Isaac Newton has founded not only classical mechanics but also true quantitative science – physics rooted in advanced mathematics – in his seminal three-volume 1687 Principia (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica). The world-changing importance of this text is self-evident to everyone who isn't brain-dead.
Now, this story starts with a simple question: How many copies of the opus' first edition were there? 189 were known so far (and one was auctioned for $3.7 million in 2016, a record price for a science book). This number was clearly a lower bound and after some census, "sleuths in Europe" found 198 more, as the article makes clear, including new copies in Prague. I am almost certain that there were many thousands and the "number of copies we still possess" and the "number of copies that have existed" are two wildly different numbers. Why should almost all copies be preserved for almost 350 years?
But look how The New York Times is spinning this innocent story about the unimportant question about the number of copies:
Isaac Newton was arguably the smartest known man who has lived on this planet. This status of Isaac Newton isn't a postmodern construction. It was an obvious fact already to his contemporaries. When an intelligent person read Newton's texts or spoke to Newton, he must have known that Newton was special. And the Principia was Newton's most important work. Newton was already 36 when he released it, he was no unknown teenager any longer. He established classical mechanics that many people obviously understood in one way or another. Other disciplines of science and technology heavily depended on classical mechanics and/or evolved from classical mechanics. So it was obviously one of the most important texts ever.
So why the hell should it be "surprising" that the Principia had a wide audience?
It was still a sane world so everyone who had any significant ambitions to become a scientist, especially a physicist or a researcher in adjacent disciplines, simply had to try to read the three volumes. Lots of such readers wanting the book clearly emerged before the second edition could have been prepared; it was hard enough to create a new edition of a book. Some of the readers didn't succeed, they failed to understand most of the book (if not almost everything). But they clearly had to try. Not being able to follow what someone was capable of discovering and writing down – which clearly made some people say "wow" right away – would clearly be strong circumstantial evidence of the reader's incompetence, to put it mildly.
For these reasons, it is obvious that pretty much all "physicists" of Newton's era and the subsequent decades had some exposure to the text. But even lots of others have tried to read it. How could they not? There were already counterparts of "students" in many countries. The world population was around half a billion when the Principia was first published which is a very large number; it's not a number that is "insanely" far from the current world population. Why would someone "expect" (let alone "feel almost certain") that the number of readers of such a fundamental text in the whole world "should" have been below 400? It is absolutely insane.
Also, comments that "it should have hurt that the text was in Latin" are superbly dumb, too. Latin was still the lingua franca of the educated people. Even rather ordinary people were learning Latin at our "gymnasiums" rather recently (and lots of rather sensible people recommend to make Latin mandatory again). To assume that "most prospective readers of Newton's opus couldn't know Latin" is exactly as insane as expecting that "most people doing world class science can't read English today".
Newton clearly recorded a song, posted it in YouTube, and got 100,000 views, too. ;-)
Whether the text was "daunting" or "pedagogically optimized" is pretty much irrelevant. Things got simplified later – and presented to nearly average people – but there is no reason why the actual discoverer should do this work. Newton wasn't a fudging stupid tutor. He wasn't a New York Times inkspiller or the author of dumb popular books for the masses. He was a genius. The simplification for mentally limited subpar humans wasn't his job. His job was something way more important, roughly by 8 orders of magnitude. So people with any intellectual ambitions must have tried to read it and they should have better succeeded.
It's only the very recent postmodern era in which the pseudointellectual trash like the inkspillers in The New York Times make all their brain-dead readers (millions of them) assume that presenting something in a form that is accessible to morons is a very important thing and it doesn't matter when a would-be scientist doesn't understand a fundamental text of science (especially if it is her discipline). It fudging matters a great deal – in any world that is not collapsing under the weight of arrogant imbeciles.
But I am just annoyed by the stunning dishonesty of these titles and the "writing in between the lines" that this article represents beautifully. The actual story is another proof that, of course, Newton's most important work was influential (and very quickly so). But the article is written in such a way that the reader is led to think in the exactly opposite way. She is basically told: It is right to assume that the most important white male geniuses are not influential, ebonics is perhaps better than Latin for important science, and the high number of copies of the Principia must be some weird surprising anomaly.
Sorry, (predominantly) white male geniuses like Newton have built the civilization and if you know that your chance is zero to follow his texts – and, more importantly today, analogous fundamental texts about string theory or anything that is relevant in the early 21st century research – then you are simply not a legitimate job market commodity for the scientific research. You should shut up and fudge off. If they are telling you that you may compensate your incompetence by being female or non-white or replace research-level texts with popular books written for morons, they are lying to you.
And that's the memo.