Columbia University Acquires Two Rare Astronomical Texts

Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library has acquired Caroline Lucretia Herschel’s own copy of her Catalogue of Stars (1798) with notes and annotations in her hand, and Libra Astronomica, y Philosophica (1690), by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the younger sister of astronomer William Herschel, was his essential assistant in astronomical work for half a century.  Independently, she became a major astronomer, discovering three new nebulae and no fewer than eight comets.  The standard catalogue of stars was the British Catalogue of John Flamsteed, published in 1725.  William had found his work increasingly hampered by errors in the catalogue, and in 1796 he persuaded Caroline to assemble a list of these errors, a task that took her twenty months.  Her list, with an index to Flamsteed’s observations, was published by the Royal Society in 1798.

Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), born in Mexico City, taught mathematics at the University of Mexico, published poetry on the Virgin of Guadalupe, studied pre-Columbian history – even excavating at the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan – and amassed an important library of native material. He published the first newspaper in New Spain (El Mercurio Volante), wrote the first Latin American novel (Los infortunios que Alonso Ramirez, a pirate narrative), prepared the first map of New Spain, and as Royal Geographer participated in expeditions to Pensacola Bay in the 1690s. Sigüenza was a fierce defender of New Spain’s Creole culture and was instrumental in saving Mexico City’s archives from the Great Riot of 1692. Libra Astronomica, y Philosophica concerns the Great Comet of 1680-81. The Libra is the first work printed in the Americas to use logarithms, the first to use decimal fractions, and one of the first scientific books written by a native Latin American to be published in the New World.