David DiLaura, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, was working on his comprehensive bibliography, which listed every significant scientific volume on optics, when he made an unexpected discovery. Copy of Isaac Newton’s fundamental treatise Opticks which he had bought some 20 years before turned out to be from Newton’s personal library, thought lost for many decades. The book will go on sale at the San Francisco Rare Book Fair, February 3-5, 2023, with a price tag of $375,000.
“It’s becoming increasingly rare for an author’s own copy of a book of this magnitude to fly under the radar for so many years,” said Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington Rare Books, which is handling the sale. “When DiLaura bought this copy more than 20 years ago from an English rare book dealer in West Sussex, neither the buyer nor the seller had any idea of its history. DiLaura described his discovery as “a once-in-a-lifetime event for the collector.” ,” and indeed it is. Collectors and rare book dealers love a good rediscovery story, especially one that has come to light – literally in this case – as this one has.”
Newton is most famous for his The principle and co-inventing calculus, but also had a long-standing interest in optics. For example, he once inserted a long sewing needle (bodkin) into the socket between the eye and the bone and recorded the colored circles and other visual effects he saw. And as a young scientist at the University of Cambridge, he led what is known as his cross test, darkening his room on a sunny day and punching a hole in the window shutters to let a narrow beam of sunlight into the room. He then placed a glass prism in the sunlight and observed the rainbow bands of light in the color spectrum.
When he placed a second prism upside down in front of the first, the band of colors recombined into white sunlight, thus proving his hypothesis that white light is made up of all the colors of the spectrum combined. Based on his color theory, Newton concluded that refracting telescope lenses would be affected by chromatic aberrations (dispersion of light into colors) and built the first practical reflecting telescope, using reflecting mirrors rather than lenses as the objective to solve this problem. He gave a demonstration of his telescope to the Royal Society in 1671.
Newton was also at the center of a heated debate over whether light was a particle or a wave—a debate that raged for millennia. Pythagoras, for example, was staunchly “pro-particle”, while contemporaries ridiculed Aristotle for daring to suggest that light traveled as a wave. Empirical observations of the behavior of light contradicted each other. On the one hand, light traveled in a straight line and would bounce off a reflective surface. This is how particles behave. But it could also diffuse outward, and different light beams could cross and mix. This is wave-like behavior.
By the 17th century, many scientists had generally accepted the wave nature of light, but it still existed in the research community—among them Newton, who vehemently argued that light consisted of streams of particles he called ” corpuscles”. In 1672, colleagues persuaded Newton to publish his conclusions about the corpuscular nature of light in the Royal Society. Philosophical Transactions. He seemed to assume that his ideas would be met with unanimous cheers, and was offended when Robert Hooke and the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens criticized his conclusions.
All these insights and more eventually formed the basis of Newton’s final treatise, Opticksfirst published in 1704. At the time, the English astronomer John Flamsteed declared that it “makes no noise in town”, unlike when The principle it was published. But he still represented a major contribution to optical science, ranking alongside that of Johannes Kepler The optical side of astronomy and Huygens The Treaty of Light. Also unlike The principle, Opticks it was written in English instead of Latin, making it much more legible.