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Introducing Dr. Alexandra Challenger

Published September 5, 2022

This summer, Dr. Alexandra Challenger defended her dissertation, “Printing the Cosmos: Images, Readers, and Mathematics in Peter Apian’s Instrumental texts,” under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Leitch. Dr. Challenger researches Apian’s printed books which often included moveable and interactive instruments. She considers how the novelty of these works was tied to emerging observational practices in the sciences, and the role of artists, scholars, and printers in fostering these changes.

Alexandra first became interested in the subject in the FSU Library’s Special Collections department, where she saw early examples of interactive instruments in books, including an edition of one of Apian’s works. These investigations sparked an interest in other types of interactive texts, and laid the foundation for work she would take up in research trips to Germany.

She received an award from the Verband der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Clubs (VDAC) to conduct research for a year at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and a fellowship from the Herzog August Bibliothek for study in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. On visits to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, she was able to investigate most of Apian’s publications as well as other rare examples of interactive scientific works. Her research expanded to include both the production of printed scientific works and their reception and collection by aristocratic audiences. Alex writes,

The ability to conduct archival research abroad has been one of the best parts of the dissertation process. Spending an extended period of time abroad allowed me to not only greatly improve my knowledge of German and Latin, but to also explore new avenues of research and gain a better understanding of early modern printed materials. While I began my studies with a focus on early modern art, I now have a much better understanding of the materials and construction of printed books and the significance of the book as an art object itself, rather than a collection of individual illustrations.

Dr. Stephanie Leitch, describes the broader significance of Alex’s work within the scholarship about these early modern materials:

Alex’s dissertation treats the printed productions of  a sixteenth-century mathematician who ran a print shop at the University of Ingolstadt. In addition to many practical texts such as farmers’ almanacs, Peter Apian published pop-up books about the cosmos: the Cosmographicus Liber, Instrument-buch, and an elaborate astronomical horoscope for the emperor Charles V, the Astronomicum Caesareum. Apian’s dials with moving parts, or volvelles, set the stage for interactive cosmography through the use of printed astronomical instruments. While historians of science have treated selections of these instruments in an isolated fashion, Alex tackles these printed books, diagrams, and instruments within the framework of the history of printmaking. Alex’s mastery of early modern astronomy, history of early modern prints, and her formidable German language skills make her project about how popular science was shaped by the printing press of great interest to historians of art and science alike. Alex’s book argues that Apian’s publications provided a curriculum for early modern astronomical and mathematical learning outside the traditional structures of higher education. As a popularizer of scientific pursuits, Apian’s audiences spanned truly popular lay readers as well as the educated elite.

In 2019, Alex won the Graduate Student Research and Creativity Award from the Graduate School at Florida State University. The award is conferred to a select few FSU students each year in recognition of outstanding contributions to research and creative endeavors. In their notice to Alex, the awards committee members wrote that they were “truly impressed with her outstanding record and achievements.”

An interview with Alex is featured in the following short promotional film about the Günther Findel Stiftung, the foundation that supported her research in Wolfenbüttel.