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Up close and personal with Isaac Newton’s masterwork

  • Science history
    Science history  Yulin Ge inspects one of the vintage scientific texts from Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center during a one-day exhibit in Small Hall Library. An annotated first edition copy of Isaac Newton's Principia was the star.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Latin annotations
    Latin annotations  Inset shows details of the annotations in William & Mary’s first-edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia. Staff at the Swem Library Special Collections Research Center hope someone literate in both Latin and science will solve the mystery of who made the annotations.  Original image from Swem Special Collections Research Center
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It wouldn’t look out of place in a library at Hogwarts, and indeed Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a work of an age in which alchemy and modern science were just beginning to diverge.

But Isaac Newton’s Principia, as it’s known today, is a work of rational, rather than supernatural wizardry. The Special Collections Research Center in William & Mary’s Swem Library has a first edition, 1687 copy of Newton’s masterwork. It was the star attraction among a one-day exhibit of venerable scientific texts in the physics library of Small Hall.

Joshua Erlich, associate professor of physics, and Ute Schechter, Warren E. Burger Archivist in Special Collections, coordinated the exhibit as a Halloween treat for the university’s physicists. Schechter and her colleagues brought over a number of interesting scientific volumes. There was an Aristotle from 1576 and a Galileo from 1710. There was a 1725 illustrated compendium of the contributions of the great Irish scientist Robert Boyle, whose estate funded the establishment of the Indian School at William & Mary in the early days of the College.

All these great and valuable works were given varying degrees of polite attention, but the “oohs” and “aahs” of William & Mary’s scientists were largely reserved for the Principia. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the book in the mind of today’s scientists.

“I would be included in that group of scientists that called this the greatest work of scientific literature ever,” Erlich said. “To actually see it up close and personal, that is a special opportunity for students and faculty alike. This is the first glimpse that the world had of many of Newton's insights.”

The William & Mary Principia, an 1869 gift of the Rev. Thomas S. Savage to the College, is singular for two reasons. For one thing, Schechter explained, it’s a first edition, one of fewer than 200 known copies in the world.

The second aspect makes the William & Mary Principia absolutely unique—it has annotations written in the margins. As was the practice with scientific books of the era, the Principia was printed in Latin, a language common to educated people throughout Europe. The annotations are in Latin as well. The identity of the annotator remains a mystery.

The annotator was some learned person, educated enough to both make notes in Latin and to deal with Newton’s content in an way that was obviously decisive.

“Many people have remarked that they seem to be editorial comments, not just somebody’s notes as they were reading it and trying to understand it,” Schechter said. It’s not Newton’s hand, though, she added.

The riddle of the unidentified annotator is a scholarly mystery ripe for solution and the Special Collections staff aren’t shy about suggesting the project to anyone who might understand basic physics and the scientific Latin used in Newton’s day.

“It could be you!” University Archivist Amy Schindler said to a graduate student inspecting the Principia at the Small Hall exhibit. He had asked if anyone had translated the annotations. “This could make a great dissertation project,” she added.

The annotator had carefully excised large passages, carefully X-ing out paragraphs in ink. There are obvious corrections to numbers and even what appears to be corrections to the Latin grammar of the text. Erlich wonders if the annotator might have been a collaborator of Newton’s, preparing for a new printing.

“It would be fascinating to figure out who it is,” Erlich said. “It would be very interesting to compare later editions of the text with this one to see if changes were made based on these annotations. It could have been an editor.”

The Oct. 31, 2012 event was at least the third such exhibit of the Principia and other rare works of science. After last year’s showing, Erlich said a number of students came up to him and remarked how inspired they were by close contact with Newton’s masterwork. The spell of the Principia seemed strong as ever—and the annotations were a surprise to many.

“This is just so cool!” said Kelly Sanders ’15, a student in Erlich’s Physics 101 class. “I really love being able to see the original notations. They were fixing Newton’s numbers in the Principia! It was interesting to see that.”

After the Principia, the items that drew the most interest were two notebooks from William & Mary students. One, dated 1809, was identified as belonging to Robert D. Murchie. A second, owner unknown, comes from 1800-1801.

 Hard-covered and written in the careful copperplate penmanship typical of two centuries past, they exhibit a care not to be found in even the most meticulous 21st-century student notebooks.

“I really like the notes that someone took in class,” Sanders noted. “Those are insanely nice and neat! I can’t write like that even if I try.”

A visitor suggested that the notebooks likely were not really class notes, but “fair-copied” versions, neatly transcribed and organized from original notes. Schechter nodded her agreement at the suggestion.

The William & Mary Principia will soon be entering the digital age. Schechter said that Special Collections is expecting delivery of a digital scanner later in the year and the annotated Principia is near the top of the line for digitizing.

“Although there are digital versions of this first edition available on line, they are not the annotated one,” she explained.

She expects that the availability of a high-quality digital version of an annotated first-edition Principia will be an irresistible inducement to scholars and perhaps the mystery of the unknown annotator will be solved.

If you know Latin—and physics—it could be you.