THE CHARM OF LIBRARIES Princeton Professor Anthony Grafton spoke at the New York Public Library in Midtown on Wednesday on "The Scientist as Scholar: Newton as Historian." The library has an exhibit about Newton running through February 5.
The director of the Public Education Program at the NYPL's Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Paul Holdengraber, introduced the event by quoting a passage that Mr. Grafton had written in the New York Review of Books: "I love libraries - their dust, their smell of noble rot, their seedy grandeur. Early in my career, I learned that the Princeton's library staff had already labeled me a 'heavy user' - a phrase that sounded a little worrying in the 1970s."
He continued with Mr. Grafton descending into "the vaults of the Vatican, where the smelly ghosts of thousands of slaughtered animals haunted the lovely codices made from their skins, and up into the remotest stacks of the Old Bibliotheque Nationale, where a layer of ash from the fires of the Paris Commune still covered untouched books. Every one of these libraries has its devotees." But none, Mr. Grafton wrote, rivaled the New York Public Library's generous commitment "to educate through public programs and to make its materials available to anyone with a legitimate reason for seeing them."
When Mr. Grafton took the lectern, he said that when his father was depressed, he would walk from his business office on Madison Avenue to look at prints by German engraver Albrecht Durer at the NYPL. Mr. Grafton joked that at an age when his own friends were being thrown out of bars, he was staying late and being thrown out of the library.
Turning to the subject of Newton, Mr. Grafton described the British figure as the first great scientist, in the modern sense. Newton's accomplishments, such as discovering the universal law of gravity, became caught in a machine of publicity that was all too deserved, Mr. Grafton said.
The French thinker Voltaire admired Newton and was in London at the time of Newton's funeral in 1727. Mr. Grafton said that while Newton was well-known as a scientific genius, recently his work as a scholar and alchemist has emerged. Mr. Grafton told how economist John Maynard Keynes purchased notebooks of Newton's work on alchemy and other subjects at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1936. The audience laughed when Mr. Grafton remarked that the notebooks had been described as being "of no scientific value."
Mr. Grafton outlined Newton's research into subjects from alchemy to biblical scholarship to a comparative world chronology. Newton had wide classical learning and could write in Latin as fluidly as though it were his own native language.
Some of Newton's far-reaching conclusions - such as linking the Roman god Janus with the biblical figure of Noah - were not so compelling, Mr. Grafton said. What makes a great scientist - "forging a bold theory" - does not necessarily make for great scholarship; a scholar has to be comprehensive and confront all data.
Mr. Grafton said Newton worked in a productive whirlwind of activity. Mr. Grafton similarly recalled the University of Chicago professor and Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar traveling numerous miles in a snowstorm from Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin to teach a class in Chicago at which only two students bothered to show up that day. The audience laughed when Mr. Grafton added, in deadpan, that those two students both later won Nobel prizes. (The University of Chicago public affairs office informed the Knickerbocker that those two students were Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang.)
ELECTRIC RESPONSE That same evening at Location One on Greene Street in SoHo, a group of inventors and artists gathered to celebrate George Washington Carver, the African-American inventor and agricultural researcher who died on that date in January 1943.
The Director of Research at Columbia University's Computer Music Center, Douglas Repetto, hosted the evening, which was part of a monthly "dorkbot-nyc" series he curates featuring people who "do strange things with electricity."
Mr. Repetto opened by presenting a brief slide show about Carver, who pioneered the industrial uses of the peanut and whose manifold accomplishments included developing more than 75 products from the pecan. In Carver's honor, various nuts were served at the event.
Michelle Rosenberg, one of the three presenters, spoke about how she adapts portable headphones for new uses. One of her installations at Exit Art was called "Community Headphone," where numerous headphones overhead had their wires connected like a net. All the headphones, at different heights, had the same sound traveling through them, coming from "a couple different inputs." Visitors could walk up and put on a set. Another art project of hers involves sound "hoarding" whereby one person has the ability to listen to many sources at once, over many different Walkmans, for example.
In her art, she is interested in exploring the distortion that headphones create. She experiments with how different materials resonate sound at different frequencies.
Inspired by historical research, Ms. Rosenberg also designs acoustic headphones modeled after the antique hearing aids that trap sound waves. She drew inspiration for her "ear trumpets" from the design of large aircraft detectors built before the advent of radar.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS Grand Central Oyster Bar has been receiving calls from customers thinking that they are closing. They report that they are still going strong after 92 years. It is the Oyster Bar at the Plaza Hotel that is closing, not their establishment. General Manager Mike Garvey, echoing Mark Twain, said talk of the restaurant's death has been "greatly exaggerated."