Ten books that changed the world

02 March 2023

Magdalen College is custodian to some of the most important scientific books ever produced – books that overturned years of doctrine to shape the way we view ourselves, the world, and our place in the universe.  Former Librarian Daryl Green explores the impact of ten science and technology first editions in our collection.  

Physica by Aristotle (1472)

Physica is the 4th century B.C.E. works of Aristotle which lay the bedrock for much of the medieval and early modern understanding of our natural world. It was originally divided into eight books on the definition of nature, motion, space and time, and the soul.

It was copied in manuscript numerous times in the middle ages, and Magdalen’s late medieval library certainly had a handful of copies of Aristotle’s texts, as well as over half a dozen commentaries and translations. Many of these books can still be found in our Old Library.

By the 15th century, Aristotle had been studied so closely that many of the individual books of Physica took on their own life, with the philosophical underpinnings closely scrutinised by divines and natural physicians alike. The text’s popularity continued with the onset of the printing press and its continued teachings at medieval and Renaissance universities.

Magdalen holds a number of 15th and 16th century copies of the text in print, including this one, the first ever printed edition of 1472.

De Revolutionibus by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543)

In October of 1541, mathematician Georg Rheticus travelled 700km from north east Poland to the University of Wittenberg carrying a manuscript copy of one of the major game-changing texts of the scientific world.

Three years previously, Rheticus had taken a leave from his lectureship in Wittenberg at the urging of his sponsor and educator, Philipp Melanchthon, in order to study with astronomers and mathematicians in Nuremberg, Ingolstadt and Tübingen. It is most certainly on this sojourn that Rheticus learned of Nicolaus Copernicus, who was at that point relatively unknown outside of the scientific community.

Rheticus had travelled over 1,000km from central Bavaria to northern Poland because Copernicus’s ideas, which stood in direct opposition to contemporary thought, had begun to attract attention from Europe’s astronomers and mathematicians.

Copernicus’s theories stipulated that not all celestial bodies revolve around a single point, that the moon orbits the Earth and, most importantly, that the Sun, and not the Earth, is the centre of the planets’ orbit. His theories directly challenged Ptolemy’s Earth-centric model of the solar system which had widely been accepted since before the Christian era.

Rheticus spent two years in Poland under the tutelage of Copernicus, returning  to Nuremberg in to bring  the manuscript of his mentor to his old friend and printer Johannes Petrejus. Work began on the book at once. Over 140 woodcut illustrations needed to be made and the printing and proof-reading of a scientific work was a laborious process.

Printing finished on 20 April 1543 and one of the four to five hundred copies that were produced was sent at once to Copernicus, then on his death-bed.

Copernicus’s printed work was widely read but received severe criticism from the Protestant Church and from Melanchthon (the same who had first sent Rheticus on his journeys). The Catholic Church also placed it on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616, it must have been shortly before then that alumnus Arthur Throckmorton (1571) acquired the copy that can now be found at Magdalen.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1543)

1543 was quite the year for scientific texts. Not only was Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus printed in Nuremberg, Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica was also published in Venice.

Vesalius’s Fabrica change the way that human anatomy and biology was understood, taught, and perceived in universities across Europe. Vesalius knew the European medical community well, having studied and taught at Pavia, Leuven, Paris, Padova, Bologna and Pisa.

The publication of Fabrica required him to relocate to Basel to oversee the text and illustrations for his seven-part work on descriptive anatomy. Over 270 woodcuts were produced to illustrate Vesalius’s text, and it is the combination of his new analytical method and eye-witness knowledge, and the realistic illustrations that propelled anatomy as a modern science accepted by academia. 

As proof to that, Magdalen’s copy of the first edition of the Fabrica was purchased in 1545, and still survives in its 16th century binding. Our copy of this text bears all the evidence of having been well-read and possibly even used in teaching early modern anatomists.

Systema cosmicum by Galileo Galilei (1632)

Systema cosmicumis a compendium of Galileo’s greatest hits, a collection of astronomical blockbusters, and a book that got its author imprisoned.

Galileo’s original Italian Dialogo was published in 1632 and, because of its stance on the Copernican helio-centric model of the universe, immediately caught the attention of the Catholic Church.

Banned by the Pope, the work was translated into Latin by Galileo’s friend Matthias Bernegger and published in Strasbourg (whose presses were out of direct influence of Rome), with a later edition of 1641 including appendicies by Johannes Kepler and Paolo Foscarini, and widely distributed amongst astronomical and natural physics libraries of the 17th century, including the shelves of Magdalen College.

Historia Plantarum by Theophrastus (1644)

The work of ancient natural philosophers Theophrastus and Dioscorides on the history of plants established the medical uses of plants, and their scientific understanding for over 1,000 years, and continued to be highly influential to Renaissance and early modern botanists and medical students.

Many early printed editions of both authors were in Magdalen’s library by the late 1400s, however the most influential of these editions was this sumptuously illustrated 1644 Amsterdam edition of Theophrastus by Johannes Bodaeus.

Fully illustrated with woodcuts, and adorned with commentaries, the 1644 Historia Plantarum was one of the key reference texts for any botanist or medic in the 17th century.

Magdalen was fortunate enough to benefit from the library of one such practitioner, John Goodyer, who bequeathed his collection of over 230 botanical works, one of which was this wonderful book.

Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665)

Just as Galileo was pointing his newly-designed telescope to the heavens, Dutch engineers were hard at work developing the first compound telescopes which first came into use in Europe in the 1620s.

The first major publication of the nascent Royal Society was one of its most active participants, Robert Hooke. Hooke trained under Thomas Willis and John Wilkins in Oxford in the 1650s, and was appointed as the Curator of the Royal Society shortly after its foundation.

Hooke spent several years as Curator conducting observations and experiments with a specially commissioned compound microscope, putting everything from plants and insects to needles and razors under the lens.

Hooke published his observations, complete with extremely detailed engravings of his findings, including most famously the louse and flea; he also coined the term cell when doing close examinations of dissected plants.

Micrographia, released in 1665, became a quick best-seller and buoyed the Society’s publication programme for years to come. The plates seen today are still striking to behold – the level of detail and fidelity to the observations through the lens are exceptional for a scientific work of the 17th century.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1665)

Fellows, tutors and students of Magdalen have long found themselves at the centre of British, European, and global scientific debates. One of the original fields for scientific discourse and method to be played out on was the publication of short papers, or later articles, in journals edited by learned societies.

The fledgling Royal Society, established in 1660, began to publish accounts of the meetings and lectures delivered in 1665 with their Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, making it the first journal devoted exclusively to science.

The journal, still in publication today under two titles, is now the longest running scientific journal ever published, and has seen many members of the Magdalen community contribute, including George Smith Gibbes, Peter Baxter, James Binney and Thomas Smith.

Magdalen has long been a subscriber to the Society’s publications and has a complete set of the Philosophical Transactions from the first volume.

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton (1687)

‘Genius’ ‘Connected to the universe’ ‘Most influential scientist of all time’ ‘Greatest physicist ever’ These are just some epithets commonly found accompanying Sir Isaac Newton’s name and legacy.

Newton’s life-work in physics, mathematics, and mechanics changed the way that the world was perceived, the way that we understand the physical make-up of our existence. This book set down his four laws of motion, as well as a new, rigorous philosophy of scientific reasoning that would come to dominate scientific inquiry and observation for the next 300 years. 

In 1669, Newton was elected to replace Isaac Barrow as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (Trinity College, Cambridge), a chair which he retained until 1702. After a long series of correspondence with Edmund Halley, Newton was persuaded to write a full treatise on his new findings in physics and its application for astronomical observations. On 5 July 1687 the book was published, bringing about a new understanding of the physical world and establishing Newton’s name amongst the world’s foremost scientists.

Magdalen’s copy of the first edition comes from the working library of Charles Daubeny, Professor of Chemistry and later Sherardian Professor of Botany (1834-1867) and Fellow of Magdalen. Many of the great scientific books in the College’s collections come from his bequest.

What is life? by Erwin Schrodinger (1944)

In 1943/34, Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College on the subject of applying the laws of physics and chemistry to the understanding of space and time and the genetic make-up of our existence. Schrödinger, who was a fellow of Magdalen in the 1930s, postulated that the key to our inherited genetics lie in chemical bonds within, an idea he termed as “aperiodic crystals”.

The theoretical biological framework he put forward in his lectures, and later this book, would inspire James Watson and Francis Crick to propose and later confirm the double-helix structure of DNA.

Watson Double Helix (1968)

Following on from the groundwork laid by Schrödinger’s What is Life?  the team of James Watson and Francis Crick, using data gathered by Rosalind Franklin, identified the structure of DNA as a genetic carrier in 1953.

The discovery and definition of DNA revolutionised biochemistry and our understanding of the underpinnings of life, and earned them a Nobel Prize in 1962.

Although this book is not a deeply scientific explanation of Crick and Watson’s findings, as an autobiographical account of how the discovery was made it had a huge impact in popularising science and spawned the age of the “rock star” scientist.