San Diego State is known for many things, but few would ever guess there is an astonishingly rare book available to view in the library.
Available in the SDSU Special Collections section of Love Library is a first edition of “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” by Nicolaus Copernicus, one of only 260 copies left worldwide.
SDSU is very fortunate to have a first edition Copernicus, as his books are highly sought after among academic institutions and collectors. Recently, a first edition was sold on auction for slightly more than $2 million. SDSU acquired its copy in 1992, marking the millionth acquisition by Love Library.
At the time, first editions were selling for nearly $200,000, which was more than SDSU could afford. Luckily, Stanford was willing to sell its first edition for a significantly lowered price because two pages were missing.
This trade was facilitated by Owen Gingerich, a Harvard professor and expert on first and second editions of Copernicus’ book. Though SDSU’s copy of the book is imperfect to a collector, its historic and scientific value is very much intact because the most interesting pages are retained. In addition to the first edition, the library also has a copy of the second edition of “On the Revolutions,” donated to SDSU by Ernst Zinner as part of a collection of historical astronomy artifacts.
Zinner entrusted SDSU with his collection because he feared that it might fall into the hands of the communists. The current head of Special Collections, Robert Ray, is particularly amazed by SDSU’s historic astronomy collection, describing the two editions of Copernicus’ book as the “Holy Grails” of the collection.
Copernicus was a Polish monk who died in 1543. “On the Revolutions” was published in the year of his death, and for SDSU astronomy professor Douglas Leonard, there were few books that changed the view of the universe as radically as that one.
“It was a quiet revolution that took about 70 years for that book to ultimately take its place in history as arguably the greatest revolutionary work in the history of science,” Leonard said.
By leaving the legacy of his book, Copernicus will be forever known as the first to mathematically support the theory of the Earth revolving around the sun. First editions of his book, such as the one in Love Library, have corrections written in to be more accommodating to prevailing religious doctrine.
However, even though it seemed as if the church would be opposed to his ideas, it was Copernicus’ peers in both the religious and academic circles that finally pushed him to publish his work in the twilight of his life.
The first and second editions of “On the Revolutions” are extraordinary pieces of history, but they have not seen much current use other than by a professor at UCSD. Students who wish to see these books, either as a part of their studies or purely out of academic curiosity, can sign up with Special Collections to view Copernicus’ work firsthand.