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The Book as Knowledge: Math and Science

timeBooks have played an essential role in disseminating information about math and science since the beginning of the printed book. They were particularly popular during the Scientific Revolution and again in the 19th century. Recently, nonfiction science has become popular reading material. For instance, A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking (1942-) has sold over 10 million copies.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher and mathematician. He published Rules for the Direction of the Mind and Discourse on the Method in 1637 connecting modern philosophy to natural sciences.

Scientific Publishing

Books are just one venue in which scientists published their works. For instance, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) published numerous journal articles, book chapters, and books during his lifetime. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory began as a short paper, but was eventually printed as a book in German in 1916 and in English in 1920.

Many famous scientific discoveries have been published as part of scientific proceedings. In 1865 Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) published Experiments on Plant Hybridization focusing on the genetic traits in pea plants. It was published in the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn in 1866.

Besides scientific proceedings, scientific findings have been published as treatise. For instance A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism was published by James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) in 1873 as we two-volume treatise.

This page explores mathematics, natural science, natural history, and applied science.


The discipline of math overlaps with many other fields. Books were used as a way to share mathematical discoveries and solutions to problems.

Luca Pacioli (1445-1517) was an Italian mathematician and Franciscan friar. He collaborated with on a number of books including De Divina Proportione or About the Divine Proportions written in 1496-98 and published in 1509. Leonardo de Vinci drew the first visual representations of skeletonic solids among other interesting mathematic illustrations. The book connected mathematics with artistic proportion and architecture. The visual by de Vinci shows a rhombicuboctahedron. The Letter M from this book was adapted for use as the logo for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The image on the left shows a polyhedra by Leonardo de Vinci and the image on the right shows the letter M designed by Luca Pacioli.

math math

In 1545, Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) published Ars Magna focusing on quartic equations.

L'Vso Della Sqvada Mobile Con La Quale Per Teorcia Et Per Practica... by Ottavio Fabri (1598) introduced the world to the newly invented adjustable set square that became a standard tool of surveyors, navigators, and cartographers.

A Geometrical Practise by Leonard Digges (1571) explores geometry. Illustrations were used to visualize concepts.

Fabrica et vsvs Instrvmenti Chorographici by Leonhard Zubler (1563-1611) (1607) demonstrated the use of a chorographic instrument used to measure land. It had many military uses.

In 1687, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was published. Newton was an English mathematician and scientist of the Scientific Revolution. This book laid the foundation of classical mechanics.

The image below left shows Sir Isaac Newton.


harmonyMany books of this period combined math and science such as the work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Harmonices Mundi or The Harmony of the World published in 1619 discusses geometrical forms and physical phenomena.

The image on the left is from Harmonices Mundi.

Also, many philosophical works such as Novum Organum Scientiarum published by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in 1620, provide the foundation for scientific thinking based in logical reasoning.

During the late 19th century many mathematics textbooks were introduced using a variety of instructional techniques.

A Course in Pure Mathematics by G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was published in 1908 and continued to be popular until the 1950s.

In Beginners' Algebra (1922) by Mabel Sykes and Clarence E. Comstock the authors explain that the approach is intended to "stimulate the power of the pupil to think in mathematical terms".

The image below is from the first chapter of Beginners' Algebra (1922).


Natural Science

Books serve as an important tool in sharing scientific information. During the Scientific Revolution, science books were best-sellers. For instance, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is known for his work in microscopy. His book Micrographia was published in 1665. Published by the Royal Society, it became the first scientific best-seller. Hooke coined the term "cell" in his book.

The images below are from Micrographia.



Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was one of the founders of modern chemistry. His The Sceptical Chymist (1661) provides the foundation for the field of chemistry. Written as a dialogue, the book presents Boyle's ideas about atoms in motion. Although best known from his Boyle's Law, he was also a pioneer of the scientific method.

The image on the right is the title page to The Sceptical Chymist.

French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) was known for shifting chemistry from a focus on qualitative to quantitative research. His Elements of Chemistry was a foundational textbook published in 1789 and translated into English by Robert Kerr in 1790.

Life Science

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published De Humani Corporis Fabrica or On the Structure of the Human Body starting an interest in scientific investigation related to human anatomy. His book includes the first description of mechanical ventilation as well as some firsts regarding the body systems. This book set a new standard for medical texts. The illustrations were created in the Titian studio and may represent the work of a couple of individuals.

The images below are from On the Structure of the Human Body.


William Harvey (1578-1657) was an English physician and the first to completely describe the circulatory system. He published De Motu Cordis or On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, On the Circulation of Blood, and On the Generation of Animals in 1628.

During the 19th century, there was a resurgence in the study of biology. In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life considered a breakthrough in evolutionary biology.

The images below are from On the Origin of Species.


Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) coined the term "survival of the fittest" in his work Principles of Biology (1864). However, he's best known for his extension of the idea of evolution to sociology and ethics.

fishDuring the late 19th century, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored many special bulletins and reports in the sciences that were published by the Government Printing Office.

Oceanic Ichthyology (1895) contains hundreds of drawing of fish. S.P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution stated that

"this work (Special Bulletin No. 2) is one of a series of papers intended to illustrate the collections belonging to, or placed in charge of, the Smithsonian Institution, and deposited in the United States National Museum". (1895, 11)

The American Book of the Dog (1891) examined the origin, development, special characteristics, utility, breeding, training, points of judging, diseases, and kennel management of all breeds of dogs.


The Locust Plague in the United States (1877) traces the destruction of the locus through drawings and maps.

The image below shows the title page and frontispiece for The Locust Plague in the United States (1877).


Desmond Morris (1928-) wrote The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal in 1967 and The Human Zoo: A Zoologist's Classic Study of the Urban Animal in 1969. A zoologist and ethologist, Morris explored humans as a species compared to other animals and explored how biology has shared human culture. The Naked Ape sold more than 12 million copies.


Physical Science

solarMany of the early printers reproduced books written during early time periods. For instance, Erhard Ratdolt of Venice printed Sphaericum Opusculum by Johannes de Sacro Bosco in 1485. The author was an astronomer who lived in the 13th century. The book features a diagram of an eclipse of the moon.

The image on the right is from Sphaericum Opusculum.

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was published in 1543. Presenting the theory that the earth and the other planets in the solar system revolve around the sun, his work provided the foundation of a whole generation of work related to the solar system.

In the centuries following the printing press scientists like Isaac Newton were focusing on the importance of understanding natural science and the workings of the universe. An increasing number of books were published during the Scientific Revolution during the Early Modern Period.

William Gilbert (1544-1603) wrote De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure or On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth. One of the originators of the term "electricity", he is considered the father of electrical engineering working in the areas of electricity and magnetism.

Dutch mathematician and scientist Christian Huygens (1629-1695) wrote Traité de la Lumière, or Treatise on Light. Published in 1690, he described his wave theory of light.

star mapJean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) was a French mathematician and physicist best known for his Analytical Theory of Heat published in 1822.

English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) wrote Experimental Researches in Electricity in 1839-1855 and Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics in 1859.

In 1849 The Geography of the Heavens: a class-book of astronomy by Elijah Burritt (1794-1838) was one of the first celestial atlas intended as a textbook. A New Star Atlas for the Library, the School, and the Observatory (1873) by Richard Proctor (1837-1888) included star maps for readers (shown on the right).

Natural History

From the Renaissance through the 19th century, much of scientific explorations were conducted by self-funded scientists sometimes known as "Gentleman scientists". Rather than focusing on experimental research much of their work was observational. Often scorned by "real scientists" these amateur scientists made many important discoveries. In addition, many went on to publish books about their observations. Henry Walter Bates, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, Alfred Russel Wallace and many others fall into this category.

In many cases, these amateur scientist went on expeditions and funded their work by working with natural history museums that were building their scientific collections. In other cases, they were funded by societies.

A natural history book contains scientific information about plants and/or animals and their ecosystems. Generally based on personal observations, they often contain high-quality illustrations.

Bird Books

Bird books were a particularly popular outgrowth of this natural history movement. Published in four volumes between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851) is an example of a natural history bird book.

A History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) published in 1797 is one of the first field guides for novices. The two volume set: Land Birds and Water Birds has been reprinted many times and is still in print today. The book plays a recurring role in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

The images below are from A History of British Birds.


John Gould (1804-1881) was an ornithologist, taxidermist and author of many highly illustrated books on birds including a series of lithographic plate books. He published his first book in the early 1830s. In 1838 he traveled to Australia and returned to write The Birds of Australia. He was also the author of the bird section in Darwin's report titled The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. His identification and illustration of the birds now known as "Darwin's finches" placed an important role in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Gould is also known for his bird books focusing on Australia, Europe, and Asia. He also published books on mammals. Gould used lithography rather than engravings for his illustrations. He drew rough sketches that were then finished by his wife and transferred to stone. The images were hand colored.

The image below left is from The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle and the image below right is from A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains.


Many of these types of books were published in the 19th and 20th century such as The Bird Book by Chester A. Reed (1876-1912).

Botanical Books

In addition to bird books, botanical books were also popular during this time period.

A botanical book contains information and illustrations related to plants. An herbal is a text focusing specifically on herbs.

Prior to the 17th century, the emphasis of botanical books had been on medicinal and culinary herbs with rudimentary illustrations. This began to change in the 16th century. Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) published high quality books about plants and uses of herbs in medicine.

During the 17th century, garden books began to emerge. Establishment of botanical gardens were becoming more common. Show gardens based on Italian designs were appearing in the Netherlands and Germany. An interest in garden design along with scientific advancements merged for the production of many books on gardens. Some books focused on growing fruit trees.

Basilius Besler (1561-1629) was a garden curator and botanist known for his book Hortus Eystettensis or Garden at Eichstatt. Belser presented high-quality illustrations by Wolfgang Killian that included flowers, herbs and vegetables, along with exotic plants. Published in 1613, the book contained 367 copper engravings of 1084 species.

The images below are from Hortus Eystettensis.


Crispijn van de Passe (c. 1564-1647) illustrated and published Hortus Floridus in 1614. It contains plates showing plants and their growing seasons.


Giovanni Baptista Ferrari (1584-1655) was an Italian Jesuit and botanist. He published works on fruit trees like Aurantium Corniculatum and Hesperides Sive de Malorum Aureorum Cultura et Usu Libri Quatuor.


Influenced by Giovanni Baptista Ferrari, Johann Christoph Volkamer (1644-1720) was a German botanist known for his garden book Nürnbergische Hesperides.

gardengarden 2

For lots of examples, go to the Smithsonian Catalog of Botanical Illustrations and Plants in Print.

Applied Sciences

From agriculture to software engineering, applied sciences bridge theory and practice. Although books can be found in every discipline, this section just explores medicine as an example.


medillWorks related to health and medicine were some of the first to be printed. These incunabula included information about anatomy, medical procedures, herbal treatments, plagues, and even magic.

A medical book is a book containing information for medical practitioners or scholars.

Fasciculus Medicinae written by German physician Johannes de Ketham contains a collection of classical, Arab, and medieval medical treatises. The first illustrated medical book printed on this topic, it was printed by the de Gregorilis brothers in 1495.

The image on the right is from Fasciculus Medicinae.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, authors of medical books were seeking the most effective ways to illustrate their books.

Karl Heinrich Bardeleben and Ernst Heinrich Haeckel published Atlas of Applied Topographical Human Anatomy for Students and Practitioners in 1906 using drawing as illustrations. In 1905 Oskar Schultze published Atlas and Textbook of Topographic and Applied Anatomy that combined drawings and photographs. In 1911, Eugene-Louis Doyen published Atlas of Topographic Anatomy that incorporated photographs.

The image below left is from Atlas and Textbook of Topographic and Applied Anatomy, center is from Atlas of Applied Topographical Human Anatomy for Students and Practitioners and right is from Atlas of Topographic Anatomy.


tryitTry It!
Browse Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine. This e-book provides an overview of some of the most interest books in the National Library of Medicine. Which book do you find most interesting? Which do you think would be most effective in teaching and learning medicine?

To view historical anatomies on the web, go to Historical Anatomies on the Web.

To learn more about the history of medical illustration, go to History and Bibliography of Anatomic Illustration (1920).

Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology by David Hendricks Bergey (1860-1937) was published in 1923. The book is still used in medical schools.

Read Topham, Jonathan R. (June 2000). Book history and the sciences. The British Journal for the History of Science, 33(2), 155-158. This short article provides a belief overview of book history related to science and outlines topics covered in a special issue of the journal on this topic. IUPUI students can view the article online.



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