Since the invention of the printing press, in the second millennium AD, scientific works have been documented in publications such as: scientific journals, research papers, books, essays, offprints and various other collections. Manuscripts were slowly replaced by the convenience of the printing press that brought improvements in reproduction, legibility and readability. The result was a more widespread distribution of ideas and research circulated throughout the globe. Some of these scientific publications have gained importance as time progressed and their limited supply has contributed to scarcity. Today, rare books of important scientific discoveries hold a very special place in the world of book collecting, and are regarded as unique documents of human scientific thought that helped shape our world.
During the early years of scientific discovery, the frequency at which such works were produced was significantly less than the production boom experienced during the tremendous scientific advancement of the 20th century. For our list of the most significant scientific rare books published prior to 1900, please read the article “The Rare Books of Science – The Early Years.” The list includes the Origin of Species, considered by some to be the most important biological book ever written and Newton’s Principia, considered as the most important book in all of science. Modern scientific works are naturally easier to acquire than older works produced during prior centuries. However, the majority of the most significant publications became scarce after gaining importance with a limited original release in the form of a scientific paper or an industry journal.
Below are some of the most collectible scientific works of the 20th century in chronological order:
1. Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados: estudios sobre el plan estructural y composicion histologica de los centros nerviosos adicionados de consideraciones fisiologicas fundadas en los nuevos descumbrimentos. Ramon Y Cajal, Santiago. Madrid: Moya 1899-1904.
Two volumes containing the greatest works in neuroscience printed by subscription in an edition of only 800 copies. Contain hundreds of text illustrations with some in color.
2. Annalen der Physik, vol 17. Einstein, Albert. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth, 1905.
Contains three papers by Einstein, acknowledged to be the starting point of a new branch of physics:
i) On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.
ii) On the Motion Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid.
iii) On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.
The third paper is his most celebrated work, introducing the theory of relativity – probably the greatest achievement since the publication of Newton’s Principia. Text illustrations, one folding table, 3 halftone plates, 1 collotype plate.
3. A Relation between Distance and Radial Velocity among Extra-Galactic Nebulae. Hubble, Edwin. [Washington, D.C.]: Carnegie Institution, 1929.
Edwin Hubble’s landmark paper documenting what would later become known as Hubble’s Law, stating that there is a proportional relationship between a galaxy’s recession velocity and its distance from the Earth, providing evidence of an expanding universe.
4. On the Antibacterial Action of Cultures of a Penicillium, with Special Reference to Their Use in the Isolation of B. Influenzae. Fleming, Alexander. London, Laboratories of the Inoculation Department, St Mary’s Hospital, 1929.
Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of Penicillium mold in 1928 and reported his findings the following year in this essay. Numerous photographs and charts.
5. Monatsheften für Mathematik und Physik, XXXVIII, Band I. Gödel, Kurt. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1931.
Original publication of Gödel’s Proof, the single most celebrated result in mathematical logic.
6. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Von Neumann, John, & Oskar Morgenstern. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944.
Groundbreaking text that created the interdisciplinary research field of game theory.
7. The Double Helix: A personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Watson, James D. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Author’s work regarding the discovery of DNA for which along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962.
8. Les objets fractals: forme, hazard et dimension. Mandelbrot, Benoit. Paris: Flammarion, 1975.
Original printed wrappers describing the concept of fractal geometry within mathematically fragmented or amorphous complex observations of nature. Concept applied in physics, biology and even financial markets.