The history of science as told by books

John Evelyn. Silva, or, a discourse of forest-trees

John Evelyn. Silva, or, a discourse of forest-trees. (London, 1706)

From the optical innovations of Leonardo da Vinci to the wide-ranging writings of Francis Bacon to Franz Schmidt's 19th-century treatise on the cultivation of maple trees, the history of science has been given shape by monumental achievements in writing. These books have served as milestones which changed the course of human affairs; their discoveries (and false starts) continue to shape our social and technological discourse to this day.

Here we present a first-hand look at some of these iconic texts, dating from the 17th to the 19th century. The wide range of subject matter — botany, silviculture, physics, mathematics, medicine, engineering, architecture and more — is a testament to the exuberance and eclecticism of scientific development in the early modern period, when the boundaries of scientific disciplines were not yet as clearly defined.

You will notice an abundance of familiar names — Vitruvius, Émilie du Châtelet, Antoine Lavoisier — as well as some which may be less commonly known.

You will also see scientific works by women authors who are better remembered for their more humanistic writings (Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter on the practise of conferring smallpox inoculation via variolation in the Ottoman Empire was especially influential) and works by women scientists whose impact is only now beginning to be understood (Maria Jacson’s “Botanical Dialogues,” a work of biological pedagogy which also criticises the strictures placed on women in society, is one such).

The exhibit takes a periodic and thematic approach. First we will look at the origins of the scientific revolution in the early modern period, then move on to an exploration of advances in natural philosophy and taxonomy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We will finish by looking at the complex sociocultural interplay of science and mathematics in the eighteenth-century "Age of Enlightenment" and beyond.

Enjoy this scientific miscellany!