Newton's papers set to be saved for nation

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One of the most important set of letters and documents written by Sir Isaac Newton, Britain's greatest scientist and the father of modern mathematics, is about to be bought by Cambridge University for more than £6m.

One of the most important set of letters and documents written by Sir Isaac Newton, Britain's greatest scientist and the father of modern mathematics, is about to be bought by Cambridge University for more than £6m.

The set of papers date back to 1669, the year Newton was appointed Cambridge's Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the age of 26, the chair held today by Stephen Hawking.

Laid end to end, the papers are about five metres long, with a value put at £6.37m. One question they do not shed any light on is whether Newton really did formulate his theory of gravity after watching an apple fall - a story most historians dismiss as a myth.

The university announced yesterday that it had been promised £4.79m from the Heritage Lottery Fund if it can raise another £1.58m from private sponsors to buy the correspondence from their owner, the Earl of Macclesfield, thereby preventing their acquisition by foreign collectors.

Science historians claim that the deal is probably the most important sale of scientific papers in 70 years, providing crucial insights into the mind of a young man who was to revolutionise the study of optics, gravity and the physical sciences.

Among the papers are 50 letters written by Newton when he was in his late twenties, the most productive period in the lives of most mathematicians. They deal with some of the greatest issues of the day, from the mystery of comets to the problem of longitude.

One of them shows the first signs that Newton was on the way to inventing calculus, a mathematical technique for dealing with infinitesimal changes - and still the bane of schoolchildren today.

It was this letter, written to Newton's mentor, John Collins, a minor-league mathematician, which was allegedly shown to Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher who had a long-running dispute with the genius over who first invented calculus.

Scott Mandelbrote, a Newton scholar at Cambridge, said the letters suggest that the scientist could indeed claim priority over Leibniz. "They do provide an element of evidence which, with a lot of other evidence, does allow us to say that Newton was probably the first, but not that Leibniz copied him," he said.

The letters were mostly addressed to Collins, and were written in a polite style with little sense of the malice Newton is said to have displayed later, Dr Mandelbrote said. "These are the letters of an eager young man who has not yet been scarred by the things that make him more secretive and vituperative in later life," he said.

The letters and personal documents of Collins were originally owned by a scientist and teacher who tutored the son of the first Earl of Macclesfield. They were eventually bequeathed to the Macclesfield Collection and kept in the library of the family home, Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire.

Cambridge will have to undertake some restoration work as many of the letters have deteriorated - some are stuck in a binder with Sellotape.

As well as the Newton correspondence, including a very long communication to Robert Boyle, the Irish chemist, the Macclesfield collection includes a letter from the French mathematician, Pierre de Fermat, complaining of an infestation of mice.

Cambridge already has the most important set of Newton's documents, bequeathed by the fifth Earl of Portsmouth in 1872, and wants the Macclesfield collection to complete the archive.

Peter Fox, the university librarian, said: "If we can't raise this money, the danger is that the collection might go abroad and be split amongst private collectors, which would be a tragedy for scholars and a great loss for the nation as a whole."

Patrick Zutshi, keeper of manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library, said that the library was prepared to go into debt if it could not raise the funds privately. But, he added, "obviously we'd prefer not to".

As part of the conditions for the sale, the Heritage Lottery Fund has insisted that the library's public exhibition space should be open on Saturday afternoons and that a special display of Newton memorabilia should be opened in 2001.

Paul Quarrie, of Sotheby's book department, which organised the private sale, said the deal is the most significant for a generation.

"This is, in terms of the history of science, the most remarkable and important private sale in which Sotheby's has been involved."