Earle Havens, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University, examines the Atlas Coelestis, a hand-colored celestial atlas printed in 1742 and part of the Eureka! exhibition. (Will Kirk/JHU Photography.)

Earle Havens walks up to a three-tier glass case and pauses reverently.

“Here we bow,” says the 39-year-old, raising his arms above his head to signify his unworthiness.

Behind the crystal-clear panes before him are books. It’s only on leaning in for a closer look that Havens’s spontaneous adulation makes sense. The works are centuries old — published in 1687 and 1722 — and remain in terrific condition. Then there are the titles: a first edition of “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” and “Traite d’Optique.”

Written by Isaac Newton.

These early tomes by the father of calculus laid the groundwork for the law of gravitation and explained that light is composed of separate colors. Even a scientifically obtuse former English major can’t help but share his awe.

A hand-colored plate of the Copernican heliocentric system of the sun and planets in  Atlast Coelestis by Johann Doppelmayr (Nuremberg, 1742). (Will Kirk)

Nearby, an iron-nickel meteorite — on loan from Johns Hopkins’s physics and astronomy department — sits on a cushion between a 1752 publication of Edmond Halley’s “Astronomical Tables . . . for Computing the Places of the Sun, Moon, Planets, and Comets” and 18th-century illustrations of equipment Benjamin Franklin used in his quest to discover the properties of electricity.

“There are books in this room of which there are only a dozen copies that survived in the world,” says Havens, curator of rare books and manuscripts at Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Libraries, as he gestures to the 55 pieces on display in one room.

Hopkins’s George Peabody Library — a rare-books collection within the university’s Sheridan Libraries — is debuting “Eureka! Rare Books in the History of Scientific Discovery,” a collection of more than 300 works bequeathed to the university last fall, after the November 2009 death of Hopkins alumnus Elliott Hinkes, a Los Angeles oncologist and rare-book collector.

These artifacts are quite impressive in themselves. Yet what makes them all the more intriguing is their collective illustration of pivotal moments in scientific history: discoveries that forever altered our perspective of the world.

“It reminds us that we all stand on the shoulders of giants,” says Matt Mountain, director of Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, paraphrasing a quote by Newton. “Every discovery we make relies on testing and validation and circulation of ideas.”

There’s the 1566 unbound pages of Nicolaus Copernicus’s “De Revolutionbus Orbium Colestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”), in which the Polish astronomer posited that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the solar system. A few steps away, there’s a 1613 study on sunspots by Galileo. Across the room is a 1953 article by Cambridge biologists James Watson and Francis Crick that discusses DNA’s double-helix structure.

As a small joke, Havens placed early journal printings of rival physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in the same case.

The Eureka! collection has copies of offprints of journal articles by Albert Einstein between 1901 and 1906. (WILL KIRK)

The scope of the exhibit is so momentous it’s easy to get caught up in the sweep of successive discoveries without thinking of the man who made such an experience possible.

That would be a mistake.

Havens recalls a visit to Hinkes’s home in spring 2009. “He would hold these books and he would touch the pages like this,” he says, motioning his hand as if stroking a cat. “They were his friends.”

It’s an observation reinforced by Hinkes’s 34-year-old son, Eric Hinkes, a D.C. patent attorney and Internet policy analyst. “I guess when you have them behind glass they become even more grand. My dad would be like, ‘Come here, check out some Newton or see some Euclidean geometry or something.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, Dad.’”

It wasn’t until the last 20 years of Hinkes’s life that he became an avid collector of works that illustrated transformative moments in science. The doctor had purchased “The California Water Atlas” edited by William Kahrl at a drugstore and had become enamored with its aesthetic and informative appeal. He began attending book fairs.

“Elliott had the book bibliomania sickness really bad,” says Jonathan A. Hill, a New York-based rare science books dealer who met Hinkes at a Los Angeles book fair. “He would call up, and not just me, but other dealers. He bought widely and well. He had good taste. He knew good copies and wasn’t afraid to pay good prices for good copies of books.”

Yet instead of locking the pieces away, they became a part of the Hinkeses’ family-life fabric. There was no fancy, off-limits library, says Hinkes. The books were in boxes and on shelves in the living room where their schnauzer, Max, would occasionally sniff them (luckily no ‘the dog ate my first edition Newton’ scenarios occurred.) “When people came over to our home, my dad would always want to take the books out,” says Hinkes. “ ‘Let me take a book off the shelf and show ya. I want to show you a neat lithograph here, a neat print.’ ”

The elder Hinkes’s desire for knowledge of the books he acquired was so insatiable he even audited astronomy and physics classes at UCLA between 2004 and 2007.

Pivotal scientific books weren’t his only interest. He collected antique chess sets and maintained dozens of bonsai trees — most of which were donated by Eric and his mother, Eileen, to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.

“He enjoyed certain hobbies,” says Hinkes, “and he really pursued them.”

And for that, men like Havens will be forever in the late physician’s debt. “This collection is like a culmination of the foundations of what we do every day at Johns Hopkins in the sciences,” he says. “It allows us to be able to touch back to really see it all for what it was. That is really important because science is so of the moment, and yet it is absolutely true that the entire foundation of science today was — until the Internet — completely reliant upon the physical technology of printing. All of human knowledge was absolutely on the circulation, consumption and the distribution of physical objects of books.

“Those books get inscribed over time, over centuries, with layers and layers of history themselves.”

Empirical conversations are preserved in the margins, such as a hand-written inscription on the title page of a 1551 copy of astronomer and mathematician Erasmus Reinhold’s “Prutenicae Tabulae Colestium Motum” (Prutenic Tables) that makes reference to fellow 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe (whose own work sits on an adjacent table).

They are conversations that exist only in that one time and space. Here we bow.

‘Eureka!’ highlights

●A unique second edition of Copernicus’s treatise on the heliocentric theory of the galaxy, completely unbound and unsewn, as issued from the printer in 1566.

●A first edition of Galileo’s illustrated treatise on the discovery of sunspots (1613).

●A first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s monumental treatise on gravitation, the “Principia” (1687).

●The first printed description of Uranus, the first planet to be discovered since classical antiquity (1781).

●The first appearance in print of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, in a rare paper printed by the Linnaean Society (1858).

●27 rare offprints and first editions of the works of Albert Einstein, including the first printed formulation of E = mc2.

●Original copies of the three 1953 articles by Watson and Crick outlining the nature of DNA.

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins University

Coronado is a freelance writer in Arlington. Her Web site is www.kriscoronado.com.

Eureka! Rare Books in the History of Scientific Discovery

Through Feb. 29 at the George Peabody Library (17 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore 410-234-4943) Mon.-Fri.: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sat.: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun., Noon-5 p.m. Free.