Seven revolutionary scientific works that shaped the modern world
Groundbreaking books by some of the greatest minds in human history, from Copernicus to Galileo, Darwin to Einstein, come to Christie’s in London on 13 July
In 1543, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus shattered humanity’s idea of its place in the cosmos when he published a book arguing that the centre of the heavens was not Earth, but the Sun. ‘His discovery required a fundamental rethinking of the universe,’ says Margaret Ford, International Head of Books and Science at Christie’s.
Copernicus’s revolutionary hypothesis is just one of several groundbreaking scientific publications offered in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale in London on 13 July. The auction includes works by physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and biologists — scientists who brought those light-bulb moments to the world.
Below, Ford introduces seven books that tell the remarkable story of science from the 13th century to the modern day.
Liber Abaci by Leonardo Fibonacci
The Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (c. 1170-c.1250) is best known for an infinite string of numbers with near-magical properties: we call it the ‘Fibonacci sequence’, and it starts 0, 1, 1, 2, 3… and continues with each new number being the sum of the preceding two. The series is a phenomenon found in nature, in architecture, in music, and even in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci.
This extraordinary arrangement was, in fact, discovered in India. Fibonacci brought it to the attention of the West through his seminal work Liber Abaci (Book of Calculation), which popularised the Indo-Arabic numeral system. ‘You could say Europe had been in the dark ages mathematically until Fibonacci’s intervention,’ says Ford.
Christie’s is offering a 15th-century manuscript devoted to science and mathematics, which includes chapters 14 and 15 of the Liber Abaci.
‘You can count on the fingers of two hands the number of Fibonacci manuscripts in existence,’ says the specialist. ‘This is especially desirable, because it reveals the cross-cultural influences that formed the basis of modern mathematics.’
On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus
When Copernicus (1473-1543) published On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres in 1543, it profoundly shocked many people. ‘It is a revolutionary book,’ says Ford. ‘It breaks forever the medieval idea of a special relationship between man and God.’
The publication offered for sale at Christie’s is a second edition of the treatise and contains an important addition: a small report written in 1540 by Copernicus’s protégé, Georg Joachim Rheticus, which summarises the astronomer’s theories.
‘It was thanks to Rheticus that Copernicus was persuaded to publish On the Revolutions,’ says Ford. This in turn led the astronomer Erasmus Reinhold to comment, ‘All posterity will gratefully remember the name of Copernicus, by whose labour and study the doctrine of celestial motions was again restored from near collapse.’
The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a committed Copernican who pursued the astronomer’s reforms with a passion bordering on fanaticism. Not only did he want to prove Copernicus’s heliocentric vision of the world, he wanted the church to embrace it — a highly dangerous challenge in 17th-century Rome.
The solution was disarmingly simple: in 1632 Galileo published The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, an imaginary conversation between two astronomers, one presenting Copernicus’s hypothesis, and the other presenting the accepted Aristotelian view that the cosmos was an ordered hierarchy with Earth at its centre.
‘It was a brilliant solution,’ says Ford. ‘It enabled Galileo to set out Copernicus’s ideas in an accessible way, and to distance himself from the theory at the same time.’
Unfortunately, Galileo’s vanity got in the way. He named the Aristotelian interlocutor ‘Simplicius’. ‘As you can imagine, this did him no favours with the Catholic church,’ says the specialist. The astronomer was condemned on a charge of ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’ and placed under house arrest.
Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light by Isaac Newton
The 17th century was a period of profound scientific discovery, at the centre of which was Isaac Newton (1642-1727), a Cambridge recluse who had at first been reluctant to publish his astonishing discoveries.
‘Newton is of supreme importance to science,’ says Ford, ‘notably for his masterpiece, the Principia, but also for his pivotal experiments with light.’
The scientist had begun working on the nature of light and colour as early as the mid-1660s, but set these experiments aside to concentrate on the Principia. Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light didn’t appear until 1704. According to Ford, it had a ‘tremendous impact’ on publication. ‘Essentially it did for light what the Principia had done for gravity,’ she says.
The book offered at Christie’s has a highly personal connection to Newton, making it unique. Not only is it the first issue of the first edition of the Opticks, but it was presented by Newton to his close friend Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss mathematician. ‘As such, it is a great witness to the brotherhood of science,’ notes Ford.
The Galvanic Circuit Investigated Mathematically by Georg Simon Ohm
When Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854) published his complete theory of electricity in 1827, it was poorly received by the great minds of Bavarian science. ‘That was largely because most German scientists at the time took a non-mathematical approach to physics,’ says Ford.
It would take another 10 years for Ohm’s ideas to be recognised for what they were: a brilliant formulation of the current flow of electricity through conductors.
Offered in the sale is a first edition of The Galvanic Circuit Investigated Mathematically, a stunning work in the field of electrical science that reveals Ohm to be a creative maverick ahead of his time. As a result of the book, the unit of electrical resistance was named the ‘ohm’, and the law pertaining to electrical current being proportional to voltage and inversely proportional to resistance was called ‘Ohm’s Law’.
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
‘On the Origin of Species has been called the single greatest work of science,’ says Ford, ‘and we are fortunate to have a very good copy in the sale. Also offered is a paper read at the Linnean Society in 1858, pre-dating the Origin, outlining the theory of evolution.’
The paper records a crucial episode between Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a naturalist whose place in history has been overshadowed by Darwin. Unbeknownst to each other, both scientists had developed independent theories of evolution. ‘It shocked Darwin to learn of Wallace’s findings,’ says Ford, ‘but it spurred him on to complete On the Origin of Species.’
Wallace was pressured by Darwin’s supporters to cede to his older, more eminent colleague, and Wallace yielded. They both submitted papers to the scientific society in 1858, with Darwin's given precedence. On the Origin of Species was published the following year to acclaim and controversy.
However, Ford believes too much has been made of the rivalry. ‘Both men were working towards the same goal,’ she says, citing Wallace’s effusive support of On the Origin of Species. ‘Mr Darwin has given the world a new science,’ he wrote to his friend George Silk, ‘and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient and modern times. The force of admiration can no further go!’
Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from General Relativity Theory by Albert Einstein
When the young Albert Einstein called into being the General Theory of Relativity in 1907, he upset everybody’s settled ideas of time and space. His premise seemed positively anarchic — was it really possible that all natural laws (except those for gravity) could be discussed within the framework of special relativity?
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
It took Einstein nine obsessive years to prove his proposition, during which time he went from one unsuitable professorship to another. Thankfully, in 1914 he was enticed to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, with a promise of not having to do any teaching. It gave him the time he needed to complete his theory, and on 18 November 1915 he announced in a paper to an assembly of scientists in Berlin that his hypothesis was complete.
A copy of the paper he gave that day, ‘Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from General Relativity Theory’ — which includes his famous equation, E=mc2 — is offered for sale at Christie’s. ‘It is of historical importance,’ says Ford, ‘because this is the start of his great revolution, which culminated in the publication of the General Theory of Relativity in 1916.’