Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica will be offered in the Music, Continental Books & Manuscripts sale on 27 November. Estimate £250,000-350,000.

LONDON - Writing to his rival Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton famously stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” From the modern perspective, of course, Newton himself is the giant, whose major work, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687), explained the phenomena described by Copernicus, Kepler and others by elucidating the underlying laws of massive bodies in motion; arguably the Principia marked the beginning of modern physics.

In a week where George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are floating weightless in UK cinemas in Gravity, this book by the man who started it all is on offer in our sale of Continental books on 27 November, and it is the finest copy I have ever seen. It seems that only about 300 copies were printed – its rarity and significance make it one of the great prizes of book collecting.

Isaac Newton, by Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

While Newton has justly been lauded down the ages, he was also famously truculent and prone to feuding – his quotation to Hooke, above, is often seen as something of an insult (Hooke was rather short), and it comes as a surprise to the modern reader that he spent as much time pursuing the pseudoscience of alchemy as he did formulating the universal laws of motion that still hold today.

But for all that, his place is at the centre of the pantheon of the great scientists. Alexander Pope’s invocation of the almighty might not please Richard Dawkins, but his epitaph describes Newton best:


Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.