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‘Receding Horizons’ exhibition highlights humanity’s discoveries, stories inspired by the cosmos

Mar 8, 2024

Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus are depicted on the frontispiece of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, writte... Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus are depicted on the frontispiece of “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” written by Galileo Galilei in 1632. A first edition of the book is one of many rare items displayed in the exhibition “Receding Horizons: A Celebration of Astronomy at the Lilly Library” at IU Bloomington. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to travel to Bloomington on April 8 to share in a cultural experience and view the solar eclipse within the path of totality. With its latest exhibition, “Receding Horizons: A Celebration of Astronomy at Lilly Library,” the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington casts a light on humanity’s unifying relationship to the cosmos by displaying rare books and artifacts that showcase the amazing scientific discoveries and experiences inspired by the celestial skies throughout history.

The Lilly Library collections house millions of rare and unique materials, including books, manuscripts, comic books, miniature books, puzzles and sheet music on a multitude of topics. With so many options at their fingertips, curators Erin Chiparo, Kristina Krasny and Sarah McElroy Mitchell narrowed in on a focus area for the “Receding Horizons” exhibition.

Sarah McElroy Mitchell, Erin Chiparo and Kristina Krasny curated the Receding Horizons exhibition, which is open to the publi... Sarah McElroy Mitchell, Erin Chiparo and Kristina Krasny curated the “Receding Horizons” exhibition, which is open to the public free of charge until July 20. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“We call it a collaboration across space and time,” said Chiparo, the Silver-Norman Curator of Dermatology, General Medicine and Science and an assistant librarian at Lilly Library. “The idea that we decided to focus on is that everything we know about the cosmos right now is the result of a collaboration amongst scientists and observers, throughout time and all around the world.

“They were aided by the work of all the people who came before them, and what we’re finding is how important the book or the written word was in that process because it was a really important way that this knowledge was carried forth across the centuries.”

The exhibition is divided into several categories, including materials related to the historical pillars of astronomy; eclipses throughout time; the moon; space travel; science fiction; astrology; women in astronomy; children and astronomy; physics; and astronomical instruments. The curators shared insights into many of the intriguing pieces they selected for the exhibition, which visitors can enjoy free of charge until July 20.

‘Pillars of Astronomy’

Inside the “Pillars of Astronomy” case, visitors get an up-close look at extremely rare first-edition books written by astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo and Ptolemy. The books are open to display pages of historical writings and beautiful, ornate illustrations.

On display at the Receding Horizons exhibition is a first edition in Latin of the Almagest, written by Ptolemy in the secon... On display at the “Receding Horizons” exhibition is a first edition in Latin of the “Almagest,” written by Ptolemy in the second century. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The “Almagest,” written in Greek by mathematician and astrologer Ptolemy during the second century, was later translated into every major language due to its importance. Lilly Library is displaying a first printing in Latin dating to 1496.

Chiparo said that the “Almagest” serves as the building block for many of the astronomical advances discovered thereafter.

“It’s extremely important — probably one of the most important scientific works of all time,” Chiparo said. “Without the postulations that Ptolemy makes, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to where we are now.”

Chiparo said her favorite book in the entire exhibition is “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” written by Copernicus in 1543, which is open to a page showing the diagram of his “heliocentric theory.” Copernicus was the first to correctly theorize that the sun was at the center of the solar system, with planets revolving around its gravitational pull. His theory offered an alternative to Ptolemy’s geocentric model theory.

The Lilly Library holds two of the 111 remaining copies of Astronomicum Caesareum, by Petrus Apianus. Printed in 1540, the bo... The Lilly Library holds two of the 111 remaining copies of “Astronomicum Caesareum,” by Petrus Apianus. Printed in 1540, the book is considered by many to be the most beautifully printed book created during the 16th century. The illustrations include rotating dials that can be turned to align with astronomical calculations. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Eclipses throughout history

Another rare piece is “Astonomicum Caesareum” by German mathematician, astronomer and cartographer Petrus Apianus. Commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and famously used by Henry VIII, the book was printed in 1540, and the Lilly Library possesses two of only 111 known copies that remain in the world.

Considered to be the most beautifully printed book created during the 16th century, “Astonomicum Caesareum” contains elaborate rotating paper dials and silk threads that can be turned like a wheel to align with various astronomical calculations. One of the books is open to an illustration that has been adjusted to show what a total eclipse would look like.

Chiparo said the book, along with others on display that contain similar moving mechanisms, represents innovations in bookmaking that were used to convey complex ideas in a visual way, enhancing the reader’s understanding.

Prosthetic ears worn by Leonard Nimoy portraying Spock in the film Star Trek VI are on display as part of the Receding Horiz... Prosthetic ears worn by Leonard Nimoy portraying Spock in the film “Star Trek VI” are on display as part of the “Receding Horizons” exhibition at Lilly Library on the IU Bloomington campus. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“One of the other things we worked hard to do is include items in the exhibition that represent people from as many places and times as possible,” said Krasny, co-curator of “Receding Horizons” and teaching and research coordinator for Lilly Library.

Among Krasny’s favorite pieces in the exhibition is a letter written in Spanish by an unknown person, describing the experience after viewing a solar eclipse in Mexico City in 1803.

“I’ve never seen anything so grand in my life,” the writer wrote, saying it was as though it was nighttime in the middle of the day.

“We have it situated around some of the other firsthand accounts of eclipses,” Krasny said. “There’s something really special about it. This person wrote a letter, talking about this incredible eclipse they experienced, and now other people who are about to experience an eclipse can read about this person’s experience in the past.”

Science fiction treasures

Science fiction highlights of the exhibition include ears worn by actor Leonard Nimoy during his portrayal of Spock, the righthand man to Captain Kirk in “Star Trek.” The ears were donated to Lilly Library by an IU faculty member.

Another science fiction gem on display is an early shooting script from “Star Wars: A New Hope,” when Luke Skywalker was still named “Luke Starkiller.” Director George Lucas changed the name to avoid any potential associations with Charles Manson at the time. The script is open to a page where Luke, Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi and Han Solo see the Death Star for the first time, initially mistaking it for a moon.

An original shooting script from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope is on display as part of Receding Horizons. The script fea... An original shooting script from the movie “Star Wars: A New Hope” is on display as part of “Receding Horizons.” The script features Luke Skywalker's original name, “Luke Starkiller,” which George Lucas changed to avoid associations with Charles Manson at the time. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Contributions by women

The exhibition also features women’s contributions to astronomy. Included are pieces related to trailblazers like 19th-century educator and astronomer Maria Mitchell, who discovered a comet in 1847 that was later named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”; and German-born British astronomer Caroline Herschel, who is credited as the first female professional astronomer.

“It’s really important to highlight their voices because they were among the leading minds in astronomy, but during their lifetimes were regarded as assistants or lab techs,” said McElroy Mitchell, curator of religious collections at Lilly Library. “They did some of the most important work that has been done in astronomy, without which we couldn’t have built up to what we know today.”

Inside both the “Space Travel” and “Women in Astronomy” cases, photographic glass slides featuring Russian cosmonauts offer a glimpse into the experiences of those who have ventured into space and invite visitors to contemplate what it would be like to travel far from Earth.

Indiana University Lilly Library teaching and research coordinator Kristina Krasny, left, and assistant librarian Erin Chiparo look throu... Indiana University Lilly Library teaching and research coordinator Kristina Krasny, left, and assistant librarian Erin Chiparo look through a book from the Lilly Library collections at IU Bloomington. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Three of the slides feature Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel to space. Tereshkova flew a solo mission in 1963 and remains the only woman to have been on a solo mission to space to this day.

McElroy Mitchell said Tereshkova was not a scientist when she was recruited by the space program.

“She was recruited into the space program because she liked to skydive as a hobby, and they thought ‘Well, you’re not scared of anything; let’s just bring you in here,’” McElroy Mitchell said.

According to Krasny, the slides may help visitors view the exhibition’s historical figures, like Ptolemy and Copernicus, who have attained a somewhat mythical quality, as real humans.

“I think sometimes we forget the human element to the study of space, the stars and the planets,” Krasny said. “The color glass slides that we have really illustrate that part of space travel. When you look at the ‘Pillars of Astronomy’ case, it’s hard to imagine the people who created those books as real people. But when you see the slides, it kind of hits you that every item in the exhibition came from a person or a group of people who were just human beings.”

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Julia Hodson

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