Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) with handwritten corrections for the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

You know the story: Issac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and had an epiphany that would rewrite physics and the way we understand our universe. He later published his findings on the laws of motion in the 1687 book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Now, by sheer accident, a rare first-edition copy of this groundbreaking book was found in a library on the French island of Corsica.

(Fun fact before we continue: Newton made his discovery while “socially distancing” himself during the Great Plague of London in 1665. He was a 20-something Trinity College student at the time.)

Vannina Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff, director of conservation at the Fesch Public Heritage library in Ajaccio, was researching an index from the library’s founder Lucien Bonaparte — one of Napoleon’s brothers —when she discovered a copy of Newton’s 17th-century book.

“I found the Holy Grail in the main room, hidden in the upper shelves,” the researcher told Agence France-Presse (APF) earlier in March. “The cover has a little damage but inside it’s in excellent condition — this is the cornerstone of modern mathematics,” she said.

Newton published the first few editions of the book in Latin (titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica). English translations appeared later on, but the original Latin editions remain highly-valued collector items.

“A Latin edition sold for $3.7 million at an auction held by Christie’s a few years ago, and that’s the one at the Ajaccio library,” Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff said, recalling a December 2016 sale in New York to an undisclosed buyer.

Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff is a serial excavator of rarities. In 2018, she uncovered a copy of the 1610 study of Egyptian hieroglyphics Thesaurum Hyeroglyphicorum, which she called “the first book of Egyptology.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...