The most important publication in the history of science – Isaac Newton’s own annotated copy of Principia Mathematica – and other seminal works by Copernicus, Einstein and Stephen Hawking, feature in a new film, released today, celebrating 600 years of Cambridge University Library.

Principia's publication in 1687 inspired a scientific revolution and laid the foundations of modern physics.

Adam Perkins

As part of its 600th anniversary, the University Library has put on display some of its greatest treasures in the blockbuster exhibition Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World.

To celebrate the anniversary and the exhibition, which runs until September 30, 2016, the University Library has made a series of six short films, each examining one of the six key themes of Lines of Thought.

On the Shoulders of Giants – Understanding Gravity covers three centuries of development in human understanding of how and why gravity operates.

Beginning with Copernicus and a first-edition copy of his iconic De Revolutionibus, Understanding Gravity looks at his first formative ideas of a sun-centred (heliocentric) universe.

Adam Perkins, Curator of Scientific Manuscripts at the University Library, said: “It’s essential to have Copernicus’ idea to create what we know today about the solar system. But we also have on display other, later objects in the exhibition – such as Tyco Brahe’s De Nova Stella – which tried to keep the Earth at the centre of the solar system. However, Johannes Kepler, Brahe’s pupil, immediately rejected the ideas in De Nova Stella and went back to Copernicus’ sun-centred solar system.”

Perhaps the star of Understanding Gravity, and Lines of Thought as a whole, is Newton’s copy of Principia.

Although earlier minds had challenged the view that the earth was the centre of the solar system, it was the work of Sir Isaac Newton, second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which firmly established that the planets revolved around the sun, and that gravity was the force which controlled this.

“Its publication in 1687 inspired a scientific revolution and laid the foundations of modern physics,” said Perkins.  “The bulk of Newton’s scientific manuscripts came to Cambridge in 1872, where they continue to be the focus of global scholarly activity.”

Although Newton was able to posit the existence of gravity, he was unable to explain how it functioned and it fell to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to suggest a solution, with proof coming from Trinity College mathematicians Frank Dyson and Arthur Eddington.

Cambridge physicists and mathematicians including Stephen Hawking and Jocelyn Bell have continued to grapple with the implications of Newton and Einstein’s work in order to explain better the universe around us.

To celebrate Lines of Thought, Cambridge University Library commissioned a once-in-a-lifetime photo of Professor Stephen Hawking and Newton’s copy of Principia, shot in Professor Hawking’s office at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Cambridge. Lines of Thought has also put on display Hawking’s typescript draft of A Brief History of Time – the worldwide bestseller which was first published in 1988.

Added Perkins: “Hawking sees his own theoretical work as part of a continuum of the ideas going back across the great founding fathers of modern science, many of whom we have on display at the moment.

“Well over 200 scientists have deposited their papers in Cambridge which has given us a world-class treasure. Lines of Thought has given us the opportunity to share these treasures with people around the world as we celebrate 600 years of Cambridge University Library.”

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