How did Isaac Newton think 1

Isaac Newton's "Principia" was a bestseller

No slow-moving: When the great scholar Isaac Newton published his main work “Principia” in 1687, he laid the foundation for classical physics. So far, however, it was unclear how widespread this work was at the time. Historians have now tracked down hundreds of lost copies of the first edition of the “Principia” - the work was therefore printed and read far more frequently than previously assumed.

Whether the principles of mechanics, the orbits of the planets or the mode of action of gravity: Isaac Newton's physical laws form the basis of classical physics to this day. Fundamental insights such as the law of conservation of momentum, the principle of inertia or the ability of forces to superimpose come from him. And despite Einstein's theory of relativity and new findings in quantum physics, many of these Newtonian laws have retained their validity.

The Principia and its first edition

Isaac Newton laid the basis for his fame in 1687 with the publication of his major work “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, or “Principia” for short. In this three-volume and 600-page book, the British scholar presented his views and knowledge of mathematics, mechanics and astronomy. The astronomer Edmond Halley, who also helped finance the printing, had urged him to do so.

"Today we know a lot about what happened around the drafting and printing of the Principia," explain Mordechai Feingold from the California Institute of Technology and Andrej Svorencik from the University of Mannheim. “But our knowledge of the size of the circulation, its distribution and reception at the time is only very fragmentary.” At auctions, first editions of the Principia are now traded for hundreds of thousands to several million euros, depending on their condition.

The last survey in 1953 tracked down 189 surviving copies of the first edition. But even then, historians suspected that significantly more copies of this work must have been printed.

More copies than expected

For this reason, Feingold and Svorencik have again carried out a worldwide search for first editions of Newton's Principia. For ten years they searched historical documents such as auction catalogs, sales receipts and letters to find the whereabouts of the specimens. “We felt like Sherlock Holmes at times,” says Feingold.

The result: the two historians managed to track down a total of 387 copies of the Principia in 27 countries - 200 of which were previously unknown. Up to 200 additional copies could be preserved undocumented in public and private collections. The researchers were even able to find some stolen specimens. For example, they discovered a book at a bookseller in Italy that had been stolen from a German library half a century earlier.

According to the scientists, their findings suggest that far more copies of the Principia were printed in 1687 than previously assumed.

“Talk of the town” instead of incomprehensible niche work

And one more assumption turns out to be wrong: For a long time Newton's main work was considered to be far too complex and difficult to understand to be of interest to a broader readership. At most a few mathematicians, it was believed, had bought and read the Principia. “That was supported by anecdotes and stories about readers who were completely confused by the content of the work,” report Feingold and Svorencik.

But historical documents show otherwise. Accordingly, the Principia was something of a bestseller. It was extensively discussed in reviews and commented on in many letters from Newton's contemporaries - even among non-mathematicians. When Newton's work "Optik" was published in 1704, the English astronomer John Flamsteed commented: "This work is not as much the talk of the town as the Principia."

Passed on among each other

And even in the first editions themselves there are indications of a committed and numerous readership: "When you look at the books, you often find small notes in the margin that tell you how it was read," explains Svorencik. “Of the 231 copies to which we had access, 45 had numerous marginal notes, 61 had at least some such notes.” Many of these notes also came from different readers.

“This indicates that the books were passed on,” explains Feingold. "One can assume that each copy was read several times by different people." This indicates that the Principia and its contents were widespread and popular. "The first edition of the Principia reached a much broader readership than traditionally assumed - both in England and abroad," state the scholars. (Annals of Science, 2020; doi: 10.1080 / 00033790.2020.1808700)

Source: California Institute of Technology

November 13, 2020

- Nadja Podbregar