Eureka exhibit

A page from the Atlas Coelestis, on display as part of the "Eureka! Rare Books in the History of Scientific Discovery" exhibit at the George Peabody Library. (Handout photo, Handout photo / December 28, 2011)

Earle Havens can almost hear their voices.

Each time Havens steps inside the George Peabody Library, he senses the muted exclamations, the murmured back-and-forth of a conversation that's been going on now for more than two millennia.

In one corner, there's a treatise from the third century B.C. in which Aristarchus of Samos estimated the distances between the sun, moon and earth. Across the room is an extremely rare unbound volume of Copernicus' "Revolution of the Celestial Spheres," in which the 15th-century astronomer advanced the then-heretical notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

Those findings inspired the work of 16th-century astronomer Erasmus Reinhold, represented here by his Prutenic (or Prussian) Tables. This document includes a note, handwritten in the margin, in which Reinhold refers to calculations made by Tycho Brahe, a Danish nobleman who refuted Aristotle's claim that the heavens were fixed and immovable — a belief that had held sway for nearly 20 centuries.

"I feel as though if I just shut my eyes, I can hear the people who wrote these ancient texts talking," said Havens, the Peabody's curator of rare books and manuscripts.

"These are 55 of the most important books in the history of the world. In some cases, there are fewer than a dozen copies that have survived. And all these books are all talking to each other over time."

"Eureka! Rare Books in the History of Scientific Discovery," on display through February in the George Peabody Library, brings together some of the 300 works valued at more than $2 million that were donated to the Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 2010. The university's benefactor was the late Elliott Hinkes, a Hopkins alumnus, rare book collector and California oncologist.

Though Hinkes lived on the West Coast and was for a time an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, he made sure that after his death his beloved books would find a permanent home at his alma mater.

In a speech he delivered to celebrate the opening of the exhibit, Matt Mountain, director of the Space Science Telescope Institute at Hopkins, drew a direct line connecting Descartes' experiments with optics to Galileo's use of the telescope to explore the stars, to astrophysicist Edwin Hubble's experiments in measuring the universe.

Without their insights, he said, Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Reiss could never have made his Nobel Prize-winning discovery of dark matter, which Mountain describes as "the greatest mystery in modern physics."

The Hinkes Collection isn't unusual because of the specific titles it contains — other universities and libraries can also display copies of such pioneering works as Isaac Newton's "Principia Mathematica."

But most collections are more narrowly focused, Havens said. They may concentrate on a particular time period or the work of one or two geniuses.

The Hinkes Collection is rare because of the way it sweeps across cultures and centuries.

Hinkes earned a bachelor's degree from Hopkins in 1964 and his medical degree in 1967, and he had a lifelong fascination with science. When he began to collect books, he went works that had resulted in history's greatest scientific achievements, from Aristotle to Einstein.

Eventually, his purchases inspired him to enroll in science courses at UCLA, according to the exhibition brochure, because he wanted to better understand the importance of the books of which he was the temporary custodian.

Though a few of the works were exhibited at Hopkins in 2003, the sampling was too small to convey the true breadth of the Hinkes Collection.

"Think of how far we have come from those early days of Aristotle, Aristarchus, Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton and Einstein," Mountain said. "This is a collection that encapsulates the foundations of our field."

Though the collection is weighted toward Hinkes' particular interests in physics and astronomy, it isn't limited to those subjects. Library visitors will find the 1858 journal article in which Darwin lays out his theory of natural selection, as well a 1953 magazine piece explaining the structure of DNA that was co-authored by James D. Watson and Francis Crick.

"There's arguably no other place on Earth where you can look at all these books in the same room," Havens said.

"The entire history of science is represented in this collection. Think of what Galileo would have given to be standing here and reading the works of all the mathematicians and scientists who came before him."