JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
We shall find that it is the peculiar function of physical science to lead us . . . to the confines of the incomprehensible. —J. C. M., 1860
What is done by what I call myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.—Comment made by Maxwell to the Reverend Professor F.J.E. Hort in 1879 when terminally ill.
[Both quotes found in Fred Seitz's article in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2001, "James Clerk Maxwell, (1833-1879), Member APS 1875".
This note may restrict itself to a small population of readers of this blog, but I'm always fascinated to come upon notices of the reading habits and library book-borrowing practices of significant people. For example Herman Melville's reading has been particularly studied, with scholars hunting books that had once belonged to him and then dispersed at auction (some going to the Brooklyn Public Library), and there are records of his borrowing practices at the library as well. Thomas Jefferson's reading habits is a well-known and fascinating study (though he did little borrowing, per se, what with there being few borrowing libraries for him to visit, and then of course his library was much larger than anything else remotely close to him).
The library of Leonard is also well known--over the years via my bookstore I've had a number of people (usually involved in a classical study program, or St. John's folks, etc) looking to try to reproduce Leonardo's library. In general, though, the full classification of the library of working scientists is not in general a known thing. (An interesting tour of some of the 116 books that comprise the library as described in the Codex Atlanticus and written around 1509 [left]. can be found at Museo Galileo, here.)
This is the main reason why my interest was piqued when I read this biographical treatment of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) in the 27 October 1881 issue of Nature magazine. It mentions the while the great Maxwell was not-yet-great, studying at the University of Edinburgh (which he attended from 1847-1850, when he was just sixteen), that he used the library there extensive, and that the library has "records" of that reading. The article quotes P.G.Tait from an 1879 article in that same journal (Nature, volume XXI, p 317) that during the years at Edinburgh "without keeping the regular course for a degree", Maxwell "carried home for study..such books as Fourier's Theorie de la Chaleur, Monge's Geometrque Descriptive, Newton's Optiks, Willis' Principles of Mechanisms, Cauchy's Calcul Differentiel, Taylor's Scientific Memoirs, and others of a very high order. These were read through, not merely consulted."
I'd like to see the whole list, though as yet I've not been able to find it, and I've not yet been able to find the right person to speak with at Edinburgh to determine whether there is a full list of Maxwell's borrowing habits, or not. It would be an interesting thing to see. After all, the man did basically invent modern physics, and it was his portrait among the very few that were displayed in Einstein's house at 112 Mercer Street.
The original article on Maxwell along with a very fine steel engraved portrait is offered for sale in our blog bookstore, here.]