Rare Copy of Isaac Newton's Manuscript That Became the Foundation for Modern Physics Discovered on French Island

A conservationist in France haas uncovered a highly valuable first edition copy of the great physicist Isaac Newton's pioneering text Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia—one of the most important works in the history of science and mathematics.

The text—whose title translates as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy from the original Latin—was first published in 1687 and consists of three books.

In the manuscript, the English scientist famously outlined his three laws of motion, which formed the bedrock of classical mechanics—a branch of physics which deals with the movement (or equilibrium) of bodies under the influence of forces.

The first edition text in question was found by Vannina Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff, a director of conservation at the Fesch public heritage library—located in Ajaccio on the French island of Corsica— the AFP reported.

The library, which contains around 50,000 books, was founded by Lucien Bonaparte, a brother of the famous statesman and military leader Napoléon Bonaparte who was Emperor of France at the beginning of the 19th century.

Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff came across the work—often referred to simply as the "Principia"—while examining an index created by Lucien Bonaparte. The conservationist noted the text appeared to be surprisingly well preserved.

"I found the Holy Grail in the main room, hidden in the upper shelves," Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff told the AFP. "The cover has a little damage but inside it's in excellent condition—this is the cornerstone of modern mathematics."

After initial publication of the work, English translations were printed. However, first edition Latin copies of the Principia—which were intended for distribution on the European mainland—are highly prized, given that only around 400 were produced, The Guardian reported. Only about half of these are thought to remain in existence today.

Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica
An edition of Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica exhibited at the National Library of Spain on March 19, 2018 in Madrid. Eduardo Parra/Getty Images

One such first edition copy became the most expensive printed science book ever sold in December 2016, after an anonymous buyer paid around $3.7 million for it during an auction at Christie's in New York.

The Principia helped to shape the evolution of modern physics. In fact, the work was famously described by Albert Einstein as "perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make."

In the work, Newton outlines his universal physical laws of gravitation and motion, helping to explain phenomena which were previously described by renowned scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, according to Christie's.

"For the first time a single mathematical law could explain the motion of objects on earth as well as the phenomena of the heavens," a Christie's description of the book read. "It was this grand conception that produced a general revolution in human thought, equaled perhaps only by that following Darwin's Origin of Species."

The famous three laws of motion can be described as follows, according Stanford University:

  • Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.
  • Force equals mass times acceleration.
  • For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

While the advent of Einstein's theory of relativity and the rise of quantum mechanics posed a challenge to Newton's ideas, the laws outlined in Principia are still key to our understanding of the universe, centuries after publication.

The masterwork may never have been published, however, if it wasn't for the efforts of the renowned English astronomer Edmond Halley—the man who Halley's comet was named after. Halley encouraged Newton to produce a text outlining his ideas and edited the work once written. The astronomer also covered most of the printing costs because the Royal Society—the world's oldest independent scientific academy—had run out of money at the time and was no longer able to finance the project.