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Another Newsletter

Spring, 1995

Of making many books there is no end. Today that wearied observation from the author of Ecclesiastes might well have been directed towards institutional and society newsletters. Can the world – particularly the world of science and instrument studies – cope with yet another?

Newsletters are numerous because they are a rapid and efficient means of communication for active institutions with lively public and members’ programmes; the Museum of the History of Science is just such an organization. Readers will discover in the pages of this issue that it is active in special exhibitions, in education, in research seminars and on the Internet. Other initiatives are anticipated and will be reported here.

At this stage we plan two newsletters per year, for spring and autumn. From time to time readers will have the added bonus of an ‘Occasional Paper’ – a small research report perhaps not particularly suited to more conventional forms of academic publication – included with Sphæra.
Why ‘Sphæra’? Easily the most difficult part of launching this newsletter has been choosing it a title. ‘Hooked up’, ‘On the Boyle’ and ‘Talkquetum’ were dismissed early on, but it was a very close race between ‘Sphæra’ and other ideas not to be mentioned for fear of discussion breaking out again.
‘Sphæra’ is appropriate above all because of the nature of the Museum’s collections. While these include a small group of the traditional terrestrial and celestial globes, our title reflects an earlier understanding of ‘the sphere’, so general that it came to stand for the discipline of mathematical astronomy as a whole.
The sphere – ultimately the celestial sphere – is the geometrical construction fundamental to many mathematical instruments, the area where the Museum’s collection is particularly strong. There are spheres throughout the displays – projected and sectioned as well as spherical – and, allowing ourselves a liberal interpretation of the concept, we will choose one to present in each issue, beginning with perhaps the most celebrated of all, the spherical astrolabe.
The sphere also has great metaphorical potential: we hope to extend the Museum’s sphere of influence, to promote material culture in the sphere of the history of science, and so on.
However, our best authority is Robert Recorde, the sixteenth-century mathematician and Oxford graduate, whose series of textbooks in the vernacular was so important for establishing practical mathematics in England. He made the point very firmly in his famous 1556 introduction to astronomy, The Castle of Knowledge: ‘Although there be many and wonderfull instruments wittely devised for practice in Astronomy, as the Astrolabe, the Plainesphere, the Saphey, the Quadrante of diuerse sortes, the Cylynder, Ptolome his rules, Hipparchus rules, Tunsteedes rules, the Albion, the Torquete, the Astronomers staffe, the Astronomers ringe, the Astronomers shippe, and a greate numbre more, whiche hereafter in tyme you may knowe, yet all these are but parts, or (at the most) diuers representations of the Sphere’.