Two stolen Darwin notebooks mysteriously reappear

This is an Arsène Lupin script. 22 years after they were removed from storage at the Cambridge University Library (UK) and then mysteriously disappeared, on March 9, 2022, two precious notebooks by Charles Darwin, the father of the Theory of Evolution, reappeared. They were left anonymously in a pink sack on a floor open to the public without a security camera, next to the office of the librarian, Dr. Jessica Gardner. Inside is a brown envelope printed with “Happy Easter Librarian X” and the original archival box with two notebooks carefully wrapped in plastic wrap. The stranger or stranger knew exactly who to turn to. Fifteen months ago, Dr. Jessica Gardner launched a global appeal “help“, in cooperation with the Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol, call it Science and the future also passed on.

The gift bag was accompanied by a typewritten note returning Darwin’s original box and stolen notebooks on March 9, 2022. Photo: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library.

Unique works in notebooks: the starting point of the theory of evolution

My sense of relief at the return of these notebooks in good condition is profound and almost impossible to adequately express.” the librarian answers. “There were several tears. Like many others around the world,including the author of these lines, approx. ed.) I was heartbroken to hear of their loss and my joy is immeasurable. They may be tiny, the size of a postcard, but their impact on the history of science and their importance to our world-class collections is invaluable.“.

To understand the value of this restitution, we must go back to October 1836, when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) returned to England five years after he had set off on a world tour aboard the Beagle. During this journey, he spent three years and three months exploring on land and 18 months at sea, collecting specimens and writing down his observations in notebooks, which he gradually sends back to his homeland. In particular, he details the intriguing differences in size and beak of finches from various Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. Very soon Darwin returns to Cambridge and works to understand, or rather reveal, a principle in the evolution of species that will forever upset the scientific world. It was then that he sketched in his notebook “B” the famous “The tree of Life” Where “The tree of Life“showing the genealogical ramifications of a single evolutionary tree, with a fine line but great intellectual zeal. He would publish a fuller version of this sketch in 1859 in origin of species, where he describes natural selection as the main process in the evolution of species.

Tree of life drawn by Charles Darwin in 1837 in his notebook B. Its branches are reminiscent of the unique origin of species, an intuition that gave rise to the theory of evolution. Credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library.

Lost in a drawer or stolen? It will take 20 years to decide

Decades later, the famous “B” notebook is kept, along with another “C” notebook, in a small blue box in the Cambridge University Library vault. In September 2000, the two notebooks, estimated to be worth several million pounds, were removed from their hiding place for photographs. A few months pass, but in January, the institution reports on its website, the taken aback curators note that the blue box has not returned to its place. A first search is made, but to no avail, and the treasure is believed to have been lost in a drawer, poorly classified. Further research will remain inconclusive. Until a new librarian, in office since 2017, Dr. Jessica Gardner decides to start an exhaustive excavation in 2020, the largest ever in this library, which contains ten million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects. Gloved experts examine every storage location, every cabinet, every chest, as well as the entire archive of Darwin, that is, 189 boxes. Disappointingly then, after consulting with experts on theft and concealment of cultural heritage, the venerable Cambridge Library must agree that not only can its employees behave erratically, but that their heritage holdings are not inviolable: precious notebooks have been stolen . They have been added to Interpol’s database of stolen art, PSYCHE.

Charles Darwin’s “B” and “C” notebooks and color palette. Credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library.

No damage was found to these multi-million dollar treasures.

The notebooks returned anonymously, wrapped in cling film.are in good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance“After four days of work and taking samples from the science police, the specialists were able to unpack, inspect, leaf through, check the humidity level, the colors of the precious manuscripts of the history of science. They were able to resume their place next to the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.

Experts are examining stolen Darwin notebooks after they were returned by an anonymous source in March 2022. Credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

Cambridge vows today that he will no longer be needed. “Because the notebooks are gone Cambridge buildings were heavily defended“explains Robert Stewarts, director of communications for the institution. This included the completion of new high security vaults, new dedicated reading rooms and a number of additional security measures. But there has also been an increase in CCTV, card and PIN access to secure areas, a dedicated security team in place, and other comprehensive reviews of all our upcoming security protocols to make sure we minimize all future risks as much as possible.d.”

The police investigation is ongoing. Because the mystery is far from being solved. The motives of the thief and the anonymous person who returned the notebooks (there may be different persons) are unknown. Also, has the notebook gone through multiple hands? Will the investigation ever be able to establish this? Although there is no video surveillance on the landing where the gift bag was left, cameras are installed outside the building, as well as in specialized reading rooms and safe boxes inside. The images were sent to the police, who also contacted a special number for information.

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