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The Spheres Have Landed

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Aliens and their spaceships have been making quite a stir in international news recently. We have heard about countless UFO sightings in the US and ‘alien bodies’ found in Mexico. While they grapple with new evidence across the pond, we have our very own extra-terrestrial mystery here in St Andrews! Over the summer, two huge unidentified, spherical objects landed in the Main Library and the only tool we have to comprehend them is an ominous sign saying that we cannot touch them.


Day after day, hundreds of students flood through the world’s slowest electronic barriers (probably passing their ex) to the clinically-lit educational factories taking the form of either the silent floors or St Andrews social hubs, depressingly known as Level 1 and 2. On our route to convincing ourselves of the joy of academia, we pass some rather jarring metal spheres. While most manage to manoeuvre past them, some, I have been told, have managed to walk into them – and still don’t know what they are!


I asked regular Main Library frequenters if they could explain these structures to me, alas not. No one had the slightest clue what they were; I think the most detailed description I got was “you know, planets and stuff”. It’s obvious we have a bit of an alien-like mystery about these spheres so, with help from the lovely staff in the Library, I will venture to pull away the curtains on the new addition to Level 2.


Scott Donaldson, Communications and Marketing Officer for Libraries and Museums at the University has confirmed that University radars were aware of this object entering our atmosphere, so we have nothing to worry about there! Their arrival was supplemented by a kind donor, with inspiration coming from the Meridian line outside the King James Library and the significant history of astronomical research at the University of St Andrews. Donaldson states that these are Astronomical Spheres also known as Celestial Orbs. The ones we are lucky to have can be dated back to the 1800s when they were built in France. These spheres are constructed by combining two parts. First, we have the armillary spheres (the rings you see around the outside) outlining the celestial longitude and latitude which were also seen as the heavens. The inner part, called an orrery, is a mechanical part at the centre representing the arrangement of planets in our solar system.


Historically, early versions of these models existed in the 2nd century AD and were used as mathematical instruments by scholars like Ptolemy. Their presence in libraries can be dated back to the Mediaeval era; European libraries kept them to record growing knowledge of the movement of planets and their relationship to the structure of the heavens. Like ours, they would usually be built as a pair to show the different theories people believed regarding the order of the universe: one has Earth at the centre following the Ptolemaic theory, whilst the other has the sun, which was the theory devised by Polish scholar Copernicus.



The tradition of having models like this continued into the Renaissance. There are a few examples of wealthy patrons commissioning large Astronomical Spheres. One of these currently resides in the Museo Galileo in Florence, and was made for Duke Ferdinando I de Medici in the 1580’s! Even though our Main Library was built in 1976, the library team felt it was fitting to house these historical spheres and maintain a culture within libraries that has spanned for centuries.


In reflection, the student commenting that the spheres were ‘planets and stuff’ was not incorrect after all. I have been informed by Mr Donaldson that there is a plan to change the “do not touch sign” into something a tad more informative. So the next time you head in to become an academic weapon on one of the Main Library floors, take a pause and have a look at these spheres: either to take in the history or to pretend like you are doing something interesting while your ex walks past!


Photo by Alden Arnold

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