rather unimposing, fairly weighty book by some guy called Alistair Crombie (I had know idea who he was then) with the title Robert Grosseteste and the origins of experimental science: 1100 – 1700. I have no idea what motivated me to take that volume home with me but I did and once I started reading didn’t stop until I had reached the end. This was a whole new world to me, the world of medieval science, of whose existence I had been blissfully unaware up until that point in time. Reading Crombie’s book radically changed my whole understanding of the history of science.

Here was this twelfth/thirteenth century cleric, lecturer at Oxford University (and possibly for a time chancellor of that august institution), who went on to become Bishop of Lincoln, teaching what amounted to empirical mathematical science.

Grosseteste’s Tomb and Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be pointed out that whilst Grosseteste was strong on mathematical empirical science in theory, his work was somewhat lacking in the practice of that which he preached. Crombie has Grosseteste standing at the head of a chain of scholars that include Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, the Oxford Calculators (about whom there is a good podcast from History of Philosophy without any gaps) and the Paris Physicists in the fourteenth century and so on down to Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. Unknown to me at the time Crombie was presenting a modernised version of the Duhem Thesis that the scientific revolution took place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and not as the standard model has it, and as I had believed up till I read Crombie’s book, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This was the start of a long intellectual journey for me during which I read the works of not only Crombie but of Edward Grant, Marshal Clagett, John Murdoch, David Lindberg, A. Mark Smith, Toby Huff and many other historians of medieval science. This journey also took me into the fascinating world of Islamic science, which in turn led me to the histories of both Indian and Chinese science although I still have the impression that in all these areas medieval European science, Islamic science, and Indian and Chinese science I have till now barely scratched the surface.

As I said above this journey started with Crombie’s book and Robert Grosseteste discovered whilst aimlessly browsing the shelves in the department library. This is by no means the only important and influential book that I have discovered for myself by this practice of browsing in open shelf department libraries. On one occasion I went looking for one specific book on map projection in the geography department library and, after a happy hour or two of browsing, left with an armful of books on the history of cartography. On another occasion I discovered, purely by accident, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton edited by Logan Pearsall Smith in the English Department Library. Wotton a sixteenth/seventeenth century English diplomat was a passionate fan of natural philosophy, who sent the first copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, fresh off the printing press to London on its day of publication in 1610.

There are many other examples of the scholarly serendipity that my habit of browsing open shelf library shelves has brought me over the years but I think I have already made the point that I wanted to when I set out to write this post. Libraries are full of wonderful, vista opening books, so don’t wait for somebody to recommend them to you but find an open shelf library and go and see what chance throws you way, it might just change your life.








Filed under Autobiographical, History of science, Mediaeval Science

9 responses to “Open shelved serendipity

  1. I came across Grosseteste first in John Freely’s book “Before Galileo” (Duckworth 2012). Carl Boyer also wrote histories of calculus, analytical geometry and mathematics, which is where I came across the Oxford Calculators. His history of calculus is available in a Dover edition, so should be accessible even for those without access to a university library.

    • Freely’s Before Galileo is on my bookshelf as are several of Carl Boyer’s books; his The Rainbow is one of my favourite history of science books.

  2. That is basically what I do in bookshops, and is why I still patronise them rather than directly buy through the internet. Open stacks are a good thing.

    • I too have found many interesting books browsing in bookshops, in particular secondhand ones, however university libraries have many specialists books that you rarely see in bookshops unless you order them.

  3. jrkrideau

    I’m from Canada and in general I don’t think we have the concept of a “closed shelf” library though the National Library of Canada may work that way.

    I have spent many hours being distracted by interesting books near the one originally I wanted. Some finds were useful, some merely distracting but still fun.

    I mean, did you know there is a system to let you count up to 500 on your fingers?

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #43 | Whewell's Ghost

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