Dual review: Selections from Kepler's Astronomia Nova and Faraday's Experimental Researches on Electricity
For many years, Green Lion Press has been a reliable source of serious books in the history of science and mathematics, including many excellent translations of crucial texts. For example, their edition of Euclid, noted here some time ago, is beautifully done. The Green Lion now has a separate imprint, Green Cat Books, that seems to be dedicated to publishing more accessible versions of the books that interest the Lion.
The two books under review, Selections from Kepler's Astronomia Nova and Faraday's Experimental Researches on Electricity, contain extracts from some of the most important texts in the history of science. Also in the series is a similar book with extracts from Newton's Principia, to be reviewed soon in Read This!.
All three of these books bear the rubric A Science Classics Module for Humanities Studies. The idea, as described in "The Green Lion's Preface", is to present "study modules designed to bring fundamental works of science and mathematics within the grasp of students and other readers without the need for specialized preparation. The series reflects the Green Lion's conviction that scientific and mathematical inquiry, unquestionably human activities, are not to be walled off from humanities studies but are, on the contrary, integral to them."
I agree completely with the Lion on this, though I suspect either of these books would be hard going for the typical student at my school. Faraday would probably be the more accessible of the books, though in my mind Kepler is more interesting. The hardest part of the job would be to convince students that the work needed to read and understand these texts will indeed deepen their understanding of the world and the culture in which they live.
Each book contains a brief biography of the author, an introduction, and then selections from the work in question. In Kepler's case, we get annotated selections from chapters 1, 2, 7, 24, 32, 33, 34, 39, 40, 44, and 57 of the Astronomia Nova. In these chapters one finds Kepler's description of the solar system, including arguments for the theses that "the power that moves the planets is the sun" (chapter 33) and "the orbit is not a circle" (chapter 44). The notes are very helpful.
In the Faraday book, the editor provides a long introduction explaining various experimental devices used to study electricity. Then follows the first series of lectures on electricity presented by Faraday in 1831.
In both cases, students are offered the chance to see how ideas that today are treated as "obvious" came to be established. If one can make students see the drama involved in setting out into the unknown and returning with actual knowledge, it may well be possible to motivate humanities students to work through these texts. I hope so!
Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Professor of Mathematics at Colby College and would love to teach a course using these books.