From the Reading Room

On occasion we ask a researcher from the reading room why they are using the material we have supplied for them.

Nessa Malone was in last week working on a volume of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tracts relating to comets for the Historical Bibliography module of her MA in Library and Information Studies, which she is undertaking at UCL.  I asked her why she was particularly interested in this volume: ‘The pamphlets reflect how there was a shift in thought about comets and astronomy in the seventeenth century.  They are part of the Augustus De Morgan collection; he was a nineteenth century mathematician. 

From ‘Lectures and Collections / Made by Robert Hooke..’ Robert Hooke, London, J Martyn…, C1678

In the sixteenth century comets were interpreted in relation to the Zodiac, the cosmology of Aristotle and as signs from God.  In the seventeenth century this classical and medieval legacy blended with the discoveries of Kepler, Brahe and Galileo, Protestant ideas of providence and the new experimental science of the Royal Society.  Comets were interpreted as natural and political signs.

The seventh pamphlet in the volume ‘The Petitioning Comet’ was written during the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot of the 1680s.  Other pamphlets relate historical events to the sighting of comets.  Robert Hooke’s ‘Cometa’ includes ‘Mr Hally’s Letter and Observation of the Comet of 1677’ which first details how the transit of Venus across the Sun can be used to calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun. 

‘Mr. Hally’s letter and observation of the same made at St. Hellena’ (detail) from Lectures and Collections… Robert Hooke

Halley’s career was negatively affected by the view that he was overly irreligious.   The last pamphlet in the volume from 1757, ‘On the Calculation and Measurement of the Orbit of the Comets’, has no historical or political content showing how scientific interpretations had subsumed the astrological and/or the political.’

Nessa Malone June 2012 MA student.

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